An American's Take on England
An Early Taste of English Humor
A few years ago, I had the privilege of spending a semester at St. Antony's College, Oxford, UK. Having the opportunity to study at the oldest university in the English speaking world, was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. At the time, in the summer of 2007, America's "special relationship" with England was the subject of numerous movies, articles, and media media pieces. This is an account of how I saw English culture for the first time.
American and British cultures have a lot in common, but after spending a little time in England, one can see the differences become more and more pronounced. England is a much smaller nation than America, and has a population which is roughly only one sixth the size of the U.S. England’s geographical location has also played an important role in shaping its culture.England is part of Europe, yet partly because it is an island, England still maintains a certain ideological and cultural distance from the rest of Europe.England has refused to adopt the Euro, and even the electrical plugs used are different than in other parts of Europe. In fact, from a short visit one might think that the former English colonies have affected English culture more than Europe itself. In every city and in every store there is evidence of the connection which ties England to its former colonies. It is hard, if not impossible, to define what “Englishness” means, but it is possible to relate English culture to American.
In order to try and describe English culture in any kind of relevant way, it is necessary for me to recite some of my own observations in terms of various topics. Nationalism is a driving force in nearly every society, as it is often the glue that holds people together. The English notion of nationalism seemed to be very complex and was manifested in different ways than in America. I do not think that it is possible to really understand a nation’s national pride in such a short time in their country, but there were many things which stood out to me along the way. Alcohol and the pub culture, is another topic in which there was a vast difference between America and England. The notoriously rainy weather has also found its way into the English identity and has been written abut often in many popular English works of poetry and literature. Of course there are also numerous smaller observations which might help form the major basis of English culture from an American’s perspective.
Anyone who has ever been to JFK International Airport would be able to readily observe the numerous American flags which wave outside each terminal and which are hung on the walls inside. Indeed most American international airports are stocked with flags as a symbol of pride and perhaps unity. It is a generalization perhaps, but in most parts of Long Island one would not be able to travel very far without seeing an American flag on something, whether it is a flagpole, a tee-shirt, a tattoo. or an advertisement. Most fast food establishments, and nearly every corporation, tend to wave flags or do something to profit off of patriotism. Nationalistic slogans such as “freedom endures” or “these colors don’t run” are found everywhere.
When I flew into Heathrow Airport the first thing I can remember seeing of England, was an HSBC bank. It might have been the lack of sleep or excitement, but upon landing I cannot remember seeing very many, if any, British flags. It didn’t strike me at the time for the previously mentioned reasons, but looking back, it was the start of one of the most striking differences between England and America that I perceived. On my single block in suburban New York, I regularly see more flags flown from individual homeowners, than I saw in all my time in England outside of London. Even when touring the colleges of Oxford, I can recall seeing a student in one of the school dorms with an American Flag placed in his or her window, yet I do not remember seeing any British Flags. Even in London most of the flags I saw were atop or near war memorials, and, or government buildings. Of course America has been at war for several years, but so has England. I cannot honestly say that I remember what American nationalism was like before the terrorist attacks on 9/11, but I can say that Britain is no stranger to terrorism.London and several other major British cities have certainly had a history of being a target. The difference than between the way America and Britain choose to manifest their own ideas about nationalism must be generated by culture and not by circumstance.
I actually saw more pictures of the Queen and more references to her than any other figure or flag. Even though the Queen is no longer in power over the nation, the idea of the Queen still remains to be incredibly important. In America I always thought the Queen was just a relic, a tradition that never died out. Now though, I believe the Queen is something more than just a tradition, because people really do care about the idea of a Royal Family. The English Royal Family is very much a part of the English identity.
