I'm sure by now it has become quite obvious to the people that I am studying with that I am not from Britain. I think my accent gives me away, or maybe it's the fact that I think twenty degrees celsius is cold. Whatever it is, it is clear that I am a foreigner. (And yes, I have now become accustomed to hearing the classic Mean Girls quote 'But if you're from Africa, why are you white?')
I came to the UK thinking I would adjust to the British culture quite quickly especially considering that my mom is British. I felt confident as I had grown up with British words such as jumper and phrases like ‘are you feeling poorly’ already ingrained into my vocabulary.
Oh boy, I could not have been more wrong.
Just in the first two weeks of university I started to experience a major culture shock. A culture shock is a feeling of disorientation when someone is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life or set of attitudes.
My first shock was when I asked one of my friends to ‘gooi’ me a pen, a term that is used frequently and is understood back in South Africa. I quickly saw that they had no idea that I had asked them to hand me a pen as they looked at me as if I had just asked them to eat their own foot.
I laughed that little incident off and just continued to explain what I had meant, thinking that would be the first and last time that something like that would happen. Of course, I was wrong.
During fresher’s week I kept on hearing the word ‘sesh’ being thrown around the classroom and written all over group chats. Thankfully the other foreign students didn’t understand this word either. So a South African, a Dane and a Norwegian tried to figure out what this bizarre word meant without letting the resident brits know that we had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. Eventually, one of us plucked up the courage to ask someone what ‘sesh’ meant and we got the answer back saying it was ‘a social gathering of some kind that had alcohol involved.’ In other words, for any South African’s reading, it is the equivalent of a jol.
The most recent incident that outlined that I was definitely not from here is when my classmates started calling me ‘Imma’ instead of Emma. Originally I thought it was just my classmates making fun of my accent, until I met a girl, who had absolutely no affiliation with any of my classmates, who responded when I said my name with a “It’s nice to meet you, Imma.” I mean that’s one way to make you feel like you’ve been pronouncing your own name wrong your entire life.
Although, I have been living here longer now and even find myself getting excited for the ‘sesh’, there are still times when I literally have no idea what my classmates are saying because our slang is so different. And to be fair there are still times when I say something and my friends look at me like I grew a tail.
For those of you who are still trying to navigate the strange new slang that you have found our classmates using every day click here.
Aside from the language and accent differences, I had a major culture shock when it came to things like food. I was absolutely horrified when I learnt that the local Asda didn’t stock biltong or Simba Chips but instead sold things like crème eggs and Jaffa Cakes.
I also came across people who called rooibos tea red bush tea, I understand that the direct translation from the Afrikaans word ‘rooibos’ is red bush but Rooibos is the name of the product. You can’t change the name of a product, a product that is proudly South African, a product that I brought three bags of from home because I cannot live without it. Needless to say, I was horrified that the name of the product was known as ‘red bush’ over here.
Now that my rant about rooibos tea is over we can move onto transporting differences. Everyone complains about having to walk to campus every morning because it takes a good fifteen minutes to walk from Liberty to the Gillingham building but for me, a South African who has had to be driven or drive herself everywhere, walking was and still is a pleasure.
I come from a country where even if you are just going to the shops at the bottom of the road you will drive because, especially as a woman, you are viewed to be an easy target. And public transport is not something we use back home. It was so bizarre the first time I got onto a train to go from Gillingham to London. I also rely on Uber when I go out when I’m home but here people either walk or just catch a taxi.
It’s not just the language and the transport that completely disorientated me but also social behaviour was something I had to get used to. For example, at my local Pick ‘n Pay (the South African equivalent of Asda) I can have an entire conversation about the weather or my day to the cashier and they will give their input or tell you about their day, just like friends. However, I have found that this type of behaviour is not common big supermarkets in the UK, maybe in the small outlet. Trust me I tried in not just one but at least five different supermarkets since I have been here and all the cashiers have answered with either a yes or a no and then hurriedly stuffed my stuff in the bag.
Another example, for the more social situations, is when we go out clubbing. Back home we have our pre drinks at somebody’s house, which basically turns into a mini house party, this saves us poor students some cash as I never buy drinks at the club. Here it seems to be a different vibe, pre drinks will either be at someone’s flat or at a pub. While going to someone’s flat is pretty much what we do at home, here pre drinks are really laid back. Everyone tends to sit down with some music going and a couple of drinks. Then as soon as we get into the club everyone heads straight for the bar.
These are strange things that you would not think are different unless you have lived in another country. I am not saying that one country does things better than the other, it’s just… a strange change of pace for someone who has grown up in a different country.
For those of you who are dealing with culture shock, here are couple of tips to help you deal with the change.
This is all stuff that I have had to get used to over the last couple of months and I’m sure all of the International students will have had to adjust in some way just as I have. Even though I have been living in a different country and have had to adjust to a new culture these past few months, I have never felt more proudly South African. I miss the accent and the casual mixing of Afrikaans and English into every sentence. I miss the vast number of different cultures and languages that South Africa has to offer. I miss the HEAT of the South African sun and I miss the dry climate. But as the saying goes ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’. Watch the video below to get a glimpse into the place I call home.