Culture Clash

I’ve been in the U.K. for exactly a week now, and must confess that my head is packed full with thoughts. They are rather like a handful of necklaces, tangled up and so intertwined that the untangling seems almost impossible. So instead, I will choose an arbitrary beginning and work from there.

A new friend told me about her surprise that here in the U.K., “whiteness” does not mean what it means in the States. Unlike in the US, the uniformity of skin color does not imply uniformity of culture – whiteness says nothing about country of origin. One might see 15 white people in a room, but one family could be British, another French, and another Swedish and they will all act differently.

Similarly, it seems that any assumptions about nationality are either non-existent or much more subtle than they are in the US. Someone that, were we in the States, we might call “African-American” or “Indian-American” or “Mexican-American,” people here just call “American” (or “French,” “Swedish,” etc.). There’s no “Pakistani-French” or “Algerian-English.”

I’m absolutely certain that prejudice does still exist here, but it doesn’t seem to be nearly as obvious or overt as it is in the US. Granted, this is the observation of a white bystander, but the friend who pointed this out has experienced such things firsthand.

The parts of the U.K. I’ve had the opportunity to experience has been much gentler than what I’m used to back home. The catcalls have better vocabulary (last night I was told that I was causing a man to be “positively lascivious”), people generally leave each other alone, and, provided you are not too loud, are quite willing to help when asked.

No wonder they consider Americans to be uncouth and uncultured. I visited the first English monastery yesterday: established in 598 AD, it was demolished and rebuilt by the Norman conquerors after they deemed the Saxon building too primitive for the saints interred there. That was in the early 1100s. That means that the Saxon monastery existed for twice as long as the USA has been a nation before it was destroyed. That means the destruction of the first monastery occurred almost four times the years my country has existed.

No wonder we seem brash and tacky to the rest of the world. We have the Declaration of Independence from the 1700s: they have the Magna Carta. We have the Jefferson Bible: they have the Codex Sinaiticus and the earliest known scraps of the Epistle of John. Granted, they were essentially stolen as part of the English Empire, but nevertheless. How egocentric is it for the US to boast of being the first among equals, when we quite literally did not exist for the majority of those “equals'” history? Our nation is the result of the Empire, stolen from the indigenous nations and formed in the image of Britain. We’re nothing more than the four-year-old insisting that “I’m not a child: I’m all grown up.”

Don’t take this to mean that I’ve converted to the cult of Anglophilia: I am not obscuring the complicated and sometimes vicious history of these islands. However, even if I get nothing else from this trip (which is an unlikely turn of events), the perspective itself is highly valuable. Without going too far into the details of how this statement is misinformed, I believe every American with the means and ability ought to be required to visit Europe.

I’ll have more thoughts later.

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