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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



Transatlantic Splits

Having lived in two countries means constantly living in a world of extended metaphors. First of all, you struggle to understand your new country in terms of the one you have left, so you create analogies to help bridge the gap. My favourite British->American yardstick is the “Edinburgh”. This is what people living in the South East of England (ie London and beyond) use to comprehend US distances. A trip from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon, about 650 miles, for instance, is unfathomably far until it can be broken down into “My goodness, that’s over one and a half trips to Edinburgh!”. That’s to say: “think of the furthest distance you can possibly imagine, and then add a half”. To Americans, who famously will travel fifty miles to find a decent burger, this is akin to meeting a culture that counts “1, 2, 3, many”.

After a while, you forget these training metaphors, and begin to live in the cultural context of the new country. You still remain with one foot in your other land. That gives you the special power to explain each country to the other. I revel, for instance, in trying to explain attitudes to guns in the two nations. I can’t quite convey the American stance in English terms here (I sense it still requires several pints and some hand-waving), but my potted description to Americans begins: “Imagine if a foreign country had a special part of its constitution devoted to the individual right to own poisonous snakes”, and then goes on to describe the inexplicability of the “National Viper Association”, the apparent nonsensicality of arguing the importance in using snakes to defend oneself against political tyrants, and the seemingly obvious dangers of cities filled with unlicensed reptiles. It’s a brief moment when you hope to show one country not what others think of it, but what it would think of itself, if it were looking from the outside.

I’m in some new land now. I’m slowly assimilating into America. I’ve been here eight years now, very nearly as long as I lived in London. From the moment I seriously considered putting syrup on pancakes that had bacon touching them, I’ve felt my natural, instinctive understanding of Britain losing its hold.

img:howzey / cc:by-nc-nd
I think it’s less forgetting your roots,though, and more like having you and your country take slowly diverging paths. The contemporary landscape becomes slowly peppered with alien artifacts, like someone has gone back in time and fiddled with the past. My London doesn’t have 30 St Mary Axe in it: every time I see it, it’s like somebody clumsily photoshopped it to make the skyline for a futuristic London movie.

I left too early for “chavs”, or at least for it to be semi-socially acceptable to call people that. My only solid referent for that is the guy who randomly punched me in the head when I bumped into him on Oxford Street in 2002. Everyone agreed that he was a chav; I was bemused. At the time, it was like being told I’d been accosted by a kobold , and then being hurried out of the country before I could really find out what that was. I don’t need chav explained to me, not any more: I think what needs explaining is how society shifted to the point where they could so freely discuss an underclass with such a dismissive and yet helpless — well, glee is perhaps too strong a word, but there’s definitely a peculiarly British pleasure in the compartmentalisation and birdwatcher-like identification of its values. It’s like the class system is slowly, so slowly draining out of British society, but leaving a concentrated residue of all its worst aspects (from all sides) at the bottom of the basin. I’m not saying things have gone downhill, or uphill — they’ve just moved collectively further in a direction that I haven’t. I basically departed at the point after the 1990s were clearly about to hawk up something, but before anyone felt comfortably naming and then alienating the problem.

I wonder what is slowly becoming invisible to me about American culture; backgrounding itself as it becomes second nature or I meekly follow the standards that surround me. “Sincerity” doesn’t seem so much of a swearword any more, but I’ve been expecting that sacrilegious shift. It’s probably something to do with attitudes to children. I’ve only been a parent in America, and I can sense something discontinuous about British child-raising and how I raise Ada. I don’t know what it is, but then it’s always a sign of a profound cultural difference when there’s no word for what you can barely still see — in any dialect. My mother can see it, I know; but as much as I try to look through both eyes, I just see children and parents.

This must be what it feels like to learn a second language. I guess I’m going to find out soon: my daughter starts school soon, and she’ll be learning Spanish. Which means I’ll be learning Spanish, too, or risk being the Foolish Father Who Knows Nothing About Homework (El Papá Muy Tonto Que No Sabe Nada de la Tarea).

