Conspicuously American: When the Inevitable Happens

Friday, June 19, 2015

The other day, we managed to sound conspicuously American.  Four of us had settled down for tea and brunch after church at a charming cafe in central Canterbury.  I was recounting how I met a young man at the cathedral who was training to be an Anglican vicar — he came up after the service, shook my hand and introduced himself as Dean, an “Evangelical from Wales.”  As I shared this, one of the girls at the table inquired, “Wait, is Wales another country?  Do they still have accents?” I laughed and said that of course they had accents.  My friend chimed in, “Yes, Wales is part of England.”

Across the cafe, there was the sound of derisive snickering from a local. “Wales is not part of England,” he said, rolling his eyes. “It’s part of the UK.”

I suppose that would be like hearing foreigners in the US say, “Idaho must be part of Illinois!” when they simply mean that it’s part of the United States.  The things that must seem obvious are the parts of living we overlook — the blunders that betray our true ignorance.  When we first came to England, I was rather under the impression that, as travelers, we could manage to fit in with the British rather well.  After all, our language and heritage were close enough that it should be easy to blend into the atmosphere.  The cultural differences did not seem as overwhelming or obvious as spending six weeks in Thailand or Peru.

For the Americans who don't know how to cross the road.

However, I grossly underestimated just how different our cultures are, especially in regards to word choice and diction.  Upon arriving in England, I soon discovered that any mention of items such as napkins, restrooms or dollars resulted in peculiar looks.  I learned that they call trash the rubbish; a shopping cart is a trolley; a flannel is a towel.  And should you happen to inquire what “escalope” means at a restaurant, do expect for the waiter to react as though you’ve asked if the sky is blue.  (Why, it’s fried chicken of course!)  

I had only to open my mouth to realize that we were blatantly, overwhelmingly, obnoxiously American.  And sometimes, we found ourselves in the dire situations of being seen as those Americans.  The loud, laughing ones holding maps in large groups, saying words like “Picadilly” in exaggerated accents, or mispronouncing names like “Gloucester”.  I cringed each time.

Then there was the cultural difference of idealism.  England can be romanticized in our minds as being quaint and beautiful, a clash between the modern and the delectably historical.  While there is truth in this, there is also the danger of misrepresentation.  When we start mimicking accents or copying phrases because we find it to be alluring for its foreign quality, we run the risk of being disingenuous.  I suspect that a sense of idealism is to be expected at some level whenever we travel.  However, if we romanticize England, yearning for the charming bookstores, boutiques, double decker buses and red telephone booths, then that’s the same as looking back in history and wishing we could live in the Victorian era just because we like the dresses.  Let me tell you, I've learned through my experiences that this line is difficult to walk.  But a traveler is still outside the culture.  In six weeks, we cannot acclimate.  To assume we can is imperious.  To ignore that we can’t is foolish. 

Sometimes, we’ll still go up to the check-out counter and say we have ten dollars.  We’ll still ask for napkins, not serviettes.  We’ll still say trash, not rubbish.  And we may even say that Wales is part of England - but someone will correct us and we’ll learn.  For in truth a traveler is just a learner being taught to observe a foreign culture.



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