As of now, I have traveled to Pakistan, India, Jordan, Wales and London (and Canada, if that counts). Surprisingly, the place where I experienced the most culture shock was London. I have grown up in a Pakistani household so being well accustomed with South Asian culture definitely came in handy when I traveled to northern India and even when I went to Jordan, a predominantly Muslim country. I traveled to London with the mindset that it is fairly similar to the United States but I guess this expectation was flipped when I was faced with all the major and minor differences. The following is a list of things that stood out to me:
You can’t begin to understand the feeling of people speaking the same language as you but with an entirely different sound and colloquial usage until you visit another place and communicate with the locals. Don’t get me wrong, I think British English is great (I might have even tried using a couple “blokes” and “innits” in discussion) but it definitely made me feel like a foreigner. It’s ironic though, because British English is indeed the original form of English from which American English is derived. Although the same language was spoken, there was nevertheless, a foreign element present when others spoke.
Driving on the left side
I know – this is one of the most commonly stated features of London that many, especially travelers from America, point out. However, when I would cross the street I always found myself looking to the left for oncoming traffic when my cousin, bless her, would tug at my sleeve reminding me that traffic is coming from the opposite direction.
This is something I had no idea about. Instead of saying “carryout” or “to-go” people in the UK say “take away”, which is still the same thing. One day, my cousin, her husband and I were eating fish ‘n’ chips (cue eye roll) when I told my cousin I’ll go get us a carryout box. Her husband told me it’s called “take away” so out of curiosity, I said I would ask for a carryout box anyway and see if the restaurant staff could understand me. I did just that, and the girl behind the counter paused for a few seconds and asked with a puzzled look, “You want to take away?” I was amused.
Now, I’m not sure if this applicable to all of the traffic lights but it is definitely something that I saw often. When a traffic light is red, for a brief second it turns yellow in between before turning green. After I made sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me, I asked my cousin’s husband why it does that and he said it prepares the driver to press the gas pedal. It was something I hadn’t seen before but it was kind of cool.
There are about 8.7 million people living in London, which is a big number for a city that covers 607 square miles. Generally, the infrastructure of the city is vertical with its double decker buses, tall and clustered residence buildings, and especially the parking garages. I don’t think I saw one decent sized parking lot during my entire stay. In fact, on my first day in London we drove to a food market where we parked on the second level of a parking garage. Even on two-way streets, there were cars parked along both sides of the road so there was only enough room for one car to drive. Drivers took turns weaving in and out of empty parking spots to let one another pass. The roads themselves are much narrower and space is unquestionably conserved as much as possible.
With some time, I’m sure these things would be easily overlooked. In fact, by the end of my trip I was getting the hang of left-hand driving and when I returned to Chicago I was suddenly thrown back into the flow of driving on the right side. It was more because of the knowledge of being in another Western country that was organized differently than the US, the only Western country I am familiar with, that I experienced culture shock. All things combined, I am glad that these differences contributed to my very first London experience.