As a born-and-raised suburbanite from California, I've recently discovered that relocating to a major metropolitan city in another country, by myself nonetheless, is probably the most "hands-on" lesson in social and practical survival I could ever get in my life. I'm just under three weeks into my move and already I've jumped head-first into an entire slew of both culturally and socially awkward, and borderline uncomfortable, scenarios. But hey, wasn't that (academic and personal growth) the point?
I've been thinking about this entry every day for the past week- slowly trying to formulate a cohesive personal essay about everything that's been happening - without letting it turn into some "travel guide" type of story. Because on the surface, I just keep going to new places and meeting new people. I could easily tell you all about them... how great they are, how Londonesque and unique everything is, but I think it's about time that I actually put some serious thought into things.
I was heading eastbound on the 254 bus earlier when, during a routine stop at Finsbury Park station, all the lights in the bus shut down and the engine came to a defeating halt. From my seat on the second level of the double-decker, I heard the stressful pleading of the bus driver, who was yelling at a woman about how she entered through the back door. Apparently, the woman had neither ticket nor Oyster Card to make her journey valid and she was trying to sneak on for a ride.
Immediately, I heard the woman's screeching voice in her British accent, "Don't speak to me in that tone, young man. Stop shouting at me! Don't shout at me!" After about 5 minutes of arguing, because other passengers of the bus started booing and yelling in unison at this woman, she finally decided to step out... and we were on our way. For some weird reason, this little incident struck me and so I spent the rest of the bus journey (roughly 10 minutes) thinking about WHY.
Ethically speaking, I couldn't really tell who was in the wrong here. Yeah, for obvious reasons she shouldn't have sneaked on. But at the same time, how do we know that she's not in a tight financial spot or that she simply left her wallet at home? Maybe she was having one of those days where everything was just going wrong. Maybe the bus driver should have just let the 2 "quid" go and given this woman a break. After all, it's JUST a bus ride.
And then it came to me. In some off-the-wall kind of way, I actually empathized with her. But not because of the bus driver's yelling. It was because the majority of the other passengers exploded in uproar and very loudly ostracized this woman for one little social slip-up. Public transportation here, like so many other things in a major city, acts like a well-oiled machine. And when one little cog falls out of place, it's as if the entire thing comes crashing down.
I'm sure this kind of thing happens all the time in big cities, whether it be San Francisco, New York, Paris or Tokyo. But maybe because it's finally starting to hit me that I, for the first time in my life, have completely broken out of my comfort zone and actually MOVED to London, I'm starting to get an idea of what it's like to be on my own with no convenient safety net. Don't get me wrong, I know I can count on family in the event of an emergency. But, (while recent events that I don't need to go into detail about now will attest to this) it's just NOT that EASY. Largely, I'm left alone here to fend for myself.
For example, up until this point in my life, I've always had someone within arm's reach to run to when I've had a bad day or need a hug. And right now, the distance and time difference just doesn't permit that.
If that bus scenario had happened back home, and if I was in my car waiting for this bus to move out of the way, I would've been just as irritated as those passengers. But my reaction to it now proves one thing: my perception on life and myself has already started to change.
And along with that comes another sort of epiphany... here comes the wrap-around to that "lesson in social and practical survival" I mentioned earlier. Whether I want to or not, I have to change too, in order to keep in balance with the change in my perception.
This idea has already manifested itself plenty of times since I've arrived here. In order to adapt the way I want to, I've been forced to do so many things that are just totally awkward and uncharacteristic of me...
Like meeting up for dinner with someone who's virtually a stranger, basically because we have a mutual friend. Normally, when you meet a friend of a friend, the mutual friend is around to introduce you. But in this case, I had to suck up my people-anxiety, make the phone call and then actually show up at the tube station on time with the hopes of recognizing her amongst the crowd... equipped only with a description of "I have long black hair, I tend to wear mostly black and white, and I have a severe fringe." If all else fails, we'll talk about what we have in common: our mutual friend.
Fortunately, this little meeting of ours turned out to be a complete success, at least in my opinion. There was no awkwardness at all... and since then, we've eaten fish cakes together, gone on an interesting hunt for a fee-free ATM, almost attempted to con a junk/antique shop owner into selling us a tiny French compass for £10 instead of £20, window-shopped during the Sunday-only market of Columbia Street, and secured some tickets to see Gogol Bordello in December.