The English people seem to have a quiet, unspoken confidence in themselves. This confidence is for good reason.America seems to be a country which still has a lot to prove both to itself and to the world. American society has progressed at a rapid rate considering where it was in 1781 and where it is 2007. Yet, despite all of its success on the world stage,America is a young country. England has on the other hand been around for far longer. Its institutions are older, its culture has changed more, it has fought more wars, and yet it remains one of the most prominent countries in the world. The English government constitutes the longest running democracy in the world, and therefore, political tradition is incredibly well ingrained. Coming from America, and reading about World War Two in textbooks, it was so amazing to walk around London and realize that only a little more than a half century ago the entire city was being bombed into the ground by a foreign enemy. London; not a military base on the other side of the world, but London, the capital of the country in terms of everything from status, to population, to culture. World War Two is a time which is looked at with near reverence in contemporary American society, and yet, England is a country which literally stood on its own, with its capital being decimated. The last time Washington D.C.was under an actual attack from a military threat was in the War if 1812, almost 200 years ago. The point is that England is an incredibly strong, nationalistic nation that simply doesn’t seem to flaunt its belief in itself. This is not say that the English aren’t proud of their accomplishments or their soldiers, its simply an observation about how their pride is and is not shown.
Walking through London, or through the colleges of Oxford, one will find numerous war memorials. Some of these memorials stand as tribute to all the soldiers who died in the particular war the memorial seeks to commemorate, while others are dedicated to specific groups or individuals. Many of the monuments in London were actually dedicated to soldiers who came to fight from English colonies. In fact, London was ripe with monuments naming every country who contributed soldiers to fight. In many of the Oxford colleges there were also memorials dedicated to the men of the college who went to fight. Often these men were not even English, and had their home country listed including the U.S.and Canada. Memorials are of course very common in the U.S.as well although less concentrated due to America’s size.
English nationalism is also an incredibly hard thing to grasp because it requires one to define exactly what “English” is. Many people use the terms English and British interchangeably. I had always assumed that English culture was British culture, but this is not the case. Unfortunately, my time in England was marred by some of the worst flooding in 100 years, leading to a complete shutdown of my transit lines. So I didn’t get to spend time in Scotland or Whales to see the difference.
U.S.culture has always been described as a melting pot of different cultures, and as such, has lead many, including myself, to the belief that other cultures are less diverse, and more straightforward. This simply is not the case. The city streets of London and Oxford were incredibly diverse, and both might readily be described as international cities. England has a very large Muslim population which has had a large impact on English culture. In Oxford, one cannot walk for very long without seeing a Church, however there were also several Mosques located in the East side of the city.East Oxford has a decidedly different feel to it then the rest of the city. In many ways it reminded me of sections of Brooklyn. It is a place where a Mosque sits on one side of the street, with a Church on the other. The restaurants in the area serve almost any type of food creating blocks with traditional English or Irish cuisine, situated right next to a Turkish deli or a Middle Eastern restaurant.
From the short time I spent in England, I saw that the most popular dish in the country was Chicken Tikka, an Indian food, and there were easily as many different languages being spoken as I have ever encountered in the U.S.The languages are not simply a product of England’s proximity to the rest of Europe, because despite that proximity, England has very much its own identity. All of the cultural meshing does not seem to have occurred without incident however. One of the things I noticed about walking around Oxford was a relative lack of police presence. Outside of the weekend or late in the evening, there were not a lot of police around. In fact I went three days without seeing a single officer. This was not true of East Oxford however. In only a few hours spent there total, I saw many police driving and or walking around.
Several newspaper articles over the course of the trip were also written about the anti-Russian and Muslim sentiments in the country. I cannot say how the entire nation feels, but I did get the sense that there are many who are not happy with the way the country seems to be heading. Again, I cannot comment on what I did not see, and it is quite possible that these articles were merely written at a popular time to make social commentary. After all, in the short time I was abroad, MI-5 and MI-6 were involved in breaking up a Russian assassin’s plot in London. The papers actually said this took place in the Hilton Hotel, opposite the Marble Arch bus stop where the bus to Oxford was located. On another occasion two Russian fighter planes were said to have come within minutes flying time of British airspace.
It is important to recall that the English identity has been shaped by numerous invasions and wars dating back hundreds of years ago. For instance when touring the city of Oxford, one would notice a wall which runs along the perimeter of the city. The wall was built hundreds of years ago to protect the city from a Danish invasion. Even to this day, the mayor of Oxford inspects the wall as a matter of tradition. Similarly, in London there are actually still Pillboxes built along the Thames to protect London, had the Germans successfully invaded.These wars and intermingling of various cultures have all come to shape modern England.
