October 17th, 2004

me: ooh!

Day 9: Hanging with the fellow expats.

I get up fairly early for a Sunday. I decide I'm going to be clever and run to the market for some orange juice and cream before Marco wakes up. The trouble is, I've forgotten that this is the UK. The grocery store doesn't open until 11 am. I go back home to wait. Marco has to get up and get ready for his football game, so no fresh juice for him. I am feeling miffed on my second walk to the grocery store, a feeling that is not diminished by the failure of the cash point to dispense any money and subsequently, by the failure of my deadbolt key to open the front door when I have a heavy load of highly perishable goods in my arms. I have to call Marco, who has to run back from his football game and open the door for me. I unload the groceries and call Janelle, who has promised to take me to Spitalfields Market that day.

We ride the 214 bus from the stop right next to my house all the way to the Liverpool Street tube station. We walk through the tube station and into the market, which is more like what I remember Camden Market being when I first visited London four years ago. The stalls are all tiny and crammed together, the goods are cheap, handmade and often high quality. We look at everything, but try not to spend too much. I buy mostly little things – a tea-light holder made of salt, stripey over-the-knee socks (hard to find in California), head wraps. We have crepes and hot chocolate for our late lunch. My biggest purchase is a Lomo camera. It uses 35 mm film and takes four exposures at either 2 or 0.2 seconds. I saw it when I first walked into the market, but I put it to the test first. If I was still thinking about it before we left, I'd buy it. I was.

Janelle mentions that it's tough to make friends with the English. She thinks they are quite clique-prone. They have their schoolmates and their college friends, and a lot of them don't make much of an effort to reach out to new people. I wonder about this a little. It's certainly true that expats seem to band together here. However, that's true in the US as well. Even though we speak the same language, it can be hard to break through barriers that are unintentionally raised by misconstrued body cues and nuances of inflection. For instance, it can be difficult to understand regional variations on the English accent, and when you're constantly saying, "What? What?" to someone, it will almost inevitably be off-putting. It's tough to overcome social obstacles simply by "trying harder." I think the key is simply persisting in being friendly, keeping your ears open, listening more than you talk, and buying lots of rounds of beer. That way, everybody's mumbling, but no one cares what's being said.

Seriously, though, as an expatriate, I think that the burden of making friends is entirely on me. It's true that the natives are mostly not looking to expand their acquaintance, because they don't have a strong motivation to do so. They have fully developed social circles not because they're elitists, but because they live here. That's it. Complaining that the community is closed to me when I don't find instantaneous acceptance will gain me nothing. I must put the effort into asking questions and into sharing myself with them. I am the one who must get phone numbers and e-mail addresses, who must call and make plans with people. I think - I hope - that they will appreciate it, too, because as a non-native, I probably have a greater motivation for venturing out.

Then again, Janelle may be right. She has been here quite a bit longer than I have. We will see.