We also took this picture (for our mutual friend):
Speaking of dinners... Even though I live in a house full of people, we still all keep to ourselves most of the time, unless we run into each other in the kitchens or there's actually some sort of organized social night. So having said that, I've had to practice either cooking for one or, if my refrigerator isn't stocked with anything good, go out to eat alone.
And going out by myself happens fairly often, because without a car, it's an incredible pain to do any substantive grocery shopping. Here's the common scenario: I have plenty of rice in the cupboard but I've run out of everything else... and if I'm in Central London... it'll take me 40 minutes to get home... then I have to buy groceries... then cook them... and THEN eat. But wait, Carnaby Street is just right here with plenty of little restaurants. Hmmm...
Eating lunch by yourself is never really a big deal; I did it all the time back home. But there's something kind of lonely about eating dinner alone in a restaurant full of people. THAT is something I never really did, and whenever I would go out with friends or family for dinner, I'd always feel a little bad for that guy sitting in the corner by himself. So now, it's me... sitting at the little table with my book, because somehow this makes me feel less awkward, even though there are groups of people laughing with each other all around me. Awww.
But this whole "eating dinner by myself" complex, I've come to realize, is really just me being overly self-conscious. Of course it would be nice to have some company, but really it's not much different from being at home, alone in the kitchen in front of the TV. So maybe it's not that bad after all, or maybe I'm just trying to justify it. I'm still not really sure. All I know is that back home, I would've taken the food to go before choosing to sit alone for dinner. But here, without a car, that's just not practical.
So I suppose it's really the little, but all the while necessary, things that are beginning to take their toll on me. I keep toying with the idea of getting a part-time job because it really is SUPER EXPENSIVE to live out here. But will that interfere with school? Will that turn me into a lame work-horse with no free time to explore the city? Or will it actually BE the experience I want to have here? And will the extra cash really be worth it? I just don't know.
Then, there's the fact that I now live with a bunch of strangers as well. My whole life, I've been used to living with family, with exception to the year or two I spent living with my best friend. But somehow, I've managed to adapt to this quite easily - and that surprises me because deep inside, I always thought I was such a coward and incapable of jumping into something like this.
Now, a few of us (Chris from the midlands, Anika from Germany, Simon from Yorkshire and I) have got a bit of close-knit rapport going. This leads us to nights like this where we play Texas Hold'Em in my room with cereal, peanuts and matches (because our silly landlord "Mak'd" Chris' poker chips and they are nowhere to be found).
I happened to win this hand with the high flush:
Then, there's adjusting to post-graduate British Academia. I finally had some important things to do this last week in terms of beginning my course. I went to the Regent Street campus on Thursday for my official enrollment and induction session. It was so formal AND informal at the same time, that I found myself thinking about whether this really was school and not just a bunch of like-minded individuals talking about things we like about culture.
It all seems a little too good to be true... and it makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, but extremely excited nonetheless. There are only about 10 people on my course, all girls and one guy. How lucky for him. But this doesn't say too much about the course itself, because the faculty is all made up of men and one woman.
Anyway, we basically all sat in a room together while the faculty talked about their courses... and then they said, "okay, so go ahead and pick your modules." Aside from the 3 mandatory classes, I had to choose 4 optional courses from a list of only six. In the end, I signed up for "The Human Image" and "Creative and Digital Technology" this semester. And for next semester, an internship option and the one I'm REALLY looking forward to... "Capitalism and Culture," where we get to talk about commodity fetishism and consumerism in society due to visual culture. Phew, that's a mouthful... I apologize.
The point is, this feels more like a fun personal research project than it does a master's program. But maybe that's what it's supposed to feel like?? It just seems like everything I've been experiencing in the last week has all been very counter-intuitive. It's an exciting and scary mess of events.
Well, in closing (I know this has been the longest entry ever), my conclusion is this: I know some of you will understand me when I say this... and for others, I really don't mean to annoy or alarm you. BUT, I know that when I come back home from this place, I'm not going to be exactly the same. And while that prospect might be a bit unnerving, it's the reality of the situation. So the most I can hope for is that I come back a better and wiser person than I was before, and that I can continue to share everything I have... with all of you.