Monday, 21 June 2010

top 10 shocking things i discovered about the UK

after being in england for about 5yrs now, i have to wonder how i could ever have been shocked by any of the mundane things listed below. but, thinking back, these were definitely some of the more shocking things i hadn't expected. before i arrived, i kind of just expected the mother country to be... well... another america. somehow, you just don't expect another first world anglophone country to be so different (let alone the mother country herself) - after all, i'd been to canada, briefly, which certainly didn't seem so drastically different from the states (sorry, canadians).

anyways, here are the top 10 shocking things i discovered about england and the UK:

1. everything is smaller

the first thing that strikes you is the sheer diminutive size of everything - from houses, to cars, to food portions, to the land. yes, the land. - you just don't expect an entire country to be smaller than a state. and certainly, you don't expect the UK to be roughly the size of california.

2. stationery is different

for some reason, i'm weirdly fascinated by stationery. so i was completely confused when i couldn't find a standard two-pocket folder to save my life. in england, folders aren’t like the american two-pocket ones. here, they usually look like giant envelopes - sometimes, they're made of colored cardboard material, and other times, they're transparent plastic.

3. weight is measured in stones

i was already prepared to be completely baffled by the weather reports, being (still) unaware of what any temperature means in celsius. but when i heard about people's weight being measured in a unit called "stones", somehow that just sounded so - archaic - so, medieval. time, however, never taught me, and to this day, i still have no clue how much i weigh in "stones".

4. groceries and laundry

at first, this might seem weird - surely, there couldn't be that many differences when it comes to groceries and laundry. but oh, there are! looking back now, this definitely seems like a very embarrassing and princessy item on the list here. but at first, i was admittedly traumatized by having to - bag my own groceries. it's a lot more stressful than you might think. here in the UK, there's not that extra store employee standing at the end of the line, bagging your groceries for you. instead, i had to fumble with the plastic bags myself, trying to open them and bag everything, with a giant line of people behind me, impatiently breathing down my neck. arrgghhh... so nerve-wracking. plus, instead of your store card giving you automatic discounts off your purchase, coupons are sent (and often lost) via the mail (or "post", as they say here). ung.

there was also that grocery item called "squash". i had to have this explained to me over and over, before i finally saw it "made" and the light bulb ultimately came on. basically, at the grocery store, you can buy bottles of concentrated "fruit squash". but you can't drink it straight from the bottle, like juice. you have to pour some of the squash into your glass and fill the rest of your glass with tap water or "lemonade". "lemonade" in this case isn't that yellow summery drink you make from lemons - here, it's more like a 7up or sprite.

a common form of squash is "blackcurrant". blackcurrant is a common flavor for a lot of things here. blackcurrant does not exist on a commercial scale in the states. it took me the longest time to figure out what it was. judging from pictures on boxes and bottles, i originally thought maybe it was the british word for "blueberry". so finally, after months of excruciating curiosity, i just had to ask my co-worker, who reacted much as i'd expected, "you don't know what blackcurrant is??? IT'S A BERRY!!" basically, it's a european berry that's used to flavor a lot of commercial products (juices, candy, etc.), the same way that cherries and strawberries are used in the states. in fact, the skittles and starbursts over here in england have a blackcurrant flavor. weird.....

- blackcurrant squash:

*whew!* i could just go on forever about groceries (there are also no wonderful unhealthy american cereals, like lucky charms or apple jacks - basically, none of the sweet cereals. there're only healthy fiber stuff here, and the traumatizing blocks of weetabix). but let’s move on to - laundry. this wasn't really any different while i was living in student dorms. in dorms, you get the typical campus laundromat with the cheap washer/dryers. but once you move out, you realize that most places do not have dryers. dryers are expensive, usually only operating for a few minutes at a time, so you practically have to keep loading it with coins to get any real drying done. most people here hang dry their clothes - and you can buy racks to hang your laundry on. this was admittedly very traumatizing for me at first, although, now i'm used to it - i didn't buy a rack, or anything, i sort of just hang everything on coat hangers in the bathroom.

oh yea, and another thing about the washing machines here - they're usually in the kitchen. so for the longest time, i thought they were dishwashers. so, if you're american and staying with someone in the UK, make sure that it really is a dishwasher before putting in any dirty dishes. dishwashers aren’t that common, so if it's in the kitchen, chances are, it's NOT a dishwasher, but a washing machine for your laundry.

