Studying Abroad: In search of the full experience, American vs British perspective – Part 1 of 2

After some weeks of participating in EE, I have noticed that many of the readers are considering studying English abroad for a period of time, be it a short course or a longer exchange programme. I have been lucky to have lived and worked in both countries and, as I sit here tonight sipping on my glass of wine and reflecting on my own personal experiences, I have decided to write a short article on how the cultural and social differences between American and Britain may have an impact on your overall/total experience during the length of your course in either country.

What is a total experience? Well, when you are considering a destination to study English, I believe it is important that you consider all aspects of life of what will be your host city or country. You should take the opportunity not just to learn English but also to take this travel opportunity to expand your horizons and experience a way of life, a different reality, than the one that you know today. So, from my perspective destination matters as much as the quality of the school where you will study. After all, variety is the spice of life so I urge you to strive for the best possible experience when you choose a destination.

Following is a very personal perspective of America vs Britain from a view point of a foreign student who will stay in the country 1 to 6 months. It is only my opinion but one that is based on several years of living in each of the countries and having travelled extensively in both regions. Of course, as any opinion it is biased towards my own preferences in life so I give you the material and let you make up your own mind.

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Cities

The USA is a vast country with sprawling cities that feel like carbon copies of each other with little, if any, in terms of interest. They tend to be filled with endless rows of fast food places, large shops and even larger shopping centres, and oh yes, some very large people in some very large cars as well. After you get over the initial amazement at the size of it all, most cities have very little to keep a foreign student entertained or engaged. This is of course a generalisation as cities in the north-east and north-west coast do tend to have a lot more to offer. If you don’t have a car, it is simply impossible to see American cities, again, with a few exceptions in the regions previously mentioned. As a foreign student, unless you have the money to travel far and wide, you will be confined to a very narrow set of experiences.

I saw this film on the internet the other day, it won the Oscar for best short film last year. To me, it is a pretty good representation of American cities where everything is branded and logos and large corporations dominate the landscape. If you have ever been to America – this film will make lot of sense. It is brilliant in its capture of a certain, but large, aspect of American cities.

Part of the film

Official trailer

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The UK in contrast is a tiny and very crowded place but with an amazing variety of experiences to be found by travelling only a few kilometres away from wherever you may be staying. You don’t ever need a car to enjoy the UK and if you know where to find the right deals you can travel across the county for a few pounds. In some of the cities like York, Bath or the small towns of the Cotswolds you just simply feel transported in time. My husband and I particularly enjoy the old pubs, specially those in the countryside where one can have a good beer after a good brisk walk while sitting in a beautiful stone building, surrounded by ancient wood and with a roaring fireplace – what a great British experience..!! There is an old pub just outside Oxford that has been an Inn or Pub for over 1,000 years. It is located next to the river, close to where the River Thames is born. It is said that Lewis Carroll would frequently stay there while writing Alice in Wonderland (1865) and, if you have read the book, when you walk in the surrounding countryside you can see the relationship.

Why does all this matter? I certainly hope that if you made the effort and expense of travelling abroad to study you will not be confined to your room and your classroom. Your chances of having much more interesting city experiences are grater in the UK than the USA, or so I believe from my own experiences.

Society

Britain, as most of Europe, is a far more gentler society than the USA. This stems from the basis of socialism where egalitarianism is seen as desired goal and not as an evil political ideology as it is seen in America. It is a far from perfect system but it does provide for better social integration. Many of the new property developments include social or low cost housing that is government subsidised so you end up with fancy and expensive apartments next to apartments for people that are on government benefits. This means that people of different economic classes may play in the same playgrounds, take the same tube to work or simply drink a beer in the same pub – all of this helps in the social integration. As a foreign student this also means that your opportunities for meet different peoples and integrate to your local neighbourhood are much greater than in America where, relatively speaking, the sense of community is practically absent and the rich and poor live very far apart.

One thing that pleasantly surprised me the first time we went for a walk in the British county side was the concept of “right of way”. This is an ancient law that allows walkers or horse riders to pass through private land on what used to be ancient trails, some of them dating back to the Romans. The fields may be planted or full of cattle or sheep but you still have the right to walk through them as long as you don’t disturb the crops or animals. This allows people access to any coast or places of natural beauty that are held in private land. In America if you enter a private farm, well, it is highly likely you will get shot at. If the bull attacks you or you fall of the cliff because the trail was not well maintained, well, in Britain that is your own problem, as it should be.!!! In America, no, you blame others and you sue for lots of money.

How will this matter to your experience? I believe that it is, relatively speaking, a lot easier too integrate into UK society due to the socialist nature of the society which puts a much higher emphases on communal living than American society which is based more on individualism.

Healthcare

The UK has the NHS which is a socialised health care system. The quality of this varies from hospital to hospital but you can get obtain some of the best health care in the world and it is 100% free. As a foreign student with a student visa you qualify for any type of treatment while you are in the country. Actually, even illegal people can’t be denied treatment.

In contrast, if you go to the USA, you better make sure you have some good insurance in Brazil that will cover you during your trip. In America you can, and will, be refused treatment if you can’t prove you can pay the exorbitant prices. It is interesting how the policies that Obama is now introducing in America, and that so many on the political right so fervently oppose, no Conservative Party of any European nation would even consider them as they would be seen as too right-wing, too uncaring and inappropriate for civilised modern European society.

Is free quality healthcare a human right or a benefit? Well, I am sure we all have our opinion, but regardless, it is something that you should carefully take into consideration.

This is now getting to long for one post so we will divided into two sections. The second part will discuss:

  • Newspapers & Evening News;
  • Music;
  • Safety;
  • Diversity and Internationalism;
  • and some conclusions.

See you soon !

Sobre a Autora: Meu nome é Luciana, sou professora de Inglês, leciono em São Paulo e recentemente criei o Inglês Interact. Morei e trabalhei por alguns anos na Inglaterra (Londres e Cambridge).

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