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United Kingdom First Impressions and No, Nos!

The following piece was written for Learning English Cambodia
"Why study in UK?

You’ve succeeded at last.  Your dream has come true and you’ve finally arrived to be a student in the United Kingdom. Well you will have had your first introduction to this quaint nation’s many peculiarities. You’ll face many more before you’re safely settled in to your new home for the next chapter in your life.

Yes that first introduction is to the queue, the orderly queue, that you went through at Border Control. Woe betide anyone who jumps the queue, any queue, in the UK. They are soon admonished.

Here we must give you your first tip. Brits especially in uniform don’t mind being asked for advice. Some thrive on it.  So always please  ask: “Sorry, is this the queue for...... non-EU passports? “No this is the queue for the ladies toilet – you go over there!”

Note the use of the all-important multi-purpose word “Sorry”. You are not apologizing, just using a better way to say “Excuse me!” More is said on this later.

Once you have managed to find your way out of the airport you might have to cross the street and have to navigate your way to the right mode of onward transport. Both might entail saying “Sorry” a few more times, and/or by gesticulating the same meaning, raising a hand that also serves as a polite “Thank you”.

Drivers of vehicles usually but not always stop for you – beware – and not just at pedestrian crossings but at junctions. Now please don’t get in to the habit of expecting and acting upon it. Wait until signalled. If not it might lead to your early visit thanks to a rare selfish driver to the excellent free accident/emergency NHS (National Health Service) clinics.  Plus of course it is not something you dare risk once back at home, at least in many parts of the world. 

Once aboard your transport you will notice that nobody talks. They never did that in past times before the craze for peering in to Smart-phones went universal. The silence is only broken if something happens..... like a delay.  Then they’ll burst in to chatter.

You might be asked to join in the grumble. That might be your first unsolicited question or comment. Most likely it will be the incessant one you will hear most often in the UK and for which you must have a ready-made “small-talk” reply.  “Nasty weather, isn’t it?”  Try to respond with something like “Yes but a nice change for me.”  You’ll soon have your first transient friend. If you want to keep the chat going you can venture safely with ”Isn’t your NHS (National Health Service) wonderful?”

If nothing happens and silence prevails, you need to be warned about more “No, no’s” about to befall you and the escape route skills you will need master.

Firstly please avoid eye contact and above all do not stare at people.  It will most likely attract a scowl of derision and possibly some abuse.  He or she might even think you fancy them.

The next “No, no” is to enter someone’s space. Even in a crowded train, people have imaginary territorial boundaries around them.  Despite having no intention of accidentally bumping in to them, or of invading their space, be quick to say.... “Sorry!” and look away.  A cursory half smile does no harm. That’s your escape route.

Soon you will be thirsty and hungry. You might want a drink or cup of soup.  So here is your next “No, no”.  Please don’t slurp, or not audibly as at home where it’s a sure sign of culinary satisfaction to one and all.  Brits don’t slurp. It’s a sign of bad manners for them, of poor upbringing. In fact you should practice not slurping so as not to be caught unawares and inviting disapproving looks.

Afterwards you might want to relieve yourself and get to use one of the many words in common use for toilets. Or just say “Sorry, toilet please?” as that is mostly OK these days, thankfully. If you want to sound superior you may ask for “Ladies or Gents” provided you have an appropriate distinct appearance of one of the usual binary choices. If you are of the modern non-binary variety, stick to toilet and just dive in to whichever suits you.....while avoiding eye contact.

And: Please do not forget to wash your hands! If you don’t, you will be rebuked. The publisher of this page (Learning English Cambodia) is an expert in this regard, exporting the admonition, with some success but mainly bemusement around South East Asia.

Now let’s be clear. I hope all this is not daunting. Everyone soon gets the hang of it and much more of British idiosyncrasies.  Well-honed use of “Sorry” and your best innocent smile rarely fails to work or to impress. Please note also two other words used here very often – “Please” and “Thank you”. Those three words will take you a long way in the UK, just fine and dandy!

Welcome to the UK.

An Anecdote

Having dutifully pleased and flattered the publisher gentleman, I now wish to disavow the content, in part or at least with qualifications.

I used to live and work in Dorchester Dorset whose County Hospital hosted staff from Saint Helena Island in the South Atlantic for professional training. With a population of just 5,000 or so, there are no strangers there.  One cheery chappie was Rodney “Eggshell” Benjamin whose strengths were far more sturdy than his nickname suggested. He was a nurse, paramedic and anaesthetist. Most boys on the island have nicknames and they're used all the time.  Some hardly know their real name. You will not need an educated guess to how Rodney acquired his.

Now Rodney cut a diminutive figure, as well as a striking one, having darkish skin and green eyes.
Despite being new to the big wide world of Dorchester, at least compared to Jamestown on St Helena, he had no fears of walking out and about, even making his own way to town to and from my house, and our rendezvous at the Old Ship. I followed not long after him.

He behaved exactly as he did at home greeting every passer-by with a friendly smile. “Good morning, Sir” “Good morning Ma’am”.  “Hello, you, how you is?” to the children.

For the most part everyone, despite their surprise, greeted him back, although of course few stopped to chat as would occur on St Helena.  Now although Dorset folks seldom greeted strangers in this way, there was no doubt about it, Rodney soon became quite a celebrity.

I have to admit though I did overhear the occasional after-greeting muttering of “Wierdo!”

Despite that Rodney made this little part of the world as friendly as his small part, at least for a while. In many ways it is a shame that it never caught on.  Dorchester folks are fine but strange.

Postscript on the Old Ship and another Rodney.

A couple of years later I myself went to St Helena and stayed for 7 years. Then I returned to Dorchester and wandered in to the Old Ship. As if time had stood still local punter Rodney was propping up the same corner of the Bar. As I was getting my Eldridge Pope IPA, he interrupted his contemplation of his glass, looked at me and said “Hello John, Oi (I) not seen thee for a little while!”  I told him where I’d been and for 7 years. “Thought it was a few months, not years, ah well, not much to tell you, all same round ‘ere!”