Culture Shock

For those who recently joined us, Alex Tang, known as Magic Alex for her translation skills, was instrumental in creating the Mind Fleet website (mindfleet.cn). Now a graduate student in England, this is her second guest blog post.

Culture Shock

By Alex Tang

I’ve been in the UK for more than half a year now and I still find myself in constant culture shock. It is often the case that people associate culture shock with confusion, but for me, it is more than that, it also shows me an alternative to the default life I have had.

The culture shock began before I set my foot on campus. When I began my accommodation induction, the detailed information particularly on sexual health left me with a great impression.

Part of the accommodation induction

I always had a vague idea about the prevalence of STI among students, as there was widespread concern about the upsurge in the number of students diagnosed with HIV in China. And I can still vividly remember the loathing look a man showed when he pointed out the ‘causal’ relationship between the promiscuous life led by many students and increased HIV infections among university students. Though not sure what the university, government or society could do to address the worrying trend, I was sure that scornful look wouldn’t help in any way. Well, how is presenting students with ‘embarrassing’ data helpful? For me, I felt the impact of the information and would say it drove home the message of sexual protection.

Another example of culture shock: The first culture shock I experienced may be due to our overall conservative attitude towards sex in China. But I never expected that the way people travel could also be a major source of culture shock to me.

One day I was wandering on campus by myself. Haven’t decided where to go next, I happened to stand by the side of a zebra crossing and a car stopped before the zebra crossing. No traffic lights in sight, I waited for her to go first, as I had been used to doing in China. However, she didn’t seem to understand me and didn’t move an inch. We acknowledged the presence of each other through some awkward eye contact. Time stood still for a moment, then I saw her throw up both hands on the wheels and that drove me over the edge. I hurriedly crossed the road even if I didn’t want to. Then I heard a rumbling noise and watched the car disappear into the distance. It was until then that it occurred to me that it must be a convention here that car owners give way to pedestrians. Though that was not a pleasant encounter in itself, this realization made the experience quite positive.

My first train ride was another experience that put me into culture shock. The plan for that day was to visit Manchester with my date. I arrived at the train station half an hour earlier for security checks, except that when I arrived at the train station, I didn’t see any queue lining up to have their identities checked or security at the entrance maintaining order or doing security checks. I followed the trickle of people confused and I found myself at a platform of the train station. With nothing better to do, I waited in the lounge, watching time ticking away. It was eight minutes before the scheduled train ride and my date hadn’t shown up yet. He had been to a party the night before and Messenger suggested that he was up at 2 a.m. Well, I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t show up. But I decided that I should take the trip with or without him.

So when a train pulled into the station eight minutes earlier, heading in the same direction, stopping by the stations, I assumed that my train arrived earlier. To ask for confirmation, I tried to look for a conductor. With none in sight, I started to panic and got onto the train.

By the time I found a crew member, checked the information, and concluded that I boarded the wrong train, it was too late, the door was closed and the train was pulling out of the station. The conductor did not really seem worried. She told me that I should simply get off at the next station and tell the guard there what had happened and s/he could help me. It was then I realized that I should’ve waited for my date a little bit longer. I messaged him. Other than guilt, I was in disbelief. How could this have ever happened to me? In China, you have a zero chance of getting on the wrong train because there is always an exclusive gate for the specific train that people are expecting. There’s no way that you can get into the station without a ticket for a train. Also, it’s a reassuring sight that staff are standing a few meters apart in the station, always ready to provide information and help.

I got off at the next station and waited 10 minutes or so to meet my date. Initially, it was a bit awkward, and then we laughed it off. He told me he had boarded the train one minute earlier than the schedule and that if I took the wrong train to Manchester, I should have paid more because that train had more seats and was more spacious. Hearing that, I felt lucky that I didn’t have to pay for the mistake and pondered how efficient he and the train system were.

