Tube Culture

What do you think of when you hear the word “culture”? Before going to England, I thought culture meant wearing traditional dress, living in a hut, and eating strange foods. “Culture” was some nebulous idea you only found in developing countries where people had never heard of computers or of Hollywood. I didn’t think I’d find any of that in London. I figured three months there would be almost the same as three months in Provo, except I’d be in a big city and people would have funny accents and bad teeth.

During the preparation course I took before my field study, we discussed culture a great deal. Soon I came to realize “culture” wasn’t about being exotic–it was simply about the way you lived your life and reacted to others on a day-to-day basis.

I still wasn’t quite prepared for everything I would experience in London. I didn’t expect how crowded and old everything was. I’m from South Jordan, Utah–a growing city on the edge of a wide valley, with more than enough room to spread, unlike London, in which bodies and buildings alike are quite squished together. Another thing I didn’t expect in London was all of the smells: cigarette smoke, sewers, incense, exhaust, curry, fast food, sweat, ale. My nose was in a state of constant sensory overload. And then there was how fast everything moved–I’ve never seen so many people move in so many directions at the same time, and I had no idea how I’d get around without being trampled.

But even in the first week of living in London, I began to realize there was one institution which seemed to define London culture: the Tube. The Tube is London’s subway/metro system, a network of interconnecting rails which reach almost every corner of the city. Everyone rides the Tube: businessmen, schoolchildren, old ladies, punk rockers, construction workers, small families, tourists, college kids, street artists, CEOs, rabbis, gangsters. So if you’re from the big, wide, American west, like me, and you want to have space and privacy, the Tube is not the place for you. You will be–quite literally–smashed together with the most overwhelming amount of human bodies and cultural diversity you can possibly imagine.

But even though the crowded Tube was completely outside of my comfort zone, I was fascinated by the great masses of people in the carriages, the turnstiles, the platforms, the escalators, and the tiny shops dotting the Tube stops. In other areas of the city, economics, tradition, religion, and ethnicity divided Londoners–only certain types of people would go to that club or this church or that market. But the Tube, the melting pot of London culture, was a perfect stage for seeing how Londoners would interact with each other, face to face.

I had expected Londoners to be generally cold and hardened individuals, so I was amazed at the harmony and acceptance which existed between them on the Tube. Yes, they often ignored each other, and they gave exasperated sighs around slow-walking tourists and their unwieldy rolling suitcases. But they also shared the newspaper, gave directions, held open doors, offered their seats to pregnant women and the elderly, helped with luggage, entertained each others’ whiny children, and started polite conversations. Being crowded together on the Tube was not an inconvenience. It was an opportunity to interact with humanity. I was impressed by the acts of kindness I saw. They were simple and small, like the man who offered to get off and wait for the next train when a very stressed woman needed to get a spot on the crowded carriage. But these acts, in my eyes, changed London from a busy, smelly, crowded city into a community with its own distinct culture, a community in which citizens interacted and looked out for one another.

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