Moving to the UK was the most challenging part of my life. My mother is English and my father is Iraqi but immigrated to the UK, so by definition, I am British. However, living in Lebanon from the age of seven to seventeen has instilled in me a hybrid culture that is definitely more Lebanese than it is British, despite my lack of Lebanese heritage.
When I moved to the UK it was to complete my final year of A Levels, and my brother and I were sponsored by a boarding school while my parents and other brother stayed in Lebanon. During that year, my mum gave me a very helpful comparison to process my culture shock. She said moving cultures kind of works the same as the five stages of grief, which is what I’ll be using to outline my journey.
Whether you have lived in the UK your whole life or are experiencing culture shock yourself, I hope this illuminates something to you, and makes you think about what culture means in your life.
The first thing I thought was, ‘this can’t be happening.’ I told myself that this unfriendly, unwelcoming, self-serving culture was something that could never get to me. I refused to interact with it, refused to acknowledge it. I also refused to take it seriously.
There were so many moments when I first got to the UK that felt surreal because I was in denial. One thing I noticed the most was the way people approached friendship here. It was almost as if I had to prove myself as worthy of people’s friendship because I was new, rather than being accepted into friendship groups immediately, and then judged as to whether I was worth sticking with.
My denial made me think that something was wrong with me. That people here worked the same as they did in Lebanon, they just hated me, which is why I wasn’t making friends easily, or on the deep level that I wanted.
Once the denial dissipated, the anger took over. I recognised that British culture was real, and that my culture shock was real, but instead of accepting it, I despised it.
My hate extended towards everything. Bland British food, cold British weather, unfriendly British people, highly regulated British systems. I was constantly comparing England to Lebanon, and it made me angry that they were different because I didn’t know how to function. I blamed my surroundings for the feeling of being out of my comfort zone.
I was also angry at the fact that I had no choice but to eventually accept British culture. I didn’t want to give in – it made me feel like a traitor. With hindsight, though, that was definitely the unhealthiest way of looking at it.
It was a constant back and forth of whether I swallowed my pride and tried to accept British culture or kept my head in the sand and stayed hateful.
The anger was a much longer phase than the bargaining. Most of the bargaining I did in my head connects to what I said about feeling like a traitor – it was a constant back and forth of whether I swallowed my pride and tried to accept British culture or kept my head in the sand and stayed hateful.
It’s so interesting revisiting these feelings now, over a year later, when I am in such a better place. I’ve come to love certain things about British culture, and I’ve adopted them myself. Going to uni and meeting people outside the small bubble of my school has opened my heart to so many new experiences and stories.
I love British people. Yes, I still have frustrations, but I’ve learned so much from my culture shock. And the biggest lesson has been understanding that being British doesn’t take anything away from my 10 years in Lebanon – having a new culture does not erase any of your original one.
The fourth stage of grief is depression, but with culture shock, I think it’s more of a deep sadness, a feeling of loss for everything you’ve left behind and what you have to embrace.
Like anger, sadness was a long phase, lasting months. But it got better and better as time went on, unlike anger. Despite being sad, I found rays of light that took shape in special friends I made, new hobbies and interests, even planning my university choices. The sadness got lesser and lesser, and my pride started to crack.
I finally began focussing on the good things about the UK. Fish and chips. Systems that worked. High quality of living; never having to think of electricity shortages or clean water. Public transport. Green grass. Responding to every emotion with a cup of tea. It was looking up, and I am happily in the final stage of culture shock now.
To anyone who is struggling with British culture: it gets better. I promise you. You will learn to love it eventually, and what I have found fascinating is that although it can be hard initially making British friends, once they are friends with you, they are friends for life.
I saw a quote on Pinterest by Clifton Fadiman that said, “When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”
“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”
This has resonated with me. And I am proud to say I have two cultures now. Having one does not take away any of the validity or worth of the other.