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Byw yng Ngymru

Ok, as far as I understand that title roughly translates to ‘to live in Wales’ and considering I have two Welsh exams this week, hopefully I’m right. For someone who has had a long history of picking up languages relatively quickly, Welsh has been a right pain to try and learn, but that’s not to say it hasn’t been interesting. But anyway, I digress. This is going to be the long awaited (if not long awaited by you, than long awaited by me- I have been procrastinating this one since I landed here in January) culture shock post. I feel like I’m in a strange place with culture at this point with having been in London then Wales and then spending a month in Europe back to London and Wales and then being slightly wary about the reverse culture shock that I’ll be facing when I return to the US.

Let’s talk about culture shall we? What is culture? Merriam Webster defines culture as ‘the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time’ and if you asked me to describe the culture of America a year ago, I would have paused, stuttered, and just generally choked on my words for 10 minutes trying to come up with an idea of what culture in the United States is. Skeptical? Try and think about American culture, can you think of anything outside of baseball, hot dogs, and bald eagles? If so, congrats because that’s pretty much all I could think of a while back. There are the obvious stereotypes that I had an idea about, but it really wasn’t until I got to the UK that I started to really be able to formulate an idea as to what the culture of America is. I think the first time that I really got a concept of the UK vision of American culture is when I found the American food section in the multicultural part of the grocery store. While it was strange to think of America as ‘foreign,’ it was slightly reassuring to know that I could get some of the ‘American staples’ here, even if the price left me cringing. It’s very interesting to think that my best understanding of my own culture couldn’t really be identified until I left the country. There are some not so great cultural stereotypes I’ve heard, but as a whole I’m still pretty proud to be American.

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This is what America comes down to apparently.

That whole idea also works in reverse. I came to England and Wales with my own preconceived concept of British culture put together by years of reading Harry Potter and watching British television. And while all the British TV that I’ve binge watched over the years has definitely helped me to adapt and understand life over here, it also definitely established some stereotypes that I’ve had to get over. There was also still a lot I had to learn.

Let’s start with the basics. Yes fish and chips are popular, and yes you can find them everywhere (also pretty tasty and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t like fish) but they also most often come from slightly sketchy looking take-away places where a slab of fish and a pile of chips are wrapped in a piece of paper. Probably one of the messiest meals I’ve eaten. Tea? Any time and any place. The royal family? Let’s just say there were people waiting outside the hospital for the royal baby weeks before it was born, and when it was, that’s all the news was talking about. And yes London is full of red phone booths and there are massive double decker red buses around every corner.

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did I tourist right?

But that’s not to say that’s what all of Britain is like; you really can’t compare London to anywhere but London. It’s obviously an English city, but I quickly learned that it is so much more than that. London is a totally unique place where it’s not rare to hear a new language every time you get in the elevator in the hotel. You quickly learn that you are a small part of a massive machine and you will be frowned upon if ever you cause a delay by forgetting to have your Oyster card ready to leave the tube station. The culture in London is totally different than the culture of England, and the culture of England is quite different than that of Wales.

The first, and most notable difference you will encounter in Wales is the new language. Don’t worry, you can survive just fine here with just English, but know that pretty much everything is presented in both English and Welsh. It’s slightly intimidating at first (especially since Welsh is a pretty confusing language to look at) but at this point seeing the combination of the two languages is something that I find very cool. It shows that Wales is comfortable accepting English as a language, but is also still persistent enough to maintain their own identity through their language. Welsh faced a bit of a crisis a while back, but after a few legislative changes instituting bilingualism in schools, the Welsh language is on the rise.

But even within Wales itself the culture changes between regions. Here in Cardiff everything is pretty consistently English and you don’t necessarily hear Welsh that often, but when you go to the north (as we did for Adventure Weekend in March) you get to see to see more of the traditional side of Wales. I heard more Welsh than English in some of the places and everything was a lot more traditional and industrial (as we were in a largely mining and natural area). However, one of the coolest things about Welsh culture that can be found throughout the country is the spread of castles and the history they bring. I may be in the biggest city in the country, but we still have a castle, just like the most northern and rural parts of the country.

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One of the many castles I have visited during my time here, and probably the most castle-y of them all.

Wales is an often-overlooked country full of incredible people and places that are incredibly welcoming. Not only I have seen some of the most amazing scenery I have ever encountered, I have also come across some of the most genuinely nice people I have ever met. Where some places I’ve visited have been slightly standoffish to foreigners, I have never encountered anything like that here. They all just want to share the love of all things Wales, from the daffodils to the dragons.

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The daffodil is the national symbol of Wales and one of my favorite parts of the day was walking through town and seeing the huge patches of wild daffodils lining the paths.

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Wales is very proud of their flag and the dragon is absolutely every where, which is pretty cool. If one of your national symbols is going to be an animal, it might as well be a dragon. The Khaleesi would be very fond of the Welsh flag.

It’s not just the national culture that I’ve had to adjust to however, school over here is a whole new concept entirely. I came in with an open mind but after four months, I’m very skeptical and slightly critical. Maybe it’s just because school is the last thing I want to be doing on this ‘vacation’ but I’m having a hard time finding positive things to say about the school system. Everything over here is a lot more self-motivated, meaning it’s not uncommon to have one lecture a week and a whole list of outside sources to use to conduct your own research. I find myself missing the structured schedule of more time in a lecture learning things from a professor. As exams are quickly approaching, I’m getting more and more nervous because of how nervous everyone else is. I’m nervous more because I don’t really know what to expect and based on everything I’ve received so far, slightly intimidated by the exam process in general. The exams are taken a lot more seriously here than back home, every exam is sort of like taking a standardized test in the states, which adds extra stress. I received a letter with not only my exam schedule, but also a list of rules and regulations for taking them.

