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A thing or two about those oh-so-wonderful culture shocks

When I was eighteen I moved from Finland to the UK. I was about to start my studies in Liverpool and I was so unbelievably excited and happy and excited, which left no room for the fear of the unknown. I arrived in Liverpool one September day and got instantly hit by a sweet and musky smell, which I have since associated with the UK – a scent resembling the combination of Haribos and an uncleaned floor carpet (or if you’re walking through town at night it’s beer and a strong cleaning product). There I’m standing outside the train station with two red suitcases, smelling the Haribo air when the taxi driver refuses to take me to the student accommodation because it is too close by. I didn’t let this break my spirit. Later that day I took a walk around the city center with one of my flat mates. I remember we were hunting for blu-tack, and I remember having a hard time explaining the substance since I had never heard its equivalent name in English. I don’t remember if we found blu-tack on that first day, but I do remember that my laptop adapter wasn’t working and I that had no Wi-Fi. I got lost on the streets and I had trouble understanding the scouse accent. I was suddenly aware of the foreignness. I called home. On the other side of the wall my flat mate heard me cry.

During that very first semester abroad I truly missed my home country. I missed homemade cinnamon buns and being able to make snow angels in the thick snow. I missed being part of something collective, something familiar. In England things were different – people smiled to you on the streets (in Finland that’s unheard of), they were incredible polite; they actually used the phrase “Sorry, excuse me please” (again, unheard of). They not only put milk in their tea but they also believe that tea is the first step to solving any crisis (to make things complicated they sometimes refer to “dinner” as “tea”). They also add kisses after every text (I rebelled against this by never finishing a text with a kiss, which made people think I was simply rude).

The culture shock was a funny experience, not at all unbearable but simply intriguing. My name proved some difficulty every now and again. I would sometimes explain it by saying “You know, like the Emmy-awards, but with an i instead of a y”. Then a lot of people asked me if “Emmi” was my nickname and I’d usually answer with a simple “no” and a smile. They would also ask me if there are polar bears in Finland, and again I’d answer with a “no” and a smile.

About five years later I returned back to Finland. My mum got frustrated because I expressed myself to a great extent in English and forgot the simplest words in my native language (once I had to look up the word for “saucepan” in the dictionary). I talked about how wonderful England was to the point of annoyance. I held the door open to strangers and said “sorry” too much. Things in Finland were different and I truly missed the country that had become my new home. I experienced a reverse culture shock (which Google informed me is a real thing). And let me tell you the reverse culture shock is worse than the initial culture shock. It wasn’t a very nice experience to feel like a stranger in your homeland, and so I kept thinking about Kurt Vonnegut’s words “And this too shall pass”. And eventually it did. Life is funny that way. Not necessarily always funny ha-ha, but definitely funny.

After my semester here I am sure I will return to both homes and talk about how wonderful life is in the U.S. I can already see myself talking about the friendliness of the people and that one adorable Husky-puppy on the campus. I might try to explain what the Buzz bar tastes like and what the cherry blossom trees smell like. Maybe I’ll even frequently spread peanut butter on more things to subconsciously emphasize all that wonderfulness (because peanut butter of course is the embodiment of the U.S.). And maybe that’s something that I’ll keep doing – just as how I still associate cinnamon buns and snow angels with home, use milk in my Earl Grey and have a “cuppa” when things get too hectic, overuse the word “sorry” and put kisses at the end of texts (sometimes even more than one).



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