Learning American

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I ate my first burrito in Atlanta airport. I was making my way across the pond for the first time, from the UK to Colorado Springs, USA, for college. Atlanta was my layover.

The foreignness of this burrito paralleled the strangeness of the land I found myself in—the United States of America. This sense of difference was unexpected, to say the least.

When I accepted my place to Colorado College, I imagined a social landscape much like the one I came from, though the physical landscape might have a few extra mountains. Same language, same democratic arrangements of government, same developed cities and infrastructure; all-in-all a similar lifestyle, or so I thought. The U.S. looked the same, but I soon discovered that it was unimaginably different to the rainy little island I call home.

It all started with that Atlanta airport burrito. I walked up to the counter, groggy from my eight hour flight. I ordered the first thing I saw on the menu. I’d heard of the burrito before—wasn’t it just a hot, glorified wrap? Little did I know I was walking into a grocery bag full of translation trauma. What even is a pinto bean, and why are you saying cilantro but pointing at coriander? Gesturing at the tortillas, even the server’s first question left me befuddled. She asked whether I wanted whole-wheat or flour. All I could think was, “Aren’t they both made of flour?” At home we call those “white wraps.” Ten minutes later, clutching my prized burrito, I walked away a changed woman.

I’ll admit, learning how to order a burrito was not a (totally) revolutionary experience. Over my three years here, I have come face-to-face with what feels like a million cultural differences I never expected. Some fall on the burrito level, some more serious.

In my first few weeks here, I used to launch into a tale of my day whenever anyone said, “Hi! How’re you?” before I learned it was just American for “Hello.” I get frustrated when people don’t stand on the right side of the escalator, leaving a path on the left for people to walk through. I’m tired of the endless need to drive to get 10 minutes up the road, and the lack of public transport. The way that all the buildings look new to me, at least in Colorado. We’re in election season, and I find this political system unbelievably alien, with a completely different definition of “conservative.” The parking lots and sneakers and sidewalks and eggplants.

I was naive to expect to find a replica of England in the US of A. Different countries; different cultures. This I knew, but, because of the apparent similarities, I did not expect the same kind of culture shock that I would upon moving to Morocco or Peru. Fair enough, the UK and U.S. are more culturally twinned than many other nations.

But the differences exist, and blimey they have bowled me over. My English expectations, proved increasingly wrong, made the differences all the more staggering. As my weeks in Colorado turned to months, my culture shock only grew. The more I learned about the U.S., the further from home I felt.

Three years on and the surprises continue to come aplenty.

I just road-tripped from Colorado Springs to San Francisco, and found myself in awe of the sheer size of this country. I don’t think the physical expanse of the U.S. can be fully appreciated until you drive its breadth. I ate In-N-Out for the first time and discovered that “over medium” is an option when ordering eggs (we say “sunny side down”). I’ve learned to expect foreign terms and customs from this land and feel excited to learn their myriad complexities. I find it frustrating when people say that New York resembles London, or that Brits are just like Americans, and am developing ways to explain our cultural differences. After all, I thought the same thing a few short years ago.

The USA still seems confusing and foreign at times. I have to put on an American accent so that Siri understands me and explain to professors that those aren’t spelling mistakes, just British style. But little by little, day-by-day, I’m starting to feel at home.

A senior sociology major at Colorado College, and a Brit. Passionate about writing, conversation, being in the sunshine and having a good pint.

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