Culture Shock: It’s Not Just For Travelers

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When I hear people talk about culture shock, I automatically think of traveling to a strange place, far from home, surrounded by people speaking a different language- I associate it with feeling extremely out of my element and often awkward and uncomfortable.

I’ve traveled- spent a month in Cameroon (which was most definitely a different culture!), 5 months in Italy, trips to France, Germany, loads of visits to the United Kingdom: while all of these trips showed me strange, new things about the world and had elements of culture shock (“You want me to eat WHAT??” “I’m supposed to use the bathroom THERE??”) I always knew that these new and different experiences would stop when I got back home. Ah, home. I’ve never really felt a strong tie to any specific place in the USA (lived in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and a few different places in Georgia) and never really felt like I was all that strongly tied to the USA- until I left. Those unique and often awkward moments that arise from being a stranger in a foreign country are a huge part of what makes traveling so appealing to me, but with all my other travel experiences, I always knew that at a certain point I would be going HOME. No matter how uncomfortable and out of my element I felt at the moment, I knew that I’d soon know exactly how things are done, I’d know how to dress for the weather and for various occasions, and I’d know exactly what I was eating for meals without having to point at something on a menu and pray that it would be edible.

I’ve spent almost an entire year in the UK now. It’s the longest I’ve ever been out of the USA (previous record was 5 months in Italy)- the United Kingdom is like the States in so many ways: before I moved here I had visited about 10 times, staying for anywhere between a week and a month every time I came over. These Brits have different (and in my opinion, BETTER) accents and drove on the wrong side of the road (they’ll argue that they drive on the RIGHT [meaning correct] side of the road, but then it’s quite easy to win the argument by pointing out that they drive on the left), but I had come to the conclusion that things really weren’t all that different in the UK and that moving here really wouldn’t be that much different from living in the States (and if I was lucky, maybe I could pick up the accent!).

Just goes to show you that you can visit a place loads of times without knowing what it’s really like to live there. When I first got here, I felt absolutely out of my element: I had a limited knowledge of public transport, only knew the name of two grocery stores (Tesco and Sainsburys), and had never lived in a city with a population over 200,000. I was suddenly living 2 miles outside Birmingham (population over 1 million), having to learn how to get places on a massive network of buses, trams, and trains. Starting a Masters course, where I was expected to find my own materials was difficult too: I didn’t know the names of any stores and spent a lot of time asking my new friends “If I wanted to find ______, what shop would I find that at?”. I don’t know how people moved to different countries before Google: googlemaps got me lost almost as often as it got me where I needed to go, but I learned my way around the city pretty quickly thanks to trial and error (and trying not to look like a frightened foreigner when I ended up hopeless lost in dodgy parts of town). Google search helped me find stores that would sell the materials I needed and the directions for getting there.

Now that I’ve been here for a year, I’m coping reasonably well- I still sound pretty much like an American (though Americans sometimes think I sound English), but I’m thinking and speaking more like a Brit every day. There are little things here and there that still have to be explained to me, and I suppose there always will be- usually related to old tv shows (I can tell you all about Danger Mouse, Magic Roundabout, Blue Peter, and East Enders without ever having seen an episode of any of them). I’ve met so many lovely, helpful people this year who have made the transition to this new country a really fun (and funny!) adventure.

I used to think culture shock was a bad thing. After a year of “shock”,I’ve decided that it’s not a bad thing: it’s how you learn about new places and different people. I don’t suppose I’ll ever be entirely amalgamated, but it’s the little differences that make life entertaining, right?

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2 Comments

Filed under America, Travels

2 responses to “Culture Shock: It’s Not Just For Travelers

  1. Retrofemme

    I enjoyed reading this post Miriam. I’ve lived in several other countries (English and non English speaking) and can totally identify with what you are saying.. When we travel – as opposed to living somewhere – we really are mostly “skimming the surface”.

  2. chiralangel

    It’s intriguing that you discovered that even a shared language—and outwardly similar cultures—weren’t enough to prevent a sense of dislocation when you moved to the UK. I’ve never lived abroad, but ironically, I had a similar experience the year my family lived in Berks County, PA. Not far geographically from either urban Philadelphia, Amish Lancaster, steel towns, or coal country, it belonged to none of them. It was a world to itself, and my family often felt as if we’d strayed into an episode of the Twilight Zone.

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