Conversations with Americans Pt.6 (They’re not as dumb as you look)

brit duckWe’ve been getting out and about recently, saying yes to invitations. Being sociable and meeting new people.

I’m rusty with this; normally our social life is dominated by family, and it feels strange to spend time with people I’m not related to. Complete strangers, in fact, that I’m required to play nice with.

My biography will not have a chapter titled, “He was great at making friends.”. I might be the shyest person you know, and America isn’t sure what to make of ‘shy’. A lot of the time, America just leaves ‘shy’ alone.

For work I’m better (because otherwise no one will pay me). And it’s easier to be professionally engaged with people. At least it’s easier for me.

So perhaps I should pretend I’m at work all the time (that’s probably good advice for a few other things).

Anyway, I got a treat the other day, attending a party where I was feeling particularly shy. Just listening, it was nice to hear the conversation topics that I regularly advise my students to stick to when meeting Americans for the first time.

It was equally rewarding to sit back and listen as a British person (not me, and yes, two British men at a Nashville party is at least 1 too many) proceed to break all the rules.

He didn’t talk about religion. That’s the one American social taboo he didn’t break. Everything else was up for grabs, and he grabbed them, he beat the hell out of them. (I think the only reason he didn’t tackle religion is because British people are rarely interested in the subject. We’re not evangelical, we just don’t care all that much. In my British experience, talking about faith, or even just telling people that you go to church, was close to telling someone you still believed in the tooth fairy.

(It’s different in Tennessee.)

For the record, I go out of my way to avoid British people here. Partly because there’s the danger you get way too close before realizing the only things you have in common is shared TV shows from your childhood – and this is not nearly enough) and partly because I don’t want to hear them whine. And of course, what if they’re adjusting better than me? All British men I know who moved here have a baby (well, their wives do and they light cigars). I don’t have the baby. I don’t have the Facebook baby profile photo and I also don’t have the photo of me wearing a British club football shirt and drinking beer, either. I wasn’t British enough when I was there, there’s no chance I can match the stereotype now that I’ve moved.

Anyway, I didn’t have to worry about the latter with this guy. I’ve never heard someone sound more British on American soil.

He’s been in the United States for three years, longer than me. But it sounds as though he just stepped off the plane.

His accent is one thing; Americans generally can’t tell the difference between the variety of British accents (A  work colleague recently heard an interview with David Tennant on NPR and was delighted to recognize that Mr. Tennant sounded just like me.  I sound nothing like David Tennant. I wish I did, he sounds fantastic and fantastically Scottish, but I don’t) or between British and Australian for that matter. Americans try to tease me by “sounding British” – kids are good at this, and American kids using a British accent tickles me, but American adults sound like they’re auditioning for an Outback Steakhouse commercial.

But how can this guy live here for three years and pronounce Home Depot (America’s answer to B&Q, with the same orange livery) in a British way. It’s Dee-pot, not Deh-pot. When he did this (at the beginning of an anecdote that was so close to something I’d try to get away with on this blog that I can’t give the details) I blinked in surprise; surely they’ll correct him.

But they didn’t, and now I wonder if the American guests were thinking, well he’s British, maybe we’re all saying it wrong.

Our British guy held his infant son on his lap and said the following:

“America’s great as long as you’re not dying under a bridge.”

“I hear George Zimmerman almost shot his wife.” + “It’s a shame because the case has put back American race relations 30 years.” + “You’ve got a black President and you’re about to have your first woman President.”

Our British friend, he’s spouting off about the most contentious, divisive court case since OJ Simpson and he’s using the same conversational style heard in British pubs; it’s antagonistic, it’s dickish. And when no one takes the bait, it makes for the strangest dialogue. His barbs are met with almost doe-like responses.

British guy, sneering, to the man seated next to him: “Do you support football?”

American guy, bewildered: “You mean, am I in favor?”

It was poetic mis-communication and made me feel like a bilingual God in comparison.

“I joined the Democrat party.” + “I go to Drinking Liberally. (Livingliberally, wonderfully, is an organization promoting the idea that people who agree with each other get together in bars and talk about politics – for once the British got there ahead of you).

He’s saying these things. About politics, healthcare, guns. He doesn’t get to abortion (maybe he did, I couldn’t stay on him all night). And I think he got away with all of this because he’s British.

It wasn’t the baby on his lap. A baby can only get you so far. An American with a baby making these comments would be called out as a moron, or perhaps giving a cold glass of water. But this is just what Brits do. Well, what the tourists do.

Do I do any of  this? I really don’t mean to, and not with people I’ve just met. (And now that I think about it, excuse the blush. Looking back, I’ve done it. But not on the first date. Have I?)

I understood something important at this party. British people are often insensitive, snobbish pricks when speaking to Americans.

No, I’m kidding. I’ve known that for a long time.

