Monthly Archives: January 2015

25/01/15 – Culture Shock: Angels, T-Swift, and Freedom

I am definitely no stranger to the experience of being at a dance and knowing none of the lyrics to the songs that are playing. My familiarity with American pop music is limited, to say the least. Still, there is no moment at an American dance that has felt quite like the final few songs at the St Catz “Entz” on Friday night. Entz (which is short for Enterntainment, not for walking trees) is a party that Catz holds every fortnight, with a theme (this one was Rio Carnival), costumes, music, drinks at the student bar, dancing, snacks, and, of course, the final song “Angels,” by Robbie Williams (

I had never heard this song before. Apparently, it is basically the St Catz anthem. At the end of every Entz around 2 in the morning, this song plays, and everyone heads to the dance floor and hugs each other and sways and sings along at the top of their lungs. Even those who are barely still standing somehow manage to belt out every single word. As I stood arm in arm with a group composed partially of British students and partially of other confused visiting students, I couldn’t help cracking up at how absolutely foreign it felt. And yet, by the last verse, I was able to hold back my laughter and (more or less) sing along.

To be honest, when we talked about culture shock back at Whitman, I didn’t think it would apply to me. I figured, I’m going to an English-speaking country, I consume half of my media from this country already, and sometimes I feel more connected with it than with America; I’m not going to have a honeymoon phase, or suddenly experience frustration or any of that. I was wrong.

There are some things that are eerily similar to the U.S. For instance, on the stereo in this nice little British bookstore café right now, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” is playing. Chipotle, Domino’s, Starbucks, and dozens of other American chain restaurants are on the streets here. I haven’t even had to struggle much with the language– Americanisms that may have sounded out of place in the U.K. several years ago are now relatively common.

But there are some things that definitely feel different and new and exciting. It cannot be denied that the architecture here is stunning. I can’t help beaming when I walk into my favorite bookstore and see an entire shelf dedicated to Tolkien. The pubs are so much fun– unlike bars in America (which I not not even allowed into– for 3 more days, at least), pubs are cozy, low-key, very social places for people to meet up for dinner and a drink, or catch up with a group of friends. And I could not imagine any college in America having a student bar in the common area.

I like the freedom here. I like that I have almost no class time, and while at home my days are filled with obligations from the moment I wake up until I turn off the light to go to sleep, here I wake up each day and get to decide to do… whatever I want.

But that same freedom, exciting for the first few days, has also begun to grow difficult. I’m used to being constantly active; now I actually have free time, and it is a little terrifying. I miss the sense of obligation that comes from being involved. I’ve gone to a couple student group meetings, but nothing yet that has begun to feel like a community, like somewhere I can feel a sense of purpose.

So, I have experienced a bit of a honeymoon phase, and I have also experienced some frustration. IFSA-Butler, our program, told us that the U.K. was far more progressive than the U.S., what with their healthcare system, attitude towards gay rights, actually having had a female Prime Minister, and so on. I generally had the same expectation before coming here, so I was surprised by the ways in which home (and, granted, I come from San Francisco) seemed less conservative: internet censorship, at least at the college, seems to be present; gendered marketing seems somehow even more of a thing here (I can’t tell you how many items I have seen that specify “FOR MEN.” My roommate went out to buy tissues and came back with a box of “man-sized!” tissues); sexuality does not seem to be a topic frequently discussed openly unless I am within a group of other American students. And oh my goodness, this is a passive-aggressive culture. To be blunt and confront a problem up front is generally considered impolite, so repressing one’s anger and leaving hints seems to be the norm.

Case in point of passive-aggression, this note was posted on our staircase bulletin board:


(of course this wasn’t our toilet… *ahem*)

This all, of course, is only my experience in the first week or so, and I will probably find that my impressions change as time goes on.

The adjustment phase is beginning, too, I think, though I’m sure it will all be mixed up with frustration and excitement. I’ve started to develop a pattern of working during the day and relaxing or socializing at night. I’ve gotten settled in enough that I actually have time to check in with people back at home. I no longer get lost every time I leave my college’s campus and head into town. I’ve even mastered the bus route to my primary tutorial! And maybe in a couple more Entz, I’ll know all the words to “Angels.”

18/01/15 – First week at St Catz

I’m here! I arrived in London on the 12th of January at 8:00am GMT, having travelled since 4:00am PST (that’s about 20 hours). After the plane landed, I met up with the rest of the IFSA-Butler group from my flight and got on a bus to London. I managed to stay up all day, and even went out to a couple pubs that evening before crashing around 10pm (34 hours awake, woohoo!).

We all spent the next couple days in London, getting oriented by IFSA-Butler and exploring on our own. I got to go to an amazing Turner art exhibit at the Tate, ride down the Thames in a ferry, see some original Picasso and Dalí paintings at the Tate Modern, and wander through several of the different London boroughs.



(view from the Thames)

London was wonderful, and while for the most part I felt pretty at home, there were several moments that reminded me I was finally in London— standing outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, seeing the taxis and the double decker buses and the old telephone booths, walking past the ridiculously fancy McDonalds and Starbucks and Pizza Hut (apparently everything is fancier here? Pizza Hut looks like a nice hotel lobby. There are red leather couches. I kid you not). It was a little hard to fully enjoy London, however, knowing our stay there was so temporary and as we all felt anxious about being able to actually settle in at Oxford. The St. Catherine’s group was the last of the IFSA study abroad groups to head to our college, but we finally made it on Thursday midmorning. I was surprised when I got here to have very little orientation– a welcome packet, some tea, and an introduction to the staff of the libraries, student welfare center, and gym/IT, and we were set free. That first evening, I had to figure out how to take the bus, in the dark, during pouring rain, to have a preliminary meeting with my tutor for American Literature 1920-present. Still jetlagged, barely making my way through the winding streets of Oxford, and eager to adjust and meet the local students, I discovered that I had to read an entire Hemingway novel and write an 8 page paper by the following Tuesday, in addition to writing a paper on Husserl (after, of course, actually reading Husserl) by Thursday– short notice, my tutor said, so it was alright if I didn’t quite reach the norm of at least 6 external research sources (um.).

So, I have spent a majority of my time since then reading, researching, and writing. I’ve realized that Oxford students seem to have a pretty good system– when they study, they really study. The libraries are silent places of total concentration, not the most social building on campus like at Whitman. And when the British students go out to have fun, that’s just what they do; no one talks about work when they’re out or complains about how stressed they are, how much studying they have. So, my goal is to try and adopt that lifestyle somewhat while I’m here, to get used to focusing when I need to focus and allowing myself to let the worries and stress go when I decide to have fun.

I’m getting better at it already, and despite all the work I have been able to explore and enjoy myself a bit. Just walking around town is fantastic– all of the spirals, the beautiful skies (both cloudy and clear), the crowd of people with all different accents and languages. And with a lot of work, I couldn’t ask for better study spaces.


(Study room in the Bodleian)


(The Radcliffe Camera, connected by tunnel to the Bodleian library)

photo 1

(The view from my study spot in the Camera)

I have much more to tell, but that’s quite a lot for a first post, so I’ll hold off for now! The last thing I’ll mention is that at the pub last night, another American mistook me for being British! Whether they had been drinking a bit much or whether I’ve actually picked up something of a British accent I’m not sure, but it was good to know I have begun to look like a local– well, at least to the non-locals. 😉