Because there are some, and it’s time to get real.
My blog may seem a bit Pollyanna at times, as I try to keep things positive and choose my words wisely. This is because (a) no one likes a whiner and (b) I’m wary of posting anything online that might haunt me later. Not that the masses are reading my blog or I’m anyone important (yet), but you never know. The Internet never forgets. (Try Googling Anthony Weiner, for example.)
But the truth is, I’ve now been here long enough that the little things are starting to get to me. So here goes.
1. The Food
It never fails to meet my low expectations.
(With a few exceptions: Indian food, good. Fish and chips, flaky-fresh. Soups, hearty. Yogurt, delicious. Bourbon creams, indulgent. Tea and scones, habit-forming. But everything else I could do without.)
2. The Customer Is Probably Wrong
British customer service, true to its reputation, can be pretty atrocious. The theory is that it’s because the British keep calm and carry on a little too well. If no one complains, no improvements are made to the system. As an American, though, I’m used to the “have it your way” approach: you may have to navigate an intentionally cryptic automated menu to get to a real person, but stay on the line long enough and fight hard enough and, if all else fails, invoke the manager, and you will ultimately get your way.
Not so, in London. Bang on a brick wall long enough, and you end up with bloody knuckles.
Case in point: I was running late but stopped by PAUL for a quick breakfast. I gave the cashier £20 for a breakfast that cost £2.95. She gave me back £2.05, thinking I’d given her a £5 note. I explained the discrepancy, and she apologized and asked me to wait for the manager so she could open the till.
The manager came in a huff, took the entire till out, grabbed a calculator, and proceeded to count all the money in the till against the day’s revenues thus far. I was aghast. Is this really happening right now? Is this normal? What the heck is going on?
After ten minutes counting the money, the manager told me that there was no discrepancy according to his calculations. He said in a skeptical/accusatory tone, “We don’t have CCTV. I don’t know how much you gave her.” By then I was so irritated at being forced to wait, at the insinuation that I was lying just to scam off 15 quid, basically at being treated like a cheat when the error was the employee’s. It literally left a bad taste in my mouth, so I left the food I had purchased untouched and walked out. But I immediately doubled back because I figured, it’s YOUR mistake and I don’t want my money in your till, supporting your shoddy business that treats its customers so poorly. So I insisted on getting my money back. He refused.
I probably shouldn’t have let it get to me quite so much, but it just, really, rankled me. The irony was that I was running late to church, and the incident put me in such a bad mood that I didn’t hear a word of the sermon because I was mentally phrasing an angry email to the corporate customer service department the whole time. The email was, I hope, equal parts eloquent and angry, and I received a surprisingly nice response that apologized, explained it was company policy to do so in the event of a dispute (which I still think is crazy)*, and offered a refund. I suppose all’s well that ends well, but it was nonetheless the strangest and most degrading feeling to be accused of lying, in so many words. Perhaps it riled me up as much as it did because it came at a time when I was starting to feel a bit homesick.
*Note: PAUL is a French company, so perhaps that accounts for their whack policy. But the problem was in the execution, not the policy itself. It would have been different if the manager had said at the outset, I’m sorry, but this is company policy and this is what I have to do when a customer disputes a transaction. No such explanation was given; when it comes to customer service, it’s like employees are paid to be as unhelpful and unyielding as possible. Chicken or the egg: Maybe this explains why tipping is less common here. Or is the service poor because there’s no incentive to do better?
3. Is This What Homesickness Feels Like?
I’ve never experienced homesickness before, but it makes sense that this, if any, would be the first time. I’ve spent months and weeks abroad at a time, and not in English-speaking countries. But the longest I’ve ever been away was three months, so if there ever was a time for me to find out what homesickness is, it would be now.
It’s a combination of missing the company of people who know me well, those to whom you don’t have to explain anything; missing the ease of striking up a new friendship when you have a lot in common with the person you’ve just met; missing the familiarity of knowing how a system works, even if it’s faulty, because at least you know what to expect and how to navigate the situation. (Take, for example, the experience above.)
Of course, it’s not like the UK is all that different from the US, especially if you’re going from New York to London. We speak the same language, we watch the same TV and movies, we live in a busy, cosmopolitan city. And I have been fortunate to meet some great friends here… but still, deep, and especially comfortable, friendships just take time to build up. I understand that, and I didn’t come expecting to feel right at home right away. And actually, the transition in the first three months was so much smoother than I expected, what with finding a great church community right away and meeting a great group of girls in my hall.
But by month five, I started to see that there are differences after all. In particular…
4. Let’s Talk about Race
This is admittedly an observation based on limited experience and intuition, but British people seem to be uncomfortable talking about race or ethnicity. I still don’t fully understand what “multiculturalism” is in the British sense, but I don’t think it lends itself to meaningful discussion about race. Instead it seems to brush it under the rug, like saying, “Of course there’s difference,” without discussing what it is. Almost a patronizing “That’s nice,” but claiming to appreciate difference is an easy out for actually learning about it. Or, I don’t know, maybe people think it would be impolite to ask?
Whenever I crack jokes about being Asian, for example, I get an uncomfortable chuckle in response on a good day. The best shot one guy once gave was to say that he knows about Korean food: “You eat dogs.” He thought it was funny. I rolled my eyes.
I’m not sure if I’m being overly sensitive, and I hesitate to write about this without a more solid sense of what’s awry. But because the topic seldom comes up, all I have to go on is my intuition, and the best I’ve been able to come up with is that people avoid the topic. Which tautologically puts me right back where I started.
5. Speaking of Patronizing
I’ve heard a number of remarks and/or conversations defending the benefits of colonialism.
I have no comment on this; don’t even know where to begin. Flabbergasted.
So that’s my moment of honesty. I’m almost exactly midway through my time in London, and I have a lot to look forward to. My challenge to myself for the next five and a half months is to make the most of every opportunity; to keep building friendships, instead of pulling away because I’m mentally preparing to move back; to seek to learn as much as I can, and be as much of a blessing as I can, for as long as I’m here; and to maintain a sense of adventure!
In the next entry, we’ll be back on a fun wavelength: more visitors! Madrid & Segovia! Maybe a daytrip to Bath! Good times ahead, y’all.
*To my British readers, I mean no offense, and I’m certainly open to discussion if you take issue with any of the above. Enlighten me!