Traveling without moving

Honestly, what was I thinking when I decided to leave Hong Kong and move to San Diego? You can’t pull a city girl out of her city and put her in San Diego! Did I really know what I was getting myself into? Was I — a British-Chinese girl from Hong Kong — really going to experience this thing they described at international orientation as “culture shock”?

I always thought that my situation had somewhat jaded me to the idea of culture shock; I was brought up under post-colonial Hong Kong’s British education system, which was, after all, a hodgepodge of different nationalities. Entertainment-wise, the ex-colony was very much the same as when the British were there: I watched the same American sitcoms and movies, Australian soap operas, British comedies and the BBC. And my taste in music was influenced by my parents’ record collection from 1970’s England, England’s Top of the Pops, Rolling Stone, NME, the Britpop scene in the ’90s, Hong Kong’s fleeting punk-rock scene (made up mostly of expatriate kids) and whatever our local pub jukebox had in it. But I just assumed that was all there for the international community, and I didn’t think anything special of it.

Nevertheless, how much of a culture shock could I really experience? I was ready for this thing they called studying abroad. I was a cocky freshman … what can I say? It wasn’t so much of a shock as it was a slap across the face … multiple times. Things were different, very different. And so I turned to the one thing my new “yank” friends and I could relate to: entertainment in the form of trashy TV, mindless entertainment gossip, movies and music.

Not content with staying put in one place for long, I decided to spend the past summer working and living in London. London’s heavy tourist population gives you the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and once again I’d have to make new friends and “settle in.” Conversations would strike up and, of course, I would have to explain my situation: a British-Chinese girl from Hong Kong, going to school in San Diego and living in London for the summer, an explanation which drew looks of confusion. To add to this confusion, one traveler couldn’t understand why my mp3 list was the way it was: “Wait, I don’t get why you have Elliott Smith, Suede and the Cure. How on earth did you get into this stuff? Shouldn’t you be listening to Canto-pop or something?” Canto-pop … please, I had never bought or listened to a Canto-pop album in my life. I’m sure, somewhere out there, there’s a middle-aged white guy in Nebraska who knows more about Canto-pop than me.

Ignoring that somewhat ignorant question, it was then that it hit me — music, movies and popular culture have no borders, and that’s their beauty. That’s why I love them so much. No matter where you are in the world, be it San Diego, London or Hong Kong, you will always find some way of fitting in through popular culture.

As much as I’m prepared to bitch and moan about pop culture, I do have a soft spot for it — after all, it makes up the best of my summer memories. My first experience with this multi-cultural, border-crossing experience of pop culture involved movies with Thomas, a French guy who was in London taking English classes. Me, attempting to speak in my broken, nonexistent French and him talking in his broken, somewhat-existent English about Quentin Tarantino.

By the end of the summer I had witnessed four Spanish guys singing to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic” on Thursday karaoke nights. I had taught a Japanese girl how to pronounce “Avril Lavigne” (harder than you think), seen a Turkish couple take their 5-year-old child to a Simon and Garfunkel concert in Hyde Park and seen two buskers singing a Bob Marley song to a group of Japanese schoolgirls on the streets of Sapporo, Japan. Pop culture, more specifically American pop culture, was everywhere I went.

So perhaps my situation wasn’t all that unique. All the evils of pop culture can be alleviated, to some extent. At the risk of sounding sickeningly cheesy, pop culture does bring people together: A Radiohead fan in Marrakesh is the same as a Radiohead fan in Mumbai. Pop culture, I believe, can be seen as a worldwide phenomenon, and too often I don’t think those in the pop industry realize the effect they have. The people at Fox probably don’t even realize that through “”The O.C.”” they have single-handedly spread the myth of the “wonder” that is Orange County and probably boosted its tourism. Hollywood and its movies have dazzled people beyond belief, and they truly believe that Los Angeles is the epitome of all things glamorous. Boy, will they be in for a shock.

Whether it’s the new punk movement in Beijing, the Irish pub in Japan or reggae in France, popular culture is everywhere, and people learn to assimilate through it. So this is to all the new international students out there: Moving to a new country is always hard, yes; it’s all very well to live in San Diego with its postcard-perfect beaches and weather, but at the end of the day you’ll probably feel a little homesick. Put on your favorite band’s album, and I’m sure someone out there will strike up a conversation with you about it. Call it globalization, I call it feeling at home.

See, pop culture is just that — it’s popular, and it’s a common ground for us travelers to come together, mingle and feel less like outsiders. For now, though, I’ll do anything for a “cuppa” with some chocolate “biccies” and a copy of Heat magazine from the United Kingdom to catch up on some trashy English gossip.