Study Abroad Stories: Experiencing American culture abroad

“Culture shock” was the phrase I heard the most before I left the country to study abroad. When I finally arrived here in London, the most shocking thing to me wasn’t the different culture; it was how much of the culture I recognized.I was prepared for differences: different manners, different money, different food, different politics. I wasn’t prepared for the slew of American imports.

When I turn on the television I see American programs like the “The Simpsons” and “Glee.” When I go dancing, I hear not only Lady Gaga and Jay Z, but Journey, too (and everyone knows the words to “Don’t Stop Believin'”). When I open the newspaper there is in-depth coverage of American politics and affairs.

I am regularly surprised by how pervasive American media is over here. It just didn’t occur to me that the people here would consume so much of the same television, music, and news that I do in America.

Now, this is not meant to imply that British culture follows the United States’, importing the pop culture and adopting similar policies, because that is not true. Britain is complex, unique and very proud. America is both praised and censured by the Brits, and I have already embarrassed myself thanks to cultural misunderstandings.

That said, I never realized how close the relationship is between Britain and the United States. I also never quite realized the kind of power and influence America wields, politically and culturally.

I have become hyper-aware of being American, not only because I give myself away the minute I open my mouth, but because everyone here seems to pay closer attention to my country than I do theirs.

Before I came here I knew nothing about British Prime Minister Gordon Brown besides his name. Here, I have found entire sections of the newspaper dedicated to covering American politics. Coverage of the Haiti earthquake focused largely on what the United States had done to provide relief and what they should be held responsible for doing.

Hollywood is also inescapable. American movies are on television and in the movie theaters here. Watching television is a similar experience: all the big American dramas are broadcast on British television. Top 40 radio sounds just the same here as in the United States, and Rupert Murdoch is causing trouble with the competition here, too.

I get different reactions from people when they find out I am American, ranging from overwhelmingly positive to lukewarm or even wary. It makes me wonder how all this American media shapes their opinion of me. I have my own stereotypes, but they are founded on little more than “Monty Python,” “Harry Potter,” and the occasional BBC costume drama.

There is no denying that the United States owes a lot to Great Britain. However, I’ve had to face up to the fact that I live in what is still the most powerful country in the world, despite anxious rhetoric in America about the decline of U.S. power in the face of globalization and the rise of India and China.

It is an unsettling realization for me personally. I never imagined that seeing an episode of “Friends” could make me feel this disconcerted, but context is everything, I suppose. I had anticipated that studying abroad would teach me about a new country, but I never realized I would learn something new about mine, too.