Culture Shock in London? Plus Awesome Video

The start of our journey
The start of our journey

I’ve lived all over the world. Four continents, five languages, three host families, a circumnavigation of the globe, and countless cultural blunders later, I find myself living in one of the biggest and most diverse cities on Earth.


Even in Puerto Natales, at the ends of the Americas, my students knew it immediately by name. Everyone knows the famous sights, the deep history, and the Tube. It’s among the most recognisable metropolises of all human civilisation, and has arguably been thus for at least a few hundred years.

I have to be honest….I never saw myself living here. For the first 23 years of my life, I was a country girl. A prairie girl. A nature girl. Living in Patagonia in 2011 was the pinnacle of this tendency, in the stark and dwarfing beauty of the perpetual twilight of an Antarctic winter was born an intense desire to live in the cold and the mud and the quiet above all else. I was viscerally terrified upon returning to Santiago after five months in the sticks. Buildings are so goddamned big. There are so many cars. Christ, it’s hot in the metro. Not to mention that no one was peeking out lace curtains to prevent thefts and other unmentionable gossip like they do in a town of 20,000.

Culturally, it seems as though it should be easier here. I mean, I speak English as my native tongue! I grew up in a WASP community, with heavy influence from Christian values and the long tradition of Anglo-American friendship ingrained deep into the history classes I loved so much in grammar and high school. I even had teachers from this country. To a certain extent, and perhaps more than in even the recent past, US cultural influence does appear to penetrate fairly deeply into the average lives of those living in London. There is just as much plastic Halloween crap in the grocery stores as in Colorado. The NFL is holding a ‘fan rally’ with ‘London’s Team’ the Jaguars (Side note: Who the hell chose the Jaguars as ‘London’s’ NFL Team? They are 0-7. Great way to promote your league, NFL).

Tower Bridge at Night!
Tower Bridge at Night!

People from the US have the tendency to decide that the whole world must be just like them culturally when travelling. Not all Statesians, but many. Haven’t you ever seen someone exclaim, “Why…do…you…not…speak…English?!” in a foreign country, or be miffed at their favourite foodstuffs not being available in the shops? I wrote at some length about my frustrations both in dealing with and being lumped in automatically with these people when I lived in Korea. Most Statesians are generous, kind, and adaptive travellers. But still they may fall into the trap of thinking that ‘British’ Culture and American are the same.

I can tell you, they are not. True, the cultural contrasts are far less confusing than those I experienced in Korea, but there are cultural contrasts nonetheless. I’ve only lived in London 42 days, but I’ve noticed some differences. They may seem subtle, but trust me that no one heaps disapproval if I break a taboo like the British. In the subtlety itself there is a certain power.

The weather is changeable here. I love sunshine, but it’s been unseasonably warm lately and hot as the Devil’s ass of the Tube. But it’s October. It might be chilly in the evening. Better bring a coat. Fair enough, I always bring a coat when leaving the house. But the strangest thing happens as everyone is descending into the pressure cooker at King’s Cross St. Pancras. No one. No. One. Removes their coat and carries it. Everyone stays buttoned up and just sweats to death, I assume (the lack of expression or glistening confuses my sweaty brain). I immediately remove my coat when the sun comes out, but it seems to be a cultural rule to just suffer through and avoid carrying one’s jacket. I’ve never seen such determination to dress for the season.

My boyfriend told me that queuing is a national passtime here, months ago when I was first planning to move to London. In my daily life, it seems to be an art form and a strict code of conduct. I break a queue taboo at least once a week, because I simply don’t know the rules, and get death eyes from all around. It’s especially interesting in a crowded metropolis like London, since in other highly-populated areas like Korea and India the queue ‘rule’ seems to be ‘Push first, never apologise, and watch out for older women who will knock your ass if you get in their way.’ I am adapting, however. The other day someone cut me in a queue and instead of saying something, I huffed appropriately until she got the unspoken message.

British sugar! British lettuce! British tyres! British cheese! British underpants! People take a serious amount of pride in buying locally-produced products. It’s helpful because there is always a tiny Union flag on the packaging, one of the few acceptable uses of the flag that doesn’t involve overly-pushy nationalism. This is a phenomenon that is only just catching on in foodtopia Boulder, and it’s across social classes and even ethnicities here in London. How does such a tiny island manage to produce so much? But seriously….teach me how to garden, Britain.

The London Eye and Westminster
The London Eye and Westminster

Statesians frequently (erroneously) refer to a British Accent when talking about the differences between how people talk here and in the US. There is no one accent here, and certainly not a single British one (come on, Americans. You know what a Scottish accent sounds like. That is nothing like the posh ‘British’ accents that you imagine most people have here.) Slang and spellings are predictably confusing, but the most interesting are the words that are spelled exactly the same and yet have different syllable stress. This can render familiar words near-unintelligible, like ADidas and conTROversy. My US accent sticks out like an elephant in a giraffe party here at times.

And yet, there is a huge diversity and languages are everywhere in London. It is a truly multicultural society, and even as everyone buys British sugar and underpants they keep some aspects of the cultures from which they came. I may try to keep a count of how many distinct languages I hear each commute for a week to give you all an idea, but my guess is that it’s in the 20s or 30s.  It’s amazing! This is a major difference from my area in the US, where you are lucky to hear two languages at most during a week. This is one of the aspects of London, along with its skyline, that makes it feel as though I am living in the future. London is ahead of the curve, globally.

I’m sure that more of the subtle cultural differences will come out in the coming months. It is a remarkable city to live in, even with an hour commute each way to class during the week. I was reminded of this on Monday, my 26th birthday, when we took the Thames Clipper from Canary Wharf to Embankment. It is the most amazing view of London at night that I’ve seen thus far, and just so much fun to be on the water instead of under the ground. You can even enjoy a beer while you travel. Here is a preview, but you should really see it for yourself!

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