As I was talking with a new American acquaintance the other day, an alarm bell went off in my head, and I suddenly saw myself from the outside, talking earnestly about “them” and what “they always do.” I felt a little ashamed– I had never meant to talk about British people in those terms. I don’t want to be that outsider, making judgements on the culture I am living in. But I couldn’t help it. It all started with this fellow American I had met telling me how much she enjoyed getting around on her bicycle. I agreed, and said that I loved walking everywhere, even if it was a hassle sometimes. She nodded. But then… I asked the question: “How do other pedestrians treat you?” And this is where it all started. We went back and forth– they are so rude! They won’t even look at me! They see me coming and move to the other sidewalk. What is wrong with them? They never smile. They won’t say hello…. She told me that her neighbors run inside their houses whenever she or her husband come near. We had neighbors like that, briefly, when we were waiting to move into our home. I am so glad we moved. But even though our neighbors on either side are nice enough, friendly even, I shared her experience.
Here are some scenarios that crystallize what I am struggling with here.
- I cross paths with the same woman at least twice a day– she takes her child to the same school at the same time as me every day. I have run into her in town as well, and so I smile at her and say hello. She glares at me each time. Every day. Sometimes twice a day.
- Another lady I see often at school was wearing a cute dress the other day. I hollered cheerily across the (narrow) street that I liked her dress. She looked confused, so I repeated the compliment. She responded by scowling and walking away faster.
- The other day, I was walking Amelia to school, and another parent and his two children (one is Amelia’s classmate) arrived at a crosswalk at the same time as us. I was thinking I might introduce myself, since he was familiar and our kids are nearly friends. But he turned his back to me the whole time, never even allowing the possibility of making eye contact. The children didn’t return Amelia’s greetings, either.
- I smile at people on the street as I’m walking. The elderly often return the favor, but most people scowl at me, or, as I mentioned earlier, cross over to the other side of the street when they see this crazy cheerful lady coming. The only exception is when I am completely drenched in the rain, lugging an over-full marketing trolley through puddles. This inspires good humor, apparently. Misery loves company. But happiness? Not so much.
So, in a few months we’re coming up on our one-year anniversary of living in England, and I am feeling much less comfortable here than I had expected. I have yet to get a drink with a girlfriend, go to the movies, or be invited to a party. No one at Amelia’s school has ever invited her over to their house to play, although we have had a couple children over at our house. Thankfully, she has been to two birthday parties so far, and kids do like her.
It’s not just about feeling alienated, though. I understand that I’m an outsider, and I’m getting used to it. It’s the feelings of WHAT IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE that for me signal real culture shock. The fact is, I am the one with the problem, not them. This is how it is here– people are reserved, buttoned up, cautious when it comes to strangers. I am the weirdo walking down the street trying to catch peoples’ eyes and somehow make a connection where apparently there is none. And so, the question is, do I assimilate? Do I avert my eyes?… Scowl? I can’t. To me, it feels sad. But that’s just me, and I have to realize that when I think in terms of them and they, it is a cultural disconnect, and I am the one that needs to deal.
And this is the part where I’m going to be honest– and it won’t be very flattering, I’m afraid. At this point, I do want to scowl. I want to frown fiercely at every parent at my kid’s school that has acted like they couldn’t see the smiling (lonely!) foreigner. I want to tell that lady that her dress wasn’t really that cute anyway– I was just trying to be friendly! I want to confront the people who cross the street when they see me coming, force them to make eye contact with me for a moment. I believe that being human is enough to find in common with just about anyone I meet– that I can have a meaningful connection with any person, if I look for it. And these days, I want to just stay in my house because I’m often mad at the people around me, for not relating to me in a way that I understand. This is culture shock, and I hate that I have no immunity to it.
Now that I have established that I am the one with the problem here, what helps? Well, talking with people does. I don’t want to talk about it too much with other expats, because after getting the benefit of knowing that I’m not alone and it’s not personal, I don’t want to dwell, or slip into a mode of complaining about or badmouthing the culture I’ve chosen to live in. But do you know what really is helpful? Talking to British people about it. There’s something about just telling someone I trust, “I don’t understand this, and it’s hard for me.” I have spoken with three Brits about this issue, and each time it has helped me.
- I told my butcher and his wife about the lady who looked offended by the compliment about her dress. I was shocked to hear him say, “She probably thought you were being sarcastic.” Whaaat? Why would a stranger say something mean like that?! It made me laugh, and I felt kind of sorry that anyone could think I’d go through the effort to insult a neighbor like that. He also told me that people probably really think I’m weird for walking around and smiling at them. OK, it’s not personal. I am the one not following social norms here. Will I stop smiling? No– it’s part of both my American and Filipino culture. But I can have more understanding that I may be making people a little uneasy. I can deal with that.
- A woman I had recently met asked me plainly what the most difficult thing is about living in England. I made sure she really wanted to know before I told her about the scenarios I had mentioned above. She acknowledged that it sounded normal, but she could see how hard that might be for a newcomer. She said that, when she’s in the village where she lives, she says hello, smiles and greets people. “But when I come to town here, I am going about my business, and never look to see who is around me, say hello or make eye contact. It’s just not something I do in the city.” This was eye-opening for me. (And I might need to move to a village.) It was very healing to hear her add, “I suppose that doesn’t make you want to keep living here, though, does it? That would be difficult.” Indeed.
- Last week, I was surprised that a mom at school approached me as I was heading home from drop off, to tell me something really nice about Amelia. We continued to chat a bit, and walked toward our homes together (a first!) She told me she had moved here seven years ago, and no one at school was friendly, and that she was afraid I was going to think she was weird for wanting to talk to me about my daughter. I shared (a tiny bit) about my experiences in this regard, and she just shook her head. “No one has any idea what it’s like to be new to this town. They’ve all grown up here, and just don’t know what to do with someone they don’t recognize. It’s terrible.” I wanted to hug her! To hear that another person was having the same struggle in her own culture was somehow a huge relief.
These interactions really were informative, and having these “inside” insights helps. But is it enough? I have been thinking about this every day. How long am I willing to try? Do I want to live like this, really? Jeff and I get to choose to some degree where we live. It’s hard for me to imagine flourishing long-term in such a reserved social climate. Even as a fairly shy introvert, it seems impossible– people and relationships, making connections is so important to me. And, this is only one aspect of the culture that I’m struggling with at the moment.
What do you think? Have you had to make peace with living in a culture that seemed incompatible with who you are? This, of course can happen in your own country, as well! I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.