I climbed the hill, past sheep grazing just below the National Library of Wales, winded and sweating by the time I made it up the enormous stone steps. I needed to get my library access card so I can begin using the reading rooms for my research. When I walked in, the guard asked, “Are you okay?” Immediately, I thought, Do I not look okay? Do I look ill? Crazy? Is my outfit weird? But then I remembered that this is what people say to you here instead of “Hello, how are you? May I help you?” So I said, “Yes, yes I am okay, thank you.” But I’m still not sure what I am supposed to say—“Yes, thank you. And you?”
Being asked if you are okay everywhere you go is disconcerting. Like having to look in the opposite direction for oncoming traffic. Things are kind of the same as they are at home, but not exactly. Subtle differences are harder to navigate than more obvious ones. When you sort of understand, but not really, you don’t always admit to not understanding. Sometimes you don’t even realize you don’t understand until much later. I lived in Ljubljana, Slovenia for 9 months in 2015 and there was mutual work going on between myself and the people I met because we had to find the commonalities in such wildly different cultures and languages. But here, because I speak English, I take for granted that I know what everyone is saying. But I don’t.
Besides the feeling of being one step removed from English, there is also Welsh. Wales is a bilingual country. The children in the town go to a Welsh speaking school and, although they learn English from the first grade, their primary lessons are in Welsh. The hope is that all the children of Wales will grow up to be bilingual so that the Welsh language stays protected. Everything in the town must be in both languages.
I’ve experienced culture shock before. But being here in the UK is completely different. Mostly because I am different. I’m stronger than I was when I lived in Ljubljana. I’ve worked hard to become free from so many hard things. So, honestly, it doesn’t bother me that I don’t always understand–I mostly understand. And that’s good enough.