But I did learn that British people are often insensitive, snobbish pricks when speaking to Americans and they’re forgiven. Because they’re British. We’re meant to behave this way. It’s the norm. We’re not meant to fit in, we’re there to be awkward, and rude. British Guy sounded like he was in a pub, fishing for a pub argument. Trouble was, no one knows how to have that kind of conversation here, so they just tried to respond in American.

British guy: “I watched a game of football and it was embarrassing because I actually quite liked it.”

American woman: “It sounds like you’re a little ashamed of enjoying things here.” See what she did? She addressed his statement head-on, she treated it like a sincere comment.

British people here, they can carry that attitude of “Let me tell you what’s wrong with you, let me tell you what’s so broken here.” And it’s okay. I think all Americans are clear that too many people get shot here, that too many people have to work slave labor jobs and still can’t get by. They just have different ideas about how to solve these issues (no guns vs. guns for “good guys”, higher minimum wage vs. work harder ya lazy bum).

In this set-up if a British man moves to America and 5 years later, you can’t tell him apart from the natives, then he’s done something wrong, he’s lost his way. So perhaps my efforts at toning my Brit down has been for nothing.

Ah, I don’t know. I’m still going for an exotic blend of Brit and American, I’m still trying for hybrid. I can’t ditch the 40 years before I got here, but I’m not going to go into Kroger and ask where the Ribena is, either.  (Besides, the yanks hate blackcurrant, everyone knows that).

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American Distraction (Have you seen my…?)

look before you leave

No doubt; Wal-Mart has good reason for this sign.

I found someone’s debit card in the produce section of Krogers. A Bank of America nestled among the bananas.

I’m beyond the point of wondering how someone drops/forgets their money like this.  I have assimilated well enough that I’m just as bad.

I wanted to ignore it (there is a dream time-slot at Kroger in the afternoon before the kids get out of school and the grocery store aisles are dotted with slow-moving old puffers – I can zip around them) because I was against the clock, but it was too big for me to walk away from. In the UK I could walk over/around the passed-out, the homeless, I could blinker out the lot of them, but someone’s bank card – that really touched me, that made it real).  My sensibilities are the same in Tennessee, so I take the card to the customer service desk, and I jump to the front of the line, in front of the lottery ticket and cigarette buying funsters. The clerk says, “I’ll be with you in a minute,” and she’s not happy; she thinks I’m just in a desperate hurry to pick up a pack of Salems. I waggle the plastic at her, say “I’m just handing this in.”

“You found it?”

“In the bananas.”

This is hard for me to say,  Bananas. If you don’t pronounce it in the American way, confusion reigns. I did my best. I could’ve said “fruit ‘n’ veg,” right? But I know better.

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British remains (Running out of gear)

So far, so furry

So far, so furry

Things are falling apart. Specifically, British things. The stuff we brought with us, it’s not lasting forever, and I feel irrational surprise each time something we brought with us breaks or wears out. British stuff didn’t last forever in Britain, but it feels worse to see it degrading in the US.

Questions remain over key items we neglected to bring:

  • Beds
  • Dining room furniture

These things would have lasted, probably. And we liked them. And yet we left them, because they were big, and they were going to cost  a lot to ship, and we didn’t have the mental space to imagine our USA life with this stuff.

As for the things we did bring, some made sense:

  • electric toothbrush
  • electric shaver

Both of these require an American adapter to plug in, making us look like permanent tourists in our own bathroom.

My electric shaver was on its last legs back in Scotland. It’s worse now, it’s noisier, shaving is an exercise in patience.

This is the shaver I kept at work. I should be glad to toss it, but every quarter I oil the blades, hoping for one more run before the thing finally seizes up or delivers me a shuddering scar.

And some of the things we brought were just sad: 

  • stationery
  • batteries

And yeah, this stuff is running out now. I mail our rent check inside a Tesco envelope. And it cheers me, sending something so American in something so British. But I have 3 left. And what am I supposed to do? Buy envelopes?

Rebecca theorizes that I’m suffering from permanency-shock. That replacing our British tat means we’re staying, we’re stuck here whether we like it or not.

But I think it’s just that I’m cheap. I resent the fact that I brought  a 9 volt battery all the way to Tennessee only for it to fur up when I need it. Batteries are expensive here. I can’t bear to spend money on such things, and everything needs juice here. (Do they sell wind-up smoke alarms?)

I have a pencil leftover from my Scottish Government days, which says “No point to racism” (not my idea) and I take it to my classes, curious to see if any of the students will prefer it to the American (Made in China) #2 pencils on offer. It’s never chosen. It sits there, blue among the yellow, neglected.

English: Disassembled Philips electric shaver ...

English: Disassembled Philips electric shaver rotary head.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We also brought four clocks.

(This made sense, because they have time here as well. They think they have less time, but really, it’s the same amount.)