5. discrimination

surely, the evil that is discrimination exists everywhere? well yea, it does. but the way in which different cultures discriminate is... well... different, as i learned. yes, discrimination is a hot potato, sensitive issue. but meh, i'm just gonna get it out there. in america, we've all heard about racial discrimination, blah blah blah - who hasn't. the weird thing is, when you come over to this side of the pond, you notice that the racial checkboxes (or "tickboxes", as they say here) are different - you know, the section you fill in on the "equal opportunities" form when applying for employment. i'd always made the assumption that race was the same everywhere, but i guess different places classify it differently. in the states, the checkboxes are fewer and more "color oriented": white, white hispanic, black, asian, native american, mixed. here, in england, all of a sudden, there are about fifty different checkboxes, revolving around nationality: white, white irish, asian indian, asian pakistani, asian bangladeshi, chinese, black african, black caribbean, and then about ten different forms of mixed races.

even though america is stereotyped as being an evil racist country, personally, i think the UK is somewhat worse in terms of discrimination. because in addition to the typical racism that you'd expect as an american, there can also be anti-ginger sentiment, which is discrimination against redheads (something that south park has recently exposed america to, apparently). this probably stems from historical tensions between british vs. irish and scottish. since there tends to be more redheads in ireland and scotland, anti-ginger sentiment developed in england.

furthermore, there's also something called "classism" - discrimination against different classes. i had no idea why “class” was such a giant deal in the UK, and why it kept coming up, and i had never heard of “classism” before coming over here. yea, in america, we have the super-rich and the super-poor, and everything in between, but because of the ideals of the american dream and the firm belief in class mobility, there's no real idea of "class" as something that exists as a permanent part of your identity, the way "race" does - "class", and the wealth that's associated with it, is thought of as something that can change with your job or circumstances, while "race" is fixed - and even though people have varying degrees of wealth, we're all thought of as being equals, as "working middle-class". but in the UK, it's a whole other mentality altogether. people are born a certain class and it becomes pretty much a permanent part of their identity, such as “royalty", like the queen et al - they're the extreme, at the top of the class chain. i didn't really understand the point of "royalty" when i first came over - yea, it's a romantic archaic notion to have kings and queens, but in today's day and age, why care about them and give them respect when they haven't done anything to earn their standard of living? but i guess it's just a long-standing part of british culture. the whole idea of "class" being a fixed part of your identity, similar to "race", probably stems back from the UK's medieval roots, when everyone pretty much just did the same profession as their parents.

- the queen's castle at windsor:

6. artsy-ness
england definitely lives up to its european stereotype of being "artsy-fartsy". (on a side-note here, although the UK is part of the european union, it's still somewhat separate from the rest of europe. when they talk about "europe", they're referring to continental europe, rather than to themselves. this whole mentality of separate-ness probably comes from the fact that the UK is a set of isles apart from continental europe, and also that they're on the pound, rather than the euro.)

anyways, when you're in the states and you tell people that you want to be a novelist, people just sort of look at you funny, like they don't really know how to react or they think you're a little weird, which is annoying. so i was actually shocked to discover that wanting to be a novelist/writer is pretty much the norm here in the UK. there's even a common phrase here, "everyone has a novel in them." and the whole idea of being an artist or a writer is really glorified and romanticized.

anyhoo, another artsy thing i noticed is the prevalence of food shows dominating the UK entertainment industry and populating your everyday life. food is elevated to a high art form. yes, we've all heard about the notorious horror that is british cuisine. but when it comes to the more high brow stuff, amazing food is definitely on the menu (if you can afford it). when i came over to the UK, i started hearing about "michelin stars", which are these awards given to amazing chefs and their restaurants. there are tons of celebrity chefs here, publishing cookbooks, endorsing supermarkets, and filling the tv channels with their shows. - they're even starting to invade the states, like gordon ramsay's hell's kitchen. one of my fav celebrity chefs here is heston blumenthal. i met him while he was signing his beautiful and giant cookbook at bloomsbury publishing house - i was an intern there, handing him the books as he signed them. i actually didn't really know who he was at the time, since he's not famous in the states. but his restaurant is the fat duck, and if you can spare the cash, it is definitely worth going!! (i haven't been yet, 'cause i'm still poor - but one of my fellow classmates has just gone! you know who you are!!). this is cuisine unlike any other - part delicious food, part science experiment.

7. lack of workaholism

europeans tend to stereotype americans as workaholics. yup, europeans are generally less hardcore about everything. this has its positives and its drawbacks. the positives are obviously - less work. even when it comes to paperwork (school applications, tax forms, etc.) there's less of it. the drawback is that everything's always closed and generally more inefficient and disorganized. in the states, nothing's ever closed. supermarkets stay open well past midnight, and it's easy to go to starbucks and just sit and read with a coffee whenever you feel like it - whether it be at 6am or 11pm - weekday or weekend. not so, in the UK. here, a lot of stores are usually only open for a few hours on sunday, supermarkets close anywhere between 7pm-10pm, and all coffee shops shut down around 7pm. usually, only restaurants stay open past 7pm, even in central london. so if you're over on this side of the pond, keep these early closures in mind when you're planning your day.

