Did you know that in England, “duck” is a term of endearment? Neither did I, until I was accepted into a study abroad program in the United Kingdom. This summer, I will be interning for a member of the British Parliament for two months in London. Anxious about going overseas, I began preparing for my trip immediately after I finished a victory dance around my room celebrating my acceptance into the program.

The last thing I wanted to do in London was stick out as a foreigner. London is one of the most fast-paced, exciting cities in the world, and I didn’t want to look like a tourist. I decided the best way for me to do this — other than avoid wearing a fanny pack — was to act as British as possible. When I walk down the street, I want people to think, “What a British person that is!”

Okay, they probably won’t think that. But I want to exude Britishness from every pore.

At my orientations, we learned about adjusting to British culture and customs. A lot of these are intuitive, or at least familiar to people who watch television and movies or are in love with Prince Harry. Orientation leaders stressed the importance of adjusting to British life, like clothing, nightlife and grocery shopping. I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable in my workplace, surrounded by Brits, so I decided the best approach was to be as similar to them as possible.

I started with the most obvious things. I researched what British businesswomen wear to work (it’s not really that different from American businesswear). I resolved not to take shorts with me because if anything screams, “I’m an American!”, it’s shorts. I learned about pub culture and figured out which card to use on the Underground. I tried fish and chips and practiced saying “ladies” instead of “restroom.”

Somewhere in the excitement of learning about British culture, I crossed a line, and my mission was suddenly spinning out of control. I was torn between whether I should drink tea or coffee in the morning. Do they drink their coffee black or with cream? What is the proper way to take tea — with milk or sugar? What is a “fry up” and do I want to eat that? And do Londoners brown-bag lunch?

As I crafted a perfect British Erika in my mind, I realized there was a major flaw in my plan. As soon as I open my mouth in London, it will be obvious where I am from. I have a bona fide Midwestern accent. Try saying “ladies” in a Midwestern accent. It sounds ridiculous.

I put on the brakes and considered what I was doing. No matter how hard I try to come off as English, people will know I’m an American. I realized that studying abroad isn’t about pretending like you fit in. It’s about respecting and learning about another culture. And, in return, it’s about representing a part of your own culture, like a big cultural potluck. The whole thing is really a cultural exchange, not a cultural transformation. While it is probably smart to figure out how to use the Underground like a pro, I don’t think I really need to worry about walking like an American — though I should probably remember to look to the right first instead of the left when crossing the street.

I’m an American. And that means that I like to drink coffee, watch hockey and definitely yell at the TV. I want the athletes I watch to hit each other, not a cricket ball. I want to wear shorts, and I’m definitely going to celebrate the Fourth of July while I’m there. It’s valuable for me to learn proper tipping etiquette and which cabs to take while overseas, but I won’t go overboard with my cultural acclimation. I’m sure I’ll drink tea, watch soccer — erm…football — and celebrate the Queen’s Birthday, but there’s no reason that should preclude my American habits.

I am who I am — and being American is part of that. While I don’t want to stick out in London, there is no way I’m going to be able to blend in. What I can do is leave a positive impression on the people I encounter while I’m there.

Erika Mayer can be reached at elmayer@umich.edu.

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