Culture Shock Chronicles: UK Edition
What’s so different about studying in the United Kingdom?
Planning to join the more than 500,000 foreign students living in Britain right now? If so, you’ll be in good company, as the annual influx of expats to UK shores includes students from China, India, the United States and countless other countries. The UK is known for its first-rate, high-value education, listing 71 universities ranked by the prestigious Quacquarelli Symonds international organisation - including four of the top ten schools in the world.
If you’re a newcomer to the UK, you may be wondering what surprises are in store for you. According to American student Karina, it may feel a lot like home. “I was told multiple times that England is the America of Europe, and I felt that to be true in many senses,” she said. “The differences were subtle: More green spaces, less highways, smaller houses – less suburban sprawl in general. Most of the museums are free and therefore much more accessible and widely used. It felt to me that art and history were valued on a higher level than in the States.”
As for the people, forget what you’ve heard about British reserve. “People say the English are standoffish,” observed Karina, “but I found them to be lovely and warm.” Another revelation is that – contrary to stereotypes of strict British pedants – many UK professors are more lenient and forgiving as compared to other cultures. Unlike their counterparts in Delhi, Beijing or Taipei, British instructors tend to teach students without monitoring them. They may not even make a fuss if you skip class – your attendance is up to you. American students may be more comfortable with a less paternalistic educational style, but for kids from more conservative cultures, the absence of adult intervention may be the most unexpected part of UK education.
Living In London
But even before you adapt to your new life at a British “uni,” you’ll need to find a place to live! A great resource to learn about student housing rights and opportunities is the National Union of Students housing website. Housing is relatively easy to arrange in smaller uni towns like Northumbria and Durham. In London, however, finding affordable lodging takes work – and, often, a considerable amount of haggling, or as they British say “wangling”. Even the simplest accommodation, from private shared flats to university-held housing, can be very expensive, requiring students to use every possible avenue to secure a good spot.
How expensive is “expensive”? On average, it costs almost twice as much to live in London as it does in the rest of the UK. And, depending on what you’re accustomed to, you may be amazed by how little you are paying so much for. According to Todd, an American student from Maryland, “In London, everyone’s living space is much smaller than the castle-sized homes many American students grow up in, unless you're from New York. Then there’s another very funny thing to me: Appliances. They’re all tiny! Tiny stoves, refrigerators and other things… but don’t worry, you’ll get used to them, my personal favourite was my little electric kettle for tea.”
Yes, you will be drinking tea – or at least hanging around chatting while your British friends are drinking it. As seen in movies, books and BBC shows, tea remains ubiquitous in the UK, both as a beverage and a social routine. And you will learn to revel in it, as the locals do. Other British habits may be harder to adapt to, although UK cuisine has evolved far beyond its reputation for fish and chips and Yorkshire pudding. Most universities are in close proximity to thriving dining scenes, including affordable options ranging from burgers to curries to falafels and pizza. And you may be gratified by the diversity of menus catering to students. According to Ashley, an American student from Virginia, “Indian food is everywhere, like fries back home. It’s kind of silly to say, because I know that Chicken Tikka Masala is as British as it is Indian, but it’s odd at first to see curry options on menus of almost every other kind of fast food.”
When it comes to leisure time, the social life of a UK student may be more or less familiar depending on where you are from. If you’re from 24/7 cities like Los Angeles, New York or Tokyo, the early closing times of shops and clubs may seem conservative. But for students from Karachi, Chennai or even Kansas City, London may feel like a non-stop metropolis. Rest assured that the UK is truly multicultural in its population as well as its entertainment options, which means that it’s as easy to find a karaoke night as a cricket match.
A final note on language: However fluent you are in English, you may find yourself a little confused when adapting to the dialects of British English. You’ll encounter accents as diverse as the residents of this small but varied island – not to mention variants from Ireland and Scotland. Listen and learn and you’ll gradually grow accustomed to the version spoken at your uni or other place of higher education. And, no matter which accent and local slang you’re trying to learn, keep in mind the British sense of humour. On public transport or in public spaces, the custom is to speak quietly and little – but, when they do trade words, it is often to enjoy a kind of jovial sarcasm. So pause before you take offence at a barb from anyone: the speaker is likely joking!
In conclusion, much of the culture shock you may encounter in the UK will not be about the English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish people you meet. And it may not be as shocking as it is refreshing, enlightening or even comforting. As you will quickly discover, the “British people” encompasses people from every other country and culture on earth, including yours. As different as it may seem in the beginning, you are sure to find your footing – and your friends – in no time.
For more helpful advice related to studying abroad, check out our blogs.
About the Author: Julia Clinger is an American writer who has lived in Germany and Switzerland. She is currently an advertising copywriter in Boston, Massachusetts.