Ashley Sa – Global Perspectives migrants’ experiences

At WCIA, we understand that global issues impact people differently in Wales and around the world. During COVID, we collected global perspectives, in people’s own words, about how the pandemic was affecting them. We are starting a new series of global perspectives on the topic of migration.

Throughout time, people have always migrated in and between countries. In the UK, issues like Brexit and the approach to inward migration impact migrants in Wales. In this series, we explore these issues by asking people who have migrated to share their perspectives, in their own words.

Continuing with our series, read Ashley’s story about her experience in the UK.

Ashley Sa is 22 years old and a third-year student at the University of Essex doing a degree in International Relations and Modern Languages. Originally from Hong Kong, she has lived and studied in the UK for the last seven years.

Here’s her story:

How has been your experience so far in this country?

I’ve been studying here since I was 16. Overall, it has been a very interesting experience trying to “blend into the British environment”. I started studying in a boarding school doing my GCSEs. But, the year after, I realised that although living here in the UK, still after one year, I could not even distinguish pennies! As I wanted to fit into UK’s culture, I decided to move with a host family. So, I moved to a town in the countryside in the west of the UK, where I sat my A-levels. Living with the host family really help me to blend into British culture and to learn. Overall, it worked well for me to gain experience in the country. However, I was living in a very conservative area plus, with a majority of white people. So, it was quite challenging for me to go there as an Asian, or a minority I would say, just because people weren’t used to it. But at the same time, it gave me a good opportunity to know more about the core value of the British countryside and how people there can be. The year after that, I left the host family and moved to university accommodation, and later, moved to Essex, […] to complete my three years of education in International Relations and Modern Languages. So, yeah, here I am, in the final year of university education.

Why come here to the UK? And why Wales?

Choosing the UK… The reason why I came to the UK was hugely influenced by my background. I was raised in Hong Kong and as it was a British colony, our laws, education system, welfare system, and even our culture, people’s behaviour, dining and culinary culture, etc. are all hugely impacted by the British colonisation. So, when I came to the decision that I didn’t want to go home to complete my education, I was in Italy at the time doing a cultural exchange. My parents advised me that if I really wanted to go to study overseas, why not the UK? In Hong Kong, is common for people to go to study overseas at a certain age… The UK, Canada, the US, New Zealand and Australia, are common options. Because they are commonwealth countries, English-speaking… And, in my opinion at the time, the UK was one of the most authentic ones to get the best language experience and the best education, so I decided to come here. […]

Over the years, there have been three times in which I had the option to leave and yet, I chose to remain in the UK. First, when I completed my GCSEs, second, when I completed my A-Levels and the last, well now, the year I finish my uni. Each reason why though, reflect a different stage of my life. Like, when I completed my GCSE, I just wanted to continue exploring the UK because I liked it. This [the UK] was what I thought that the Western world would look like, people were different… It was quite shallow, I’m not gonna lie [she laughs]. Blond people, blue eyes, speaking English… I looked different and then everything was so fancy, great brick houses, in Hong Kong we all live in tiny apartments, and here there was a lot of nature, etc. After the A-Levels, for financial reasons, my parents want me to return to Hong Kong, but at that time the political situation there started to get worse. A lot of university students were being sent to prison. So, unfortunately, I decided that perhaps it was better to stay in the UK to focus on my education…

But now, the reason why I stay is that I’ve been living here for nearly 7 years, and if I stay here long enough, for 10 years, I could opt for citizenship so, I could actually get the nationality and forget about the bureaucracy that you have to complete as a migrant. Also, I am now so blended here. [sic] To a certain extent, I feel like I’ve lost my identity already. If I’m here [in the UK], yeah I’m different, but when I’m home [Hong Kong], I already don’t feel like I belong there… There is something that makes me different, so, I don’t feel like I fit in, I feel detached from some of my old friends, and things are done differently from what I’m used to now… Plus, there are other factors like job opportunities… And well, the place that I’m used to and I feel like home, it’s here now! So, yeah, it is quite surprising… There were stages at the beginning that I really liked this place, others where I didn’t like it as much, the challenges that came ahead with bureaucracy, etc. But, not even in a utopian place, everything would be easy. So, now I’m at this stage where you say: “this happens, but I know the solution” or “This happened but, it all goes away”. I’m more confident in myself for problem-solving.

Do you see yourself staying here permanently?


Now that you have lived away for a while, do you see any difference between how a migrant person is portrayed here and in your country?

