You’re used to hearing a foreign tongue all around you, one where you understand them but they probably don’t understand you. Then suddenly, boom, you’re surrounded by your native language, and oh yeah, maybe cool it with the curse words because these kids actually know what you’re saying.
The more I learn about Britain, the more I’m surprised how we can be so similar yet so different. Nothing makes you realize the weird quirks of your own culture quite like a country where you all speak the same language, yet somehow don’t. While language might inform culture, culture is certainly much more than language, as the divide between the United States and the United Kingdom can attest. Our mutual intelligibility doesn’t encompass the different worlds we might inhabit. The more I explain the minute yet important differences between different American fast-food chains, or hear Brits discussing the right way to make a cup of tea (something they apparently do in real life, not just to make viral YouTube videos), the more obvious this seems.
And no, I’m not just talking about the typical “The British are so polite and reserved while Americans are super loud and effusive”, which is sometimes true, but also sometimes not. Every time I meet British people in Europe, they are always very loud and effusive and just as friendly and outgoing as I would purport Americans to be. In fact, the thing Brits are most famous for here on the continent is getting so drunk that they can barely stand. But it’s hard to say which stereotype about the British is more accurate: the emotional repressed stiff upper lip, or the perpetually drunk and itching for a fight. Perhaps because neither of them really are, just as I would say the overly-friendly yet incredibly dumb American is not either.
So are we really so different? American media is ubiquitous in Britain, certainly more so than the other way ’round, unless you’re like me and your mom refused to get cable, instead raising you on a steady diet of old British sitcoms re-broadcast on American public broadcasting (another point of amazement to Brits: that we can get a very basic package of television stations without paying for a license every year, because this is America dammit and we ain’t gonna pay for no government propaganda, but go ahead and give us your corporate propaganda, we’re ready and we’ll take it). My point is, they know quite a bit about us, or at least they think they do. And perhaps we know at least a bit about them. But pop culture touchstones do not a culture make.
As you maybe have gathered, I love to talk to people about their culture, and their impressions of other cultures, and how this colors their impression of their own. In Bristol last spring I had many a late-night/early-morning conversation: at silent discos, on empty piers, on the last bus back home, surrounded by drunken teenagers doing their best Skins impression and trying very desperately not to fall over. I spent afternoons under the unusually sunny weather with a bottle of wine exchanging views on how if one thing transpired in our neighborhood across the pond things might have played out differently, or maybe not.
What you can really see is that even though we pronounce certain words differently and have different words for the same objects, there is no singular Britain, just like there is no singular America. Are the reticent, uptight Brits any more or less British than the chavy drunks flooding Wrocław for a cheap holiday? Is Jane Austen more authentic than the Sex Pistols or the Arctic Monkeys? A posh versus a Yorkshire accent? The US is the same mess of contradictions: where idealism and romanticism of opportunity meets the hard reality of racism, sexism, xenophobia, entrenched income inequality, whatever else you can think of. F. Scott Fitzgerald versus Jersey Shore. Barack Obama versus Casino Mussolini.
So are we really so different? I’m currently in China (I know, when I started writing this I had just got back to Spain from Bristol, but I put finishing it off for months and now I’m already here in China), which is such a world apart that it makes the differences between the UK and the US seem almost insignificant.
But according to my friend, the way we pronounce ‘oregano’ is real dealbreaker.
(As I sort of allude to in this post: I am already in China, this ‘hiatus’ was not intentional, I am going to write about it soon!!)