Oxford Culture Shock: moving countries and languages

by Anna Wawrzonkowska

Over the course of the week before Freshers’, I learnt exactly what it meant to be a Foreigner: the odd one out. I felt alien. I felt not myself.

And I couldn’t understand why. Surely I wasn’t turning into some kind of a social disaster?

As I felt my confidence wane, I tried to recall all the other situations where I was exposed to a completely new environment, and came out victorious, having made great friends and acquaintances. It wasn’t social skills I lacked. It was something else.

Accents, dialects, struggles with pronunciation, or misplacing words are all obstructions to the casual flow of conversation, and there’s only a limited number of times you’re willing to repeat what you just said if you’re still not being understood – whether you’re on the native or foreign side. It’s easier to just talk to one of your own, isn’t it?

For every piece of cultural trivia we learn, there are a thousand others nobody tells you about. So Sainsbury’s is this ubiquitous supermarket where you can buy food and flowers? I guess it is funny that I had no idea about it. You know what is also funny? That you also have no idea what a Biedronka is, back in Poland.

Everything you do, and everything you are, is going to be coloured by the label of your nationality. The opening gambit is going to be, ‘How’s Poland/Switzerland/Malaysia these days?’, or, ‘I went to Hong Kong once! Great noodles!’ You’re always going to be recognised as ‘this foreign person’.

‘Polish Anna’, I’m called.

It doesn’t bother me now, but in the first days? Yeah. It used to bother me a lot. It isn’t ill will, or picking on the foreigner, it’s just a painfully basic reflex of the memory, to remember the feature of a person that stands out the most.

In this case, nationality. And I couldn’t be prouder of being recognised as a Pole. But I also wanted to be recognised as myself, as a person, as a human. As Anna. Not just the Polish in Anna. Me. Myself. The whole of it.

Retreat

Shell-shocked, self-conscious, and massively confused, I turned to people who could understand me: my countrymen.

On meeting my own Polish folk in England, I was even more confused to discover that it’s still there: my social skills, my ease around people, my dry humour, my relaxed attitude. Reaching back to what was known and safe felt like slipping on a pair of comfortable, worn shoes.

I didn’t have to struggle, because suddenly – without the added weight of constant internal translation – it felt light-headed, almost exciting, to rediscover the similarities we all shared.

The jokes. The literature. The songs, contexts, common history and collective memory of our generation. We were similar.

And it was just the easiest thing in the world to make friends! I could finally stop thinking about how I was saying things and focus on what I wanted to say. It was the mental equivalent of a deep stretch after an exhausting workout – comfort, safety, and the feeling of being in control again.

I could speak about myself and define myself through something other than just nationality.

But why? How?

The moment I started speaking to the British, I wasn’t myself again.

With every word you learn as a kid, and every word you use, read, or hear in a conversation, you learn the intricacies of its contexts too. You learn to associate certain emotions and reactions with words as well. We learn through imitation, and repetition; and the patterns we hold in our heads will be repeated in what we speak.

If there is no emotion in the language in your head, woven into the words and entwined with the grammar, there will be no emotion in what you say. And no self-expression. If you’ve learnt your English in a classroom, you probably can’t talk about love.

It takes time to adapt. To understand. To make this emotional connection.

Endings

I started writing this to tell you – the foreigner, the international, the odd one out – that it will get better. There is a way. You will find your peace and comfort. You will find your way around this bizarre culture that’s hitting you now. You are going to be a happy, successful, and confident human being.

I’m still an international student. A year later, I am able to look back at it and say: I am stronger, more open-minded, more benevolent towards foreigners, more appreciative of the sub-conscious emotional connection I share with my kinsmen, my beautiful and rich culture, my education and upbringing. And now I appreciate England a thousand times more.

We, the internationals, can see the complexity of two, or more, cultures: the similarities, the differences, how they interplay, how they influence us and the people all around. It’s a grace, having that perspective. A gift of deeper understanding.

Isn’t that the reason we decided to live abroad anyway? To experience more, to know more, to live more? After all, we’re all humans. And beyond all these differences that are so hard to overcome at the beginning, there is the inherent sense of solidarity in all of us.

***

Anna Wawrzonkowska is a 2nd year Oriel student reading Italian and Linguistics.

See the full article along with tips for the international students at: polandbritainitaly.wordpress.com

The Poor Print

The Oriel College Newspaper. Run by students, with contributions from the JCR, MCR, and SCR & Staff. Current Executive Editors: Alex Waygood & Aidan Chivers.

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