When I first decided to study abroad in England, I knew I wasn’t there to study the ins and outs of the theatre as detailed in my trip itinerary. (I will say, though, seeing Lord of the Rings: The Musical was one of the highlights of my trip.) After an overnight flight, I stepped out of Heathrow Airport, bleary-eyed and prepared to experience one of the most famous cities in the world – London! I immediately knew I wasn’t ready.
With my hoodie, sneakers, and sweatpants, I looked like a quintessential underdressed American teenager. In other words, I didn’t quite fit in with the people around me, though my group of classmates was quite the sight. From the very beginning, I was tagged with the unfortunate label of “tourist” – and to make things worse, I was wearing a fanny pack with a giant camera hanging from my neck.
In a city renowned for a great mix of culture, the task I assigned myself was decidedly difficult: I had to learn to fit in. At the very least, I wanted to be able to enjoy the city without being an obvious tourist.
While I would never consider myself an expert on London culture (I’ll save that for the people who actually live there) or even an expert at blending in with Londoners, I have gained some limited insight for anyone else who wants to experience the city with a lower profile.
Ultimately, you’re an American
While traveling to other countries, I have been made very aware of my racial and cultural identity. While in London, I felt more like an American, rather than an African-American. While odd questions about my hair or skin were rare, I was instead asked my opinions on American politics, world affairs and pop culture (and if you’re traveling anywhere, be prepared for this). While I cannot speak for every Black person visiting London, or any part of the United Kingdom, I felt at home in the bustling city, if only for a short amount of time.
I didn’t feel strange or out of place being Black in London. On the contrary, I passed people who looked like me in the city every day. My citizenship and the culture that came with it was what made me feel odd – I was keenly aware of every detail of how I presented myself, from the hat I wore to protect my hair from muggy weather to the bright white sneakers I packed in my suitcase.
Be Mindful of Your Choices
The first step towards not looking like a gaudy tourist was to toss the blindingly bright Nikes in my bag for the remainder of the trip. (For anyone traveling elsewhere, note that bright white sneakers seem to scream “WEALTHY AMERICAN!” no matter where you go, so it may be best to keep your fresh pair in the box until you’re back in the States.)
I pulled out a dark coat, simple jeans and a pair of unassuming black trainers. A scarf from a local vendor (H&M) and I was ready. Provided I didn’t open my mouth, and I made sure not to dally too much in the tube station, I could be a possible dupe for a Londoner, at least in my mind. In one notable experience, an unassuming volunteer asking me to sign a local petition was shocked by my ‘American’ accent (I didn’t know I had an accent!). She couldn’t resist bringing me over to her friends and have me try out British slang while they tried to mimic my speech patterns. Needless to say, neither party found much success.
Mind the Gap
Anyone who has visited London knows this common phrase. For those who don’t know, “Mind the Gap!” is the crisply cheerful refrain echoing through the tube station, designed to prevent unfortunate souls from falling to their untimely demise on the electrified train tracks.
While not falling to your death is important, what I really mean is to stop what you’re doing and pay attention. Mimicking the behavior of those around you is the simplest way to get acclimated to cultural norms. For example, in London, much like New York and Washington, DC, people seem to move with what can best be described as “a purpose.” Escalators in the tube station are separated for “standees” and “walkers” – and you do not want to be the standee on the walker side. Likewise, blocking a high traffic area on the sidewalk while you fiddle with a map is an easy way to get swallowed by the hustle and bustle. Be mindful of your surroundings and go with the flow of the area, and you’re more likely to blend in.
Talk to People!
The subheading is direct, but it doesn’t get more accurate than that.
Once I had ditched the American attire, I was nearly overwhelmed by the diversity of the people around me. Making an effort to assimilate into the population allowed me to have much more profound and candid experiences with the people I crossed paths with. I spoke with a man from the Caribbean who moonlighted as a musician in Piccadilly Circle on the weekends. I got to meet people from China, Turkey, and India, all of whom were part of the culture of London.
One of my favorite moments was on a carousel where I talked to a little girl who was on holiday with her father. Her impression of me? “It has obviously been a very long time since you have ridden a merry-go-round. You’re quite excited.” My urban camouflage can only be so useful, apparently.
If you are a student of color – or any student - considering studying abroad in London, do it! Spending time there was a tremendous experience, where I got to experience a vibrant city with a unique culture and vibe unlike any other.
Author: Tara Matthews