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Immigrants to the UK Explain What Shocked Them Most About British Culture

"Why is everything so old-fashioned? Why do you still have gas stoves and why does everyone have baths without rinsing after?"
April 14, 2016, 5:20pm
Illustration by Sam Taylor

Sometimes, it's good to take stock of your normal. Just because something is routine, does that make it right? Take the UK: Is it rational and/or sensible to have three chicken shops on every street in every major city? Why is it that people from Newcastle and Leeds, two cities a mere 100 miles from each other, speak so completely differently? Who allowed Mrs. Brown's Boys to be shown on television?


The questions are endless. And if you're not someone who thinks a lot about the world beyond our borders, it's easy to develop a very narrow-minded idea of what's "normal" and what's not.

To better understand what's unusual about life in the UK to people who haven't been born and raised on our shores, we asked a few friends who emigrated here from various countries around the world about what shocked them most when they first arrived.

"For me, the most surprising thing, coming over from New Zealand, was this sense of nationalism you have—this real English pride thing. But then, also, the prevalence of littering: People just toss their stuff on the ground, and there's no sense of pride in that, so it seems quite at odds. It sounds like such a minor thing, but it's quite weird when you're walking home, and people are just chucking shit on the ground. Weirdly, that's what's stuck in my mind the most. This juxtaposition of national pride and just chucking rubbish into the street. People love to litter here."—Tim, New Zealand

"What shocked me most when I moved to the UK from Denmark is how normal cocaine is, and how many people do it. People do it in Copenhagen, obviously, like in most other cities in the Western world, but it's just a whole new level in London. People talk about it more casually, like, 'Oh yeah, let's do some gak.' It's less of a taboo here."—Aleksander, Denmark

"Probably the craziest thing was how you can get alcohol at any time here. In Canada, you have to go to an LCBO or a beer store—it's very government-controlled, and you just kind of have to deal with it. Like, if you forget to get alcohol for a night out, and it's past nine, you're screwed. Also, I had issues with the language, in terms of things like pants versus trousers, or braces versus suspenders. I had that problem a LOT. What else? I noticed cars are really tiny here, and everyone is sort of super aggro when they're driving."—Wesley, Canada


"I was sixteen when I moved here from Singapore, where the only British comedy that made it over when I was growing up was old reruns of Mr. Bean and bootleg Monty Python CDs from Thailand—if you were lucky. As a result, I was unprepared for the British tradition of taking the piss out of everything, including one another and themselves. For four months I basically thought British people were just insanely mean and incapable of taking anything seriously. This is still true of certain people I know, but I now understand this to be more of an individual, personal failing on their part. Things I was also unprepared for: brown sauce—seriously, what is it?—class anxiety, winter, and why the McNugget curry sauce at your McDonald's tastes like sugary mud."—Zing, Singapore

"After I graduated from school in Russia, I decided to do my International Foundation Year in the UK. Having listened to Radio 4, read Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, and watched films like Pollyanna, I had a pretty solid idea of what England was like. But then I went to Manchester to study, so none of those things were applicable. The grammar was what shocked me the most—saying "there is many people" instead of "there are," or "if it was," instead of "if it were." It twisted my mind and made me want to rip their tongues off."—Lina, Russia

"I moved to the UK from Greece when I was eighteen to attend university. Back then, I found it really strange how openly everyone talked about being broke. In Greece, before the financial crisis began, admitting you couldn't afford something was a big taboo. But British people also tend to be a little cheap: For example, a flatmate in my first year of uni once offered me some money in exchange for a glass of milk—I thought that was pretty gross. Also, everything in this country works the opposite way. You drive on the wrong side of the road, doors unlock to the right instead of the left, and your beer is served warm. Also, why is everything so old-fashioned? Why do you still have gas stoves, and why does everyone have baths without rinsing after? There is no point in getting in the water if you aren't going to get clean. And why do you not have shutters? I don't understand how people sleep with the sun in their face. One thing I love, though, is your sense of individuality, your quirky fashion sense, and the feeling I get that, out of the whole of Europe, this is the one country in which people are allowed to be themselves."—Elektra, Greece

"I moved here from the Netherlands about a month and a half ago, and what's shocked me the most is just the extreme Britishness of everyone and how, like, being British seems to be a very vital part of people's lives. In the Netherlands, if you have a Dutch flag on something, you're basically a Nazi. You're like a crazy nationalist person. It's starting to change a bit now, but that's how it was when I was growing up. I've also lived in the US for a bit, and I found Americans a lot easier to talk to. They talk a lot slower, whereas Brits, I'm intimidated at how fast they speak to one another."—Wiegertje, Netherlands

"Coming from Armenia, the first thing that shocked me was the language, especially in the north. I had a hard time for the first six months, but you get used to it. The second thing was the politeness—you don't know what being polite is if you haven't lived here. The first time I experienced British politeness affecting me was when I apologized to someone after they walked into me. As for general culture, men around the world love soccer, but here it's a religion. Pubs are where you worship your team, and drinking beer is how you worship. Also, Brits seem to adore reality TV. They have shows about drunk people going for kebabs, and people here love them! In general, though, it's a good place to be."—Viz, Armenia

"I'm going to reel a few things off: sweet popcorn. It's a CRIME. Who does that? The class system and how much people seem to be subconsciously controlled by it. Separate taps for hot and cold water: just plain stupid, and also unhygienic and time-consuming if you're supposed to actually fill up the sink to achieve agreeable rinsing-soap-off-hands temperature. The electricity prices and how the pricey heat just goes right out of the non-insulated windows—stupid. Other than that, it's pretty decent here. Oh, but what do you do with all the cards people give you for special occasions? Are you supposed to store them? And also, is it, like, bad manners to not dig out that "Happy Easter" card a friend gave you two years ago and put it on your fridge when he came over for dinner? Is that how Brits measure true friendship?"—Milene, Sweden

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