The former English colonies are also seemingly very influential in shaping England. On numerous occasions I picked up a newspaper only to see an article about India or Australia. It seems as though the English take some sense of pride in thinking that these nations achieved their current level of success through the influence of England. Tradition is incredibly important to the English identity. Evidence of this can be seen on any piece of currency, all of which carry the name and portrait of a famous English person. One of the most major attractions in England is the changing of the guards ceremony in Buckingham Palace. Many of the colleges in Oxford also have dining halls and hallways lined with the portraits of prominent alumni and or Englishmen. Many of the ceremonies that occurred in Oxford also seemed to be ripe with cultural tradition. On certain days students and staff would be walking around the city wearing robes and cloaks that were of a noticeably academic heritage. The smaller stores in the city also would often close during American lunch time hours. The only reason that I was given for this, was tradition. After returning to the U.S. I actually heard that the reason that the stores close during lunch time hours dates all the way back to World War Two. Apparently many English munitions workers, who were needed to maintain England’s capacity to fight, would go out during lunch to the pubs and then return to work drunk, or not at all. In order to stem the loss of production, laws were passed closing stores for lunch hours. I do not know for certain if this is true as I was only told about it after returning home, but it certainly makes sense. If anyone does know for sure, please comment.
While American pop culture has had an obvious impact on English culture, as evidenced by the Hollywood movies which play in every theater, and the ninety’s music which fills most stores,Englandstill is very different culturally than theU.S.One of the biggest differences in popular culture between the U.S.and England, is the love of soccer or “football”. America used to have four major sports and now has three, American football, baseball, and basketball. While I did see rugby being played, and cricket pitches, football was undoubtedly the most popular sport. Being a fan of American football, I know many sports rivalries, however English rivalries were equally if not more fierce. When opening a newspaper, I would expect to see information about many sports and teams in the back, however almost the entire sports section was devoted solely to soccer. All of the TV sports networks focused on soccer. Sometimes there were articles or segments on the television about American soccer; however this was almost always in relation to David Beckham, who had recently signed with an American team.
Most of the time the city streets were relatively quite, however it was obvious when an important match was on because when it finished, there were always people roaming around cheering and sometimes singing. I think one of the most interesting and exciting aspect of European football is the level of international play. I always thought international play was a really great way of making a sport more interesting and expanding culture. Unfortunately, most international sports in the U.S. are not broadcasted or occur very infrequently. It was a thrill to see highlights from games being played between England, Scotland, Spain, Ireland and so on and so forth.
England has far fewer mega chains and corporations then the United States. At first, it seems as though each store is a privately owned, individual store. However from visiting other cities, I realized that many of the places I thought were individual stores were actually small or medium sized chains. These were not the corporate chains which you find in the U.S., the type of company which is so big that its own stores compete with each other for business in a single neighborhood, but rather smaller more personalized stores. In fact, most of the mega chains that I did see were American corporations, such as Burger King or McDonalds. Possibly as a result of the smaller chains, I felt that the quality of both service and product was better than the U.S.chains. Generally speaking, it seemed that every English employee treated their job with a great deal of professionalism. Everyone from the taxi drivers, to the store clerks, to the tour guides, were almost always friendly, courteous, and extremely nice. Indeed in taking the bus to and from London, I can recall several times in which the bus driver actually apologized for there being traffic on the road, and the trip taking a little longer than planned even though it wasn’t his fault. I am also reminded of when I first landed at Heathrow Airport, and not fully knowing where to go, I was cheered up by a custodian who was smiling and laughing as he directed some seemingly lost people. It was also comforting to feel safe in the taxi as we drove through the city, that feeling is rare for me in New York!
