Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I guess I'm Not British Yet - Culture Shock in England (From A Canadian, With Love)

Did you know the British don't tip?

I know. I didn't either.

Apparently, tipping is an "American thing."

Speaking of - did you know the British think I'm American?

If I could count how many people have asked me whether I was American the minute they heard my accent, I'd have the money to pay for next year's tuition. True story.

So. About this tipping business.

A few weeks ago, after an evening on Broad Street, I hopped into one of the cabs (which, let me tell you, are pretty shady in this country) patrolling the area, and directed him to my residence. Upon arrival, I handed him my cash and waited for my change. He gave me 5 pounds in return, and ruefully, playing the part of the cheap student, I handed him 3 pounds.

I felt horrible. I felt cheap. I thought I should be tipping more. Back home, we pull out our Tip Calculators like it's second nature. When I told my British flatmates that we usually tip 10-15% of the bill back home, they looked at me like I grew a second head. But, that's the thing. Back home, we tip because it's social convention. Because it's rude not to.

"Keep the change," I told my cab driver apologetically, "It's not much, but enjoy the tip!"

Cab Driver looked at me in surprise, chuckled, then pocketed my 3 pounds, shaking his head.

I thought he shook his head in disapproval. You know, cheap student. Ergo, lack of common courtesy. Ergo, measly tip. I hung my head in shame.

No. Sit down, Barb. He was chuckling at your naiveté.

And so, there I was, a naive Canadian tipping EVERYWHERE. For TWO weeks. Because I didn't know any better. The hair salon, bartenders, cab drivers, restaurants - you name it. I was a freaking tipping machine. I think I tipped the hair salon 5 pounds - even though I hated my haircut and thought it looked like someone sawed my hair off. Oh, my beloved hair. They ruthlessly chopped off three inches. It broke my heart.

No wonder every country in the universe thinks Canadians are nice.

Please. Sit down. Sometimes, we're just suckers.

Because, well. It wasn't until a few weeks after my arrival I was told that shocking truth: Barb, they don't tip in England. Here, tipping bartenders is an oddity. Here, tipping cab drivers is just weird.

Oh, god. My cab driver probably thought I was hitting on him.

*face palm*

I never anticipated how much culture shock I'd experience when I arrived. What can I say? I'm naive. Pre-law school Barb thought: they speak English here. Of course their culture is similar. But it isn't. Boy, is it different. Those shocks of difference reverberated, echoed my first few weeks here.

Mind you, in many ways, the culture is very similar. Birmingham and London remind me of Toronto in many ways - the city's hustle and bustle, the quiet busyness, the individualism - these characteristics are what you can expect with any big city, I suppose.

But in other ways, I've had to adjust to a lot.

Like, did you know British eggs don't turn yellow here? I spent half an hour trying to fry eggs on high heat a few weeks ago, wondering why, pray tell, my eggs stayed completely white. They wouldn't turn their familiar bright yellow. Because apparently, they have different chickens here.

Different chickens.

DIFFERENT chickens. That produce white eggs apparently.

Their white sugar is different. They have two-ring binders instead of three-ring. Ergo, they use foreign two-ring hole punches instead of three role punches (this REALLY got to me, I tell you). They get on the bus on the OTHER side of the vehicle (obviously, I knew this coming here, but it still trips me out how opposite the roads are). And did I mention that I still don't know how to cross the street in this country? I never know where to look. Let me tell you, I've had a number of close calls with oncoming vehicles in the last month. Especially since a number of roads dictate that pedestrians don't have the right of way.

I know these seem like little things. And that I'm complaining over nothing.

Stop being such a baby, Barb.

But when you move to another country, all by yourself, where you know absolutely nobody - it's those little things, those little shocks of difference that get to you. When your eggs don't turn yellow, when you have to buy a brand spankin' new foreign two-hole punch, when you make do with foreign sugar, when your milk tastes funny and saturated and weird, when your wallet's bursting full of funny looking coins, when you get on the opposite side of a bus.... when everything just suddenly feels different.

So different that it scares you.

When everything just feels so peculiar - so foreign, so unlike home. That's when the homesickness hits you. And that's when the truth really dawns on you: that you're halfway around the world, across a major ocean, away from your family, your friends, your boyfriend, and everyone you love. You're in Europe. A brand new country. Starting life over.

That's when culture shock electrifies you.

I admit - the first week here, I was scared. I didn't know how to adjust. Every shred of independence I had in me risked decapitation. Everything was different - I was homesick.

But, you know what? Despite the shocks - I think the true test of growing up comes from being able to adjust to new circumstances. And I think I'm doing just that. Learning, Settling. Adjusting. England is amazing - and it would be a shame to hide in my own comfort and risk losing the opportunity to learn everything about it.

A month after moving here, I think I've settled in. I've gotten used to the differences and quirks this wonderful country has to offer. I've gotten used to the milk. But, mind you, I haven't been eating eggs.

At first, the culture shock threw me off. It made me miss my security, my comfort, my home. I missed everything I've known my whole life - my neighbourhood, my car, my trusty fried yellow eggs.

But, after spending the past month shaking off the shocks, I've realized that living in England isn't something I should be so afraid of - how many people get this opportunity in their lifetime? To live in Europe? To experience something more than the comforts of home?

This is an opportunity. Not something to be apprehensive about. The differences in culture might be unsettling at first - but it's an opportunity to learn about a whole new world, a whole new country that can give us life experiences which set us apart from people back home. Life experiences that change us, helps us grow up, and toy with that thing called independence.

I live in Europe now. OMG. I live in EUROPE now. Isn't that a wonderful thing? It's amazing. If there's one thing I've learn so far, it's this: we should embrace the shocks and learn about them, yea? Adjust to them, integrate ourselves, learn as much as we can! Exhibit A: my first mission is to learn why my darn eggs won't turn yellow.

So, in essence, I'm not British yet. But I'm learning to live with and embrace British culture, British quirks, British slang, British sayings. I'm not quite there yet - but I'm adjusting. And I'm ready to learn everything this wonderful new world has to offer.

"Ask most people what they want out of life and the answer is simple – to be happy. Maybe it’s this expectation, though, the wanting to be happy that just keeps us from ever getting there. Maybe the more we try and will ourselves to states of bliss, the more confused we get to the point where we don’t recognize ourselves. Instead, we just keep smiling trying to be the happy people we wish we were until, eventually, it hits us. It’s been there all along. Not in our dreams or hopes, but in the known, the comfortable, the familiar."
- Grey's Anatomy

"Every cell in the human body regenerates on average every seven years. Like snakes, in our own way we shed our skin. Biologically, we're brand new people. We may look the same - we probably do. The change isn't visible, at least in most of us. But, still, we're all changed - completely, forever."
- Grey's Anatomy

"These are my words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create that fact."
- William James

"You don't have to be a 'person of influence' to be influential. In fact, the most influential people in my life are probably not even aware of the things they've taught me."
- Scott Adams

1 comment:

  1. Before you know it, two years will fly by so fast and you're going to miss those chickens. Those DIFFERENT chickens... that produce white eggs (which you should still eat, btw).

    The no tipping policy is pretty neat though, hopefully you can save a couple of $ here and there. Make sure you don't bring that policy back to Canada though ;D