The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Culture collision: How American is England?

Last week’s Random Nomad interview with Melissa Stoey spawned a lively discussion on the subject of loving the romantic image of a country — namely England — rather than loving that country “as it is.”

However,  the definition of “as it is” deserves its own debate. During the comments discussion, Melissa pointed us toward two posts on her site, Smitten By Britain: the first, “England Would Not Be England” by British gardening celebrity Alan Titchmarsh, and the second, “What England Is Really Like” by guest poster Tim Gillett, founder of Tourist Tracks.

They make interesting reading. Both are lists of items which in the authors’ opinions are representative of England, and yet, comparing the two lists, you could be forgiven for thinking they referred to different countries on opposite sides of the globe.

Titchmarsh’s version conjured up a gentle, genteel picture of eating cucumber sandwiches by a croquet lawn; indeed, his list included cucumber sandwiches (although not croquet.)  Gillett’s list brought to mind a less poetic image of England: a picture of stuffing your face with doner kebabs in the High Street on Saturday nights, while stepping over puddles of lager-infused vomit.

Perception — or memory — of a country?

The thing is, though, there’s little I’d disagree with on either list. Maybe the “knotted hankies” on Titchmarsh’s list belong to the seaside excursions of fifty years ago, when Titchmarsh himself was a youngster. Then again — how many Ford Cortinas, an item on Gillett’s list, are still driving around in the UK? 1,317, according to the data on howmanyleft.co.uk., so they’re not such an everyday sight as they were twenty years ago.

No doubt age plays a part. I don’t know how old Mr Gillett is, but I’m hazarding a wild guess that he’s younger than Alan Titchmarsh, who turned 63 in May. From my own experience of reverse culture shock, I know that current perception is often confused by past recollection — my fond imaginings of England are rooted somewhere around the time when people wore Walkmans and acid-wash jeans.

But what really is “Typically English”?

What really struck me about the list by Tim Gillett, however, was the number of items that, while English, could also typify other countries. Titchmarsh’s list, for the main part, was stoically English, with the inclusion of Jane Austen, The National Trust, The Beano, Chatsworth, and Blackpool rock. Whether or not you agree that they are important or representative of England, they are nevertheless unique to that country.

Gillett’s list, on the other hand, had items such as “Misogyny”, “Reality TV”,  and “Appalling public transport” — all of which could be placed on a list to typify America, when you consider the current abortion rights battles, the Kardashians, and the lack of buses everywhere. “‘Baby on Board‘ and other pointless car stickers”? Yes; and try the little stick figure families stuck on the rear window of every soccer mom’s SUV. “Almost everyone believing what they read in the papers”? Fox News. “Visible thongs”? OK, you’ve got me there — I’m hoping they will soon be a thing of the American past thanks to this tasteful little invention being sold on TV.

Coloring outside the cultural lines

What I’m saying here is not that Tim Gillett, in his funny, wry list, has come up with suggestions that are too general to be exclusively English (he also includes “EastEnders“, “Local pubs and real ale”, “Wayne Rooney“, and something so obviously English and cringeworthy I can’t believe I’ve never thought about it: “Ill-fitting brassieres”) but that cultural borders are gradually smudging.

I would love to know what a similar list would look like in another twenty years — so, please, let’s have your suggestions for how the American and English cultures will differ or be the same when the 2032 Olympics roll around!

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29 responses to “Culture collision: How American is England?

  1. robingraham July 6, 2012 at 3:57 am

    Always good reading here. The English will often refer to their country as the 51st state in dissent at its apparent Americanisation, so perhaps the lists will be indistinguishable by 2030. I don’t think Indian food is ever going to conquer the states on the same scale though and nor do I think the English could ever live without it, so ironically this Asian cuisine may be the last bastion of Britishness.

    • Kate Allison July 6, 2012 at 7:33 am

      Spot on. Although we’ve introduced quite a few American friends to Indian cuisine (I’ve got pretty good at making it from scratch, shopping at the Indian supermarket some miles away) it’s a slow process when the usual reaction to a suggestion of curry is “No thanks – too spicy for me.” And then they go out and have Mexican food that’s far hotter.

      • SmittenbyBritain (@SmittnbyBritain) July 6, 2012 at 7:58 am

        The most common complaint I’ve heard from my American friends when I’m trying to convince them to try Indian food is that they don’t like the smell of it. The ones I have gotten to try it, I’ve done so by having them try something a bit milder in taste and smell like Chicken Tikka or Tandoori Chicken. All of them have loved it!

        • Kate Allison July 6, 2012 at 8:21 am

          Yes, I remember starting out the same way! Madhur Jaffrey, the Indian food guru, once wrote a very funny piece about how Indian mothers initiate their toddlers into spicy cuisine, and how the little ones screw their faces up at first. It’s a process.

    • SmittenbyBritain (@SmittnbyBritain) July 6, 2012 at 7:55 am

      Indian food is making a good go of it though. Just in the last year we have gotten three new Indian restaurants in my area, when there were none. One in particular rivals any Indian restaurant I ever dined in while living in England. All are run by Indian immigrants and I for one am very happy to have them here. I’m sure it will never reach the level of popularity in Great Britain as it’s not part of our history as it is there but it will eventually take off I’m sure. I’m seeing more cooking and health related shows in the U.S. promoting curry because of the health benefits of turmeric, not to mention the great taste.

