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Minding the Gap: Making the Transition from One Culture to Another

By Melissa Hale Woodman

I've lived between cultures all my life. It's a unique challenge to build an identity that straddles two places, but it's also an opportunity for growth.

Before I begin, a disclaimer: I was born in the United Kingdom to American parents.  A few years before I was born, my newly-wed parents moved from New York to London for a job my father thought would last one year. In a sense, therefore, I have always lived between two cultures. And I've always been motivated both to discover each in more depth and stand back with an observing eye.

I lived and studied in London until I was 18. When it came time for me to apply to university, I made a deliberate decision to apply only to colleges in the United States. I wanted an adventure, away from the predominant culture I grew up in.  I wasn't sure what lay in store in the United States, apart from, in the words of one my classmates, a lot of "fun." I suppose I felt that by pushing myself towards the both familiar and unfamiliar world of America, I might discover new parts of myself. Educationally, I was also drawn to the American college system whereby I wouldn't have to specialize until my third year, whereas in England, specialization happens before the first day begins.  

I was accepted to seven colleges, and chose Princeton.

Up until that moment, my experience of the United States had been limited to family summer holidays and visits with my relatives.  How would the transition into a new culture, within a more independent context, influence me? The knowledge that the experience I was to have was all mine--to create, react to and process--filled me with fear, exhilaration and pure anticipation.

Fast forward to my first day on campus. Culture shock began as I marveled and puzzled over the world I had entered. Led Zeppelin songs escaped from open windows, while Frisbees glided by. What was this musical backlash to the 70s and how would I disguise my lack of athleticism? I contended with oohs and aahs over my accent--admittedly flattering--but at times I felt like an exotic bird. As for fashion: my outfits, which seemed normal in London, were greeted with quizzical stares. One evening, I wore to dinner a brown velvet hat I'd bought in a London market and was congratulated on my "boldness."

Time passed and initial impressions faded as I sank deeper into transition. I both missed the familiarity of British culture and eagerly embraced the new. The openness and optimism of American culture fed me, but I missed the caustic British sarcasm. I admired America's enthusiasm, but I missed the quieter sophistication of the Brits.  In saying all this, I had to constantly monitor myself (and still do) to avoid cultural stereotyping.

Almost fifteen years since graduating from college, and still living in the States, I have a few words of wisdom to offer. Transitioning from one culture to another is simple: make the effort to understand, be curious, and don't judge. Try to create the kind of experience you'd like to have. Feeling uncomfortable is probably a good sign that you're learning and growing.  There's a middle way between clinging to what you know and giving it up.  Straddle that line.  

I think living between two cultures has made me more open to exploring risk and unknown paths. Perhaps the unconventional career choices I have made are a bi-product of this openness. My resume reads more like a tapestry than a linear progression. And while I admire the American work ethic, I have consciously chosen not to become a slave to my career. At various stages, I've taken time off work to follow other, equally important dreams.  For instance, after graduate school I traveled around Asia for three months by myself.  Yes, I faced the anxiety of knowing I was leaving without a job waiting for me upon my return.  Yet few other post-college adventures gave me the confidence, strength and sense of self that in turn, fed into my work life.

I never planned to stay in the United States for so long. I think I was seduced into staying by the community of close friends I made in college, and the incomparable opportunities and promise of reinvention that America offered career-wise. So over fifteen years later since my first foray in the US, where do I find myself culturally? Much like before, I neither feel American or fully British. My accent reflects the fact that I'm a bit of a cultural mutt these days.   I try to actively incorporate the things I like most about each culture--the American drive, focus and optimism, along with a more quirky British approach--into my daily life.

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