Prior towards embarking on my study abroad experience in London, I never realised the stark cultural difference that my southern, American-born identity would have in my perception of London. As I now sit in the comfort of my home, I am struck by how one’s identity can greatly impact their experience in another environment with its own culture, beliefs, norms, and ideas – well, at least, it greatly impacted mine.
As previously described in my first blog post, my identity as a “Christsian and a white middle-class American,” afforded me the advantages of living in a English-speaking country, like England, but there were a number of other advantages that I witnessed during my time there. Although I was not confronted with a language barrier, I was able to soak in the more than 250 languages spoken in England. From the curry hub of Brick Lane to the Afro-Carribbean influence on Brixton Village, London offered a variety of places for me to sample other cultures and other identities through diverse food options, markets and art galleries.
In addition to my advantage in having easy access to different cultures by speaking the same language, I also discovered the advantages of being a student; being young; and being tall. Now, I know this may seem to be a weird list of advantages whilst living abroad, but the advantage of being a student and being young allowed for me to welcomed more warmly into England – at least in my opinion. Instead of being left to fend for my own in a foreign country, I was granted the luxury of being a “student” and an “intern,” which not only came with discounts, but also with a certain “pass” from local Londoners. In my mind, locals are much nicer and willing to help someone – who is young and a student – than someone who is not; however that might just be the way of the London charm. However, I found that when many locals first spotted my American accent or noticed that I was a young, foreigner, they seemed understanding and more patient when I asked them for directions – which had numerous times because I learned that Google Maps is not always your friend – or for recommendations on where to eat nearby.
Despite needing an adjustment period of a month during my stay in London, I found that I was soon navigating the streets like a pro and even had “my favorite spots,” such as Dark Sugar’s hot chocolate in Brick Lane or Victoria and Albert’s National Art Library, that I would frequent. Even though I was accustomed to the city and environment of London, I was more than happy to still be an outsider to the culture and vibrancy of London. During my time interning for the women’s rights organization, Womankind Worldwide, I was able to get even a deeper understanding of the cultural differences between Brits and Americans. These differences were not disadvantages in any way, shape, or form, but rather, they allowed for me to now see the world through a different lens: through the eyes of a Brit. Throughout my time in class and at my internship, I learned how the British openly discuss all subjects, such as politics and religion, far more than I have ever witnessed in America. My fellow co-workers at Womankind were readily open to discuss topics, such as healthcare; whether it was over a cup of tea or at afterwork drinks. Although I was not accustomed to the ritual five or so cups of tea that each Brit has a day, I soon learned to love the comradery aspect of it all.
My staff at Womankind was filled with people from across the U.K. and even from Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Even though they each come from a different city or country, they each were avid practicers of the kind manners and offerings of a cup of tea or a chance to get to know one another during a drink after work. The simple act of tea seemed to unify each and everyone, despite their different identities. Our Programme Manager of Innovation and Partnerships and one of my favorite people at Womankind, had immigrated to London from Sri Lanka and I loved hearing about the different practices that her culture has. During the time I spent with her, I observed the struggles that immigrants or those away from their native country may face in such a large city like London, such as the disadvantage of being so far away from her mother and her immediate family or having to explain why she had to take off work for certain religious holidays. By spending more than twenty hours a week with my Womankind co-workers, I learned how even though we each have an identity or a characteristic that differs us from someone else, that a country’s traditions and customs can unify and join each person to realise the true light and fascination in each of our differences; as I did during my time in London.