Natasha Fowler-Ekar on being different and finding her place

After graduating from Chinese and International Development this year Natasha Fowler-Ekar will take her place as Equality and Liberation Officer on the LUU Student Executive team. We talked to Natasha about her personal experiences as a working class, neurodivergent, queer woman of colour doing Chinese degree. 

Natasha’ speech is peppered with superlatives, covering both ends of the spectrum. Studying Chinese is the best thing she’s ever done, and also the hardest. She embraces these apparent contradictions, talkinpassionately about both the difficulties she’s faced and what she has gained from diving in head first to study Chinese – stubbornly ignoring the people who doubted her and overcoming many obstacles along the way.  

It all began when Natasha realised that at the University of Leeds she could combine her International Development course with a language. 

I said the fateful words that I think have plagued me to this day: ‘Oh 1.3 billion people speak Chinese, it can’t be that hard’… and now it’s overtaken my whole life, as Chinese tends to do. 

Coming from a different background 

I had a lot of people telling me I shouldn’t, that I wasn’t clever enough… you shouldn’t go to uni at all.

Natasha was undeterred when friends and teachers expressed concern at her choiceThinking ahead to the Year Abroad in China lifted her out of the stress of A-levels, and having a plan helped with her mental health. 

But the first year of her degree was far from easy.  

Taking time to settle in 

I was really intimidated by everyone – I was already really intimidated by going to Leeds in general, but then you’re in Chinese with all these people…

On top of her struggles to get to grips with Chinese characters, initials, finals, and tones, Natasha felt alone because none of her friends studied languages – never mind Chinese – and didn’t understand what it was like 

Being in a group of mainly white middle-class students, all competitive academically, only exacerbated the feelings of intimidation and isolation. 

As a working class student learning a subject as labour-intensive as Chineselack of time was an additional challengeWorking two jobs in her third year Natasha would review flashcards on her phone while flipping burgers, making the most of any spare moments she had. 

Finding her place on her course 

Peers from Chinese have now become Natasha’s best friends and housemates.  

The thing that saved me I think was finally making friends with people on my course, and making friends with other people that speak Chinese.

Getting to know people who were going through similar things helped significantly with her confidence and mental health.  

Finding a community of like-minded people wherever you are is the key to keeping your mental health in check. 

Finding her place in China 

Study Abroad in second year was when Natasha and her classmates became much closer, bonding over the shared experience of finding their feet in Shanghai.  

The long-awaited year in China also raised many new challenges. Being Black in China was a different experience (“the racism was a lot to handle”) and as an international student at Shanghai Jiaotong University Natasha was once again in a minority trying to fit in. At first she would call her mum crying, wanting to go home, tired of being stared at in the street and struggling to make Chinese friends. 

For more details about Natasha’s struggles and experience of racism in China, read her post China, mental health and me on Black Livity China.

Reflecting on racism in China, she says “It shouldn’t be something that stops you from doing it”, advising “you’ve got to expect it and find your community.” Choosing a destination like Shanghai helpedand people in Natasha’s community got used to seeing her around. 

Natasha persevered, discovering connection and community through her love of music and gradually feeling part of a community of like-minded people.  

Her Chinese also flourished, and Natasha says she learned most of her Chinese (and her best Chinese) in China. Although the three-hour lecture style language classes didn’t work for her at all, she loved being able to go out and speak to people, using the language in real-life situations and learning by doing.  

Learning Chinese with ADHD 

Natasha’s strong preference for practical versus classroom learning is one expression of her ADHD. The diagnosis came recently, in her final year of study, helping to explain the quirks of her brain that Natasha has been working with for years.  

The intensity of studying Chinese from scratch in first year, along with the way it is usually taught, makes it challenging for people who learn differently. The rote learning and memorisation isn’t always compatible with a brain that gets bored easily and takes in content in different ways.  

Natasha learns better if she’s looking at something, and when she does things herself, rather than in a classroom setting. In first year she felt that she just wasn’t “getting it”unaware that undiagnosed ADHD was adding to the reasons she felt different and isolated. 

She was facing not only the challenge of learning Chinese, but also the challenge of learning how to learn Chinese 

Common tactics like writing out characters repeatedly wasn’t helping them to stick, and Natasha found that people didn’t always discuss the details of techniques that worked unless explicitly asked – maybe because this information seemed obvious to them. 

Finding her learning style  

As well as helping her find community, music and pop culture were Natasha’s route to improved learning outcomes.  

She gradually discovered more ways of making learning fun and incorporating it into her day to day life. Natasha is a fan of Taiwanese dramasfollows interesting Chinese people on Youtube and Instagram, and keeps up with new music through podcasts and conversations with language partners.  

Experimenting with apps and tools is important too. Natasha hated Quizlet, the flashcard app of choice for most of her peers in first year, and didn’t discover Anki until her third year. 

Her advice to others like her would be to actively experiment with different learning techniques and tools as early as possible.  

Academically Natasha still finds her non-Chinese courses much easier, but values the language as a key aspect of her connection with her “second home” (China, and East Asia in general). Despite claiming she doesn’t think her brain is wired for languages, Natasha is talking about doing a Masters in translation and learning Danish! 

Giving back 

My cultural understanding has increased tenfold.

Natasha has always wanted to make a difference, setting her sights on a career in NGOs or non-profits, and is already using the lessons she has learned to give back to the University community.  

She is currently President of the East Asian Research Society, working with others on the committee to bring students together during this difficult pandemic year. Her experience as a woman of colour in China led her to organise a panel discussion on Black Lives in East Asia. 

She has also just been elected as the next Leeds University Union Equality and Liberation Officer. As someone who sits at lots of intersections Natasha knows the challenges people can face, and her international experience adds extra depth to her understanding of different perspectives.  

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it

Studying Chinese, which Natasha describes as “probably the hardest thing I ever will do”, has given her an unshakeable confidence in herself and what she can achieve.  

It doesn’t hurt that it’s also a fantastic conversation starter, impressing peers and employers alike! 

When she started out she had little idea of the challenges she would faceNatasha refuses to sugarcoat itrecognising that it’s easy to romanticize things with the benefit of hindsight, but still maintains that this life-changing experience has been worth it. 

 I say do it – be wary of it, but do it!

Sharing her story is one way of helping others prepare to face a similar challenge, and when Natasha joins the LUU Student Executive she will be actively working to make it easier for others like her, who don’t always see themselves represented, to find their place. 

Read more 

The Mandarin Aspirations Project

We aim to encourage and celebrate the learning of Chinese by sharing the motivations (why study Chinese), study experiences (challenges and rewards) and study outcomes (employability, confidence and intercultural skills) of Chinese language learners. We hope that these Mandarin Aspirations stories will encourage those of you already studying Chinese, and inspire new learners to join a growing and supportive community of Chinese language enthusiasts in the UK.