8. different parts of the UK are… different

somehow, i expected the UK to be pretty much uniform... for an area that's roughly the same size as california, i didn't really expect very many regional differences. of course, i expected the slight regional variations, like what you'd find between northern california and southern california - northern california's a bit colder, some southern californians can't handle northern californian rain and "cold", etc. so when i came to the UK, i could not believe the dramatic differences between close regions.

regional accents vary significantly - some can even be virtually unintelligible to the un-trained american ear. yup, it's not always that nice open-vowel sounding accent that you hear on tv, with americans pretending to have british accents. usually, the american idea of the stereotypical english accent is the "posh" or "queen's" accent. people in southern england have more of this stereotypical british accent. sometimes, the "lower-class" accent can be harder to discern, and especially in northeast england, there's an accent called the "geordie accent", which is even unintelligible to other brits.

so boy was i wrong in assuming that, when i came to england, i'd be speaking the same language. learning british english was almost like learning a foreign language - they have different words for a lot of things, like "boot" "skip" "crisps" "chips" "footpath", etc. and the list goes on. respectively, to translate into american english, it's boot = trunk (as in the trunk of a car), skip = dumpster, crisps = potato chips, chips = french fries, footpath = sidewalk. plus, of course, you have to train your ear to decipher all the different accents and slangs. i could have really benefited from a translation course before coming over.

plus, i learned that all the different countries that make up the UK are very separate and unique. despite being 'united' into a single 'kingdom', the different UK countries (england, scotland, ireland, and wales) are vastly different, from having different accents, to having their own flags, culture, etc. the irish and scottish tend to be friendlier, more upbeat, and more american- and australian-like, while the english tend to be more reserved, pessimistic, and standoff-ish (hey, it's true). the english (or "british", as americans tend to say) are also more subtle, less direct. when i first came over, it was really hard for me to understand what people were trying to say, since most of our meaning is conveyed in the tone of voice and body language - which i could not read at all. everything just seemed very subtle to me. there're also the subtle ironies of british humour, which are quite elusive. ultimately, however, i’d say the UK culture’s more similar to the american east coast than to the american west coast.

9. sports are different
so they have a whole 'nother set of sports here in the UK. somehow, i always thought sports were universal. but anyways, sometimes they might play some american sports, like basketball and baseball, but it's definitely not as common as their own sports, such as cricket, snooker, rugby, polo etc. "football", of course, means "soccer" in american, while "football" in american is called "american football" in british. horse racing and greyhound racing are also really popular over here, and there's even a chain with stores everywhere, called ladbrokes, where you can bet on all sorts of racing and other sports. some sports are divided into social class, such as polo being an upper-class sport, since lessons are very expensive.

10. countryside
so the countryside is very romanticized over on this side of the pond. - the simple, quaint, country life, with little cottages, etc. - think “the shire” in lord of the rings. while an american might think, "omg! we're in the middle of nowhere!" - here, the mentality's more, "this place is just beautiful! it's completely empty!" in the states, we're pretty used to everything being developed - the city doesn't just end when you leave the city, there're still miles and miles of sprawling suburbs that go on endlessly - civilization as far as the eye can see - and that's, of course, how we like it! but here, i was shocked to find that, the second i got out of london, the whole UK pretty much turns into countryside. it is EMPTY! outside of london. this really scared me when i first came here - while everyone else in the car was crooning about how beautifully empty the scenery was, i was getting that agoraphobic feeling, like i was stranded in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight. however, i've since adjusted, and the countryside has taken on very idyllic connotations for me now. =)

so, if you're ever in the UK, don't stay cooped up in london the whole time. there are some really relaxing, quiet countrysides to be enjoyed, with plenty of sheep and farms filling the scenery.

- yorkshire sheep:

. rese

Thursday, 17 June 2010

the beginning

let's start with a recap of my travels before i came to the UK.

when i was in high school, i had my first real travel/tourist experience when i joined People to People as a student ambassador. we did a tour of europe over the summer: england, france, belgium, germany, and netherlands (oh yea, and a quick stop at luxembourg). it was an unbelievable experience, and all these years later, i'm still in touch with some of my fellow students on that trip. i was learning european history in class back then, and it was incredible to go to europe and see that history right before your very eyes. you really realize that american history is just a blip in time, compared to what you can see in other parts of the world. my People to People experiences ultimately became the basis for my student application essay, which helped to get me into UC Berkeley. so parents, i would definitely recommend this program for your high schoolers. =)

during college, i did a summer study abroad in paris, which of course, i would definitely recommend doing as well. if you can't fit a one-year study abroad into your full-time schedule, then definitely consider simply doing a summer program instead.

after college, i bought my first digital camera, a small canon elph, and went on 7wks of the most intense travel i've ever had. of course, it was a great experience. i joined international student volunteers and went to australia for 2wks of tree planting in the small town of bendigo, followed by 2wks of touring the australian east coast, from melbourne to sydney; finally, we stopped for a week in fiji, before returning to los angeles, where i stayed for a night before flying to israel to help out on my professor's archaeology dig in tel dor for 2wks. i've never been more tan than when i returned that summer!

personally, i had a great experience with international student volunteers. we probably did every form of outdoor adventure activity possible, in some of the most beautiful jaw-dropping scenery: white water rafting, sea kayaking, rappelling, surfing, sailing, snorkeling, etc. australia is definitely a must-see, especially if you love the outdoors.

