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Cultural Insight into London

Submitted by on 12 Jul 2012 – 11:33

LondonBy Natalie Cainaru, Editorial Researcher, Government Gazette

“Expect the unexpected”. Thanks to Japan, this statement is my motto here in London. Admittedly, it is quite difficult for me to discuss my cultural experiences here in London without drawing in some of my experiences with Japanese culture. Ever since my 10-month visit to Japan, I have tried to live by my little statement whilst in London because my experience in Japan proved that one can never really hold cultural expectations before embarking on such a lovely yet unpredictable journey, or else one will certainly be hit with a hard dose of culture-shock when dealing with cultural experiences.

I certainly expected the culture to be much more reserved. Admittedly, some of the questions I encountered before my arrival left me feeling as though people in London would never crack a smile or would be very cold. Likewise, my former boyfriend who studied in my university’s London Programme nearly a year ago summarized his trials and tribulations of living in London – ‘the people are very reserved, much more so than Americans… and, being an American, it is very difficult to meet Londoners, even in club or bar settings’. Additionally, we were all warned during orientation that we might not be able to judge whether or not our host families actually like us, but that they actually do. It is just that our host families are quite reserved.

For me, ‘reservedness’ is not quite a foreign experience for me since I adapted to a very similar experience whilst in Japan. Perhaps it was the Japan experience which helped prepare me for my second encounter with a ‘reserved’ culture. Regardless, I actually find the ‘reserved’ culture here to be very warm, welcoming and even comforting. Just about everywhere in London I have encountered nothing but friendly, smiling people who will even sometimes randomly make conversation. My host family has been very friendly and welcoming as well – our family dinners are always quite entertaining!

Although I do not think the culture is anywhere near as ‘reserved’ as some might describe, there are some interesting key differences regarding ‘reservedness’ that some might find difficult to understand. One difference that some of my London Programme classmates found difficult to understand is the significance of the weather as a means of a conversational ice-breaker. In our mandatory ‘Encountering London’ class, we read the ‘Weather’ chapter of Watching the English and were quizzed on the weather and its significance in conversation. Some of my classmates found this to be quite different because it is a much more indirect mode of starting a conversation; in American culture conversation is much more direct to the point. My experience in Japan may have again prepared me for this as the weather is just as significant in Japanese conversation as it is here but I did not find this difference to be daunting.

London is certainly a quilt work of world cultures, which is something not nearly as common in the United States. For the United States, the term ‘melting pot’ is very true because most Americans whose families have lived in the U.S. for multiple generations have managed to lose the concept of one’s family’s cultural identity, usually taking up a generalized identity as a result. As one might be able to tell by my last name, I’m Romanian. My father’s side of the family is half Romanian and half Ukrainian and came to the U.S. in the 1950s. Unfortunately, there is not a large population of Romanians in the U.S., let alone in my hometown of Buffalo, NY. This has made it difficult for someone like me who might be interested in understanding more about one’s cultural roots.

Here in London I have found a little bit of Romanian culture amongst the hundreds of other world cultures. My father’s Romanian cousin lives in London with her husband and her daughter. Compared to what we have in Buffalo, that’s more than enough exposure to my cultural roots than I could have dreamt of. However, I have learned through my cousin and my own research that there are Romanian shops, restaurants, grocers, etc. in various parts of London. That was certainly something I did not expect.

Surprisingly, London is different than Japan when it comes to any sort of ‘social hierarchy’. In Japan, there is a strong sense of social hierarchy when it comes to parent-child, professor-student, employer-employee, and similar interactions. In a sense, those interactions are very ‘vertical’ in Japan. Here in London, I have noticed those interactions appear much more ‘horizontal’ in the sense that, despite parent-child, both can interact on similar levels with each other. Contrary to Japan however, there does seem to be a social hierarchy when it comes to social classes in London. In Japan, most people would consider themselves ‘middle class’ no matter the occupation or income. However, here social classes exist linked to occupation and permeate down to speech and style. I had not picked up on this until we were told to observe differences in such things after we read a few chapters of Watching the English. Never would I have expected there to be such a cultural difference in saying ‘pardon’ versus ‘sorry’. This also differs from social classes in the United States, which mainly exist in terms of one’s income regardless of speech, style or occupation.

These numerous cultural experiences have helped to shape an intriguing perspective on London but these are simply my own experiences, which may sharply differ from the experiences of my peers in my university’s London Programme. Just like myself, I am sure my peers have faced unexpected experiences that may have created new insight or challenged old expectations. Regardless, I can definitely say that my cultural experiences with London have been extremely positive, perhaps a little too positive because now I’m not sure if I want to return home! I guess that comes with the territory though, when you go in expecting the unexpected.