Now that it’s the start of school, I’m finally realizing that my time in London is over. With the help of the SMU Communications London Internship Program and CAPA International, I interned for six weeks in Camden Town, London at a place called Castlehaven Community Association. Castlehaven is a 30-year-old community center that is a “safe haven” to the young and the old from the surrounding area.

Entrance sign to the community garden and center

Entrance sign to the community garden and center

The center has three different programs, each with several hundred members: Littlehaven for 1-5 year olds, CastleYouth for teenagers, and Ageactivity for people 65 years and older.

A few of the Castlehaven members during a gardening class

A few of the Castlehaven members during a gardening class

Because London is so incredibly diverse, many of the center’s members are immigrants. With London having such a difficult job market to even British natives, the youth programs incorporate classes such as studio production, cooking, or gardening to equip the children with a variety of marketable skills from an early age. The programs for the elderly are mostly classes such as Chi Kung, yoga, and ballroom dance that not only encourage them to stay active physically, but socially. As a whole, the classes provide an inclusive, interactive environment that encourages Camden natives to slow down and meet one another amidst the fast-paced London culture.

In addition to my administrative, event planning, and PR roles at Castlehaven, I had the opportunity to be involved in the classes. I made new friends from all over the world and of all ages. Each person I met soon realized I was American and would eagerly ask me questions of whether or not I was enjoying my stay in London. They would ask what I liked most about being there and if I missed America. The genuine interest that the members and the staff took in me continued throughout my time at the center. We exchanged stories of our upbringings, and I noticed how diverse the people around me truly were. Respecting each other’s global perspectives, they recognized and uplifted each other’s and my own differences.

Beyond Castlehaven, I found the British government and infrastructure to be progressively accommodating of cultural differences as well. The most visible accommodations regarded religious acceptance. In a visit to Parliament, I learned that members are allowed to swear an oath on the book of their practiced religion, not just the Bible. Furthermore, I noticed that in some public places, such as the terminals of the London-Heathrow Airport, there are multi-faith prayer rooms. In noticing and learning of such religious tolerance, I found an uncomfortable irony in thinking about the history of America—a country that gained independence from England for the purpose of achieving more religious freedoms.

In my time in London, whether at Castlehaven or not, I thought about home and about how immigrants with cultural disparities are often expected to conform to American customs. I thought about how we want people to speak English, dress a certain way, and basically be able to fade into society even at the expense of identities. I thought about how colleges and universities around the nation intentionally select diverse people for the sake of their brochure covers in order to show an ideal cultural fantasy. I found that fantasy to be reality in London.

Above all, my time in London allowed me to learn about and celebrate different cultures. Working in Camden, I was also exposed to one of London’s most diverse markets—each shop and restaurant representing a different culture. Going about my daily routine in context of such diversity was one of the most humbling and educating experiences of my life.

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(Examples of street art and a man on the sidewalk offering free hugs – embodying the colorful character of Camden.)

The people were so progressive with well-rounded thoughts because of their dynamic surroundings. Quickly, I began to realize why the European perceptions of even educated Americans were that they are unintelligent. Many Americans are simply not willing or comfortable immersing themselves in the ideologies of other cultures as I found to be true of the English. American tourists seem to stick out like sore thumbs in British culture because of their loud presence. They’re the ones begging for ice in their waters and the check immediately following their meals. They believe that their voices and demands are the most important—a smaller scale metaphor for how other countries view America in their relations to the rest of the world.

Now that I am back in America, acclimating to the environment has become more challenging than I imagined. Beyond leaving a life of frequent tea, breaded cod, and Tube buses, I feel like I carry a perspective that isn’t understood—a foreign perspective. As classes kick into full gear, I’m trying to hold on to one of the many things that I have learned in London: there is as much to be learned from people and their experiences as there is in the classroom.