By Sam Thoburn (University of California, San Diego, USA)
I wrote my first entry for this blog weeks ago, when I had only been here for a day or two. When I wrote it, I was spending nights on the floor of my half a room and feeling, perhaps unsurprisingly, terrible. Aside from the barren nightly arrangements, every time I noticed that a turn of phrase or a product in the supermarket was even slightly different from what I know it to be at home, my assumption was that this was a change for the worse. I maintained rather longer than I should have the arrogance of the traveller, who laments with every mouthful the fact that Special K just isn’t the same in America. I am very glad that the blog I wrote at that time was not published, because it would only give you a bad impression of the place where I now live, when in truth the problems were my own. Perhaps if I had read the pertinent Study Abroad literature more closely, the first trials of my year abroad would not have affected me so much – I was not the first to feel that way, nor will I be the last. And so here, after almost a month in the country, is what I have to say.
There is one inescapable thing about being in America that I took to as soon as I arrived, and that is the feeling, every time I open my mouth, that I am foreign. At home near London or in Manchester, my accent is reassuringly dull and commonplace, seemingly without a region. Here, though, my voice is unique enough and close enough to Queen’s English that people are inclined to like hearing you speak. In the first week I was here, the campus was half-asleep: it was International Orientation Week and all of the local students had yet to arrive. Among those that were here already, I gravitated, as we all do, to those with whom I shared the most, and so my first friends were English and Irish students in exactly the same position as myself. The accents we have, when heard in San Diego, are unifying and bonding, and every time you hear one it is reassuring.
Once the campus filled with students from all over California and other states, the scale of the place and the communities it supports struck me. It is nothing like Manchester, I can tell you that much. (In fact, yesterday was the first day since I arrived that I wore jeans. Every other day has been the height of summer. After a few weeks of that, believe me when I say that rain sounds like a distant and wonderful thing.) I can walk from the bottom of the campus to the top in twenty minutes, but most don’t; skateboards, scooters and bicycles of all kinds will run any pedestrian down if they are not looking in every direction at the same time.
These American students had their own Welcome Week which, as far as I could tell, bore no resemblance to my Fresher’s experience in Fallowfield. For one thing, it was more or less an entirely sober week. Most importantly, though, and alien to me as a student in Manchester, the emphasis is placed more upon school spirit—every other person you walk past on campus is wearing a UCSD T-shirt or jumper or baseball cap. There is a two-storey bookshop, but more than half of its shelves are given over to official UCSD stationery, clothing and souvenirs. In that sense, the week is a complete success.
After a little while, I began to appreciate the prevalence of frozen yoghurt and fruit smoothie shops here where I live, just north of San Diego and east of La Jolla. In the third week I also managed to leave the discomfort of my little sleeping bag behind when I won a free mattress on the flip of a coin. In these weeks, FaceTime has become a huge part of my life, as have considerations of the eight hour time difference – the notion that, a third of the time, I am living on a different day to all my family never seems normal.
I am not even coming close to recounting the month entirely, or even its highlights, and I think that I will stop trying for now. That is how it is bound to be: a month on your own in a new country gives you a lot to write about.