Monday, 21 March 2011

What's it like to live in England?

Often it happens, as it did at the church women's afternoon tea I attended the other week, that in the process of meeting someone for the first time, it comes up that I lived in England. And the natural question is always, So what was it like?

Since it's hard to boil down four years into thirty seconds, I usually say something flippant like, "The pubs were nice," or "I learned a lot."

That I learned a lot is an understatement. In truth, living in England was a complete re-education. I'd go as for as to say that England was the unlearning of almost 80% of what America had spent 22 years working so hard to teach me, and America had laid it on thick.

The thing with England is that the differences between her and America are not just ornamental, like a preference for tea versus coffee. Although yes, we're all humans with the same basic needs and wants, and yes, we have the same shared heritage, the stories we are told about the world, about how to interact and about what to expect from life at times felt like polar opposites. It was the tension of living in this opposition that made daily life so stimulating, uncomfortable, eye-opening and precious.

And before I may go any further, I have to preface this by saying that what I'm describing is my America and my England, which could very well be different to other people's experiences in both places. But then again, this is my blog. :)

In the 1980s and 90s, America took the raw material of a naturally shy girl and told her, hey, you've got to get out of your shell if you're going to get anywhere in life. If you want to make friends, be friendly! Act excited! Use exclamation points liberally! Smile! It took awhile for me to get this, with much trial and error through high school and college, but by the time I left, I pretty much had it down. And armed with these helpful social tools, I bound off for England. Hey guys! What's going on?

But instead of greeting me with a big hug, smile or, heaven forbid, a high five, England looked at me, eyebrows raised, like I had mental problems. "Why do Americans always say have a nice day?" people would ask, honestly curious, as though this nice parting phrase needed rationalization. Or, "Why are Americans so fake and happy all the time?" I quickly learned that the very traits that Americans considered advantageous had the opposite effect on Britons. "Do you mind turning that enthusiasm down a notch? You're scaring the women and children."

At the turn of the millennium, through subtle comments and looks, England took a bold and idealistic woman and filed her down and chilled her out. It showed her that patience, contentment and holding her tongue were good complements to her natural activism, ambition and proclivity to speaking her mind.

America had told me to fake it till I make it, to act like I know what I'm doing at all times. England countered, You're confidence is making us slightly anxious.

America had said, I don't want to hear you complain until you've done something to change the situation. England looked at my proactivity and sighed.

America said, be direct, bold, forward. Say what you mean, don't beat around the bush. England insinuated, We prefer subtlety here.

America said, go big or go home. England said, I just might head home and put the kettle on then.

America said, how can I make your experience as comfortable as possible? England said, If you're cold put a jumper on.

America said, be inclusive. Talk to strangers. Try to make new people comfortable. Make small talk, make connections. England pleaded, Please just leave me alone. 

America said, put all your cards on the table as soon as possible. England said, Lay each down, one by one. Make them work for it. 

America said, cheer up, don't be so cynical. England said, Why are you in such a good mood?

America said, be perfect. Start your own business. Start a nonprofit. Be remarkable. Do it by the time you're thirty. England said, stop expecting so much out of yourself. Ambition isn't necessarily a great word.

America said, express your feelings, don't keep things bottled up. England said, Only if you absolutely must, and then only after a few drinks.

America said, less taxes and smaller government. England said, More taxes and bigger government.

America said socialism is evil. England said, capitalism is immoral.

It was all very confusing as you can imagine, like your dad telling you to do one thing and then your mum telling you to do the opposite. So many mixed messages, and on so many levels! But that is what living in England was like for me, aged 25-29, trying to figure life out in a completely different context to the one I'd been raised in. 

