The dappled shade protects my pale shoulders from the sun and the grass is damp under my bare legs. The taste of Thai food is new and there’s probably as much on my face as in my mouth. I unfold one leg and stretch it out into the circle. The circle consists of the other Tufts 1+4 fellows, each excited, each brilliantly unique, each nervous. I sit quietly eating, unsure of where to jump into the conversation, as it moves from mushrooms to politics and from the Circus to the Illuminati. Eventually some common ground is found in discussing our preparations for this adventure. The rabies vaccination was optional, and I had assumed that only those intending on working with animals or paranoid would have gotten it; my naivety in understanding America was already revealing itself. The determining factor was money.
I did not get the rabies vaccination because the NHS didn’t recommend it. I did have to get some vaccinations that the NHS didn’t recommend, and pay for them, even travelling to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine to prove that I hadn’t been in contact with TB. This cost my family more than we would normally have to spend on health care, but when I told the other fellows, they were surprised how cheaply I had managed to cover the medical requirements.
The NHS has been celebrating its 70th birthday this year and as a nation we seem to be proud. I am not proud as it is not my doing, but I am incredibly grateful. I don’t think that it’s an overestimate to say that every Briton’s life has been improved by the work of the organisation, my own included. I am grateful that they provided me with 8 months of eczema creams. I am grateful that they provided me with pamphlets on my various health issues so that if I do need to go to a Brazilian doctor I do not need to rely entirely on my underdeveloped Portuguese. I am grateful that they have saved the lives of my friends in crisis. Our gratitude as a nation seems to be currently tempered by fear; fear that took us out of the EU to direct that money toward the NHS; fear that care services are inadequate; fear that jobs cannot be filled. I am not about to advocate gratitude instead of progress, but that the two must be combined. Because I’m going to have heath insurance for the next 6 years of my life outside the UK. And I have no clue how that works.
Being both a Tufts and GCY fellow means that I have had two weeks of orientation and preparation before flying to Brazil, and an almost persistent theme in these trainings has understandably been culture shock. But what I wasn’t expecting, was to already be experiencing the effects displayed on the slides in the classroom. The queues are longer, the voices are louder and the food is a lot bigger. (Carmichael canteen serves pizza every day). My head is sometimes spinning with the noise. To go from a small village in Cheshire to Boston and then to San Francisco, it has hit me that in cities, or in America (I’m on not yet in the position to make the distinction), life is all hours. Construction starts at 4am, accentuating jet lag, and city dwellers socialise at all hours, for all of the hours. Life doesn’t stop for night fall, for the stars, and certainly not for introverts.
This non-stop whirlwind spins me further into disorientation with each conversation. The politics, the racial environment and the extreme capitalism are things that I have always looked in on from the outside, but take on a wildly different substance now that I am here.
As we finish our last mouthfuls of Thai curry, I explain how the NHS helps patients with travel medication. A couple of fellows seem surprised by the fact that the NHS would cover vaccinations simply for going on a fun holiday. Socialism has a very different meaning across the pond. Sharing of experiences has been what has shocked me about the realities of living in America, but it is also what has enlightened me. And I’m starting to understand that culture shock is mutual.