One of the more surprising things which I saw in England was the relative lack of cars on the road. Sure, the roads were always busy, but that was because the roads were almost always single lanes. I cannot recall a double lane highway in Oxford, and rarely did I notice more than a single lane in the countryside. Perhaps this is a product of the fact that I lived on Long Island, where there is a parkway every twenty minutes no matter which direction you are traveling in, but it seemed like the roads were built for a level of traffic which only existed twenty years ago. At first it only made me realize how many hundreds of millions of more people live in the United States than in England. While this is a fact, it also had to due with the fact that so many more people choose to ride their bikes than in U.S.Each morning I would see men in suits with briefcases wearing helmets and riding along the road. Bike racks were everywhere and far more frequent than parking lots. Public transportation was also cheaper, cleaner, easier to use, and more accessible than in the U.S. Train rides were reasonably priced, quick, clean, and elegant. I was surprised to see a trolley roll by my seat which served everything from snacks to hard alcohol. The trains were a little bit tricky to use because there were different service providers and not one national service, however on the whole it was a great form of transportation when the weather allowed it. Of course England is a much smaller nation, which makes it easier to provide these sorts of services.
In the U.S.and especially in Long Island, I often cannot tell for sure where I am without looking at the names of stores or the railroad stations. Everything looks the same, every town overlaps, and there doesn’t seem to be too many straight lines dividing towns. In England when I left a city it was nothing but open, rolling, fields in the distance until I arrived at the next town. There was simply so much open space for a country which is so small.In particular I remember on a trip to Stonehenge, when leaving Salisbury by taxi, there was nothing but farms all the way to the destination. Looking out the window, I could see the outline of the city I just left, its size, its boundaries, its architecture. Standing at Stonehenge there was nothing but single lane roads in the distance and sheep grazing. Even on my trips to the Grand Canyon and Death Valley in the South West U.S.A., is saw more evidence of urbanized civilization, all though at the time, I thought it was the most barren terrain ever.
The English pub culture is another culture which stands in stark contrast with popular American views on alcohol. While bars are common in the U.S., they are unavoidable in England. Almost every block had a pub or an “off-license”. Perhaps it is due to a lesser religious influence or an older society, but drinking alcohol does not seem to carry nearly as much of a social stigma as it does in theU.S.On any given day everyone from older teens to businessmen and women to construction workers could be found in local pubs. Many times people were writing in journals or reading through papers or books. The atmospheres of different pubs were obviously catered towards interests ranging from as loud or as quite, as big or as small as desired. However, they all seemed to generally be a nice place to stop in. The pubs also closed at eleven at night, a big shock coming from the city that never sleeps. The result was that pubs were often attended during all hours of the day as a normal part of social behavior. At night there were usually more youths and clubs would open as the pubs closed. However even then, there would many adults casually having drinks. Alcohol just seemed to not only be something that was more accepted, but something which was actually a part of culture.
One of the most impressive things that I saw in England was the British Museum in London. It is an incredibly large and impressive structure housing some of the most beautiful and old pieces of history in the world. Two of the most exciting exhibits for me, were definitely the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon. Before hearing they were there from another classmate, I did not even know that they were in the country. I was also incredibly interested to find that the mummified body of Cleopatra was encased in the museum. All of these things, and of course the countless other displays, made for a unique experience. Indeed there were many impressive museums inOxford, but none were as grand as the British Museum. One thing that was strange for me at first was the choice of exhibits in most museums. I had always taken for granted that American museums tend to focus on cultures and histories which are in some way related to the U.S., such as that of Native Americans or early Europeans. The British museums also tended to focus on cultures connected to England, however this meant many displays on China, Australia, New Zealand, and many different parts of Africa, so on and so forth.There was not so much on the Americas which shouldn’t have been surprising, but somehow was.
Englandis one of the most amazing places that I have ever been to. It was an incredible experience to walk around the streets of London and see a city which has grown and developed over hundreds of years without modern urban planning. The people were generally very friendly which was reflected not only in their manners but also in their language. WhiletheU.S.does have a lot in common withEngland, and the two nations have been and continue to be very close, each nation is very different. The culture of an entire nation cannot be grasped without spending an extensive time in that nation, however in a very short time the differences between English culture and American became apparent.