Moving Chronicles: Seoul to Bristol: On Feeling Stupid

Morning practice on the River Avon in front of MsCaroline's (temporary) apartment.  

So, after 3 weeks of silence, MsCaroline has finally managed to find some time to do a little updating and let her readers know how she is adjusting to Life in the UK.

So far, so good.  The AsiaVus are comfortably ensconced in a small temporary accommodation on the River Avon (I know, aren't we lucky?) where they will stay until they move into their actual dwelling with all of their possessions (and the dog) sometime around the beginning of March. MrL is taking the train to work every day, trying to get up to speed at the new job, and remembering to spell words like, 'organise' and 'defence' correctly.   MsCaroline is lucky enough to have some other partners of MrLogical's co-workers here in Bristol as well, and they are all sharing the learning curve together.  #2 has hit the ground running.  He has organized an unpaid internship at a local art gallery for himself, applied for several barista jobs, and traveled twice to Cardiff (to visit a friend at Uni there.)

Obviously, the enormous language barrier that existed in Korea is not actually a problem here.  And really - all the 'separated by a common language' jokes notwithstanding - MsCaroline hasn't had any silly misunderstandings yet, like asking for 'pants' when she means 'trousers' (hearty laughs all round) or using the word 'fanny' (not part of MsC's standard lexicon in either English) to the consternation of all and sundry. (US readers who don't know what I'm talking about, click here.)

In some ways, MsC feels that it might actually have been easier to move to the UK directly from the US, instead of coming from Korea, because she is still adjusting to Not Being In Korea at the same time she is adjusting to Being in the UK, and that has been a bit of a surprise. A few observations:

  • Not looking different:  In Korea, one is immediately recognized as a foreigner;  everyone understands that you're Not From Here, and braces themselves for stupid behavior accordingly.  No one expects you to be able to speak the language, no one expects you to know the customs, no one expects you to know what you're doing - and (Koreans being Koreans) most of the time, people will leap to help you (even when you don't need it.)  Here in the UK, though,  MsCaroline does not look appreciably different from anyone else (except shorter, fatter, and less chic), and - until she opens her mouth - it is simple enough for everyone to assume that she is a local who Knows What She is Doing.  This also means that, when MsCaroline does dumb things, she just looks Stupid, instead of like an Exotic Foreigner Who Does Not Know English Ways.  For example:  upon entering a pub, one always places orders at the bar.  Even if the pub is huge and looks like a proper restaurant.  Even if there are wait staff walking around the tables delivering food, and even if there are menus on the table.  What one does not do in a pub is sit down at the table and wait expectantly for someone to take one's order, because it will never happen, no matter how long one sits there waiting.  Do not ask me how I know this.  
  • Not knowing the customs:  Let MsCaroline preface this comment by saying that, before she moved to Korea, she never traveled by bus.  Subway, yes, but bus, no.  In Korea, however, she took the bus all the time and found it to be fast and efficient.  When she got to Bristol and noted the extensive bus system, then, she was a confident bus rider and ready to take advantage of a cheap and convenient public transport system in which she had the advantage of being able to understand everything she read.  What she did not know(but should have realized, duh), however, was that buses in Bristol (she cannot speak for the rest of the UK) are somewhat different than buses in Korea, particularly with regards to stopping.  In Korea, if a bus is supposed to stop at, say, Bus Stop #2, it stops there. Whether or not anyone needs to get off, and whether or not there is a person waiting at the stop (granted, the 'stopping' might be more of a 'slowing' but a token attempt is made.)  And if a person is waiting at the stop, the bus always stops.  If it happens that several buses serve the same stop and the person is waiting for a different bus, well, no harm done.  The driver closes the door and drives on.  But  - and this is key -if a person is waiting at the bus stop, the bus stops.  This is not, however, the case in Bristol, which is how it came to pass that, on one particular day, MsCaroline stood at a bus stop in Bristol for approximately 20 minutes while no fewer than 10 buses whizzed right by her, not so much as even slowing down, while she became more and more embarrassed and confused.  She even went so far as to search the bus stop for some sort of button or light to activate.  But it never once occurred to her to stick her hand out and hail the bus as you would a taxi.  So, she walked, and it was a refreshing and lovely walk indeed.  And when she went home later on, she watched  this video, which she probably should have done in the first place.  And now she knows. 
  • Not Knowing the money:  Yes, yes, MsCaroline understands that it's pounds and pence here;  that's not the issue.  The issue is, the coins.  First of all, MsC did not realize that there is a pound coin.  This is not like a US silver dollar or Susan B. Anthony thing - sort of largeish and weighty, sending the message, "Hey! I am pretty valuable!"  The pound coin is heavy, but smallish - sort of the size of a US nickel - and really unassuming, except for its goldish color.  As a result, one fails to realize that it's worth a lot of money (comparatively.)  The first thing MsC bought was an umbrella (yes, MsC moved to the UK without one like an idiot, but in her defense, she was rushing at the end there) which cost £6.  She handed over £10, and was given a handful of coins, which her American mind immediately calculated to be the change left over from the cost of the umbrellas plus tax(which is already added in the UK, like in Korea and most of Europe, not tacked on extra like in the US, but she was not thinking clearly.)  She continued to wait stupidlyexpectantly for the bills to be handed over, which, of course, did not happen. Only when she looked at the coins in her hand, did she realize that she'd been given 4 £1 coins, which was, of course, the correct change.  She is still getting used to this.  It also does not help that the coins you would expect to be more valuable tend to be less valuable (have you ever seen a 2p coin? It's huge!) and vice versa.  It also doesn't help that MsCaroline's aging eyes cannot always see the (very faint) print on the coins telling her what they are worth  - especially since she is often in pubsdimly lit places when she's trying to deal with these coins. It's very humbling.  She has finally resorted to taking out her money at home, figuring out what it is worth, and memorizing its sizes and shapes (big silver polygon=50p; tiny silver polygon=20p;  multicolored large circle- £2, etc.) so as not to embarrass herself quite as often.  
  • Understanding the language, but not the customs:  MsC is still trying to figure out how to respond to, "Alright?" For my non-UK readers, "Alright?" is used as a sort of a greeting in the UK, but MsC (despite intense observation and careful listening) has not figured out how to respond properly to someone who says, "Alright, MsCaroline?" or just, "Alright?" Usually, she is paralyzed by indecision:  What do I say? "Yes, I'm alright?" or, "Fine, Bob, and you?" or should I use it back at them, like 'Hi':  "Alright, MsCaroline?" "Alright, Bob?" When MsC first arrived, she thought that she somehow appeared to be unwell, and people were concerned about her.  In the US, if MsC were to ask someone if they were 'alright' it would indicate that the other person looked ill or upset and MsC was inquiring about their state of being.  Here, though (and maybe this is a Bristol thing, MsC has no idea) 'Alright?' is clearly a greeting.  The problem is, MsC just has no idea as to what the correct response would be.  She has settled for a kind smile and nod combined with an unintelligible mumble, hoping that the other person will hear what they expect to hear and let her off the hook.  She would greatly appreciate direction from anyone who can tell her what she should be saying.  She is pleased to report, however, that she is doing better with, 'Cheers' or 'Cheers, mate' which is clearly a farewell and not a toast.


