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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luwAMFcc2f8).
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.”