We all employ stereotypes to generalise groups of people. Often, a stereotype fills a gap between one cultural experience and another, making assumptions about others to provide an easy answer as to why others are different. It is not a particularly constructive approach to cultural differences, often being divisive to the point of pissing people off. Sometimes that is the intent, to troll people, other times it is a side-effect of ignorance.
That's about as deep as I want to get in this blog entry. However, it sets a basis for the following things I did in England that, due to assumptions (stereotypical or otherwise), may be surprising to my North American friends and neighbours.
1. Sound American
To the community I live in, my friends, my colleagues, and my neighbours, I sound British. It does not matter that there's no such thing as a British accent, the distinctions of Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and English (sometimes even Australian) and any variations thereof are irrelevant; we all sound British. Even now, after 10 years living predominantly in the USA, I sound British. Many are surprised that I have retained my British accent after spending so long here. It does not matter how often I might say to-MAY-toe, zee, or gas, to anyone overhearing me talk, I sound British. I believed them too, until I landed in the UK.
Everywhere I went, someone was ready to tell me I sounded American, that I had a twang, that I was losing my accent. Now, at first, I put this down to my saying the odd American word or using an American pronunciation, yet after a day or two, after settling back into my native dialect, the comments kept coming. It seems that immersion in US culture for 10 years does make a difference. Worse still, I could not hear it myself. I was so used to the way I talked, I had not even noticed a change, and I still can't. To one side of the Pond, I sound British, and to the other, American. It has left me a little culturally orphaned, a perennial outsider, a citizen of the mid-Atlantic, land of 80's radio DJ's, bad documentary narrators, and people in old movies1.
2. Eat Well
Possibly the most misleading stereotype I hear about the UK is that all our food is bad, awful, bland, terrible, sludge that no one in their right mind would ever let pass their lips. Though we certainly have some unusual dishes that I find pretty horrible (haggis, jellied eels, black pudding, and tripe), I know many who think otherwise, and it is not indicative of all British food. Every culture has its "acquired tastes" that others think are disgusting (Velveeta, Easy Cheese and corndogs, anyone?), but that is no reason to disparage every food that culture has to offer.
While I was back home, I enjoyed some amazing food: a steak and kidney pie at my old local pub, a home-cooked roast chicken dinner from my mum, and delicious chicken curry. "But wait, curry isn't British!" you may cry, but the curries served throughout the UK have diverged from their Indian or Bangladeshi origins to meet the palates of Britons. As American as apple pie? As British as a good curry.
Now, you may cry that I am biased and of course, I am. However, I am also a very fussy eater (ask my wife) and I do not take my food lightly, not to mention that we are all biased when it comes to our food; biased toward what we like. If you want to know if what I am saying about British food is right, you can ask my wife, Chrissy (though perhaps she may not agree on which dishes are best). Whether you believe me or not, be a little more open-minded and a lot more selective. Don't base opinions about British food on what you are told or on a single, awful or obscure meal; instead, get some recommendations, you might be pleasantly surprised.
3. Farm Programming
Contrary to the belief of the Comcast representative that sold me my first cable service, modern technology exists in the UK2. I realise that many people reading this, if not all, are already aware of this.
As our trip to the UK was to be a working vacation, I spent some of my time sat in the lounge of my parents' centuries old farmhouse, coding, emailing, and taking part in meetings. Even in the "quaint"3 English countryside, the modern engineer can push commits to GitHub, attend a conference call on GoToMeeting, and surf the Internet for cat photos. WiFi and broadband are everywhere in the UK; in fact, in some places, the speeds should embarrass Americans, who have some of the most expensive and slowest broadband Internet services in the world.
4. Not Meet The Queen
No, I don't know the Queen. I also did not meet your friend that lives in Lower Bumblecrap or your great Uncle Charlie from Arserottingham. What I am trying to say, though perhaps a little harshly, is that the UK is a big place. There are over 63 million people in the UK, over 53 million of them in England alone, one of which is the Queen4. She does not tend to hang around and have personal relationships with her millions of royal subjects. I understand the idea that there is some chance I may have met someone's friend or family member, no matter how unlikely, but when I get asked if I know the Queen (even in jest), I want to escape and go have a real conversation with someone else. Why is a country that fought so hard to get rid of the British Monarchy so apparently obsessed with it?
5. Not Stay
The idea of leaving the gorgeous countryside and history of England to live in the US seems unimaginable to some. Like Madonna, Kevin Spacey, and Tim Burton, many Americans would jump at the opportunity to live in the UK. I can see why, it is filled with amazing people, history, and free healthcare, not to mention everyone talks like Dick van Dyke got elocution lessons, but I lived there for nearly three decades, I've done that. Although my family and many amazing friends are there, I don't fit. I never really fit. The culture of cynicism, the Tall Poppy Syndrome, the overcast weather; it just does not suit me, and in the long term, it doesn't make me happy. Although the US is far from perfect and there are many things I miss from my native land5, since moving here I have been happier, more satisfied, more successful, and more accepted. When we returned to the US, the immigration officer said, "Welcome home," and he was right.
Okay, not quite, but I wanted to include the video ↩
"Do you have computers in England, yet?" he had asked, earnestly ↩
This over-used description of the UK, or parts thereof, always feels dismissive, like it's just a theme park ↩
Worry-free (or at least worry-less) healthcare, pubs (no, they don't exist in the US), proper fish and chips, cask-conditioned ale, and the steak and kidney pies from my old local, to name a few ↩