As someone studying English, when I first planned to study abroad in London, I imagined myself in a setting like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It would be a modern adaptation, but it would still be people in lavish dresses, talking with eloquence I could only wish to master.
And each person would be white.
The stories I associate with London? Sherlock Holmes and Watson—both white. 1984’s Winston and Julia—white. Anything by Jane Austen—white.
It didn’t help that I kept seeing statistics pop up about England. England is not the most diverse place. Of course, regionally, the United States struggles with racial diversity too, but there has always been a key difference.
My family lives here.
Even if my surroundings aren’t diverse, I know my family is diverse, and that brings me enough comfort.
Of course, if you go to London, everything about that will change.
Yet, from the moment I stumbled off the plane with what I would discover to be the worst jet lag ever, I realized I didn’t know the whole story. As I rode the Tube with my new friends, I could hear a couple to my left speaking in rapid-fire French. When we emerged in Kentish Town to drag our suitcases over the uneven cobblestones, there were people of every color.
Every day, London found a way to surprise and delight me. We went to a street market on the second day. Clustered on Leather Lane, you could get Greek food just as easily as Israeli food. You could travel the whole world within that street, and considering we’d only be there three weeks, you wouldn’t even have time to sample one stand a day.
During the second week, we went to Chinatown. I never realized London had a Chinatown, but as we sought out the optimal dim sum place, I kept telling my friends I couldn’t believe it. Later that night, I called my dad to tell him the news. Even though he laughed and rolled his eyes at me—“why wouldn’t they have a Chinatown? we have the best food!”—I could tell he was relieved by this.
My parents are not international travelers despite being the product of immigration. My mom might have been born within the United States, but within the past century, her family immigrated from the Eastern Bloc. My dad’s side of the family is more immediate. My grandpa immigrated from Taiwan, and my grandma immigrated from Panama. When my dad was a child, they used to take him out of the country.
Yet, he never went to a predominantly white country. Not like England. And I might have grown up in the Midwest, but it’s undeniable we were both a little cautious of me traveling abroad.
I’m mixed, of course, and I know I pass as white often. In the summer, though, it gets a little blurrier for strangers on the street to tell what my ethnicity is. I get tanned, and suddenly, a switch has been flipped. Sure enough, under the London sun, I tanned just from the sheer amount of walking we did.
I never felt unsafe in London, though. London never seemed to look at me twice for my race, and I loved that.
But, if we’re talking about what I loved, let me tell you one of the most humbling experiences.
I love Shakespeare. I always cite him as one of the reasons I became an English and creative writing major; he showed me the impact of language and how it can last. I read Othello during my senior year of high school, and between COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protest, he gave insight into something he would never experience.
While we were in London, I got to see three Shakespeare plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Comedy of Errors, and As You Like It. None of them shied away from having diverse casts. Shakespeare might have written with a white cast in mind, but the Royal Shakespeare Company had no qualms about changing that.
Suddenly, I was hearing some of my favorite monologues from people of color.
Suddenly, I was seeing these stories open up in a way that I had never considered before. I understood, on paper, what color-conscious casting could look like, but I had never seen a Shakespeare production like that before.
Now, whenever I read Shakespeare, I get a new point of connection. They aren’t stories for other people now; they can be stories for me.
I will always love London for that, and I will always love study abroad for opening a whole new world of opportunities for me.
Josephine Geiger-Lee (double major in English & creative writing and journalism & mass communication), a Diversity Ambassador Scholarship recipient (now the Global Access Ambassador Scholarship), participated in Shakespeare's England in summer 2023.
The Global Access Ambassador Scholarship (formerly Diversity Ambassador) program provides awards to study abroad for a summer, semester, or academic year.The scholarships are intended to support students who study abroad with the intent to serve as Global Access Ambassadors upon return to the UI campus.Upon completion of the study abroad program and return to UI, award recipients are asked to submit a photo and an open letter to prospective students or suggest an alternate means of sharing with prospective students.
The opinions and views expressed by ambassadors are solely those of the students and do not reflect or represent the views of International Programs or the University of Iowa.
International Programs (IP) at the University of Iowa (UI) is committed to enriching the global experience of UI students, faculty, staff, and the general public by leading efforts to promote internationally oriented teaching, research, creative work, and community engagement. IP provides support for international students and scholars, administers scholarships and assistance for students who study, intern, or do research abroad, and provides funding opportunities and grant-writing assistance for faculty engaged in international research. IP shares their stories through various media, and by hosting multiple public engagement activities each year.