England: Black cabs and red double-decker buses. Fish and chips and tea and scones. Big Ben and the Queen. Grand cathedrals and little sunshine.
Pakistan: Gunfire lullabies and women oppressed. Bombs and Islamic extremism. Poverty and desperation. Home to a people with limitless hospitality and ridiculous festive exuberance (yet that always gets left out of the media somehow). Pakistan is where I am coming from, but what I have described is not my entire world, only what it is perceived as.
I curled up in my plane seat with a book on Mitochondria, preparing desperately for my impending interview. To my left was a man with a long black beard. There was no Holy Book in his hands, but an iPad depicting Lisa Simpson playing her saxophone. The quintessential stereotype is an ideal that only exists in the minds of those who do not know of any other reality to expect. As a girl from Pakistan who does not cover her head and is allowed to live alone while studying, I understand this only too well, and so I know to not expect the filtered and distilled version of England available on the internet.
We live in a world connected. From home I can visit the Eiffel tower or wonder at the Aurora Borealis. I can interact simultaneously with friends from Africa and America, and learn about the differences in their lifestyles. As a person who cannot recall ever being introduced to the internet (it was always a constant) I can honestly say I feel like a member of a truly global community. Identifying myself as such - a citizen of the world, part of a group that is defined not by geographical boundaries but by similar ideals and circumstances, I felt that culture shock was an experience reserved for a more primitive generation. However, having lived in Pakistan, I also knew to recognise the difference between the exaggerated caricatures of cultures and reality. It will not always be teatime in the UK, just as it is not always prayer time in Pakistan. The only thing I felt I knew for certain, as I stepped off the plane, was that I would not be surprised.
I was hilariously wrong.
The grand, 800-year-old colleges of Cambridge, were beautiful, majestic but also expected. The students sleeping in the cafeteria (buttery?), face-first in their breakfast were not. The English accent of my interviewer was anticipated but my own difficulty in communicating with a man speaking my first language took me by surprise. I suppose at the end of the day its the little things that nobody really bothers mentioning that trigger culture shock. Dinner at six instead of ten-thirty. The unbelievable cold - how were people wearing skirts with sheer tights in the middle of December?! I knew that here, it would be safe to walk out on the streets, yet the absolute difference of it struck me - it was alien, the cobbled stones, the age, the cleaner air, the drinkable tap water - but it was sweet. In just one day, I found England to be a lot of what I expected; but it also took me by surprise and delighted me.
Now, in the weeks that follow my arrival to Cambridge, I still find myself completely incredulous on several occasions. Taking a shortcut to a class means cutting through the grandeur of King's College Chapel and pretending that its majesty is something everyday. Returning home with groceries one night means seeing Stephen Hawking (- Stephen Hawking!!) on the way back. The content of a lecture includes finding out about various Nobel Prize winning discoveries which happened "just upstairs in the laboratory, I think". Going out with friends is a night spent on the river, towered by ancient and palatial buildings (which are quickly becoming home) to the soundtrack of Harry Potter; and a formal dinner means wearing a the college gown and dining in the 'Great Hall' as people pretend they are in Hogwarts.
I can't tell if its the unfamiliarity of it all, or if Cambridge is just that special (I like to think the latter) but I feel as if I am in a place taken from a storybook, and the tale is seamlessly transitioning from milads (religious festivals) and shalwar kameez (Pakistan's national dress) to college gowns and a city that seemed only to exist 'once upon a time in a land far, far away' in a story I thought I had read but really didn't know very much about. Ink is tracing the blank pages that are unfurling ahead of me, and I can't wait to read the ever changing patterns in my path.
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