So, in Hong Kong we have immigration, but mostly, 80% I would say that they come from mainland China and they come here theoretically for a family reunion, for better job opportunities, but in the end, they have to live in the country for more than 7 years to get the nationality. So people would choose marriage, which is one signature, and then it’s done, you are a Hong Kong national! The other type of migration would be the highly-skilled immigration, which would be athletes, actresses, you know, if you got the skills, you got the qualification, and then you can come in… Another type would be south-east Asians. People from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. They tend to stay and you can easily find the second or third generation of the family living in Hong Kong. Usually, the second and third generations try to blend in with the locals. They look different, not Asian, but then they speak fluent Cantonese [native language of Hong Kong]! I would say that these are the “three types” of immigrants that we have. But I would say that in general, when it comes to the Chinese immigrants, there doesn’t exist a generally good impression from native Hong Kong people. [sic] As I mentioned earlier, in trying to get the nationality more quickly, they would use marriage. So, an immigrant would marry a local person, so they would get the nationality. After a while, they split, so now the immigrant would become the local, and marry a foreigner, and so on. There have been all sorts of problems with that happening, creating the impression that immigrants are spam trying to profit from our benefits. [sic] In the last 10 years, the media has widely reported about scam marriages and money transactions […] I didn’t have a very good impression before, and even until now, there has been a lot of talk about these controversies surrounding migrants… […] In general the impression is that migration, unless skilled-workers, is defined by or associated with scamming, [sic] working-class, poor, well, giving that kind of impression. Or else, it would also be like “you look different, but you surprise me because you can speak fluent Cantonese…” 

In the UK, now reminds me of when we did one big international event, and then BBC was doing this closing with the song: “Home, I’m coming home”, with dancers from all sorts of different ethnicities. Indian, Caribbean… All as representing the country. The thing is that the UK, have been receiving immigrants for a long time. Having now more than six-generation immigrants which they are much blend-in UK’s culture… [sic] The situation is different. Yet, still, now, I can see a difference in the treatment of white immigrants, and how race plays out. For instance, when they ask non-white people the question: “where are you from?” Most of the time you would hear, “oh I’m from London”, and the first one asks again: “Oh no, I meant where are you actually from?”. People always get offended with this question “oh my grandparents were from X, but I was raised in London…” It creates this kind of impression that if you are not white, and even if you speak perfect English, have the British culture… [sic] You are still from abroad! So, unfortunately, these impressions still happen, even when the second and third generations have pretty much blended in. [sic] However, I can see that now the topic has been brought up and that’s why people reflect on it. I would say that is improving, in general.

Has your stay in the UK as a migrant altered the way you see things?

In the beginning, I saw emigrating as such a privilege. Like everyone was admiring me, saying: “oh you must be so wealthy, you’re so lucky”. I was leaving for wonderland! And I took all this glory [laugh]. Then I came here, thinking that everything would be amazing… But then, it became hard. Things that people thought it was normal, for instance, gathering with your family at Christmas, or for Chinese New Year, etc. When people explained it to me, how cool their break had been… The only thing that I thought was “I am alone”. Since I moved abroad, every time that a festival happened, the first thing that came to my mind was “I won’t be meeting my family”… […] I have also missed out on a lot of things happening at home, getting detached, we [friends and family] were/are in different paths now. [sic] Because I emigrated, I had to sacrifice important moments… Also in working opportunities, because I’m not from the UK, I’m not national, most of the career supports are for nationals or Europeans… Making it hard for me to find something. […] Financially isn’t ideal either here. I can study because my parents support me and because I work. Also, when things go bad at home, because I’m here, I kind of feel detached. Like if I were living in an unreal or another world, and I’m just taking profit from my family’s generosity… It is a lot of tension like it is nice to live here, and have a better life, it’s worth it, but it’s not as fancy as I expected at the beginning.

Do you feel that Brexit has had an impact on your life and/or changed how migration is perceived?

Absolutely. So, at the beginning of Brexit, I was very young, I was 15. So, at that time, I saw British people being very aggressive saying to vote for Brexit as it would increase their job opportunities… But then, for the years to come, there were so many crises, with petrol, empty shelves in supermarkets, and not because we were running out of food, but because there were no lorry drives! And who were those? The immigrants, the European… Even in University! In the past, most of the students that I met were from Romania, Italy… But then since this year [2022], new students are uni are not European anymore, instead, there are more Americans and Indians, which before there wasn’t as much. 

I thought the first years after the referendum that we [the UK] would be better prepared, but no! Crisis still happen, [sic] inflation still goes on… Especially, I would say that regarding jobs visioned for the working-class, there are now a lot of vacancies. I can see that treating Europeans as other international migrants, might complicate things. But, at the same time, for me personally, as I come from Hong Kong, I can see more opportunities after Brexit. Now, I can easily fit into the criteria for foreign students, also, I feel that I’ve been treated more equally. In the beginning, as I came with a student visa, I wasn’t allowed to work, but Europeans could. Also the tuition fees, for instance, Europeans could have student loans, and well, I could not. How was this fair? Now then, I can see more opportunities in general for others, especially non-Europeans and Europeans, we are now on more equal terms (despite the pre-settled and settled scheme going on). At this new stage though, the UK government is thinking more generally and not focused on one group of migrants [the Europeans]. So, from my perspective, I can see Brexit as a good thing but, at the same time, I don’t think that the UK is prepared. There are a lot of things happening that might interfere.

Written by Clara Morer Andrades, 2021/22 ESC volunteer with WCIA

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