I can still remember when I was back at Wheaton, just planning for my study abroad trip to the University of Sussex. I thought I had everything figured out. I always assumed that there would be no culture shock whatsoever, because really, out of every country in the world I could have studied abroad in, the only one where I could face less culture shock would be Canada. And while I still think that’s true, I didn’t realize that there would be some surprising differences. When I first got here, I started an ongoing document of the aspects of being abroad that were surprising. Now that I’ve been here for almost two months, I’m a bit more used to many of these, but I’ll still go through what I found most surprising.
First of all, the weather. Obviously, I’ve heard of Britain’s rainy reputation before, but I didn’t quite expect for the weather to be rainy all the time. In the US, we usually have sunny days and rainy days, with more sunny days than rainy days. I expected the UK to just have a slightly higher proportion of rainy days. But in the UK, every day has the potential to be a rainy day. It was worse when I first got here in the winter, the sun has started coming out more recently, but when I first got here, it was just kind of damp all the time. Even it didn’t rain that day, there would still be puddles and mud left over from the day before. There is usually moss and other plant life growing on the buildings, even the newer ones, because it’s always a little damp. This has one advantage though. The grass really is greener on the other side. Despite the near constant rain, it rarely downpours. I was curious, so I looked up the weather for Brighton and my hometown in Connecticut. In my town, it actually rains about 3-5 inches per month. But in Brighton, it only rains 2-3 inches per month. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but I guess it’s because it just usually drizzles instead of occasionally downpouring. But British weather isn’t just rainy; it’s also surprising. One day, when I went into the city to go grocery shopping, it went from sunny to rainy and then it was this strange hail/frozen rain combination. By the time I was done shopping, it was sunny again. But when I was about a two minute walk from my dorm, it started raining and then hailing again. By the time I got up to the first floor (that’s British speak for second floor), the hail had stopped and the sun was out again.
Something I didn’t take into account before leaving is that the stores would be different. On one of the first days, they took the international students on a shopping trip into Brighton. But as I looked at the list of places we were going, I didn’t recognize any of them. I mean, when in the US, if someone says that they’re going to Walmart, you know what type of store that is and know what to expect when it comes to products and pricing. Though there are a few stores here that are the same, it took a while to get used to what to expect in the British stores, like Primark and Asda. The food was also a bit surprising. They don’t usually carry the same food brands, so it took a while to get used to the new ones. The food itself is different as well. On one of the first nights here, I went to a campus pub and was looking for dinner. I was going to buy mozarella sticks, but I saw that the sauce options were rather strange. So I asked the woman behind the counter if they had marinara sauce, and she looked at me like I had three heads. Apparently, they don’t serve tomato sauce with their mozzarella sticks. I also looked high and low for mac and cheese since I got here. They don’t sell boxes of pasta that come with cheese powder like in the US. I ended up ordering a six pack of Kraft Mac and Cheese on Amazon. Worth it. However, there are some familiar names, like Tropicana and Twix. One day, I got a bag of Starbursts. I’ve always preferred the original flavors (cherry, strawberry, orange, and lemon), so I made sure the bag I grabbed said original. However, once I started eating them, I realized some of them were rather different. Their original flavors are strawberry, orange, lime, and blackcurrant. I’m still not exactly sure what blackcurrant is, but I’ve seen that flavor a few times here since then. But even the strawberry and orange were flavored differently. It’s like here, they actually care if the artificial flavor resembles the actual fruit flavor. In the US, real orange and artificial orange taste nothing alike, but here, though it’s not a perfect replica, they clearly put the effort in to make them taste similar. One difference I found pleasantly surprising was the chocolate. It tastes different from American chocolate, but it’s richer. And sweeter. And I love it.
This was something I heard about before I came, but I didn’t quite believe because it seemed too ridiculous, but it’s true. There are palm trees here. All over Brighton, there are just a bunch of palm trees. There are even some in the outer parts of London. I’m still very confused about this. They’re definitely not native. Where did they come from? Who brought them? Why aren’t they dead? Assuming they keep dying, because there’s no way a palm tree could survive for a long time in British weather, who keeps replacing them? Who decided to put palm trees in Brighton? It’s not tropical here, why would anyone want to buy a palm tree for their yard? But despite the palm trees, Britain is not a tropical island. Yet, in their stores, they have so much orange juice. I didn’t expect that. In the US, it makes sense, because we have Florida and California to supply oranges. But Britain obviously has to import all of them. And, even in their tiny grocery stores, they usually have an entire section of shelves dedicated to orange juice. I guess it’s really popular here. But despite the popularity of orange juice, they don’t have a word for pulp. So you either buy “Orange Juice with Juicy Bits” or “Orange Juice with No Juicy Bits.” I still can’t take the words “juicy bits” seriously.
School is also rather different. The way classes are taught here is a bit strange. For one, at least in the math and science classes I’m in, there are no textbooks. There are the lecture notes posted online, and that’s about it. This is pretty nice, because textbooks are expensive, but also a bit confusing, because sometimes the lecture notes don’t explain things well. The classes are also structured differently. At Wheaton, a typical math class will have one assignment due per week, with about 10-20 questions on the homework. Here, there are only four assignments for a class for the entire semester, and they usually only have 4-6 questions. Only one of my classes have a midterm, the rest only have finals. But the midterm was different as well. Usually at Wheaton, exams don’t focus so much on just memorization, they usually focus more on application and critical understanding. Basically, exams at Wheaton are hard, really make you think, and force you to understand the material. On the midterm I just had (for differential equations), it was so straight forward. There was not much involving critical thinking. It was just 6 questions of “solve this equation” or “do this limit.” There were no tricks and no surprises. Especially seeing as the exam was almost identical to the midterms from previous years, posted to the class webpage. The number were changed, but the exact same sort of question showed up, usually in the same order, on all three exams. It’s not just the class structure that’s different, sometimes even the subject matter itself is different. According to Cady from Mean Girls, math is the same in every language. Well, that’s apparently not true. Obviously, mathematical principles are going to stay the same, but what they’re called or how they’re notated can change. For example, a matrix here has curvy brackets instead of square ones. Or that absolute value is called modulus (which has a different meaning in the US). I have to say, the first few days of class were a little confusing.
When I first got here, all of these things were very strange. Still not so much of a cultural shock, but it felt like walking into a parallel universe where everything is only slightly different. Just enough to make it weird, but not enough to be shocking. Over time, it became easy to adapt and figure out how things work here. I’m still not completely sure all of the time, but these things which once seemed so strange are now just normal parts of life. Except for the palm trees. I still don’t understand those, and I’m not sure I ever will.