8 Responses to “Transatlantic Splits”

  1. Ciaran Says:

    Yes, but “chav” as I understand refers to a ‘class’ which people (I use the term loosely) choose to belong to, characterised largely by their generally offensive behaviour, and not to people of a particular social/economic status. A chav may be a pauper or a millionaire. Compare and contrast with the American term “trailer trash”.

  2. Craig Hughes Says:

    The American (relative to British, and I think more widely the European) view of distance is a peculiar one. We will indeed travel 50 miles for a burger, or think nothing of a daily 60 mile commute (say between SF an Palo Alto). But this stretching of distances means that Americans seem far less knowledgeable about the local area they live in. In London, people seem to know a whole lot more about the streets, buildings, shops, etc across very large sections of the metropolis, and how to get there from where they are now. In the US, people in Palo Alto need a GPS to find each other 4 blocks away.

  3. nick s Says:

    I begrudge Bill Bryson his line that Americans think 100 years is a long time and Britons think 100 miles is a long way, but there’s something to it.

    With you on the ‘oh, that wasn’t there’ thing. My home town has odd modern buildings downtown that I can’t quite imagine, and old landmarks have been bulldozed for supermarkets. Chav culture greeted me when I returned a couple of years ago, as a mutation of the Kappa-klad kids of my youth. An Irish expat told me that five years is about the time that you start losing that certainty that you can describe the specifics of ‘home home’ and not be talking about somewhere that no longer exists. I think I’m getting to that point, without the corresponding assimilation bit. Or rather, I think I’ve mastered the art of pretending to assimilate.

    Still, there’s a digital equivalent to the expat Brit who becomes a Graham Greene parody of the stereotype, white-suited and gin-drinking. My accent was never likely to change too much, but phoning my parents every weekend locks it in place. I get to listen to Test Match Special and do the Guardian crossword. That, perhaps, was the original genesis of the white-suited shipping agent in New Guinea (i.e. my great-uncle) who could pin his identity to the fragments that came over the short wave radio and on the post-boat. Those, combined with memories of how things looked when you left, hook you to a little bit of the present and a lot of the past.

    Parenting? You could talk more about this and still be geeky about it — what happens when you don’t have the usual concrete points of reference for on-the-job training — the people who raised you — while being the kind of person who laps up O’Reilly tech manuals.

  4. Ash Says:

    Very well said. I’m just back to SF for a 3-4 year hiatus after living in Japan for 5 years. I’m experiencing these things every time I interact with other people. Like you mentioned, learning a language is a similar experience, but if you’re in that country learning the language, it’s that much more of a profound change in the way you perceive the world. I know that in SF what I see when I walk down the street isn’t what the other people see. And while I am American, I’m not sure what it is that the other Americans see now. From experience I know it will come back, but at the same time, regardless of which side of the Atlantic I’m on, I get to see that world through something like a back-door, and there are so many wonderful things there I may never have noticed otherwise.

  5. Ash Says:

    Oops, not Atlantic, Pacific ^^

  6. Alan Connor Says:

    So the poor bugger who spent all that time keying in a second Gherkin for Time Trumpet not only knew that most people would miss the result of the effort – they also had some of those who could be expected to notice, noticing and saying “oh right, they built another one – cool”.

  7. Matt Petty Says:

    Good post. I just moved from London to San Diego, and this rings many bells with me. I really ought to write something about it myself, but what with going to the DMV and figuring out which milk I like, it’s been too hectic.
    I felt this way when I returned to my home town of Bedford in the UK, after a few years in London, for a visit. New buildings, terrifying townie yobs down the High Street, the same reactionary old boys club writing in the Bedfordshire On Sunday.
    It’s only been a couple of months in the US so far, so I still feel like I’m on a business trip. That will change.

  8. Petty. Me. Uk. » How Are We Doing So Far, Y’all? Says:

    […] chap has been living in San Francisco for a good few years, and his post the other day got me thinking about my own experience so far. He’s also one of the founding members of ORG, […]


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My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.