- the sandy highway, fraser island, australia:

when it comes to the famed great barrier reef, however, i would have to say that fiji takes the cake on that one. from my experience, the reef is more beautiful in fiji than in australia, and snorkeling should be a must on the fiji to-do list. i have never seen beaches more beautiful than the ones at fiji - pristine white sands and crystal clear blue waters. it should be a sin not to go into the ocean - there, you could swim with all sorts of natural wildlife, from dolphins to small whales and sea turtles. you'll become so spoiled, you would never want to swim in a chlorinated public pool again. the islands are also really close together, so i would definitely recommend a day of island hopping on a small boat. as for accommodation, there are amazing hotels at fiji, but if you're a student, like i was, you would probably have to stay in a hostel, like i did. the downside of hostel life is that the tap water is brown and un-drinkable, so you'll have to go out to a spring to collect rain water. but it's not a big deal, and you're not going to be spending all your time in the hostel, anyways.

- the waters of fiji:

- sunset at fiji:

as for my final stop, israel, i have to be honest and say that i didn't get to see much of it, because i spent most of my time on the dig site. i did manage to get away for a weekend with other diggers to masada. of course, i would recommend it; the desert landscape is amazing and beautiful. in america, we're not used to seeing anything older than a couple hundred years, so to see a historic site that was thousands of years old, dating back to the time of christ, was just mind-blowing. as for walking through the surrounding desert, needless to say, it was HOT!! bring plenty of water; freeze bottled water and put them in your backpack, but be warned that they could soon turn into bottles of near-boiling water. don't wander the desert alone - if you get lost, you could quickly dehydrate or pass out from the heat. the heat was so oppressive, it made me feel like i would evaporate. there are, however, oases where you could stop for a swim and cool down. do swim in the dead sea - you will float in a very strange and funny manner, but take the phrase "like salt in an open wound" seriously. if you have a cut anywhere, it will HURT!! i learned that the hard way. fortunately, there are freshwater showers nearby where you can rinse yourself off. finally, if you're in israel, it's easy to cross the border and see the famed petra in jordan. others from my dig did, but i was in fiji at the time.
- masada at sunrise:

so for indiana jones fans, would i recommend participating in a real life archaeology dig? well, let's just put it this way - only if you're curious or if it's your passion. it's certainly not something i would volunteer to do again, anytime soon. digging on an archaeology site is HARD WORK!! back-breaking labor in intense heat. we had to be on the dig site before the sun rose, at around maybe 4am, so we could get everything done before noon when it got too hot to be out. it's not quite what you see on tv, some light dusting with a brush here and there. and definitely nothing like indiana jones. it's using pickaxes to break rock and soil, it's wheeling around really heavy wheelbarrows full of dirt. but yes, more likely than not, you'll find some ancient artifact that you'll get to take home with you. we were digging on an ancient roman site, and the first pottery shard i found, i was really excited about - but the novelty sort of wore off after about the 100th one that turned up. the professors and dig leaders kept all the important finds, of course, but i'm still proud of the pottery shards i got to take home with me. =)

- our archaeology dig site:

in short, that was how i blew all my part-time money that i had saved over my 4yrs of college in one summer. but would i do it again? of course! afterall, you're only young once.

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welcome and introduction

welcome to my travel blog!

wow, where to start. well, to give you a little introduction, i was born in houston, texas, raised in upstate ny, and my family and i moved to california about 10yrs ago when i went to college there. now we're based in the 'burbs of los angeles. i recently finished studying at royal holloway, university of london, and am typing this on my laptop in central london, as we speak. i've been in england for about 5yrs already now. time has flown by!!

given my background, this blog'll be an american-eyed view of travel and living abroad. and of course, of travel on a budget - given my background. so if you're that lucky 1% of the population who can afford big luxury vacation deals, then this blog probably isn't for you. keep checking back, though - who knows, there's always the chance that i could publish a bestseller and start giving tips on luxury vacations. but until then, if you're a student, or just plain poor, then i can hopefully help you out. afterall, if i can afford it, then you probably can too!

happy travels!

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