While I expected to experience many cultural differences in the United Kingdom, Britain’s distinctive culture has continued to shock me since flying over the Atlantic. During my first night in London, I witnessed several inebriated friends wrestling on the street as well as a group of men gleefully cursing at one another right outside an upscale hotel. While these people might have been non-British tourists, there seems to exist a higher tolerance for drunken behavior and public profanity in the United Kingdom.
The enormous wealth I encountered in Gloucester Road, London also astounded me. After spending several days in this affluent neighborhood, I realized that I had passed by three Lamborginis, three Ferraris, a Bentley, and too many Porsches and BMWs to count. I frequented several bakeries in Gloucester Road, where the pastries bore stunning colors and were crafted with precise artistry. I also visited Coutts, a gorgeous bank that requires account holders to possess at least one million pounds (about $1.5 million) in liquid assets.
Although I had previously heard about British stores closing early, I was still surprised to learn that most bars shut down at 11:00p.m. (even on weekends) in the United Kingdom. While London still appeared to possess a large nightlife scene, much of the city seemed deserted by the late hours of the night. However, when England played in the Rugby World Cup, every bar seemed to be completely packed with eager fanatics.
In the United Kingdom, I was pleased to see a huge number of women in hijabs, as this suggests that women often feel empowered to wear whatever religious garment they choose in Britain. The large number of Muslims in the United Kingdom is partially due to its imperial past, which makes it relatively easy for Pakistanis to immigrate to Britain. Although the United Kingdom does not prohibit head scarves in public, British schools have been allowed to decide their own dress code since 2007. Many Muslims interpret this law as a form of discrimination and ethnic tension certainly exists in Britain. Around 9:00pm on a Wednesday night, I witnessed a fight breaking out in a public London bus, apparently caused by racial tension. The fight occurred between two Arab men and about seven British men (after an argument that I did not properly hear). Several men on the bus sought to break up the brawl, including one man who left his unattended baby in a stroller to assist in stopping the swinging fists.
Though my race might disguise me as British before my accent reveals my nationality, I am still constantly afraid of being overcharged or targeted by pickpockets because of my identity as an expatriate. I have read that pickpocketing is often more common in the United Kingdom than in America and have studied several common scams directed at foreigners, such as shoving a (sometimes real) baby into the arms of tourists before stealing wallets or purses.
I understand that I might be overly apprehensive of these robberies, however, I feel partially justified in my fears because I have personally experienced a similar occurrence. When I attempted to purchase a bike from an Oxford bike shop, my credit card information was promptly stolen and $600 was charged to my account (which was exponentially higher than the cost of the bike). When I discovered this theft, I immediately returned the bike and composed a scathing Yelp review of the bike shop. I decided not to contact the local police because I was not certain that the bike shop had gained access to my credit card information (although I highly expected that this to be true). To avoid paying the stolen card fees, I had to cancel my credit card and wait for several weeks to receive a new card by mail.
I was rather panicked about the distinct educational system in the United Kingdom, as I had spent years attempting to “master” the art of an essay, and now my professors might expect an entirely different type of paper. However, regardless of teachers’ expectations for an essay, I thoroughly enjoyed my first class at Oxford, in which I was the only student (which is common in the humanities at Oxford). This dynamic allowed me to fully answer each of the professor’s questions, as there was no other students to respond for me. I also admire the structure of only having only one or two hours of class (in addition to a couple hours of lectures) each week because it allows me to direct more attention to my assignments without worrying about sharp time constraints. I love walking around the city of Oxford, which contains a shocking of amount of carefully maintained sports fields and buildings dating back nearly a thousand years ago.
Overall, I have certainly gained many valuable cultural insights while living in the United Kingdom. It has been intriguing to hear various British perspectives on current societal issues through conversations at Oxford. While much less socioeconomically diverse than Amherst College, Oxford still possesses many students who wish to bring more students from less privileged backgrounds into the university.