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Let's Talk About Culture Shock

January 28, 2018

It had been six days since I arrived in London when I traveled to the IES Abroad Centre from my building in Camden on my own for the very first time.  I was completely over my jetlag and had made it through orientation.  I had finally finished unpacking and settled into my room.  I had already met many interesting and fun new people.  I had even traveled via tube and bus several times without getting lost.  I felt adjusted.  I felt ready.  I felt as if I were on top of the world.

It was an unsurprisingly cold, rainy day in London on this sixth day of my semester here, and I had just received an email that my student Oyster card had arrived at the IES Abroad Centre.  I only had an hour or so until the IES Abroad Centre would close for the day, but nevertheless I decided throw on my rain boots, grab my umbrella, and hop on the bus.  I felt extremely proud of myself as I hopped on the correct red double-decker bus without any hesitation.  I sat up top and watched the city bustling beneath me as we made our way to Bloomsbury, the beautiful neighborhood in which the IES Abroad Centre is located.  I even realized that I had begun to recognize many of the stop names from my previous two bus trips.  As my stop approached, I walked down the steps and braced myself for the bus to stop moving.  I remember, in that moment, feeling like I was a true Londoner.  That is, until I realized that we had zoomed right past my bus stop.

I shrugged it off at first.  Calmly, I told myself that it was no big deal, and I would just get off at the next stop.  But then we zoomed past the next bus stop, too.  I looked around, trying to figure out what was happening.  That was when I saw a big red “STOP” button on the seat next to where I was standing.  Now, I am no stranger to buses, having lived in cities all my life but I was confused.  In New York, for example, there are handy yellow strips plastered all over every bus that you press to signal your stop.  But the two previous times I had taken the bus in London, my friends and I hadn’t had to press anything.  Nobody had told us we needed to request a stop.  And when I saw that big red “STOP” button, my mind immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was an emergency stop button, and if I pressed it, the entire bus would stop moving immediately, and I definitely didn’t want that.

Thankfully, we had only gone two stops past the IES Abroad Centre before the doors finally opened.  I leapt off that bus as fast as I possibly could, and my first thought was that I would travel exclusively by tube for the rest of the semester.  That was a bit hasty, however, and later that day, a quick Google search confirmed that the big red “STOP” button was indeed a stop request button.  I ended up taking the bus again the next day, and noticed, to my absolute shame, that these red “STOP” buttons are found next to every single seat on the bus and are obviously not for any sort of emergency purposes.  I was humiliated.

There have been countless moments like this one, when I feel like I’m getting the hang of things only to be knocked down a peg by stop-request buttons on buses, or by British computer keyboards, or by military time.  I have been glared at by cyclists when I look the wrong way when crossing the street, and I take way too long remembering which coin is which when paying for things in stores.  I have been struggling to incorporate words like “loo” and “lift” and “takeaway” into my vocabulary.  More times than I am comfortable admitting, I have been momentarily convinced that a car is driving on its own until, to my embarrassment, I spot the driver on the other side of the car.  These past two weeks have been filled with excitement, with new experiences, with new places and faces, but they have also been filled with culture shock.

If my last blog post is any indication, I was not at all expecting to experience culture shock in London.  It’s absolutely true that London is a lot like American cities, be it New York, Boston, Chicago, or Philadelphia.  But in many ways, this has made it even more frustrating for me, because I was able to feel at home so quickly, but there are also countless idiosyncrasies I keep finding.  Throughout the past two weeks, I’ve felt like I was in some kind of weird dream, where I’m somehow able to feel both completely comfortable and completely clueless at the same time.

That moment on the bus was tiny in the grand scheme of things, but it ended up prompting the first major lesson that I’ve learned here.  In that moment, I felt almost like the city was mocking me for thinking I had everything figured out.  And in that moment, I realized it was going to take me much longer than I had initially expected to adjust.  Maybe I won’t even feel adjusted by the time my semester is up.  Every single day provides me with a moment like the one on the bus, when something new about this place reveals itself to me.  And these moments can make me feel embarrassed and uncomfortable and overwhelmed, but that's okay.

Culture shock is scary.  It’s exhausting.  It’s frustrating and humiliating, and it makes you feel self-conscious and out of place.  But without culture shock, what is the point of studying abroad?  Studying abroad is about struggling.  It’s about messing up and learning from your mistakes.  It’s about embracing each and every difference that you encounter.  It’s about growth.  It’s about proudly pressing that big red “STOP” button the next time you ride the bus.

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