“If you want to show your English friends that you’re trying to embrace the culture, here’s what you do…”
The speaker at international students’ orientation pauses for dramatic effect. We lean forward and she says:
“Have a drink in your hand.”
When I moved to England, I wanted to acclimate to the culture. Looking back, I now know that a country’s culture is a moving target.
Take America for example. Does embracing the American culture mean attending a megachurch? Is it gorging on clam chowder and dabbling in Salem’s witchcraft? Is it hunting alligators in the everglades? Or slurping down bulletproof coffee on your powerwalk through Wynwood?
A country is too multidimensional to reduce to a regional meal or religion.
But I didn’t know that when I first moved to England. Upon my arrival, it didn’t take long for me to equate English culture to one thing: drinking.
And who could blame me? My professor brought champagne to our 9 am seminar. My colleagues spoke openly about getting smashed the previous night. My friends would meet their pastors for a pint. The Christian Society would go clubbing.
It’s like Prohibition never happened (because, you know, it hadn’t).
I wanted the English to embrace me. So I threw myself into the drinking culture.
It didn’t work.
I remember standing outside a club with my friend while she listed all the people she was close to at uni. She ended with:
“Rachel, you’re different because you’re American so there’s only so close I can get to you.”
I didn’t know my nationality could be a barrier to a close friendship.
But still, my mission to fit in didn’t stop there. I craved a sense of belonging. I sought it everywhere I could. In a shared laugh with a crude person. In venturing to a burlesque show. In pleasing anyone I could.
It cost me my religious convictions. It cost my emotional well-being. It even cost some friendships. Turns out, striving to be like the cool kids can sometimes mean selling your soul. Whether or not you’re in England.
Eventually, I did make close, genuine friendships with English people. I did adapt to the culture. But it wasn’t by people-pleasing. It was by being the kind of person who has you over for Yorkshire tea and strives to serve you a proper dessert (warm up the Ambrosia Devon Custard and flood it over apple pie).
It was by being a genuine person.
Living in England taught me to not fixate on blending into the culture, especially the drinking culture. But it also taught me a more important thing:
Don’t compromise your convictions to make someone like you.
And yes, I have to remind myself of this on a daily basis.
I left England feeling a sense of belonging. I miss it every morning, every afternoon, and every evening. I miss my friends. They feel like they’re an ocean away (because, you know, they are).
But now, living in Florida, I have this lesson in my heart. And I am forever grateful to England for it.
Photo Credit: Nicole Ponder