Stretch before running


If you don’t see me around your blogs the next few days (maybe a week), it’s ’cause I got a crapload going on right now.  I’ll post more on it tomorrow.  For today, here’s my contribution to Julie’s Hump Day Hmm.  Go on over and read the other posts about moving outside comfort zones.


            We hated living in London.  While neither of us is quite ready to live in the suburbs, London was just too big, too busy, and too damned English for us.  There was no end to the noise and the stimuli, which assaulted me unbidden even as I slept.  But, even though I never left my house without seeing people, even though there were dog-walkers and stroller-pushers everywhere, even though I was privy to cell-phone conversations that drunken strangers had at three in the morning outside my window, I felt isolated.  People rarely said “hello” unless they knew me.   Passerbys avoided eye-contact.  And those dog-walkers?  I had to tackle them to get them to stop and let my kids pet their dogs, even with Benjamin screaming “DOG!” at the top of his lungs.

            We had a few friends beyond the Americans we knew before moving.  The French people we met were welcoming, and despite the language barrier, we managed to get along quite well.  A few families on our street became friends, including my sons’ beloved James and his parents, but they don’t really count because his mother is Welsh and his father is in the film industry.  For the most part, however, the English people we met seemed to wonder why in the world I was talking to them.

            In the U.S., it is rude to ignore people.  I have been trained up to believe I should offer to help, say “hello,” smile and nod, or strike up a conversation.  In English culture, it is rude to draw attention to the other person’s existence.  It is an invasion of privacy to start talking to another person at a bus stop.  A woman’s decision to take her dog for a walk is not an invitation for me to pet it.

            This principle extends to arenas that a wacky American like me takes for granted.  On a crowded Tube train, no one so much as looks up at the eight-months-pregnant blimp that has just stepped on board.  She stands unless there is a non-English person around to offer her a seat.  Try getting away with that kind of behavior in Philadelphia.

            London shoved us kicking and screaming from our comfort zone.  We did not know which stores sold what, we had to navigate a foreign health-care system, and the vegetables all go by different names.  We made few friends, certainly an unusual occurrence for me.  And we had to learn to continue life in semi-darkness for half of the year.  It was, in a word, uncomfortable. 

            Moving to another country is not all about double-decker busses and quaint accents.  It is about learning the subtleties of cultural expectations.  It is about learning to read unspoken signs.  It is about learning that everything from children’s birthday parties to how to start a business meeting to when to put a child to sleep is culturally constructed.  This kind of learning is difficult and always incomplete to those who grew up elsewhere.  And, it leaves ugly stretch marks.

            But, it is learning, and it is ultimately beneficial, much like calculus, I suppose.  While I failed miserably to learn anything about math my senior year of high school, I did grow and change in London.  I came to identify myself as a writer.  I learned a lot about questioning cultural parenting norms.  I got better at reading between the lines.  And I learned there are lots of wonderful things about the United States.

            It is fashionable to malign the U.S., especially if you were born and bred here but are of a somewhat left-leaning tendency.  One of the things I learned was to appreciate my country and my compatriots, even as I remain skeptical about things like government, ethnocentrism, Bratz.  The U.S. has its issues, and then some, but that does not make it all bad.  Believe it or not, it took living outside of the U.S. for me to recognize that fact.

            I left my comfort zone and found out a lot about myself.  Now, having returned, I find myself changed, socially, politically, and linguistically.  When someone asks how I am, I answer, “Well, and you?” and when someone wishes me a nice day, my answer is “And the same to you.”  This is not just about new linguistic patterns.  I have come to appreciate the social courtesies of another culture.

            If, however, you see my giant pregnant self standing up on a subway anytime soon, I would appreciate your seat.

18 responses to “Stretch before running

  1. Delightful post!! I love to visit London, and my husband lived there for a year when he was younger, working for a member of Parliment. But I suppose an extended stay would reveal things underlying the obvious charms.

    Have a good bloggy break!

  2. I’ve always wanted to live abroad, just to get that kind of perspective. Thanks for sharing yours.

  3. Traveling outside the US has definitely helped me appreciate my home a lot more. I have been on five continents, seen amazing wonders, and yet I have come to love the United States for so many things that those places don’t have. Our freedom seems to make the air feel different than some of those places, for one thing, and our diversity seems to broaden our perspective over others. We may be “ugly Americans” but we’re still some of the most well liked people in the world in my experience.

  4. Oh, I’d get up for you pregnant or not, Em.

  5. learning – through culture shock – that everything is culturally constructed is truly one of the most valuable things i’ve ever had happen to me…but also one of the reasons moving back to my insular hometown has been frustrating at times. people here, for the most part, live very contentedly within their very small worldview…and the thought that something is perfectly normal elsewhere doesn’t cross their minds.

