BY REBECCA GOODACRE When I told people I was spending a year abroad studying in America, more specifically at Temple University in North Philadelphia, more than a few looked at me with slightly raised eyebrows and asked “Are you going to be safe?” I just brushed it off and made a few lame jokes about joining the Crips and getting myself a Smith and Wesson loyalty card. However, being a 5’5 white middle class girl from rural England, neither of these suggestions had any real viability, and so my friends and family just shook their heads and began worried aloud. I come from Norwich, a small British town with a population of just 135,000 people, or one tenth the size of Philadelphia. The worst I had to fear there was the over-population of rabbits. Still, I was determined that although I was a small town girl on the outside, on the inside I was in fact destined for the fast paced excitement of a metropolitan lifestyle. So five months ago I boarded a plane in London with great expectations and a pretty naïve feeling of invincibility.
Since that moment something quite unexpected occurred. I came down with a pretty bad case of culture shock. Culture shock was something I’d figured only happened to African tribesmen when you put them in New York. But no, here I was living in a country that I’d spent most of life watching on TV and was entirely convinced I understood, and I was completely freaked out.
Before my arrival I’d imagined a big city life, with dramatic skyscrapers and intellectual conversations, wandering around a leafy campus. And then I’d spend nights at raucous house parties, drinking from red plastic cups surrounded by people who’d just stepped out of Playboy and/or Abercrombie. But as is probably quite apparent, in all my day-dreamings I seemed to have forgotten I wasn’t attending Harvard or starring in The Social Network, but actually going to a state funded, inner-city college for a year. It turned out it wasn’t just the Atlantic Ocean that separated Britain and America. And it wasn’t just Americans’ habit of dropping the ‘u’s from the end of words and swapping ‘s’s for’z’s — everything felt different.
I’d stand in supermarkets and just stare at shelves and shelves of alien-looking products. Cheese Whiz, snickerdoodle, Cosmic brownies and various other products that had more additives than I had body parts. I’d walk down the street and miss seeing grass, and wonder why all the cars were so horn-happy and loud. At first it was just the little things like these that I’d noticed. Like which way I had to check the street when I crossed it, trying to understand why a nickel was bigger than a dime. I mean, even the toilets flushed differently here. Well that was when people used them anyway. Around a month into my stay I entered the City Hall subway station to find an overweight woman urinating on the platform. Life here is just a little noisier, harder, and occasionally dirtier.
But then things got a little more serious. On the night of Halloween a Temple student was shot outside a house just two blocks off campus. Although, luckily he survived, just days later a man was found shot dead in his car on the edge of Temple’s campus. And unfortunately, it turned out that neither of these were isolated incidents either; in North Philadelphia gun crime seems to be just a part of life. Having grown up in a country where (for the most part) gun use and possession is entirely illegal, guns were, for me, synonymous with nothing but death, violence and generally all things dangerous. The majority of police officers in the UK don’t even carry guns, and so to have them around and used in such close proximity by every day citizens added a whole new dimension to life. As a Brit, I am constantly shocked by the willingness with which all Americans trade off their personal safety so a high-decibel minority can exercise their right to bear arms. I have been told over and over that it is people that kill people, not guns. But wasn’t it guns that made all this killing so easy? In the months following these two deaths I still couldn’t get my head around why were devices which were designed purely to kill, wound and maim freely available for purchase? Eventually I resolved that it was just something I would have to accept that that it was an integral part of American life. And that I just shouldn’t stray too far after dark and that perhaps joining a gang wasn’t for me after all.
But my experiences haven’t all been negative. Far from it, actually. I’ve met some really wonderful people. In a lot ways the stereotypes are true, Americans are much friendlier than their British counterparts. The coffee is exponentially better, and you do know how to make a good apple pie. My knowledge of transatlantic history and politics has also been brought up to date. People seem to quite like mentioning the whole American Revolution thing to me, often with a satisfied smirk on their face. It’s like the rebellious teenager that got the upper hand over their domineering father, and I’m left floundering for a response, and the best I can muster is a “Yeah? Well, we have a Royal Wedding in a few months!”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rebecca Goodacre hails from Norwhich, England. She is currently spending a year studying abroad at Temple and interning at Phawker.