England was expecting one thing, getting another and then making constant adjustments and finding balance, and home, somewhere in the middle. It was learning to be content with less, to hang dry my clothes and handwash my dishes, without rinsing the suds. It was riding the bus instead of driving a car, learning that working out five times a week isn't normal and that trying to be perfect isn't worth it. England was feeling cold all winter, only going out to eat on special occasions, learning how to cook and bake, feeling like chocolate chip cookies were exotic, paying more than I'd ever paid on a lifestyle that was the simplest I've ever lived, constant awareness that I think differently, having so much annual vacation I had to think strategically to use it all, not worrying about health insurance, drinking a boatload of tea, drinking a boatload of coffee. England was starting a marriage. It was learning to be comfortable well and truly outside of my comfort zone.

England was an exercise in learning how not to be defensive all the time, as accidental ambassador for a country that is a catalyst for countless opinions.

So, that's what living in England was like, in a nutshell.

Whenever someone asks me, in addition to saying that I learned a lot, I also add that I wouldn't trade my experience there for anything. That I feel so blessed to have so many true friends across the pond, who helped me navigate my foreignness and loved me regardless, two of whom will be visiting us in just a few days!

And of course I say that, after four years, it's good to be home.

{Photo via etsy}


Jenny said...

i'm glad you're home too...and i'm glad England didn't beat ALL the american out of you.

i love your enthusiasm, your genuine care for others, your Alisha quirkiness.

you are an amazing woman!

and now when someone asks you about living in England you can give them this blog post!

Rachael Randal said...

You make me giggle :-)

Really enjoyed this, Alisha.

Rachael Randal said...

But what I want to know is where is Newcastle on your map?? ;-)

alisha said...

Seriously, where is Newcastle? The map was looking so good too. Rachael, did we tell you that on one American airlines in-flight map the whole country of NZ was left off? Get with it, mapmakers!

Rachael Randal said...

Shock horror! I don't even dare tell Mike that!

Shannon Young said...

This reminds me so much of the 6 months I spent in London. I kept thinking, "That's so true!" with each line of this post. I also have a British boyfriend and I hear these sorts of things from him all the time.

youareabully said...

Love it! You write so well. I would read a book you had written! Hope you guys are doing well, and that we can see you soon! xx

Ali said...

Say hello from me!!!!!

In fact one of these lovely people told me to read your blog, and yes, it's great!
Ali Ahmad xxxx

Katie Anderson said...

I love this! Can't wait for your book. x

amyrenee said...

Well, I can say that for all the turmoil -- you did acquire some pretty legit baking skills.

Kristen said...

loved this post, alisha!

alisha said...

Ali, so glad you stopped by! I will definitely say hi to T+K - can't wait to see them.

Amy, thanks for helping me hone my skills. We did get on a bit of a rampage I must admit.

Cupcake Crazy Gem said...

I love this so much! I am living in the Caribbean right now (I'm English) and working under an American boss...I would love to just email her your blog post right now! She's desperate for me to be just like her and be loud and outgoing and assertive and she considers the fact that I hold my tongue and don't speak my mind character flaws...but as you've so eloquently pointed out it's just not the English way!

alisha said...

Cupcake Crazy Gem, you should show this to your boss! We've got lots to learn from each other. :)

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed this post immensely, and found myself nodding "true true" in agreement to the comparisons. We are as our ways of life and our environment shape us. It is refreshing to read some who understands where the differences are coming from, and articulates it with insight and crispy humor.

Ben Niblett said...

Alisha, this is one of the best blog posts I've ever read. Loved it.

What's it like to live in Japan?

Chrissie said...

I love this - I just found your blog and have been having a little read! I feel as though I could write a post similar to this, just the reverse. My British extrovert suddenly found she was a US introvert. It was claiming my identity, learning a new language, and new social cues; people expecting me to just fit in, while at the same time always introducing me as "Chrissie, she's from England"

Ours are two countries who seem much more similar than they really are!

David Ross said...

Alisha - Thanks for your post. I lived in England for two years, in my twenties, and fell in love. Yes, it's possible to fall in love with a country. I had to come back to Boston for a job. I fell in love with an American woman in Boston and, after gaggles of trips over there, our daughter's at university there (London). My wife and I are ruminating about an English retirement - Sandwich, Kent? Rye, Sussex? By the way, universities in the UK are not a bad choice for some. Our daughter's doing very well.

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