(Help!) I moved overseas to do my PhD
Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels
Note: This story was first shared by Erin Macdonald (PhD, Astrophysics, internationally recognized space science expert, writer, speaker, and consultant). It was first published on May 21, 2019, on Editage Insights.
I must have played “Caledonia,” a Scottish folk ballad, no less than 30 times on the flight to Scotland, trying to embrace the imminent massive change in my life. In the three weeks since graduation, I packed up all my belongings and moved out of my apartment. I had all the going-away parties, bid farewell to all my friends, my boyfriend, and my family before crossing the threshold to a totally unknown life. Truth be told, I should have been scared, but I wasn’t. I was excited. I was fulfilling a dream I’d had since I was a young girl and my parents took me to see my family’s origins in Scotland. I felt at home there, and had always wanted to return.
I had made the difficult decision that pursuing a PhD in the UK suited both my background and future plans, better than the US graduate programs, and now I was on my way. I knew it would be difficult. I knew that I wouldn’t have a single person from my previous life within a thousand miles. My data-driven brain had estimated that it would take about three months to feel comfortable. Close enough… But I should have doubled it.
When I had visited the University of Glasgow a few months prior to this, to meet my future colleagues face-to-face, I fell in love with the city. It was authentic, friendly, and I felt comfortable there. I have always liked that big-city industrial feeling and my Scottish heritage meant that just physically I was comfortable. The persistent grey mist suited me, and I felt at home.
However, there was one massive difference that I knew would take getting used to – “the accent.” Glaswegians are known for having one of the most inscrutable accents in the English language. Truth be told, it’s really more of a dialect than an accent, peppered with local words that you would only know if you lived there. I found it to be like a situation in which you’ve studied a language for a few years and you’re suddenly immersed in it, where you pick up maybe two-thirds of the words and you have to piece together what they are saying. If I was really lost, I would smile and nod along; trying to pick up on the social cues to figure out what was being said. Taxi rides were incredibly stressful as I could only rely on the audio from the driver. There is also a non-zero chance that I agreed to go out on a date with a guy I regularly saw at the grocery store, but I cannot be sure.
While I expected the accent to be a challenge, it was the little unexpected differences that really made the first few months difficult. I was on a pretty lean stipend compared to the cost of living, so I had to employ all my student tricks for surviving. I knew I could make a dozen eggs, tuna, and a loaf of bread go a long way each week as long as I could make tuna salad, egg salad, and PB&J (peanut butter and jelly) sandwiches along with eggs and toast. In order to stock my pantry though, I needed (among other things) relish and peanut butter. This is why, one week into my new life, I was crying in the aisles of the local supermarket just trying to find food ubiquitous to American life.
American relish was not a thing in the UK when I first moved there. You simply couldn’t find it. I had to experiment with things like Branston Pickle or Piccalilli, both far cries from American pickle relish. Peanut butter was thankfully available, just not easy to find. I was used to full rows of options in American supermarkets, but in the UK, all I could find was one choice shoved into the bottom shelf in the baking section. The people working there couldn’t even tell me where it was. Eggs were available, but not where I expected them: not refrigerated, and next to the bread. This adventure of navigating UK supermarkets only reminded me that I did not belong and was out of my depth, hence the bursting into tears.
I was desperate to blend in, because I always had assumed I would. I certainly looked like I belonged even more so than I had in America with my red hair, pale skin, and round face - I was clearly Scottish. I quickly learned the “tells” that gave me away as American, beyond my accent. Saying “Have a nice day” when you leave a shop may as well tattoo the American flag on your forehead. I quickly adjusted my lexicon: “movie” became “film,” “sidewalk” became “pavement,” and “garbage” became “rubbish,” among many others.
Eventually, I started to get to know people in the university department and I had figured out a great recipe for tuna salad with Branston pickle. I had met a woman who had also moved by herself from Switzerland and we would spend Friday nights watching Star Trek together, eating curry takeout. We were both invited to a Halloween party being thrown by one of the professors in the department, and it was here that my life in Scotland solidified. At this party, I bonded with people over our love for mutual actors (Alan Rickman), characters in TV shows (CJ in The West Wing), and even some people’s love for American culture (“You grew up in the town where New Belgium Beer comes from?!”). It was on the way back from that party that I held a full conversation with a Glaswegian taxi driver for the first time. That night, a full six months after moving to Glasgow, I went to bed feeling like I was finally home.