Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Hesitant Anglophile, or How England Helped Me Come Into My Own

I don't think it's a stretch to say Americans have longstanding obsession with the United Kingdom. It probably comes from the fact that the US was one of their former colonies and the first to fight them for independence, but we've never truly separated ourselves from the UK. Our histories are intrinsically entwined and we've always been dependent on establishing some kind of alliance together, for better and for worse. And if Hollywood trends are anything to go by, the next generation of popular actors and shows are coming exclusively from the British Isles. America has British fever, and it's probably never going to go away.

I cannot claim to be exempt from this rule, as the title of this post suggests. Ever since I was a child I have attempted to perfect the golden standards of the British accent. (Last time I checked, someone told me I sounded more Australian than English.) I watched Monty Python and Eddie Izzard on repeat throughout my teen years. I have an unhealthy obsession with British television from Doctor Who to Luther to My Mad Fat Diary. Many of my favorite actors, singers, and bands are British (including my celebrity crush, who I'd rather not name here). I've always been fascinated with British history as the sort of real trendsetters of Europe - particularly the Tudor era where Henry VIII and his descendants pretty much began modern England with petty marriage politics and paranoia. Many of my favorite plays come from England, from Shakespeare to George Bernard Shaw. I can't escape it - I will forever be fascinated with the United Kingdom.

The key world here is "fascinated". Whenever I hear someone say they're an Anglophile, I generally find that they think the sun shines out of the UK's ass. And if life has taught me anything, the grass is always greener on the other side. I recognize the United Kingdom has some serious issues - I don't understand how anything gets done in their parliamentary system, there's major class divisions affecting their current political and cultural landscapes for the worse, and they gave us Fifty Shades of Grey. No place is perfect, just as no one can be perfect themselves.

That all being said, I still adore the United Kingdom. And the reason why is that life has given me two major opportunities to love the nation - a theater partnership with a British theater school and a semester aboard in undergrad. And those experiences have truly helped me come into my own.

I first traveled to the UK I was ten. It was a family trip coming after spending a week in the south of France for my grandparents' fiftieth wedding anniversary. The memories I have are vivid - having a perfect view of a dead pigeon on top of a wire net outside our hotel room, watching a half-way decent West End musical about Buddy Holly, trying calamari for the first time in a Greek restaurant, being scarred for life by the torture exhibition at Madame Tussaud's, having the bare minimum of fun at (at the time only) Legoland, and sequestering myself with the crown jewels and memorizing every British monarch to erase the beefeater's Tower of London horror stories. I loved every minute of it and vowed to go back as soon as I could. I just didn't know how soon that would be.

Then by sheer coincidence I joined a theater company in high school that had a sister theater in the UK. For two years my family hosted fellow teen actors from the British Isles and I felt a kinship with them that I often didn't have with my American compatriots. I don't know if it was due to the shared love of acting or just general good vibes, but either way I felt like I could be myself without judgement. And when my theater company offered a trip to the sister theater when I was 18, I jumped at the chance. The two week excursion involved endless theater workshops and attending plays in London, and eventually performing at the sister theater just northeast of there. It shouldn't be surprising that I had an awesome time, and being able to hang out and act with my British peers felt beyond comforting. And it led me to making a solid vow that I would spend at least some part of my college career there.

That's where my fall semester abroad my last year of college comes to play.

Applying for a semester abroad was not easy. First, the application process was long and testing. I barely managed to gather my grades and recommendations in time and threw a fit in the international students' office close to the submission deadline. (I had to write a long apology letter saying I'd check my behavior once abroad.) There were also few programs that offered what I wanted - a fall semester at an accredited UK university as opposed to a sister campus in London - so my options were limited. Luckily, I managed to get accepted into a school about two hours northeast of London. Objective one achieved.

And then there were my parents. They had (understandable) concerns about me being a continent and ocean away without my immediate support network. My father was particularly worried about me up to the day I left their company, constantly imagining the worst. I get why they were so nervous - I'd be alone in a foreign place for three months and it wasn't for certain that I'd be able to cope on my own without any reliable aid if things went wrong. That worry even went as far as my parents staying in London with me during my first week orientation. (Granted, we did go on a biking trip through the Netherlands the week prior, but still.)

Would I be able to function in a different country? Could I keep it together? And would it even all be worth it?

The short answer? Yes, yes, and hell yes.

Turns out all that fretting was barely worth it. I made friends, adjusted to classes meeting once a week (though I could barely be assed to do the reading without set deadlines lol), and established familiarity with the campus and city pretty quickly. My mom and I set up a weekly phone call with my therapist back home and I utilized the mental health services the school made available, but I barely needed it. And while there was the occasional cry on the phone to my parents, I managed to make it through the three months with barely any panic attacks or meltdowns. I even managed to have a few brief flings with guys - the most action I got my entire college career. I was busy and content in a way I had never been in my life before or even since.

The prime example of my adjustment to the UK was when my father visited me in London. He had a day-long layover in London while returning from a business trip in Germany and I was in the city at the same time for an university-sponsored "Thanksgiving" dinner. We spent the day navigating the London Underground (with a few hiccups in direction and what train to take) and at the British Museum together. By the time we parted, my father had noted my ease with navigating and adapting the complex London landscape and joked with my mom upon his return that I might as well be British.

Why did I do so well? I'm still not sure. Maybe it's because I knew I couldn't afford to panic lest I get kicked out of the country. Maybe it was being in a new yet oddly familiar environment. Maybe it was I was surrounded by people who were easy to get along with in a way I never felt back in the States. Or maybe it's because I felt like I finally got what I wanted for so long. For the first time I felt like I had pursued something and it paid off in spades. I felt a sense of accomplishment in a way that I never felt before. And by staying in the United Kingdom over a long period of time, I found that if I set my mind to something I desperately wanted I could succeed at it in spades and be happy about it.

And so I thank the United Kingdom,for giving me what I always needed - the confidence that I was capable of anything I set my mind to. I'm not sure what I'd be without my British experiences, but what they made me has definitely been for the better.

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