Studying abroad abroad can be scary, at least for me! I studied in Birmingham, England during the 2021-2022 school year and had many unique experiences as an American student in England. When moving to a new country, you can never be sure how Americans, especially from the United States, are perceived. While you may blend in with fashion trends, your accent and the way you carry yourself will always be an indicator that you’re not from the country you’re in, and that’s okay! You don’t have to change who you are just because you change time zones. As you adapt to a new country, you have to face some curious questions about being an American exchange student. You can prepare as much as possible to study abroad, but it’s not easy to prepare for cultural differences or what to expect from people living there without experiencing it yourself.
Besides accent, your appearance can be an indicator of being American. The way you dress can be a sure sign that you are not from England and can set you apart. In England, the weather is often unpredictable. Gray skies are a regular occurrence with random rain showers. When I arrived in Birmingham I had underestimated exactly how much rain there would be, so I was unprepared with a heavier raincoat. I thought an umbrella alone would suffice, but I soon realized why a lot of people wore down jackets. A lot of my other friends from California and I stood out because we weren’t dressed properly with a down jacket. I realized that an umbrella was often useless because of the winds that carried the rain under the umbrella! This was one of many clothing-related incidents that made me feel the cultural differences.
In America, you will often see people dressed in college attire. Representing your favorite colleges or your alma mater is something you’ll see quite often. In England, university merchandise is sold, but you will probably never see people off campus wearing it. Quite hilarious, I saw more people wearing H&M Harvard sweaters than universities in England! When I started my first day at the University of Birmingham, I noticed that the dress code on campus was very different. In America, showing up to class in a sweatshirt and a very dressy outfit is normal. Some days you don’t want to come to class in a fully planned outfit, but I’ve noticed that sweatshirts are in short supply, along with other comfy, casual clothes. This is one thing that will make you stand out if you attend classes in this outfit. While it’s not a bad thing to want to be comfortable, you’ll find that not many people will dress the same. This isn’t limited to college campuses, as people don’t usually dress for casual shopping, or as I learned from my roommate when they “hop” in stores.
Curious questions about being an America
Assumptions have been made about me solely due to cultural differences between the United States and European countries. Questions about assumptions about the United States and cultural differences were two things I had to get used to during my time in Birmingham. During my studies in England, I was surprised by the openness to discuss finances and politics. On my first night in Birmingham, I was asked questions about being black in America, racism, and other topics you don’t necessarily want to dive into with a foreigner. This instance would not be the last time these topics were discussed. For me it was weird, but for those who asked the question, it was a question out of curiosity. Many people hear about the United States in modern media. Often these sources include a stereotypical image of the United States. Depending on how you answer these questions, it may cause them to form a biased opinion of you based on what they have seen in the media regarding items related to your answer. Your accent and appearance alone will lead to guesswork. Being from California with your standard California accent, I was often asked about seeing celebrities or what life was like in Hollywood…I grew up 45 minutes from Hollywood, not including traffic! These presumptions will be brought up, but in my experience, it was never mentioned with bad intent.
Walking and driving on the right side of the road and tipping is second nature to me. Growing up in the United States, I was taught these things from childhood. In England, I quickly understood that things were not the same, and I had to adapt to these differences. In the United States, tipping is almost an obligation, but in England, you don’t expect it at all! Although they may seem small, this is just another part of the many things you will have to adjust to while being an American student abroad.
Language is another big difference you will have to adjust to in England. I didn’t have to learn a new language to do my program, but I had to get used to new terms and different word usages abroad. On my second day in Birmingham, I asked if the store had a shopping trolley, and no one could understand me! After some time trying to describe it, the woman behind the counter asked, “Do you mean, a cart? » and finally, we understood each other. This incident was one of many experiences I had with different accents and terminology. Luckily, I had made some British friends and had British roommates who helped me learn some of the popular words they use, while I was also able to teach them some words used in California. Even though I no longer live in the UK, I still find myself using terms I learned overseas.