It has only been a week since I have left the states on my 4 week stay in Ireland. As a part of my program, we stayed three days in London as a chance to adjust to jet lag and have a little fun before our studies officially began upon our arrival to our final destination: a small college town in Ireland called Maynooth.
Let me start by saying that this experience is my first real venture out of the United States. Sure, I’ve been to Canada and the Bahamas; but never have I crossed that little pond we call the Atlantic Ocean. Being the naive American student that I am, I assumed that London wouldn’t be much different from the United States at all and I thought I would experience little to no culture shock at all. Much to my surprise, my little stopover in London was much more difficult than I anticipated.
Granted, culture in the United Kingdom is not as different from the United States as, let’s say, China. But there were still a surprise number of norms and differences that caught me off guard. I expected to feel at home in the UK- but boy was I wrong. As a result of my three days in London, I have compiled a list of differences that makes a not so different culture from my own stand out enough to give quite the culture shock.
1. “We’re driving on the wrong side of the road!” Before you judge me for not knowing about the laws of the road abroad before I got there, let me explain. Yes, I knew that motorists drive on the left hand side of the road in Europe and the UK. Knowledge of this fact did not stop me from being scared for my life as our bus pulled away from the airport and I thought for sure we were going the wrong way. It is extremely hard to fight the insistence you naturally have to do things the way you have always known to do them. Another shocking element of traveling on the roadways in Britain was the simple way in which the people there drive. Constantly, my bus driver was cutting people off, nearly missing pedestrians by a hair, and all around driving in a way that my fellow students and I considered reckless. Turns out, this is characteristic of all drivers in the UK. With such a fast paced city like London, drivers are darting around and bikers are squeezing in between cars- making one think that there is going to be an accident around every corner. But surprisingly, I did not witness a single accident. This way of maneuvering the city works for them, and it is simply a cultural norm to drive with a little edge.
2. When I said drivers were missing pedestrians by a hair, I was not exaggerating. There are no laws against jay walking in the UK. Meaning, pedestrians can literally walk out in the road wherever they want to. You can imagine how nervous this made me as an American who has always been told to stay on the crosswalk! And don’t get me started on looking before you cross the road- every time I looked to see if the road was clear to cross, I was looking the wrong way! Turns out driving on the opposite side of the road also means you have to look in the opposite direction when crossing it- a habit that was extremely hard for me to form.
3. Food was at the top of my priority list as soon as I arrived in London. It was perfect time to eat breakfast, so my friend and I ventured out to find a decent breakfast to start our first day in London off right. And so my running list of dining nuances in London began… I was surprised to learn that they serve your eggs in the morning on top of your toast. Instead of separating all of the food items on the plate, the eggs were always right on top of the toast, almost as if it were some kind of sandwich topping. Also, they serve baked beans with everything! You can imagine my jet lagged confusion as my first breakfast ended up being scrambled eggs ON toast with a side of baked beans. Definitely not something you see every day in America. Another dining confusion I experienced was the service. It is not customary to tip on London, and your checks are never split. Being an American, I am accustomed to the wait staff separating checks into individual seats. This is not something that is done in Europe unless you specifically ask. So my advice for any future travelers is to always carry cash when eating out- it is a lot easier to just make a pile of cash for the bill with your friends than it is to ask the wait staff to separate a long bill.
4. Some smaller nuances were the road signs and pedestrian signs. All of the street lights were on poles and the side of the street, not hanging over the street like we have them in America. When there was a crosswalk to use, the walk signs appeared different than what I am used to as well. Also, instead of red lights changing straight to green, they would cycle through yellow again.
5. “I don’t have to worry about language because they speak English.” Much to my surprise, I still had difficulty with language in England occasionally. At times their English accents would be so thick that I had no clue what they were saying. This was a bit frustrating for me, because I did not expect to have any difficulty at all communicating with the people of London. From calling french fries chips to having to specifically order “still” water; you can imagine the frustration I experienced when I didn’t understand how to get my point across that first day.
This is just a small list of the cultural differences I experienced fresh off the plane. It made my adjustment to life in another country a tad more difficult than expected, but definitely worth the struggle. I learned many things about how adaptive I can be as well as how to appreciate and immerse yourself into a culture different from your own. Being able to fully experience a different culture is such an amazing experience, and gives you a whole new outlook on the world.
That’s all for now; updates to come as I adjust to living and learning in Ireland!
College of Business Junior