Trish said…
How funny! I would never have realised there could be so many things that would puzzle an English speaking person in the UK but, of course, you are right. Yes, you need to hail a bus and the coins aren't sized according to their value.
So pleased to hear Son #2 is doing so well - you must be so proud of him, obtaining an internship etc.

As regards 'alright' - I think it's more a Bristol thing. People do say it elsewhere but I've not really noticed it happening that much. I think your reply - an 'alright' back at them - is the correct thing to do.
MsCaroline said…
Trish- yes, I've been surprised, too! And it really does seem worse when you don't appear to have a good excuse for not knowing what you're doing! Of course, once I open my mouth, everyone immediately grasps the situation, but until then, one just looks dim. I'm getting used to the coins, but honestly, I feel like it takes me forever to fumble my way through them. Fortunately, everyone's very kind and patient. Yes, #2 has jumped right in, which is fantastic. I appreciate the input on 'alright' - I would never have expected to be flummoxed by one word!
Hails said…
So funny - I mean interesting - to see what puzzles newcomers here, having been the confused foreigner in so many countries myself! :) As far as 'alright' goes, I always respond with 'hey', 'hi', or 'how are you?'. 'Alright, Hayley?' - 'Hey John, how are you?'. Neither party responds to either question, and I'd probably be mildly irritated if held back to listen to one! As for coins, I feel exactly the same way when I cross the border here and have to deal with Euros.
Unknown said…
LOL...LOL. I completely understand where you are coming from. To be fair, I still feel kind of stupid at times because I don't always understand what they are talking about and have to ask them to translate to American. The first week at "Uni" my professor handed me a flyer to a class teaching "English." The entire class was laughing. It was really funny.

Before I moved my friends dubbed me the UK Cajun. The UK Cajun wrote some very entertaining posts when I first arrived.

I can't read the blasted coins either, so I just had to memorize the shapes. Too many coins! And why do they not have a one pound bill!

There are only very few pubs I have been in where someone actually came to your table to take your order. I found that very strange, but since the wait staff here actually gets paid at least minimum wage per hour, they don't have to work just for tips like in the U.S. Also you will notice they DO NOT expect to be tipped. Of course as an American I always tip, but the challenge was to make sure the waiter actually got the tip. Apparently it is common practice to not give the waiter the tip if you pay by card. We only found that out by accident, so we started asking our waiters if they would actually get the money. We also started carrying cash for tips to make sure the waiter actually got the money. And don't leave a tip on the bar either because it will go straight into the register and not to the bartender.

