One of the greatest myths propagated in the modern world when it comes to cultural similarities has to be this: that the United States and the United Kingdom, with their ‘special relationship’ and a mutual appreciation for Downton Abbey and Sherlock, are quite similar. In many ways I wasn’t surprised to find that the cross-Atlantic move brought more struggles than trying to drag 6 months of my life through London Heathrow Airport after an all-day flight. I am a British citizen and, to every single person that knows basically anything about me, a very proud Welsh girl. When my mother agreed to work in New York and raise children in the United States, my father sweetened the deal by promising to continue living some Welsh traditions and that we would visit the ‘motherland’ often; that turned into traditional roasts on Sunday, Christmas Crackers, and at least two weeks of mucking around my grandparents’ farm. With this experience and a nice red passport I thought that meant that the cultural conversion would be easy, as did the other visiting American students I met on the first day. I am here to declare to the world one simple truth: Britain and America really aren’t that similar at all.
The most dramatic difference I can observe as a JYA student, which would prove less noticeable and influential to anyone who is not attending university as a visiting student, is the fundamentally different operation of the college. Aside from idiomatic difference—those individuals American students refer to as ‘professor’ have the title of ‘tutors’ here—I have discovered no real correlation between what I have learned about how to be a college student in the United States and what it means to be a student at Oxford. For anyone who may be unaware, Oxford operates on a tutorial-based system. In this system, students are enrolled in two courses: a major and a minor tutorial. The major tutorial is taught over the course of 8 weeks, with one hour-long lesson each week. Meanwhile minor tutorials meet every other week for approximately the same period of time.
Before you start tilting your had and smiling as you daydream about the pure freedom I am experiencing with so many hours outside of the classroom, here is the kicker: for each tutorial, humanities students are required to write an essay which they then must defend in front of the tutor. Now let me be perfectly clear, the term ‘essay’ is not meant like a Moodle post or a response piece. I thought that before I got here, all puffed up in the knowledge that after balancing classes and being the Editor-in-chief of the Misc there was no amount of reading and writing I could not handle. Then I got here.
On the first day of class, sitting in a basement ‘classroom’ (read small white-walled room with a few arm chairs and bookshelves), with only my tutor, I realized that I had entered into an academic experience unlike anything Vassar had demanded of me. My tutor slid a piece of paper across the table and smiled at me, as if he wanted to ease the impending dread I felt ever so slightly (or maybe it was apologetic, it’s hard to tell), and I looked down to see 20 books and articles I was supposed to read and write a 12 page essay about. Cue Bethan spending most of her days listening to the never-ending sound of the epic battle between pouring rain and windowpane from her new home in the library.
Two weeks later and I have managed to uproot my studying habits and have also successfully survived ‘essay writing: British edition’ as I have mockingly called it in emails back home. I only mildly shudder when I get a reading list featuring 25 texts. I now believe that if I can write 12 pages answering ‘Why did the Conservative party dominate British politics between the wars?’ I can write anything.
Lesson from me to you: When someone tells you that they read anything at a British university, admire them and offer to give them chocolate, even if they graduated before ABBA released its first single, because the academic pressure they have endured has surely left scars.
Second major difference: language. While I haven’t had much a problem with understanding my fellow Oxford students, I have been fortunate enough to witness my American friends discovering that, while we may both speak ‘English,’ there are some substantial gaps between American English and true English. These gaps, I will warn you, are deeper than knowing that ‘loo’ means ‘toilet,’ although if you know that, congratulations on being one step closer to speaking conversational British English! For instance, if a menu item combines the terms ‘cloudy’ and ‘juice,’ it has pulp. Also, it took a moment for people to realize that in Britain vegetables have different names—like zucchini becomes courgettes and aubergines are eggplants—and that the lovely dining staff wasn’t preparing foreign cuisine. In many ways it makes communication slightly trickier than when you are speaking an entirely foreign language with someone else. Whereas Americans expect to run into unfamiliar words when using a different language, in Britain, Americans anticipate that they can be entirely understood. Watching people realize that British people have an entirely different vocabulary and set of slang terms adds a totally new level of ridiculous to those signs I used to see in America that said ‘This is America, speak English.’
Lesson from me to you: Do not assume that the British will naturally understand you or vice versa because you both consider your national language English.
Another lesson: Do not yell if they are not understanding your terminology. It is more than likely that, having repeated yourself three times, the issue is not with your volume but with your words.
Final lesson has to do with the nightlife here. In one word: yes. Yes it is legal to drink in the UK at 18; yes, many students frequent the numerous pub options, and it is amazing. However, I came to learn that even the party scene differs in significant ways from America. Unlike many weekends in Poughkeepsie that involve getting ready at 10:00 p.m. and leaving for the Villard Room by 11:45 p.m., in Britain the celebration begins much earlier. People are usually at the club by 11:00 p.m. That being said, it should be noted that this early departure time from the university does not translate into a similarly early end to the evening. In this way, I have found that the British commitment to dancing is far superior to anything that I have seen in America. People dance to Shania Twain, Blue Man Group, Jay-Z, and Paul Simon (please note that none of these names are jokes and that everyone around me could be seen singing every lyric) for hours. One local club has three separate dance floors devoted to what they consider the three most popular genres of club music: electronic, hip-hop, and cheesy ’90s music.
Moreover, from what I can tell and from the people I have met, the ambition for going out for many people is to just dance. To be sure, there are many people who don’t view a crowded club as their cup of tea, and for them there are alternatives, but for many students a night out dancing proves to be the perfect way of drumming the words of tutors out of their heads for a few hours. When you are singing S Club 7’s anthems for the second time in one night you realize that what makes going to a club in the UK extraordinarily fun is usually that you just enjoy this different way of hanging out with your friends.
Lesson from me to you: If you are even slightly interested in dancing/S Club 7/witnessing a room full of predominantly British students recite American ’90 R&B lyrics, you should grab a few friends and go! (Be sure to request the Spice Girls for me)
Other mini-anecdotes that will make you love Britain:
-Oxford University resides in a lovely city called Oxford, people! Oxford University is not located in London! It’s in ancient, flooding, welcoming Oxford that has a Tescos and a Sainbury’s. I say this because I have had to explain to almost every American person that Oxford University shares the name of its home-city, Oxford, and is not really that close to London.
-Instead of everyone packing into the Mug for themed dance nights, at Lady Margaret Hall they have ‘bops.’ Basically they operate under the same principles of a dark underground bar with music people like enough to listen to for a while, but they have the added bonus of actually having a functioning bar and calling the events ‘bops’ a la the 1950s. However, this does not mean dress up in a poodle skirt because people will just make fun of you.
-Everything is more expensive and more complicated to buy. Exhibit A: I went to buy a set of cheap cutlery with a friend and only took a few pounds in my pocket. A very sweet woman then informed me that she was not allowed to sell me any knives because I could not produce an ID stating I was over 18 years of age.
-Select songs from the various clubs I have visited over my time here: ‘Ice Ice Baby,’ ‘I’m Blue,’ the Friends theme song, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song, and ‘The Cotton-Eye Joe’ (to which people actually did the correct footwork and thus both impressed and confused me more than words could ever describe).
(It’s as if they knew exactly what I wanted to request but worried would leave me “Dancing With Myself” in the strobe lights.)