If someone had told me I would experience culture shock in a commonwealth country such as England I would have laughed at the thought of it. But lo and behold, I am well into my second month and I have learnt a new custom and term nearly everyday, in fact I have a notebook full of little quirky sayings and customs that I write in as I go along. Did you know “tea” is the casual word for supper or that the word “bird” is considered a derogatory term? Slang and dialect aside, the most meaningful lesson I have learnt whilst abroad has been that the way a person handles the transition into a new culture (however different or not) can reflect how they will handle most situations in life.
When I got off the plane at Manchester after a day of schlepping my luggage around, I was so exhausted all I wanted to do was find a restroom and wash my face to freshen up before my ride to campus arrived. I went to the sink and ran the water over my hands and noticed something strange. Two faucets. One for hot water and one for cold water. So there I stood faced with two options: scald my face with piping hot water, or splash it with liquid nitrogen (pardon the exaggeration). It’s one of those things that you have to experience to understand just how frustrating it is to jockey your hands from side to side cupping the water to make it a temperature safe for human skin. I arrived to my dorm room that same evening and noticed the washbasin in my room had the same logistical nightmare of a setup. I dumped the contents of my makeup bag on the counter, turned on the rickety ancient taps and folded my arms with dismay, deciding what to do with myself and laughing at how silly such a small difference could be. This concept continues to be a popular joke among my circle of friends who also shared this frustration. Being international students, we were all in the same boat and could easily relate to each others observations and stories of cultural disjunction.
Reading through my journal I was surprised to find I hadn’t written about all the breathtaking monumental landmarks I had seen in any of the major cities, even though standing in front of the Westminster Abbey had given me goose bumps the first time I saw it. It was interesting to find that my entries typically focused on the small underlying quirks of European life, such as double taps, outlet switches, lecture styles and socio-cultural traditions and practices.
Studying abroad has enriched my collegiate and personal life in so many ways. Most prominently, my sense of balance. Before, my academic life was about sleepless nights, lattés, and beating my 3.8. Now I can juggle academia, societies, sports, volunteering, work, travelling and a social life without having to be hooked up to a caffeine IV everyday. Above all it has made me a more aware, worldly and fulfilled person with a message. It is not enough to simply be tolerant of our cultural differences, but we must accept and embrace them. So every morning I plug the sink, turn on the faucets, let the water mix and remind myself that I am the one who is foreign and have been given the gift to adapt my behaviour and practice around someone else’s.