It’s amazing how much your own culture can amaze you.
Have you ever felt that way?
You’re away from your own town, county or country for a while, and then you get back and you think you know what to expect. It is your own culture, right?
But you’d forgotten about certain things and because you’d forgotten about them, they take you by surprise.
I’m writing this from the comfort of my parents’ home in England. I’ve lived outside the UK for 13 years, and this is my first visit back to England in two years.
When I arrived in the UK, three things about British society took me by surprise because I’d completely forgotten about them.
- One of these things was great and made me feel happy.
- One of these things was not so great and made me feel that some things need to change.
- The last of these things just made me think, “this is neither very good nor very bad. It’s just a bit weird.”
So here is my account of the three things I noticed between the airport in Birmingham (the UK’s second-largest city) and Frome (the lovely town where my parents live).
Here’s why this post is a bit different
In this post, instead of me telling you how something works, you're going to read some very high-level English with lots of advanced idioms, phrases and words.
You can find out what these new words and phrases mean at the end of the post, but don’t check immediately! Try to guess the meaning just from reading first.
If you think you can figure it out, tell me in the comments. I’d love to see how you do.
Surprise #1 — the UK Is Incredibly Multicultural and Ethnically Diverse
We had to wait in Birmingham for a couple of hours for our train to Frome. We went out to grab a bite to eat and have a sit-down.
Then we were reminded just how multicultural Britain is.
We ended up eating Mexican food at a place run by Bengalis that served both halal beef and beer.
I guess the image that summed up the beautiful diversity of the country was when we saw a stall of pious Muslim guys promoting their religion, and two steps away a shirtless African drummer loudly drumming out an awesome rhythm with an ear-to-ear grin on his face.
Two very different sides of human life side-by-side — the devout and the carefree, the reserved and the uninhibited.
Surprise #2 — the UK Is Very, Very, Very Institutionalised
One thing that jumped out at us was just how institutionalised the UK is.
Britain is famous for its signs — and there are signs everywhere. Here’s one:
And here’s another:
You get the idea. They’re all over the place!
This one was in a public toilet — really:
Seriously? I have to rush this?
There was also a creepy recorded voice telling me to be quick as well or face a fine.
Talk about Big Brother.
Wherever we were, we were surrounded by chain stores and brand names. Everything around us felt like it was owned by distant billionaires in expensive suits. Possibly burning money for fun and laughing maniacally while stroking a globe. That’s their sort of thing, right?
It was like the country was just a place for us to walk around in, but not participate in.
Finally, in the train station and on the train, there were constant announcements telling us to make sure we had our tickets handy or to keep an eye out for dodgy characters (yeah, really, like in a dystopian future film), or not to leave baggage unattended.
There was no way they were just going to let us sit back and enjoy the journey. They wanted us to be on our toes every step of the way.
Although, on the bright side, Bristol station is stunning:
Surprise #3 — British Drunk People Can Be REALLY Loud… and Kind of Scary. For a Bit.
When most people think of “British people,” they may have something like this in mind:
But there are a lot of very different kinds of people around.
On our way to my parents’ house, we took a train from Bristol to Frome. We were sharing the carriage with a bunch of inebriated lads taking the last train home after a night on the town.
We’d forgotten quite how rowdy people like this could get.
However, if you find yourself trapped in an enclosed space with drunk Brits, don’t worry. Their bark is worse than their bite and there’s (usually) no need to feel intimidated.
They were just a bunch of guys letting off steam and having a bit of a laugh.
It’s amazing how your own culture can surprise you and how easy it is to forget what makes up the society that you’re still a part of.
OK. So I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed sharing it with you. I’m afraid there are no giraffes playing tennis or killer rabbits in this series of posts, but they’ll be back in August!
Meanwhile, take a look at the phrases in bold and see if you can figure out what they mean.
And let me know in the comments!
(If you want to cheat, you can get the full definition of these words and phrases by clicking here.)
grab a bite to eat – have some food
have a sit-down – sit down and rest for a short time
pious – very religious
ear-to-ear grin – a massive smile!
devout – like pious, someone who follows their religion closely
carefree – not worrying about anything
reserved – private and introverted
uninhibited – the opposite of reserved: extroverted and not caring about what people think about you
jumped out at us – caught our attention very suddenly
all over the place – absolutely everywhere
Talk about Big Brother! – OK. This one has 2 parts. We say “talk about…” when we want to draw attention to how extreme something is. For example, you’re walking somewhere with your friend. It’s ridiculously hot — like, 45 degrees. You turn to your friend and say “talk about hot.”
“Big Brother” is a character in the book Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (I wrote about him here) about a government that watches everyone all the time. We now use this phrase to describe situations when we feel that the government is watching us too closely. Like with alarms in the toilet!
laughing maniacally – laughing like a crazy person. A maniac!
globe – here’s a globe:
their sort of thing – the sort of thing that they like
we had our tickets handy – We had our tickets somewhere we could get them easily. Another example? You want to make sure you have your passport handy when you’re going through immigration at the airport.
keep an eye out for dodgy characters – Again, this one has two parts. The first one, “keep an eye out for something,” means that you need to be aware that something exists and that you might see it. Be ready to see it!
“Dodgy” is a very British word that means “untrustworthy” or “dangerous.” We can use it for people and places.
on our toes every step of the way – “On our toes” means not relaxed and always ready for something unexpected to happen. “Every step of the way” basically means “at every moment.”
a bunch of inebriated lads – “Inebriated” means very, very drunk. A “lad” is another word for young man.
a night on the town – This means a night out going to pubs, bars and clubs. And very probably drinking too much.
rowdy – noisy, full of energy and behaving a bit like a messy gang
their bark is worse than their bite – This idiom means that they aren’t as dangerous as they seem.
letting off steam – getting rid of negative energy and stress. Personally I like to go to the gym to let off steam. The guys on the train liked to drink more beer than may humanly be possible.
having a bit of a laugh – having fun!