london diary

I had to write this as an assignment for our English class. Just thought I’d share as I don’t have time to write a real post while I’m studying for finals.


I am an American in London. I am the familiar stranger.  I am the familiar in the strange, and the strange in the familiar, especially if I don’t open my mouth.  I don’t speak on the Tube. I don’t look people in the eye. I stand in the queue. I don’t talk too loudly. I am polite. I drink tea in the afternoon with milk.


I better understand how Henry James felt when writing about the Americans in London.  I’ve tried to defy the stereotypes he and other Americans have validated.  I want to be a part of this society, and I’ve tried to quietly find my place even as it feels like a non-place.  I have found a home here, but it’s either on my own, or with American friends. This home I speak of fits somewhere in between Nancy Beck and Lady Barberina.  I’m not looking outside wishing I could be part of it all; but I’m also not using my charm and looks to get into society so I can escape my past.  I’m walking around in Kew Gardens, in awe over the jewels in the V&A, eating Pakistani food (probably incorrectly) in the East End, poking around the markets in Camden, attempting to get student day-of tickets for shows all over London, and trying to figure out why I am blessed enough to be here all the while trying to maintain an “English” demeanor. I’ve found myself forgetting I’m somewhere foreign. I’ll never forget the moment I realized American accents sounded foreign to me.  After smelling the freshly baked oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, I walked up to the bar in the basement of our ridiculously homey hostel in Prague to inquire about Czech beers. “What can I getcha?” was the bartenders response.  I was shocked at first in realizing his American accent sounded foreign.  I could speak in English and be understood, and there was an instant camaraderie in our American-ness.


I am an American in London. I am mimetic. I still listen to American music. I get frustrated when I can’t find what I consider pretty basic food items in the grocery stores.  I hate how expensive everything is.  The often bad and/or rude service experienced in the STA travel shop and Ristorante Zizzi irritates me. I miss having a phone that works. Public transportation delays and inconveniences drive me crazy; it should not take three hours to get from Heathrow to Central London.


I was trying and failing to find Dennis Severs’s House last week in Spitalfields when I realized I had just passed by Nazneen’s apartment complex, the Tower Hamlets, near Brick Lane. She could have been one of the people I walked past on the way to dinner in the East End. I haven’t ever been to Bangladesh, but the area I was walking around in did remind me of what a gentrified Bangladeshi neighborhood might look like. I feel as though I’m trying to make my own neighborhood out of London much like Nazneen.  While Shahana considers Bangladesh home, even though she’s never been there, Nazneen’s definition of home appears to be changing over the course of Brick Lane. What does home mean? I wasn’t forced to come here, and I don’t love it more than I love the home I grew up in, so in that way I’m very different from Nazneen. But the thought of living away from my childhood home has become more comfortable since I’ve lived here. This has been made easier based on somewhat arbitrary but also overwhelming placements of objects of my culture in this new setting, in some ways like a more widespread version of the Bangladeshi-influenced East End neighborhood Nazneen lived in.  The prevalence of Starbucks and McDonald’s is almost embarrassing. American music blares out of stores on Oxford Street.  American accents screech over all others when I’m walking down my street filled with international students. I avoid the stores, the music, and sometimes the people.  I like the camouflage I have when I’m silent.   I like to think that some people might still think I’m British if I do this.


I am an American in London. I am (almost) fluent.  I love saying “Hiya.” I miss saying “y’all.” I love the freedom of public transportation.  I miss the convenience of having a car. I love walking out my door directly into a bustling city.  I miss the quiet of my neighborhood and Chapel Hill. I love visiting the Borough Market in the morning, eating lunch in a funky vegetarian restaurant, and walking over Millenium Bridge at night.  I miss meeting friends for breakfast on the main drag in Chapel Hill, relaxing on the quad in front of Wilson Library, and I always miss my family.


I was trying to consider London as a language this afternoon.  I realized it is one. All of the differences including but not limited to the actual words themselves make up a language that is London’s own. I’ve struggled to come up with this language mosaic just as Z did in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.  Though the differences we’ve noticed are sometimes on different scales and subjects based on our backgrounds, we have attempted in similar ways to find fluency. We were both surprised at the increased levels of privacy and impersonal nature of people in shops, restaurants, and on the streets. In China, according to Z, everyone shares everything.  It is a much more collective environment.  In my experience in the United States, people are more open, friendly, and welcoming towards strangers, while looking out for usually only him or herself. Z and I are both at times lonely in the city because of this.  But we learn the language. We have afternoon tea, eat puddings, travel outside England like we were encouraged to do, and accept the imitations of our own cultures.


I am the familiar stranger. I am mimetic. I am (almost) fluent. I am still an American in London, but not for long.



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