It’s also worth noting that there is a big difference in the formalities of school here as well, especially as far as scheduling goes. Rather than all of the online scheduling I’m used to, we received physical timetables for each class which apparently aren’t as set in stone as I would have hoped. Let’s just say there has been many an occasion where a lecture has changed times without me receiving any kind of notice. I’d also just like to add something that is pretty pertinent to my fellow American college students; college students here are a lot more diligent in looking put together for class. Sorry guys, rolling out of bed and heading to class in your pajamas is definitely not a thing here.

But, while I have my complaints, that’s not to say that some of my classes here haven’t been some of my favorite classes ever. I’m in a class where I get to learn all about music and how it’s evolved. For our lectures we spend half the time just listening and discussing different songs and artists, which is so much fun. I also have a class where I get to learn all about television and how different aspects of the industry interact to create the programs that we see on tv, which also involves watching tv programs in our lectures. I’ve had to learn how to do course work for courses I’ve never been involved in (as a molecular biology student trying to write a journalism essay let me just say it hasn’t been easy) but it has been very educational.

I think one of my favorite cultural differences between Europe in general and the United States is the availability of public transport and the transportation options in general. In comparison, America is severely lacking and I don’t know what I’m going to do when I won’t be able to hop on a train and go to the other side of the country. London has by far the most convenient system of public transport. You can anywhere in the city with just the tap of your oyster card. Cheap flights to anywhere in Europe are readily available with a simple search online. In the UK, it’s pretty easy to find a cheap train one day and just explore a completely new city. For any other potential study abroad students I HIGHLY suggest investing in a young persons railcard. I got mine within a week of being in Cardiff and it has been 100% worth it. For 30 pounds you get a card that will get you discounts on all train travel in the UK, and it’s even going to save me money on my transport back to the airport when I go home. It paid for itself after my first 2 trips to London and since then has been saving me loads. Just yesterday I hopped on a train to a city in England called Gloucester where I got to see a cathedral that they’ve used to film Doctor Who, Sherlock, and even Harry Potter. We spent the day exploring the cathedral and the city and got back on the train to make it to Cardiff in time for dinner. The convenience and availability of travel options is something America seriously needs to get on board with.

My relationship with the concept of culture has done a complete 180 since my arrival to the United Kingdom. You don’t really anticipate a lot of the minor differences you’ll encounter (like when I asked a waitress for silverware and was answered by a long, blank stare; apparently it’s called cutlery here) so a lot of it is a take it as it comes kind of deal. You’ll learn to always keep a reusable grocery bag in your backpack to avoid the 5p bag charge, and that you’ll probably never understand all the rules to rugby, but you’ll also learn that you can get pretty much anything you miss from home here in some form or another, except for American pancakes (and yes there is a big difference), if you want real American pancakes you’re going to have to make them yourself.

My advice for avoiding the brunt of the culture shock you’ll face in any new country? Do your research. My research started with my British television addiction and if you want some suggestions on where to start with that feel free to let me know. But after the tv, the internet has everything you could ever ask for. You can plan out what you’re going to need and where to buy it with online shopping, you can read other blogs like mine for general tips, and you should research your school and country to try and understand what living there will be like. I ‘walked’ through Cardiff on Google maps before I arrived and made countless lists of where to go when I got here. I would consider myself someone who was extra diligent in researching, but I think any kind of basic research will help. The more you know beforehand, the less time you’ll have to spend learning it when you get there.

And now, a small list of some of the differences I have discovered (sorry most of these are food related):

  • A cookie is not a biscuit and a biscuit is not a cookie, but nonetheless biscuits are delicious
  • British Dominoes is not nearly as good as American Dominoes (and always order a size bigger- a large here is like an American medium, don’t even consider the small)
  • Floor numbers start at 0 here, so the first floor is up a flight of stairs (the first floor is the American second floor, very confusing)
  • Make sure you double check all times when booking travel tickets, 24 hour time is almost always used
  • If you go to a pub, always take note of the table number you’re sitting at because it’s very embarrassing to go up to the bar to order and then have to make the walk back to the table when you don’t know the number
  • Always carry a tote bag or a reusable grocery bag because the shops here usually charge for carrier bags

So far throughout my time here I’ve developed a very complicated relationship with culture. Just when I was becoming familiar with life in Wales, I was off on a three week gallivant through mainland Europe, where I was being bombarded with a different culture every three days. Culture shock in the United Kingdom is one thing, but being confronted with so many different cultures, in so many foreign languages, is a whole different story. I loved that trip, but it didn’t take long for me to become overwhelmed with culture shock. On that kind of time frame I just had to accept that I wasn’t really going to be able to assimilate to the culture and instead had to more or less observe it. But it did have me craving familiarity and the feeling of home, which at that time was London and Cardiff. I may still be a fish out of water in the United Kingdom, but here I feel more like I’m in a small cultural pond, as opposed to the feeling of being a small fish in an ocean of European culture.

Culture is a difficult thing to describe, especially when you haven’t been exposed to cultures outside of your home. I think you really start to get an understanding of culture and the interactions between them when you put yourself in a foreign place. I’ve learned about culture in seven different countries throughout the semester, but I’ve also learned more about my own culture in the past four months than I did in the 20 years that I lived there.

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