Lessons Learned From First Term

My first term at the University of York is drawing to a close, and as I prepare to head home for Christmas and New Year’s, I’ve put together some things I’ve learned about living as an American in England after my first chunk of my exchange year.

  1. Yorkshire is a county full of immense local pride. Nothing quite brings that to your attention like standing in a crowd of locals at a concert who are all chanting “York-shire! York-shire!” Nothing quite makes you feel as viscerally at home than joining in that chant and having it swell to the point where you can feel it resonate in your chest.
An American and a German at a British rock concert.
  • Nothing teaches you humility like trying to learn all the ins and outs of life in North Yorkshire. Most of the locals have been happy to explain everything to me from how FIFA works, to how a football team makes the world cup, to why people care so much about football in the first place, to what on earth a “brolly” is (Hint: it’s an umbrella). Sometimes you can pick up on cultural nuances via context clues, but sometimes you can’t. And that’s fine! Plucking up the courage to ask what may be a pretty obvious question is an exercise in humility that everyone needs eventually. And it opens up an opportunity for locals to demonstrate kindness and patience towards you. Which, more often than not, they are happy to do.
  • England and America are two countries divided by a common language. Should you choose to go abroad anywhere in the UK, don’t underestimate the differences in these dialects and the cultural differences they bring. You’ll inevitably slip up at some point and say something embarrassing. It’s alright. It’ll happen. But the key to managing a new culture (even one that may not seem that different than home), is always listening. Go and spend time with just local people for awhile (as in actively seek out local company rather than just hanging out with other international students. You already know how to relate to Americans, it’s not going to challenge you to relate to them in another country) and just listen to the conversation before jumping in. English folks have very different methods of making friends than Americans, and you can really only learn this on the job.
A very British Christmas: Love Actually, wine, and Christmas crackers!
  • A political discussion is going to eventually come up. At some point, it’s likely that whomever you’re talking to will criticize something about America. You may or may not agree with said criticism. Whatever your opinion, wait before jumping to defend your home country. Probe a little. Ask more questions. Figure out what is influencing this person to think the way that they do. Then add your own opinion to the mix. Not only does this make for a more fruitful exchange, it sends a more positive message about Americans in general-that they’re politically aware and willing to try to see issues on a global scale, rather than just a countrywide one. And do keep in mind that every country in the world has serious issues and has made serious mistakes. Admitting to and expressing shame or sorrow over mistakes our nation has made doesn’t make you unpatriotic. It makes you honest.
Exploring the northern reaches of Britain in Edinburgh.
  • And finally, on a lighter note, give yourself permission to be silly. Everyone’s got a goofy side, and it often gives others permission to unleash their goofiness when they see yours. Even if (in my case) that means screeching your way through a karaoke rendition of the Time Warp. People will wonder how many drinks it took for you to pull off that entire dance and all the spoken bits (the answer, surprisingly, as zero. The karaoke bar in question was really expensive). But then they’ll quit wondering and dance the Time Warp with you in the haze of the fake smoke machine and leave breathless and grinning. And it’s moments like those, in addition to the more serious ones, where international bridges are built and some special friendships are formed, when people don’t feel the need to choose between silliness and seriousness. Both are integral parts of being human, I think.

It’s been a fantastic first term. For those of you heading back to the States for good, don’t let your experience fade. Write about it and preserve it. For those of you staying abroad for the whole year-we’re just getting started. Let’s make it count.

-Faith Lierheimer, DUSA blogger

Look Up

So at some point in your study abroad experience, you’re  going to start missing home very very keenly. It’ll happen at a different time for everyone-for some of you it’ll be right from the get-go and then you’ll gradually settle in. For others, you’ll have an amazing first few weeks and then once the first month rolls around you’ll find yourself missing the smallest things about DU, Colorado, or wherever your home state may be. The point is, it’s going to happen at some point, and it’s nice to know you’re not alone. I started missing home a lot when there were more and more days like this:

(Rainy, cold, and brutally windy)

….than days like this:

(sunny and positively enchanting).

What started to get to me especially were the shortened days. And I don’t mean Colorado shortened days where the sun goes down a bit after dinnertime and everyone feels like going to bed a bit early. No, I mean 4 pm, the sun is out of here, and you’ve still got part of the afternoon and an entire evening to get through before it’s acceptable to go to bed. And then the sun doesn’t come up again until 7:15, but it won’t really seem like it because it’s usually so overcast in the mornings this time of year. That’s difficult to figure out how to deal with, especially since Colorado spoils you so hard with its 300+ sunny days per year and its reliably spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

So I’ve had to do some strategizing. The first thing was making further use of the light box that my friend who went on this exchange program last year gave me. I have it on whenever I’m in my room, especially when it’s dark, and the added (if simulated) natural light does a lot to boost my mood. The second thing was to beat the sun at its own game. If sunset was going to happen at 4 pm, then I am going to get up with the sun and soak up all the vitamin D I can while it’s around. That’s turned out to be a pretty good strategy, as it leads to morning walks around campus and around town where there’s this gorgeous mist that settles over everything and then slowly burns off as the sun rises.

This particular stretch of road is home to several horses. They like to sit near the gates and wait for friendly people to come by and pet them and feed them.

The third helpful thing in beating the winter-darkness blues has been to look up. And that may seem like a vague bit of advice. But when I walk places, I tend to look at my feet or the ground in front of me a lot. This is born partially out of habit, and partly because I have been known to be quite clumsy and can avoid tripping over things if I’m watching where those things are. This also means that I miss a lot. So I’ve started to very intentionally vary my gaze while I’m walking places-whether it’s up at the trees, straight ahead at the people passing by, or to the side to look at the charming Yorkshire houses-I’m doing my best to quit looking at the ground.

And it helps! I’ve started to notice little things that I love about York that I wouldn’t have noticed before. There’s little grannies all over the place in town that argue with one another in thick northern accents about where they should go shopping next. All the dog owners in York chastise their dogs for not walking fast enough, while the dogs themselves just stare adoringly at their owners without a care in the world, because York is a great place to be a dog. You can catch little gaggles of schoolchildren at the right time of day heading off to classes and chuckle at their matching uniforms and ties bouncing over their shoulders as they race each other to get to the playground.

In short, looking up helps to remind me that the things I love about York far outweigh the frustration that comes with rainy, short days. So when you end up missing home or getting caught up in the annoying things about your host city, remember it’s not permanent. Seasons change. Rainy days end. The sun will rise and set resolutely, regardless of how short its allotted time in the sky is. And in the meantime, there are delightful and quirky things to be found in your host city, it just takes a little searching.

York, for example, loves skeletons and ghost stories.

-Faith Lierheimer, DUSA blogger.