culture shock – the london journals

There is reason integration into a foreign society is termed “culture shock”. I actually feel like the walking wounded whose recovery is slow and sometimes painful.

I’m an infant in the realm of international travel. I have had short jaunts into Canada and Mexico but nothing could have prepared me for this move to the United Kingdom.

Living in the United States, I never really considered that England could be that much different than my own country. We spoke the same language, afterall. I had grown up reading the English novelists and English history and their world was my world. Much of English history is also my history. We have close political ties. How different could we really be?

How naïve could I really be?

The obvious differences have even had an impact on me. I knew that we drove on opposite sides of the road and that British vehicles tended to be right-side drive. It’s easy enough to acknowledge this cognitively. However, I cannot begin to count the number of times I have gripped the door handle, closed my eyes, or gasped loudly in fear when I thought we would be hit by any of the oncoming cars. The driving has, in reality, terrified me. And the whole notion that this entire country can live without stop signs leaves me speechless. What is with that? They have something like a yield sign (road markings) at every intersection or roundabout that does not have lights. Every time someone enters a new road, there is that chance that someone else will come whipping around a blind corner on the roundabouts at about 80-mph and there will be a huge collision.

I am getting better about the roads and the driving, though. I was actually dreaming about driving on the opposite side of the road the other night and it’s starting to look normal to me. I’m even remembering to look the right way before crossing a road.

Other differences, however, have not been so easily overcome.

We may speak the same language. I’m learning quickly, though, that there are so many different dialects of English that I can’t even comprehend what some people are saying. In the United States we have many different dialects and we tend to take them for granted because we often hear them in the media, TV and movies. But here, there are many that I haven’t ever heard. They aren’t all the Liza Doolittle or Queen’s English that we hear in the media. There are other considerations such as the Welsh, Scottish, and Irish influences. In addition, there are the Continental immigrants who have brought their own versions of English with them. This is a study of linguistics that fascinates me and leaves me pondering many things at once. I don’t understand ½ of the jokes that are told on the radio or on television. They are said quickly and with slang that I just haven’t picked up yet. In addition, when listening to the Scottish, Welsh, and Irish, I hear many of their own languages thrown in for good measure to add colour to the conversation. And these, I definitely don’t understand. Language isn’t usually a barrier for me and this has left me feeling as if I’m in an alien world. I don’t quite belong here and I don’t quite understand what is being said at all times.

I am also having some difficulty with directions. I’m not usually directionally impaired. I can find my way anywhere with a good map or good directions from someone. Even so, when I get lost, I usually figure my way out of it without having to call anyone for help. Here, though, there are few street signs and streets end or begin with no warning (to an inexperienced eye). I get confused about where north and south is if I’m too far from the Thames or if I can’t see a known monument. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wandered around the same block without figuring out where I’m going until it’s getting dark and I’m starting to get scared.

These things are all getting better. It is taking time but they still leave me with that feeling of feeling like such a foreigner in a place I thought I would feel at home in right away.

I love London. It is a magical and wonderful city. I’m even learning my Tube directions as time goes on. I love the multi-cultural influences and the different lilting accents that I hear hourly. I love the food that I’ve been experiencing (but NOT black pudding, haggis, or steak and kidney pie!). I love walking down the cobblestone road that is in front of our flat. I love walking up to a wall that has been standing for 1000 years and actually feeling the history ooze out of it.

There are things in life that make us feel like we belong. Finding your way to a grocery store (supermarket) is a safe feeling. Being recognized by neighbors makes you feel like you belong. Giving directions to someone with a local accent definitely makes you feel at home.

More, though, the little things make me feel like I belong. Coming home to a man who loves me and never fails to tell me that I’m adored makes me feel like I belong here and nowhere else. Having a tour guide, who called me “neighbor” because my address is around the corner from him, reach out and touch me on my shoulder tell me to enjoy my life here made me feel like I belong. When the clerk at the post office says, “Hello, love.” every time I walk in, I feel like this is my home. The lady at the flower shop comes out to say hello or waves to me when I walk by and makes me feel like a local.

It’s the pieces of “human-ness” that make me feel like I’m beginning to belong. It’s the effort that I make to say hello to a neighbor or to greet the store clerks and their return of those efforts that open the world up for me. It’s recognition in a smile when I walk into a shop that leaves me smiling in return. It’s learning the language and actually getting a few of the jokes that make me relax and enjoy my life here. It’s being able to come home, shed the tears of the loneliness on his shoulder and know that I’m not really alone because I’m loved and cherished.

It’s being a part of this world that revolves around the sharing and giving of ourselves every day that reminds me that I belong. I wouldn’t change this life lesson for anything in the world. It has been the clearing of a mist that I’ve been waiting for and it has opened up new vistas for me that I can’t wait to explore.

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