Newry.ie

Aged just 20 and all alone, Mei Lee boarded a plane in her home country of Malaysia and flew half way around the world - a 16-hour flight - to study in Northern Ireland. A daunting prospect, but one she was very capable of and, indeed, used to.

"When I was studying in my secondary school in Malaysia, I moved to another city when I was 13-years-old," says Mei.

"I stayed in a hostel with all my friends, so I'm used to staying away from home. It's not a big problem for me."

Mei is in her third year at Queen's University where she is studying for a BSc in Food Quality, Safety and Nutrition.

It is her placement year, and last September she moved to Newry to work as a Technical Assistant with one of Northern Ireland's leading agri-food businesses, ABP.

Mei Lee
Mei Lee

I work in the lab and do all the micro-testing, the pre-production, as well as checks in the processing area," she said.

"I enjoy it. I Iike to work in the lab. I love science."

Mei was born in Johor Bahru in southern Malaysia, a city with a population of over 400,000.

She is Malaysian Chinese, the second largest community of overseas Chinese in the world after Thailand.She speaks three languages, which is compulsory for children in the Malaysian education system.

"In Malaysia, all the children have to study Malay, English and Chinese from Kindergarten, so we learn three languages," explains Mei.

This, she says, helped her settle in her new, albeit temporary, home in Ireland.

Though the move was not without its difficulties, both linguistically and culturally.

"It was a big challenge for me to come here," she said.

"Firstly, it's very far from home. It took a 16-hour flight to get here. Secondly, the language. Even though I studied English since I was young, I mainly speak Chinese, so it was hard for me to adapt to a totally English-speaking environment.

"I remember when I arrived at the airport, it was so cold. Malaysia is a tropical country, so we don't have any seasons, just summer throughout the year, 30 degrees, 34 degrees, throughout the year.

"So I found here really cold. There was also a culture shock because in Northern Ireland everyone goes to party - parties every day - but actually I don't like parties so much, so it was a big difference.<iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B3KGM3mmUZ8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe>

"But the people are friendly, though sometimes teenagers, young people, may say bad things to me, but me and my friends just walk on,we ignore them."

Mei will travel back to Malaysia in June for the summer before returning to Belfast again in September for her fourth and final year.

She's looking forward to seeing her family and friends.

She's also looking forward to warmth and great cuisine.

"Malaysia is a good country," she said.

"We have good food, we are multi-cultured and we all live together, so it's nice."

But like many of the new nationalities living in Newry, Mei enjoys home comforts.

She cooks authentic Chinese food at home most nights.

Food is a big part of her life.

And promises to be a big part of her future.

Asked why she chose a degree in Food Quality, Safety and Nutrition, she jokes: "Because I like to eat!

"It's a really big market because everyone needs to eat; no one can live without food, so I think it's a really big market now and in the future.

"And hopefully in the future I will work in China, Taiwan, or maybe Australia or Singapore. Somewhere a little closer to home. And warmer!"

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