      • ML Awanohara July 6, 2012 at 12:41 pm

        Oh, Indian food — how I pine for it now that I’ve repatriated! I even live near an Indian food area in the East Village (6th St) — but somehow it just isn’t the same… Not sure it ever can be as there is something uniquely British about going out for a curry.

        • Kate Allison July 6, 2012 at 1:02 pm

          Brick Lane curry house near you is pretty darned good – we usually make a detour there when we are in NYC!

          • awindram July 6, 2012 at 3:11 pm

            Just get on the E train. The only really good curries I’ve had in the US are in Jackson Heights. Better than most British curry houses too.

            • Kate Allison July 6, 2012 at 6:45 pm

              Good to know — thanks!

            • ML Awanohara July 8, 2012 at 11:02 am

              @awindram
              Yes, good to know, but I still think it proves my point. If I have to take the E train in order to experience this, and potentially be exposed to a man singing out “In my father’s house” repeatedly — I refer to the second “dipped madeleine” in your “Staring at the sun” post — not to mention the antics of other crackpots, I hardly think that curry houses are becoming part of the American mainstream. More the pity! :(

            • awindram July 9, 2012 at 3:05 pm

              So you might end up a little displaced, you wouldn’t be trying to tell me that’s a bad thing now? ;)

            • Kate Allison July 9, 2012 at 8:01 pm

              Hahaha! Touché, ML!

  2. SmittenbyBritain (@SmittnbyBritain) July 6, 2012 at 7:48 am

    Except I’ve read some Brits argue that reality TV actually started in the UK, the U.S.as a whole does not have public transport (which in itself is appalling), nor does it have (or ever had) the Page 3 Girl!

  3. ML Awanohara July 8, 2012 at 11:21 am

    @Kate
    I think it’s worth noting that although both Anthony and I have done posts recently in which we referred to British bad teeth as a given — his post was part of his Expat Moments series, mine part of my Lessons from Two Small Islands series — times are a changin’ and Americanizin’ on the smile front as well. I understand that the Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton, spent thousands of pounds having her teeth polished and rotated by French dentist Didier Fillion, to give her the perfect smile. (Significantly, she had him make it a bit less than perfect so it would look natural — especially to the British public.) So by 2032, will it be commonplace for British shop clerks to grin and say: “Have a nice day!” Stranger things have happened… :)

  4. mattkeighley July 12, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    When it comes to discussions of cultural similarities between the UK and the USA I think it’s best to leave a large proportion of these cultural signifiers; bad teeth, fast food, reality TV etc. to one side.

    Thanks to the internet, TV and pop culture in general being utterly globalized certain cultural tidbits are going to become matters of cultural capital rather than signifiers e.g. a kid who loves Monty Python/SNL is going to find kindred spirits all over the globe while EPL fan culture has even slipped into my classroom here in Japan.

    What will probably remain different and effect where disparity remains and where cultures converge are far deeper notions of norms and values. Case in point from a British perspective at least is the BBC and the NHS. Grow up with a relatively if slightly left leaning yet unbiased media in combination with a free health service and it’s likely that large parts of “Britishness” (I apologize, I cringe at the thought of even attempting to define ‘Britishness’) will remain untouched i.e. neither is likely to be scrapped in Britain while an NHS equivalent isn’t likely to show up in the US anytime soon.

    I think it comes down to an idea that the Japanese often reference, ‘shimaguni’ or ‘island country.’ Both Britain and Japan both maintain a strong sense of self despite globalization, as does the USA for different reasons. So, while there will inevitably be overlap perhaps it’s better to view this more in terms of variations on a theme.

    Or better yet, let’s use Indian food as the example. British Indian food is actually thought to be a creation of Glasgow. A combination of the Scottish love of ‘sauce’ with real Indian cuisine.

    I guess that, thanks to an ever more connected world the list you propose might look ever more similar on both sides of the ponds, but maybe the ingredients will just be different.

    • Kate Allison July 12, 2012 at 3:24 pm

      I once mentioned to a Pakistani friend that Chicken Tikka Masala was supposed to have been invented in Scotland, but she hotly disputed that. Said her grandmother used to cook it, and had never set foot in Scotland. Who knows? The recipe varies so widely between individual cooks that it’s difficult to tell.

      I shall, however, keep pushing for North American acceptance of Indian food, although I have a sneaking suspicion that until there is a McBhajia or McMadras available on the dollar menu, it might be too much of an uphill task.

  5. Felicity (England) August 28, 2012 at 6:41 am

    I will be happy when the rest of the world learns that to make a cup of tea, you cannot just dangle a teabag into a glass of warm water.

    • Kate Allison August 28, 2012 at 7:21 am

      You and me both! Also, have never quite got into the fruit/herbal (that’s pronounced ‘urbal’, btw) teas that are so popular. Some are OK, but others taste like hot water in which unpeeled fruit has been hastily washed. Iced tea, on the other hand, is sublime. That is an American tradition that needs to be worldwide.

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