If you’ve ever chatted to someone about moving to a new city or country, going on exchange, or travelling abroad, you’ve probably come across the idea of culture shock. According to wikipedia, culture shock is characterized by disorientation people feel when they experience an unfamiliar way of life, after moving or travelling to a new place. Since it sounds like the kind of thing that only happens when you move to somewhere totally, wildly foreign, I wrote it off as something I didn’t need to think about. Edinburgh doesn’t exactly seem like an exotic, foreign place – the language is the same (even if the accent sometimes proves a bit tricky to understand), the systems for everyday things like shopping and banking are really similar, and there aren’t many dramatic cultural differences.
So I was caught off guard when, in my first few weeks in Edinburgh, I found myself bewildered and confused by all of the little differences about life in a new country. The first inkling I had that things might be a little bit more foreign than I had expected was when I went to see an apartment that I was thinking about renting. The landlord spent the entire viewing telling me the ‘proper’ names for various things in the house. A stove is a hob, the toilet is the loo, the living room is the lounge, a table is still just called a table (although he explained that one to me as well), and so on. It was nice of him to make sure I understood everything, but it also made me a bit worried – what else was I not going to understand?? A lot, as it turned out.
The bus system was a bit of a mystery to me, grocery shopping became a confusing hour-long adventure, and I spent weeks looking for shoelaces. I felt like a complete idiot, until I went to a frosh week event for exchange students, and we got to talking about all of these unexpected differences we had encountered in Edinburgh. We talked about silly, seemingly tiny things, like how we didn’t understand how you were supposed to line up for buses, or why the crosswalk signals never seemed to turn green, or why you had to pay some mysterious taxes on top of your monthly rent, or where you could possibly find pillow cases in the city. I know these things don’t sound so important or dramatically different, but trust me, when they add up, they can really stress you out. Looking back on it, I realize that I was probably experiencing a little bit of culture shock. It didn’t occur to me at the time, because I thought it wasn’t possible to be culture shocked in a place so similar to my home country.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a lot of visitors from home who have changed my perspective though. Showing people around Edinburgh, taking them out for food and to sites around the city, explaining how things are done or what strange words mean, I’ve realized that there are cultural differences – the language isn’t quite as identical as I thought, the social norms are a little different, and some things are just confusing. And it took a few weeks (maybe even a few months), but I’ve learned! I call the bathroom the loo! I know the difference between pubs and bars! I have eaten haggis, and enjoyed it!
The only problem is that now that I’ve learned all of these things, I only have a few weeks left in Edinburgh. I’ll be flying home soon and leaving behind all of the cultural quirks that I’ve come to love. And, being a very talented full-time worrier, I’m now worried about reverse culture shock – something you encounter when you arrive home. I’ll let you guys know how it goes in a few weeks!