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.