Me and my date (now boyfriend) at Manchester Piccadilly

Another major culture shock started with my journey to Durham to meet Miles Hudson, the founder of Postcards From Space. Though we never met, after some email exchanges, he was kind enough to have his girlfriend Jane put me up when he learned about my plans to see Durham and him. We exchanged numbers and I followed @FunPostcardsFrom on Facebook, where I got to know a Space Fact of the Day every day and what he looks like. That day he was at the train station to pick me up, I recognized him instantly. He has sharp eyes and was energetic as the photos on Facebook suggest. With the cloth shopping bag that said Postcards From Space, he had no doubt that I was the Alex.

Like a professional local guide, he briefed me about the arrangements for later in the day: a visit to his girlfriend’s so I can put my backpack there and then dinner at a local restaurant.

On the way to the restaurant, Miles pointed out the building across the road, and told me that it has a history of more than 200 years. Originally it was a government office building, then a school took it over, and now it’s a hotel. I was as much impressed as perplexed, because I presume it must be hard for a building to accommodate the changes in functions if the building is to be preserved the way it was. Otherwise, why is it common in China to refurbish a building in an extensive way if it is not to be torn down when the building changes hands? He explained that there were a couple of years when the building was left vacant because of the ‘harsh’ regulations set by the city council to keep its structures intact both inside and outside. The argument is that if the city wants to keep its character, its own unique identity, and therefore retain its appeal, then historical buildings should be preserved with utmost effort.

After dinner, Jane suggested we take a walk around the cathedral to enjoy its night view. When it came into our sight, Miles pointed it out to me that the St Cuthbert’s Cathedral has a history of over 1,000 years and is a world heritage site. The thought that the cathedral stands there as it has been for the last 1,000 years awed me, not to mention its magnificence. We couldn’t help but slow our pace and gaze at it. Then, we heard a bell ringing, echoing in the city. It was the sound of history, a connection between the past and present. I was totally mesmerized.

St Cuthbert’s Shrine at night

Hearing that I had never been to an English pub, they proposed that we stop by Victoria Inn, a popular local pub that, as the name suggests, dates back to the Victorian age. The pub is compact, with a fireplace facing the counter. Hanging on the wall are decorations of Victoria and items popular in that era. It doesn’t cater to modern entertainment services; people simply sit and chat over a drink. When I learned from Miles that the owner of the pub is the third in his generation to manage the business, I was amazed at how family history could fit so neatly with local history. The family commitment must have commanded great respect for the pub.

Victoria Inn

The next day Miles took me on a tour of the cathedral and castle. The trip was pleasant and enriching, thanks to his intimate knowledge of local history and culture. As a physics teacher, his responsibilities at school apparently don’t overwhelm him. Rather, he has free time at his disposal that allows him to pursue his passion outside his work, which I happened to find out when I dropped by the House of Hockey. In the hallway, I saw pictures of his radiant smile when playing hockey. Near the entrance, I found books piled up in the corner. They were his publications. It seems that the popular science writer also writes detective stories. Honestly, I can’t draw parallels between his teaching career with mine back in China, where I worked excruciatingly long hours. But not all people with some leisure would spend time his way. Had I not dropped by, I would have never known this side of him. By contrast, I told him a lot about my MA coursework projects and he invariably gave me enthusiastic comments. I do have a lot to learn in terms of humility. Back with some vague memories about his books, I managed to find his website online, https://mileshudson.com/.

Day tour of Durham

When asked how he became friends with Randy, Miles told me that Randy contacted him after watching a video about his publication of Postcards From Space. Randy sees great potential for the products in China, given how much Randy’s son Chester has enjoyed the series. That makes a lot of sense. I have always known that Randy keeps abreast with information on self-publishing. When asked how my friendship with Randy started, I told Miles about the welcoming smile Randy gave me the first day we met in Chongqing Library and how the friendship flourished as we discovered that we share similar outlooks on life and tastes in books.

For a moment, there was silence. It must be an acknowledgment of culture. At the end of the day, we create our own culture.

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