I’ve spent the last week in Bath, England, testing psychological theories with a bunch of rather fabulous people. It’s been a truly amazing experience, but it got me thinking about a few things.
This is the first time in a long time that I’ve met someone new and no one has asked about my accent or where I’m from. Obviously I was surrounded by (primarily) British people, and all of us had travelled from somewhere else in the country. So my being English wasn’t of note. Culturally, I was blending in. (I was however rather loud, and at times wearing a ‘Hulk’ t-shirt. So still not subtle 😛 )
This got me to thinking about culture, accent, and how it feels being British abroad. Having moved to the US from Ireland, I’ve been living in a foreign country for long before I moved over. In Dublin however, my Britishness wasn’t a point of interest, mostly – I have had a (thankfully small) number of negative comments and encounters through the years, but usually my Englishness only comes up when the rugby’s on, or when I come up with a uniquely bizarre turn of phrase. Indeed, I seem to come across as Australian more than British. Don’t ask me why.
But in the US, my accent sticks out, big time. New acquaintances (or people in shops, or on the street) seem determined to tell me how “cute” it is. I always find “cute” a bit of an infantilising term, but I know it’s mostly well meant. Slightly more confusing are the requests to say things – often quite specific words, like ‘bottle’ or ‘fridge’. Often I can’t even figure out how I say it different. My husband encounters this significantly less – his accent is becoming more mid-Atlantic by the day, and most people assume he’s from somewhere in the States. He’s even started saying “y’all”, for which he is roundly mocked. I’m tempted to force-feed him episodes of of “Fair City” as some kind of verbal reset button.
Cultural ambiguities are (generally) pretty minor. I’ve met a few Anglophiles, inevitably – they seem to be concerned that I find other British people to hang out with, so often point me (well-meaningly) towards Seattle’s British pubs. Other times, in a local bar/coffee shop, I’ve been asked if I know the other English people who sometimes go there. I mean, I know we’re a small country, but not THAT small. If I try and explain that I’m not actually that desperate to hang out with other ex-pats, or that I’m more accustomed to spending time with Irish people, I tend to be met with mild bemusement. There have also – although less often – been expressions of surprise that I’m English and my husband Irish, and assumptions that this means we’ve had some kind of Romeo-and-Juliet-style split from our families, a love-across-the-barricades type romance. I think they’re almost disappointed that this cultural animosity doesn’t really exist anymore.
There are other misconceptions. That we all went to an aristocratic boarding school (with or without magical lessons) or come from London – I actually had someone ask me if Britain was near London. There’s the inevitable assumption that it was easy for us to get our visas, or that we have green cards, or some such. I even had someone who was surprised I was an immigrant, even though I’d made it very clear that I had just moved here from Ireland, and needed a work permit. I suspect she was working from the “all immigrants are illegals” standpoint, and a well-spoke, white, middle-class English girl didn’t really fit with that assumption.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that this week I have been unaware of my nationality, because I’ve actually been surrounded by compatriots. I don’t know that it’s better than the enthusiastic interest I’m starting to become accustomed to in the US; it’s perhaps just made me aware of how much I’ve been sticking out. Even in Ireland, I was often aware that I wasn’t Irish in small everyday ways. Although there’s so much shared culture between the UK, USA and Ireland, I still find myself noticing the differences – there’s a British food bit in the supermarket for feck’s sake, right between the Asian food and the Latin American. Who knew we needed PG Tips and HP Sauce so much?!
I’ll close with two of the more unusual impressions of British/English-ness I’ve encountered. One, from a car salesman. While my husband inspected the car for. . .whatever it is that one inspects a used car for, the salesman struck up the usual “cute accent” conversation. I soon learned that his sister was married to an Englishman and had spent several years living near Bath. He was disappointed that he never visited, but said that he wouldn’t until “you just stop shooting at each other”. I would have thought I’d misheard, but he repeated a similar sentiment later on. I don’t know what your new source is if you think Britain is full of people shooting at each other more than America is.
My final tale is from a street encounter on Capitol Hill – always a good start. I was asked by a guy if I’d ever met a Mormon, and if not would I like to. Being expert at cheesy chat up lines, I politely greeted his Mormon friend/stooge, and explained I had friends to meet. After a swift “cute accent” conversation, my nationality was established and I once again excused myself. “Wait, let me ask: are you going to meet your husband too?” I confirmed this. Next question: “so are you monogamous?” Somewhat taken aback, I replied that I very much was. With a surprised look, “seriously monogamous? Because most English people I’ve met are polygamous, or at least up for the odd threesome.” I responded that without wishing to speak for all English people, *this* English person was very much monogamous, and really should be going. Strange thing was, the guy seemed genuinely baffled more than disappointed.
So, apparently the British are cute, aristocratic, gun-toting polygamists that only like to hang out with each other. Looks like I’ve got some habits to pick up.