Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why it's not okay to make fun of an expat's homeland: Are manners dead?



I've been turning this one over in my head for a few days now - I haven't been sure if I wanted to post about it, mainly because I try to avoid writing too many posts that get me all riled up. I mean, a top ten list of "things to do in London" would be a lot more relaxing than talking about rude things people have said to me about my home country, and yet... well, let's face it. I do sorta like getting riled up, as well.

So for those of you coming into the story a bit late, I'm a born-and-bred Bostonian, but I'm also a British citizen and am currently living in London. I love the US, and I love the UK, and I express this love through frequently criticizing both of them. I always say that the problem with having travelled a lot is that when one place annoys you you can always think of somewhere else that does the thing you're annoyed about better - for example, when I feel like London's a bit impersonal (understatement alert), I think fondly on the warm small-talk that I make with cashiers and restaurant servers back home. And when I'm in the US, I feel a bit claustrophobic because it's so difficult to do even regional travel, and the news cycle is so insulated.

TL;DR: I love' em both, and they both have problems.

I have an American accent, though, and so when I wander around the UK, I often get people asking me about the US - and I'm happy to talk to folks about my country. I love that I've had a lot of context for the things I say about both countries, and one of my major life goals is to explore both places more and get an even stronger context (in fact, I just went up to the Lake District two weeks ago - photos to come!).

But every now and then, I get someone who thinks it's totally cool to dump on Americans to me. Note: not America, but Americans. It would be one thing if we were debating fiscal policy or immigration, but it's another to assume that because I'm out and about in the world, I'm not one of "those" Americans, and thus am okay to hear ignorant insults about a 300,000,000-person strong population.

A few weeks ago, I attended a book club (meetups actually are fabulous ways to make friends in a new city, I've always said it but now can tell you it's Julia-tested!), and got to chatting with a middle-aged English woman about accents and voices. Of course it turned to my accent, because she couldn't place the region I'm from - not a huge surprise, as America has comparatively few regional accents, and the differentiation between them is far less than you'll find in Britain. The kicker was that she described my accent as "educated American."

Educated. Imma let that just sit with y'all for a second.

I think I just sort of laughed it off - I was there to make friends, after all - but MAN that stung. Yeah, I do have a solid education, but that sort of unnecessary class-based comment is exactly what drives me up the wall when I'm here (a post for a different time), and it was just so damn rude. I also have highly educated family, who sound nothing like me - my father, for instance, was born in rural Arkansas to a clan of deeply southern-voiced folks, and he graduated from Harvard Law School.

SO WHAT.

And in the last week, I've had two other infuriating moments, also with older English people. In an email, a family friend was complaining about the poor behavior of American children on planes (I'll omit the choice wording), but so kindly added, "Don't worry Julia, you're really British." Now, I've sort of gotten used to this stuff from American friends when my accent fluctuates or I get particularly snippy ("Omg, Jules, you're so British!") because it comes from a place of affection and, sometimes, envy, that I get to be part of both worlds. But in this case, I really resented the implication that not only are American kids ruder across the board and British ones not (ha!), but also that it was a compliment to call me British - and by extension, I'd be downgraded to be American.

The last straw, that led to me writing this rant-monster of a post, occurred on Saturday, as I took myself to an art gallery in Chelsea. Minding my own business as I looked at a piece of installation art, I suddenly found myself being yammered at by an older Englishman who really needs to learn to read social cues better. At one point in his one-sided soliloquy on the state of reality TV (yeah, I don't know, either), he asked where I was from, and I said "I live in London." Not what he was looking for, - so I added, "But I'm originally from Boston."

"Oh, right. Well, you're not one of those Americans. Americans are just so loud and aggressive all the time, it's so jarring and..." blah blah blah, I stopped paying attention.

Besides the obvious irony of a nonstop talker insulting most of my homeland as loud, I was caught off-guard at the assumption I wasn't. It's not as though he was allowing me a word in edgewise. I think I stammered out something about "well, it's a more gregarious culture, it's not loud to us," but by that point I was really just looking for a way out of the conversation.

Here's the thing: all of these people were worldly, older, with no excuse for ignorance and insensitivity. My moving here is not a forsaking of my identity as an American; if anything, I love the US more when I gain international perspective on it. We don't necessarily know people's reasons for emigrating, so we can't assume to know their opinions. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I'm going to throw it out there that this behavior by privileged English adults is a mild symptom of the wider xenophobia that I find so painfully obvious when I'm here (and yet, it's so incredibly invisible to many English people).

I know that I'm being addressed as "one of the good ones" because I'm white, with a mild accent, nice-enough clothing, and an education. All of these comments were meant as compliments, to let me know I'm "in the club" or something. But I am not in your club; your club of exclusionary politics offends me. And I can only wonder, that if these comments are happening to me, with all the trappings of privilege that I've got going on, and in a city that is 25% foreigners, then what on earth must it be like to be of a different color, language, dress habit, etc.? What comments are they dealing with on a daily basis?

And the lingering question for myself: Why didn't I shut any of this behavior down?

I've got my excuses - I was at the book club to make friends, the family friend is someone I care about, and the stranger in the gallery caught me off-guard. But at the end of the day, I think besides the utter surprise of random xenophobia in my day, I didn't tell them they were being rude because they didn't mean to be rude. That's some messed-up logic - I mean, when a child bumps into another child on the playground, they don't mean to be rude, but we still make them apologize. Yet somehow, in the world of adults treating one another with ignorance, "they didn't mean it" seems to hold as a semi-valid excuse.


Well, it's not. So help me out: What should I say the next time someone is rude about America? How do I make it clear that I don't appreciate it, and am not complimented to be seen as "not one of them"? Let me know you ideas in the comments, or on Twitter, and also let me know your own stories of xenophobia abroad - I need someone to rage with!

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