London bus

What is London, English, British identity?

These are not all the same. Try not to make the mistake of interchanging the terms 'United Kingdom', 'Great Britain', 'British Isles', and 'English'. The UK is steeped in history and tradition, which has in turn created many regional differences. Understanding and respecting these differences will be helpful in understanding culture during your semester away.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (otherwise called the UK), is the formal, political name for the kingdoms of England and Scotland, the principality of Wales, and the province of Northern Ireland. The British Isles refers to the two large islands, Great Britain and Ireland, and thousands of smaller islands around the area. Great Britain is the island that includes England, Wales, and Scotland. The term British refers to these three countries – Northern Ireland is not a part of Great Britain, so residents of that country may resent being called British. English is a term used to refer to only the nationals of England, not any other people in Great Britain.

It is important to understand these differences because there are some regional rivalries and people are proud of their regional background. The English, Welsh, and Scots like to poke fun at each other but is all generally in good jest. For example, the English may mock the football teams of Wales or Scotland for all their inadequacies. Each nation may also make fun of each other’s cuisine or even the way they speak (accent). Because of these strong regional ties, some people will first associate as being from England, then from Britain, then from the UK, then from Europe.

In addition to regional differences, British society was traditionally based on hierarchy and differences in rank and class. While the focus on economic class has diminished over time, there is still quite a bit of polarization between the wealthy and the poor in London. Like in other cities around the world, there are poorer neighbourhoods and more wealthy neighbourhoods and this is also the case in London. You can have big ‘council estates’ that house families from more socially deprived backgrounds and are densely populated within an area of other council estates or you can have wealthy neighbourhoods concentrated in the suburbs or outskirts. For example, in many wealthy Central London neighbourhoods local residents have access to a private park gardens where a key is needed to get inside thus excluding the general population from entering. You still can have expensive homes located alongside social housing but, as is often the case, the two cohorts may have limited interaction with each other.

There are some traditional aspects of British culture that are still definitely evident, such as tea time and the Monarchy. Traditionally tea time refers to when people have afternoon tea and cakes or biscuits (cookies) around 3-4 pm but because of changes in society and working life this is becoming a less common occurrence. Having ‘tea’ in a household may also mean to have dinner so someone may say ‘tea is ready’ meaning that dinner is ready to be served. The Royal Family are generally quite popular and more so since the younger generation (Prince William et al.) have grown up but even though they are the British Royal Family they are inevitably more popular in England and Wales than in Scotland, for example.  

In terms of the identity of London, it is often hard to define. London is a truly international city with residents coming from all over the world. London, like New York, has very much its own culture; it is British culture blended in with other cultures to create an eclectic mix. At restaurants, it is just about as common to see chicken tikka masala on a menu as fish and chips. The food available in London is not bland and uninspiring as many people think. The foods here are largely fresh, and you will find a great number of international cuisines due to the population who come from all over the world.

Guy Fawkes Day is an annual celebration on November 5th that commemorates the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, where Guy Fawkes and others tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. This holiday is celebrated by fireworks displays and bonfires around that date, and during that same period of time, there are other ethnic celebrations such as the Diwali and Eid where more fireworks are let off creating a couple of weeks of fireworks flickering in the sky across the country.

Traveling outside of London will ensure you get to experience the more traditional British culture. The Student Life team at NYU London arranges several trips for students throughout the semester, including excursions to places like Bath, Brighton, and Stonehenge. Plan on taking advantage of some of these offerings so that you can experience the more traditional British culture outside of London.

Kathleen Chang’s account of a HOST UK trip to Inverness, Scotland.

“Before we headed into the house for the rest of night, the Patties told us to take a good look at the sky. Although it was a hazy night, we found the Big Dipper (which for me, is amazing, because back home in Queens NY, the only thing I see in the sky are planes headed for LaGuardia or JFK airport). Over hot cocoa, the Patties shared with us stories about their grandchildren, how they ended up living in Inverness, past visitors, and about a long-lost friend they were trying to locate (who we actually helped find the next day through the magic of Google). It was refreshing to chat with them, as they reminded me of my own grandparents at certain points of the conversation, and to listen to their life stories. Although we were leaving Sunday, the Patties did not let us go without an early morning trip to see some ancient Pictish stones, Christian carvings over 1200 years old that are scattered through the Highlands, and a lighthouse that was at the tip of Scotland, opposite of Norway and the North Sea. Jean, of course, had skipped church that morning to make us a final home-cooked meal, with vegetables fresh picked from the garden, and a delicious rhubarb crumble pie with vanilla ice cream. With larger waistlines and warm memories, Jordan and I left from the seemingly magical and hidden world of the Scottish highlands back to our ordinary lives in the chaotic city of London.”

-Excerpted from NYU London's Bedford Square News