Below is an excerpt from a letter I wrote home in November 2004, several weeks after I arrived in England, after spending ten years stationed in Hawaii. It describes my experience in coping with culture shock.
In adapting to England over the last several weeks, I would say that the culture does not feel foreign, so much as different. It’s like seeing something odd out of the corner of my eye; I shift my perception to take it in more completely, and spend a little more time processing it, but what originally caught my attention does not seem so strange as it did at first glance. What wears me down is the sheer number of times I have to stop and process the new and somewhat different information, and attempt to relate it to what I already know.
The signs are in English, although the English is often not quite the same usage as what I would anticipate. The street signs are strange but generally understandable, after a few moments observation of the traffic and the area. The food often has funny or incomprehensible names but usually tastes good, although not quite like anything I’ve ever had at home, either. The coins look odd and sound funny when clinking together in my pocket (and the denominations are slightly different as well) but they work as coins ought to when I need to use them. The accents of the people I pass by on the street often render their speech incomprehensible, but if I end up chatting with those same people, eventually something clicks in my brain and the words fall together (albeit usually not until after an embarrassing pause whilst my brain furiously processes the shift in pronunciation and the slightly different grammar and usage). On top of this is my knowledge that most of these people have no problem understanding me, because they have been watching American films and TV shows their whole lives and have no problems at all understanding an American accent and American English usage. Brits do like Americans, though, so any problems I have understanding them usually injects a bit of humor in an otherwise awkward situation (as long as I am polite about it, of course). This is why I stated in my previous letter that I have not been unhappy here, simply overwhelmed. I have met so many nice people and when I am willing to express my confusion, they are always willing to help me clear it up. The only times I do not try to clear things up are when I am already at my limit and feel that I can no longer take in new information.
Ah, the wisdom of maturity. Only a few years ago, I would have been constantly berating myself for not understanding everything instantly. Something that a constantly changing military lifestyle has taught me, though, is patience with myself and a better understanding of my learning curve and my limits. I am confident, now, that I will learn what I need to learn eventually, and I am willing to grant myself the time to learn it (usually).
For those of you who received my Australia trip e-mails, you may recall that I mentioned that Australia felt less foreign than Hawaii. Modern Hawaiian culture has such a strong Asian and Pacific cultural influence that Hawaii often appears to feel more like a foreign country than a U.S. state. So I must admit that when I say that England does not feel really foreign, I am again comparing it to my experience in Hawaii. Mainstream American culture often feels closer to English culture than it does to Hawaiian culture. I would like to emphasize, though, that I don’t consider this to be either a good or bad situation; I truly enjoyed my experience in Hawaii, and the strong Asian influence simply made it more interesting. I’m just commenting on the differences between the cultures.
Well, enough philosophizing! Onward to the specific bits…
Of course, no discussion of the differences between our two cultures would be complete without mentioning the traffic. I have had a truly difficult time learning that the British drive on the left… and I am only referring to my experiences as a pedestrian! This IS foreign, no doubt about it. I have crossed more busy streets here in the last several weeks than I have in the last several years, and every time, it is a challenge for me to remember which lane contains traffic going in which direction. It is as if I learned American traffic patterns in infancy, when I can’t even remember learning them, and now I cannot unlearn them, or at least adapt them to these new conditions. My car will be arriving soon. My American friends here tell me that it really isn’t too difficult learning to drive on the left side of the road, that you just follow the cars in front of you and you usually do okay. I do suspect that once I have been driving for a while, that will help me learn the drive-on-the-left traffic patterns much better than just being a pedestrian.
I had an awesome time in England. I met many wonderful people, both at work and outside of it, especially in my A Course in Miracles study group. I eventually adapted quite well and took the opportunity to travel both locally and further afield, to Scotland and the Shetland and Orkney Islands, and on continental Europe (which I mentioned in an earlier post about driving through the Alps). I wish I’d been able to stay longer in England (I was originally supposed to be there for three years, but was there only one year). I think very fondly of my time there and I hope to visit again someday.