  6. You got so much in here. All my fellow Peace Corps volunteers agree that the biggest thing we learned during our service is just HOW AMERICAN we all really are.

    And yes, living abroad “is not all double decker busses,” no matter the fantasy (so well said, Emily!). I can remember times feeling so incredibly dumb living in another country b/c I had to learn so many things, some so elemental, like flushing a toilet, using an eating utensil correctly, going to mail a letter. Honestly, it can be so wearing.

    But the truth is that I yearn for that sort of learning and stretching and growing. And my husband and I (we met during Peace Corps) are continually trying to figure out a way to live abroad for a time with our sons. I am so for shaking their world views by exposing them to many different ways that different people live.

  7. What you’ll discover (I think, having been through this myself more than once, although I could be wrong and you could be completely different from me), is that the cultural differences of which you are now vividly aware will fade and grey long before you are ready for them to. You’ll know that things are different but it will be hard to put your finger on just what it is.

    Of course, since you are now living in an environment whose culture I imagine is constructed differently again from Philly, you’ll get to be stretched outside your comfort zone all over. But then, you already knew that, didn’t you?

    Oh, and thanks for making me nervous about my upcoming trip to, uh, London! 🙂

  8. I spent six week living in London as part of a study abroad program. I was a bit odd in that I really enjoyed the anonymity of being there and blending (insofar as American with a southern accent can blend anywhere). I think the experience worked for me because I needed the time away to forget myself. Six weeks doesn’t exactly compare to four years 😉

  9. I imagine the fact that the language is (sort of) the same might lull one into a false sense of security, making it all the more surprising when you run up against all those “culturally constructed” aspects that are diffferent. At least here in Spain the “otherness” is quite apparent right from the beginning (though ultimately, it’s really not THAT different, and maybe in some ways more similar to the US than London. )

    And yes, I’m sure your new location in the US will take some getting used to as well.

  10. You make a good point about how some aspects of one’s comfort zone aren’t necessarily based on our personalities, but on cultural conditioning and social expectations. One reason I’m glad I’ve lived in several different corners of the country – although I’ve never lived abroad – is that I’ve benefited from that wider exposure.

  11. Great perspective. I must admit I would probably fit right in with those Englishmen.

  12. Living in another country as an American has been a definite kick in the comfort zone. Canadians are not anti-social though – thank goodness because I am not an extrovert at all.

    Great post.

  13. They use different names for vegetables? Like what?

    Oh right sorry I DID read the rest—which was excellent—and it did also affect me. 🙂

    It is an intriguing transition, even within one country, but definitely between countries. I haven’t lived in London, but I can imagine expecting some sort of ease because of language similarity.

    What an excellent contribution. You really depicted it so clearly.

  14. Oh yeah, no one makes eye contact in London – only the beggars, the drunks, the mad people, the mentally unsound do that kind of thing because it’s fundamentally a city of isolation and suspicion. I can’t bear London myself and hope to avoid it as much as possible. What a shame (she says wistfully) that you didn’t get posted somewhere like Cambridge which is much smaller and friendlier and dog owners would have been happy for your children to pet their animals (provided the pet didn’t have any tendency to nip – letting children anywhere near a bad-tempered, nervy or even too playful dog is considered a serious crime). I enjoyed living in France for a year, although I was really homesick at first. Those cultural changes take an awful lot of getting used to.

  15. pedicuresandblackeyes

    Responding to what Bon said- that everything is socially constructed- I have quite the opposite view after studying five months in Mexico and several trips to Europe. Many things are socially constructed, and those are what makes travelling and studying interesting. But what I was struck by after living in another country was just how THE SAME we all are. We all have the same needs, wants, desires. We do things in different ways, perhaps, but underneath we need some things for our bodies (clothes, food) for our minds (learning, art) and our souls (love). These aren’t socially constructed but rather universals.

    That said, I want to address the statement “moving back to my insular hometown has been frustrating at times. people here, for the most part, live very contentedly within their very small worldview…” I ask you, what is wrong with people bieng content with thier lives? Surely we do not go to tribes in Brazil and force them to eat McDonald’s cheeseburgers, or even demand that they go see the world. Why? Because they are content and have dignity and the right to live thier life the way they choose. Why are we any harder on our homegrown cultures?

  16. Oh, I hear you girl. Now imagine growing up in London to non-British, non-American parents and then moving to the U.S. Cultural chaos abounds. But once you understand more than one culture, it separates you, in a good way.

  17. I firmly believe that you need to leave the place where you have always lived and then return to it in order to fully appreciate what you have, and what is both good and bad about what you have always taken for granted.

  18. Sorry it took me so long to reply, but things are crazy at my house, too. It seems strange that we both talked about moving to a new culture and how learning the new social differences made life hard. But now, you’ve grown, and the box has too.