Study Abroad: Being an American in England

Before I left for England, I had never had the experience of being isolated because of my nationality. As an American, I have always lived among other Americans. I have never lived as a minority. I am a white American who has grown up with other white Americans. In fact, I am basically a perfect fit in the white, middle class suburban girl puzzle. But, as it turns out, my American puzzle piece doesn’t quite fit into the British equivalent.

americanI am different here. I don’t understand the metric system. I can’t figure out which way to look when crossing the street. My clothes aren’t quite right. And as soon as I open my mouth, there is a big blinking arrow that announces to the world, “SHE DOESN’T BELONG!”

I am a foreigner here and up until now, I never realized how much pressure that can be. People look at me and interact with me, and when they walk away they have formed decisions and opinions about my country and my nationality based on the interaction they had with me.

To be a foreigner is to have different responsibility, to know that your actions, words, facial expressions, and body language are in so many ways representing the country that you come from. Like I said, it’s a lot of pressure.

puzzle pieceIn my accommodation, I am one of four Americans. The other three are boys, making me the only American girl, but it is interesting to compare my interactions with them versus those with the British and the other international students. Talking with someone from your own country even for a few seconds is like having a burden lifted from your shoulders.

For those few seconds, I can use American slang or talk about American things. For those few moments, I can just be me. For those few moments, I am not an outsider anymore. I can talk at a normal speed, say things like “scared the crap out me”, and contemplate why in the world it’s impossible to find a zipper sandwich bag in England.

american2

I can finally understand why nationalities clump together in a foreign place. There is no bigger comfort in a foreign country than to find other people from your nation, to spend time with them, to talk to them, and to shed your foreigner status for a few minutes.

The other Americans and I don’t spend all of our time together. We see each other maybe twice a week, and when we do hang out in a big group of international students we don’t clump together and ignore everyone else.

But even so, maybe the greatest comfort is knowing that no matter what, I am not alone – that I am not the only puzzle piece that doesn’t fit. And even if it’s only until December, I found a place to fit in a new puzzle – an international one. We are all mismatched pieces, different from one another, different colors, different words and pictures, but somehow we all manage to fit together.

Eventually we will all go our separate ways, back to our original puzzles, but for now, it’s nice to fit in somewhere.

internationalpuzzle

Have you ever been a foreigner?

77 days until I return to the US.

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15 thoughts on “Study Abroad: Being an American in England

  1. Megan September 27, 2013 / 12:33 pm

    Awh hun, embrace your foreigner status :) Who wants to fit in anyways… so don’t be stressing out over your actions/ facial expressions/clothes etc just be yourself and I’m sure everyone will love you :D

    • Sam September 27, 2013 / 9:07 pm

      :) Thanks. I’m all for being yourself, although it’s a new challenge to be different for something like my nationality. ;P

  2. nyrmirez September 27, 2013 / 1:13 pm

    I have been there felt that same exact way both in a foreign country and here in the U.S. The biggest advise I can give you is to embrace your foreign status and to always be yourself! It won’t be easy at times but I promise when you look back at this experience you will have no regrets.

    • Sam September 27, 2013 / 9:08 pm

      It is weird to be a foreigner for the first time, but I will never stop being true to myself. ;) Thanks.

  3. budziak September 27, 2013 / 4:29 pm

    First of all, I love your cartoon images! They’re so cute and it makes me wonder how you created them.
    Second, this is a huge topic I’ve been struggling with since January. I don’t think I can ever identify as a Texan. I’ll get these bouts of extreme homesickness; homesick for the predictable weather, variety of food, beautiful CA scenery, other Asian people, casual carefree beachy style. While I don’t mind living here, it’s definitely not home. I feel much more Asian than I ever have, in fact, I’m 1 of 2 women at the office and the only non-white person. Other than finding a huge blogging community in Texas, I haven’t felt like I belong :-/
    Not to be super negative through this whole comment… I see it as temporary and a great experience to have regardlss of being homesick. I think it builds character to be able to say you moved away from family & friends for a while. You can take risks and seek out opportunities. And being a foreigner has changed my perspective on some things. I bet it’ll be one of those situations where as soon as it’s over, I’ll wish I had enjoyed it more. I’ve met some really great people here so its not all bad.

    • Sam September 27, 2013 / 9:30 pm

      YOU TOTALLY GET WHAT I AM SAYING. It’s not that I don’t like it here – I totally do – but, there is a definite sense that I do not belong. I think that’s really what study abroad is supposed to teach you – how to be in the minority. I will definitely have an entire new respect for difference once I get back to the US. Thanks for your comment. It’s nice to hear other people are going through similar things.

  4. producthoochie September 28, 2013 / 1:28 pm

    I just had an entire class discussion (with 12 year olds) about what it means to be a foreigner. We can be foreigners in many places- there are times I am at a party or restaurant and really want to leave because I don’t fit in. You grasp the discomfort and yet won’t yield to the sense of not “belonging.” The USA is very isolated from the rest of the world- good for you for getting out there to learn more about what is out there.

    • Sam September 29, 2013 / 9:36 am

      Thanks. :) It’s definitely an enlightening experience to be separated from the US, but you’re right that isolation occurs even in our own country sometimes even when surrounded with people we know.

  5. Rebecca September 28, 2013 / 9:04 pm

    I have a stack of zipper sandwich bags in my cupboard, you can definitely get them here! Also we say scared the crap out of me too! Stick with it hun and you’ll become more comfortable. I bet people are just interested to learn more about you and your culture, you stand out yes, but in a good way!

    • Sam September 29, 2013 / 9:38 am

      Really?! I have only seen one size zipper bag and, they were on the pricier side! Hmmm.

      • Rebecca September 29, 2013 / 10:52 am

        Have you tried Tesco?

    • Sam September 29, 2013 / 9:38 am

      Thanks. :)

  6. lubella September 30, 2013 / 9:39 am

    Great post! You’re describing a character-building challenge that I think more Americans should experience. I spent several months living in a small Costa Rican town, and being a tall, pale, blonde girl, I felt like an outsider every waking moment-despite speaking the language. I recall having an entire clothing store’s staff laughing at me when I asked if they sold belts and mistakenly used the word for seat belt. Living abroad will make you more confident and more empathetic so enjoy it :)

  7. nataliemontwill September 30, 2013 / 5:59 pm

    This is a great post! I personally am planning on doing the next step of my studies as far away from home as possible – ie. in Europe. Although the idea is super exciting, I still have to remind myself that there will be hardships and that it’ll definitely come with sobering moments.

    It’s a little different for me because my background is Polish so I love travelling and feel more comfortable when I’m not in my comfort zone, but regardless people in other countries still identify me as a foreigner. My biggest advice? Just be yourself. The other commenters have it right! If you show your insecurities, other will notice it too. I have friends from all different nationalities, and if you open yourself up more and stay true to who you are, others will recognize and appreciate it. Soon you’ll have a bunch of English friends that won’t care where you’re from; but rather, who you are as a person. The only difference between Americans and the English is where they were raised – remember, we’re all human and therefore there will for sure be wonderful, accepting people there too. All the best! :)

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