In 24 days, I leave for Oxford University and won’t be returning until July. I’m nervous, I’m excited, and I’m already experiencing culture shock. Despite having been in Oxford before, I’m realizing how unprepared I am for an extended time there and what it will mean to live as an ex-pat again. I will have to create a new normal for myself, find a new routine. I will have to change how I listen to my music, change how I pack my bags in the morning, change what I wear and how I interact with the weather and with my money.
So over the past few months, my English friends have been generally harangued by questions about what’s normal and what’s not for life in England. They’ve acted as my translators, telling me about everything from “fairy lights” to “TV licences.” Despite my already fairly extensive experience with Oxford and with the British system of education, it occurs to me that this time is entirely different, and I will need to rely on people for whom this experience is “normal,” people for whom the sentence, “Televisions are permitted but the occupant is responsible for obtaining a TV licence for their own device” makes perfect sense.
This idea of normal is a hard one – “normal,” in a sense doesn’t exist. What’s normal for an American living in South Dakota is abnormal for an English person living in Oxford. When these cultures collide, I will need friends and guides and translators to help me through the cultural rifts.
And what has helped reassure me, what has helped me see what I need to do and change and be has been conversation. Reassurances from British friends and from the staff at my college (which I’m sure they’re getting tired of giving) have helped my anxious brain figure out what this new normal will be. Conversation, communication, and contact have made it possible for me to realize that my normal won’t be normal there, and to be okay with it.
It’s important that we talk about what “normal” is. In the scheme of things, what’s “normal” in Oxford is a pretty petty thing to be worried about – I’ll figure things out as I go along, and mistaking measurements or temperatures isn’t going to have life-changing effects. But making openness, honesty, and conversation about the reality of my normal is important practice for all other aspects of life.
For years, I’ve lived with an intense generalized anxiety disorder with an accompanying panic disorder that worsened during times of stress. It’s been part of my life for so long that it became entirely part of my normal. I thought it was typical to feel like I was going to throw up just riding the bus around town, to carry mints and pepto with me to give myself something to suck on and settle my stomach. For a time, I stared at other people, wondering how they could get through the day without experiencing this crushing anxiety.
Until someone said, “No, that’s not normal. Riding the bus shouldn’t make it hard for you to breathe. You should be able to sit in a lecture without feeling like you’re going to faint. What you’re experiencing as normal really isn’t.”
As much as we like to impugn this idea of normal – and as important it is that we do insofar as “normality” is white, heterosexual, able-bodied and cisgender – having conversations about what’s typical for a person can be life changing. For the Christian who has grown up in a fundamentalist, homeschooled household, a conversation about normal can be as simple as clarifying that consent needs to be obtained before and during sexual activity. The effort needs to be made to make open and honest conversations part of our normality.
And it’s pretty stunning how often that honesty is abnormal.
But as I urge both in my book and throughout my online presence: openness and honesty are vitally important to helping people understand their own experiences. It is vital to understanding yourself. The drive to “be normal” is an important part for understanding why and how things have gone off the rails in terms of our health, in terms of our relationships, in terms of how we experience the world. Knowing that the world is diverse and there is no normal needs to be held in tension with the idea that there are some things and some experiences that are fundamentally not normal and not right.
This is what we call living in the tension: living as an ex-patriate in the world of the abnormal. I will literally be doing this in three weeks. But we are all performing it every day.