LOL about the bus. I never took a bus for public transport until I moved here either. And yes, the buses passed me by. I figured if I was standing by the bus sign at the curb they would stop, but NO. Fortunately, one of the ladies at the bus stop explained you had to flag the bus down to stop. Of course the first time on the bus I didn't recognize the stops to get off either and completely missed my stop. I ended up staying on the bus all the way back to my starting point. The bus driver just laughed.

I may look the same, but trust me as soon as I open my mouth, they know I am not from here. I have been asked if I am from Canada several times, but with my very southern accent they pretty know I am from the U.S. with many guessing Texas. My Texas accent is much stronger than my Cajun accent for a while now. Once a drunk girl in Manchester asked me if I was from Wales! Even her friends were laughing. Then she said "So you're are not from this country?" No "shite" (British word) Sherlock! I get a lot of comments about my accent. For some reason the Brits really like it and think I'm hilarious.

About the "Alright"...yep hear that too. It's just their friendly way. I cannot even try to sound like a Brit, but they actually do really well practicing their American accent. I have noticed some British terms coming out of my mouth, and I'm absolutely "Gobsmacked" when that happens. But some phrases are just really catchy, like "lovely."

Honestly, the grocery store was a whole other experience. I used to take pictures of items and post them on FB. Some of the names of the products are just hilarious. It is definitely an education living here.

You are going to experience a lot more differences that you will not expect, but I'm not going to spoil those little surprises for you. Anyway, keep us posted. Cheers!
MsCaroline said…
Hails -well, to be fair, I fully expected to run into conundrums - heck, I even ran into them in Canada! - but I think coming from Korea I was feeling a bit smug in the 'well, at least I know the language' sort of way. I really wasn't anticipating that it would not be the language, but rather the habits/customs that would get me. Live and learn. Thanks for the guidance on 'alright' - sounds like it's a lot like 'how are you' as a lot of Americans use it; with no intention of getting a reply. ; )
MsCaroline said…
Kelly - yes, it's been an adventure. I started blogging shortly before we moved to Korea because I anticipated a few wacky experiences (and got them!) and have been at it for about 4 years now. Having lived in so many places abroad, the fact that there have been cultural differences hasn't been a surprise to me as much as the fact that they've been the ones I would have least anticipated. But I suppose that's what keeps things interesting, right?
Alright - definitely a Bristol thing! I seem to remember it sometimes came with "My lover" tacked on, which was quite disconcerting when I was a student there. Eg. the cleaning lady at our halls of residence would greet us in the morning with "Alright my lover?"

Funny about the bus, and money. I found money very difficult in the US when I arrived, and still struggle with Euros. It'll take you a couple of years to get the hang of it, I predict - by which time you'll be heading off somewhere else....

Will be very interested to hear about your new abode. (Also, message me if you want to come to BritMums in June, and meet some other bloggers!)
Nance said…
So much adventure. At least you have the good grace to feel only confused and slow rather than angry and put-upon.

I'm comforted that you and your family are American Ambassadors. Heaven knows there are too many others out and about, perpetuating the stereotype of the Ugly American.
Circles said…
Hilarious ! Thank you for making me laugh out loud tonight! Also fascinated by the things that puzzle newcomers - I will read the para on 'alright' to my American husband as he often teases me with this, and attempts a cockney accent: "Al-wight!" Brilliant post and love the UK edition new look. Wishing you all my very best in Bristol :-)
MsCaroline said…
NVG- Ha! I've not heard 'my lover' yet, but now I've been forewarned, at least. Plenty of 'love/my love' but it's very similar to the use of 'honey/darling/sugar' that you run into all over the American South, so I do quite well with that. I'll PM you about BritMums, sounds fantastic!
MsCaroline said…
Nance - yes, we are trying hard to do all we can to be good ambassadors. Fortunately, everyone is so wonderfully kind that it's extremely easy!
MsCaroline said…
Circles - Oh, I'm sure he would be able to relate! It's funny how you get used to things and no longer realize they're unusual - it was always a surprise when new people came to Korea and what they'd remark on. I warn you, there are plenty more observations to come!
BavarianSojourn said…
I loved this post. It made me realise how much you take for granted as a native! :D The looking the same as everyone else thing really annoys me sometimes as I fitted in well in both Denmark and here, but the look of disappointment on people's faces sometimes when I open my mouth is unbelievable! :D Hope all is going well and you are still enjoying UK life! :) xx
MsCaroline said…
Emma- I really am enjoying it, although I am getting a little tired of feeling sort of dumb all the time. I still have miles to go before I am settled in and can function in everyday life without consciously thinking about what I'm doing. I know what you mean about the look on the faces when you open your mouth, though. Best comment I got was from a Lithuanian girl who was taking our tickets at the SS Great Britain, who asked if we were from Italy. She knew something was 'off' about our accents, just couldn't put her finger on it!!!

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