I read all of the blogs that I could get ahold of on what it would be like to study abroad. I thought I was more than ready for the culture shock and the ensuing reverse culture shock whenever I got back. I thought I could handle being away from my family and friends and only seeing them through a computer screen. And for the most part I was right, since I have successfully gotten over most of my initial reverse culture shock and have resituated myself into my life here before I left. But here are a couple of things I wish I knew before I left:
11) Culture shock can hit you in very weird ways
As far as I can tell, I didn’t get what most people would consider culture shock. I didn’t go “Oh my god, I’m in a new country and everything’s new and scary what do I do?” and panic and want to go home. Instead it was smaller things that were just slightly different. Immersing myself in the culture itself definitely helped, along with the first little events that the International Committee at my university put on for us. Being able to find people who were having similar experiences definitely helped me get past that first wave of shocked confusion. Not a lot of things in the UK are terribly different, but there are enough things that it can be a little jarring. Seeing a Sainsbury’s where you would normally see a Walmart or a Tesco where you might see a Shell station is a little confusing, especially since I couldn’t see a great deal of difference between the two beyond size. Which brings me to point number two.
22) That thing about everything in America being huge compared to the rest of the world? Yeah…
Okay, so I honestly didn’t think this one would be true whenever I left. I grew up in a fairly small town so I thought it wouldn’t be that different. Hoo boy was I wrong. There are about two groceries stores within a ten minute drive of my house from home. Both of them are reasonably sized, by American standards. In the UK, there were two groceries stores: the Wilko’s and Sainsbury’s that were about a ten minute walk from my flat. I’m fairly certain if I picked up the Wilko’s and dropped it into the Walmart at home, I could have fit around two of them. The Sainsbury’s was a little bigger solely because it mostly housed food and freezer items, so maybe only one Sainsbury’s could have fit in the Walmart, but there would probably still be walking room. This made it simultaneously easier and harder to shop for things because while you knew exactly what you needed to get and where, you couldn’t get it all in one place. Also, speaking of shopping…
33) People will judge you if your banking technology is not up to date with theirs
So, before I left, I was told that I would be able to get a chip-and-pin card that would work in the UK. But unfortunately, even after I’ve gotten back, we still haven’t gotten them and people here are really, really confused by them. The card that I primarily used while abroad was my debit card, which only has a pin. I’m sure you can see the distinction here. At one point I went into an hmv, which is an entertainment store, and whenever I went up to pay, they actually had to pull out a log book to write down what kind of card I had and my information. If that didn’t make me feel behind on technology, I don’t think anything else would have. Luckily most of the pin machines in the UK could be used to swipe, but only after the cashier knows to change the machine to that. Moral of the story: Get a chip-and-pin card because people will judge you since most of the UK at least has been using them for a few years now. But if there’s one thing that definitely made me stand out was my accent. Which brings me to number four.
44) If you think you don’t have an accent, you’re wrong.
I honestly didn’t, and still don’t to be totally honest, know what my accent was going into the UK. A lot of people in the US thought that I sounded vaguely European, which I hoped would work in my favor. While no one outright criticized me for being American (though I did get quite a few questions about our presidential candidates once they found out), I was spotted fairly quickly once they heard me speak. At one point, there were some petitioners on the sidewalk for Brexit, though I wouldn’t be able to tell you if they were campaigning to stay or leave. Since we were so close to the university and from what I knew most of the uni students wanted to stay, I would assume they were campaigning the rest of the town to stay as well. Regardless, one of them comes up to me and asks, “How are you planning on voting in the referendum?” And me, being the flustered and confused American that I am, started to explain,
“Well actually—“ Apparently these two words were enough for the petitioner to realize that he was barking up the wrong tree and immediately he said,
“Oh! You’re American, I’m sorry.” And went about his merry way trying to convince people to stay in the EU. Speaking of the EU…
55) You might not know much about the politics. Not a lot of people care.
I knew just enough about British politics in order to sound at least somewhat competent and not just like a silly American who thought that everything was ruled by the Queen (I mean, it isn’t really, but who doesn’t love the Queen??). But Brexit threw me through a loop and I honestly didn’t know enough about the implications of leaving or staying to have a solid opinion on it. I knew that a lot of younger people wanted to stay because it gave them more freedom to travel and to immigrate to other countries if they desired to do so. I knew that older people believed that the EU was overstepping its bounds by having the countries take in a certain number of refugees. But that was about it. The good thing was, I think a few of the local students understood this since they didn’t ask me a lot about my thoughts on the situation except for whenever they wanted an outsider’s opinion. Which to be fair… is totally fair. I did the same thing whenever it came to this year’s election.
So why am I talking about all of these things? Well, I figure that if you’ve done your due diligence and taken your courses and read your books, there might still be a couple of things you don’t know about studying abroad. And I hope this will help you know just a little bit more.