The one clock that survived the journey and is thriving, is doing just fine thank you, is the British birds clock, with hourly chimes ranging from the charming blackbird to the frankly terrifying nightingale.

Three of our clocks have broken. We patched one back together, but the other two are hopeless. We took them to a clock repair guy, and he kindly explained that he repaired real clocks, not crappy ones we were keeping for sentimental value.

And perhaps this is the reason time has felt so elastic here, that two years have seemed like a blink, like a decade. I’m not sure what to do with these British scraps but I can’t throw them away.

Maybe Rebecca’s right. Maybe I’m afraid of staying here. Nothing’s standing still, we’re all getting older, all of us, all changing, my language adapts and acquiesces, and I’ll suddenly realize that yes, trunk does make more sense than boot.

We were supposed to bring the best of us along for this American treasure hunt. That was the idea, and I think it happened. But there’s baggage as well, there’s rust and scars, and I’m scared to let it go.

Even my British passport is ready to fall apart. It expires this year, threatening to leave me laughably without papers, if I don’t cough up the $250 renewal fee.

There’s a pair of pottery cats that we kept in our front bay window in Scotland. They made the trip just fine, but it’s been smash after smash since we got here. House moves and high winds leave our long-tailed objets repeatedly in pieces.

They’re sheltering upstairs these days, on the top of the filing cabinet, away from the weather and human interference, and I seek to fill the gaps with Loctite repair putty.  I can glue tails back together but they’re still away from home, and that was the plan, but I’m still afraid of doing this forever.  And I guess the only trick to this is to live it.

Still moving (and shaking)

We moved again, our third in 18 months, and I suppose it was the least stressful, same town, keeping our zip code, but it was also the most irritating. It takes something on the scale of a house-move to let you know if you have your shit together, and in some areas, I clearly do not.

The new house is bigger, and the location is better. I’m not sure these benefits were worth the hell of moving.

So much stress and uncertainty at a time when I was thinking, “Wow, I think I might need a vacation after all.” But we’re here now, already playing host and entertaining at a time when I can’t even remember where the can-opener / light-switch / back door is.

Moving is an unsolicited opportunity to second-guess everything we’re doing here. Work, play, litter-tray location, it’s all up for grabs.  Continue reading

My one year American anniversary (Exclusive interview!)

one year anniversary candleThis month Fledgling Immigrant Digest is proud to bring you an exclusive interview with that most reserved, yet adorable, yet irascible (yet curiously alluring) Edinburgh to Nashville immigrant, Difficult Second Novel, on his first anniversary of arriving in the United States. 

Fledgling Immigrant Digest: How are you?

Difficult Second Novel: Bit tired. Also doing the allergic coughing thing a lot today. I’d like to change the air-conditioning filter to get one that can get rid of all the pollen and dust but I can’t find one at Lowe’s or online that’s the right size. It’s a nuisance. My eyes are so itchy, I reckon I’m a rub away from waking up with conjunctivitis.

I was just saying “hi”.

Oh. I thought maybe you were British.

I’m not.

Got it.

Interview continued on page 73.

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American TV Pt. 2 (There’s Something On)

I know. This is where the British wanker tells you how bad American TV is (I hate that guy!). Brits delight in reporting this as if 1) they’ve never seen British TV and 2) Americans didn’t already know.

Yes, Americans know that American TV is very bad but they watch it anyway, because TV is in itself a fabulous invention, and even bad American TV can be a treat. The British situation is very similar.

Now there’s something sweet about watching American TV as a Brit when you’re not living there forever.

When you’re there on vacation, or on a finite working visa, you can watch it and quickly dismiss it. Because you don’t understand the TV Guide (and the time zones? Oh how they kill me) and the channels names don’t make sense, because you’ve heard of NBC, ABC etc but where are they on the remote? How do you make them happen? Let me tell you, Channel 4 in the UK – you press 4. BBC1? You press 1. In the US you have to find the channel by surfing and then they let you know what number they are. Fox 17, what are you doing out there? You’re a proper channel, but you don’t get to sit with the other big boys.

And what’s on? Nothing but commercials, and the TV news is horrible, nothing but store openings and house fires and shootings, and did anything outside of the US and Iraq happen today? Apparently not. Unless a European leader gets beer spilled on her, we could care less.

But this is all okay, because you’re leaving soon, and you can add the American TV = crap to your quiver of anecdotes and the folks at home will adore you for it.

But if you plan on living here forever, you have to find a way to make American TV work… Continue reading

American TV Pt. 1 (Getting it)

DISH TV dishWhile we were living with family, we didn’t watch TV. “Not watching” means we reguarly caught the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, because hey, we’re not savages, but given that the TV in the living room stayed largely in the control of a ten-year-old girl, there really wasn’t much worth viewing.

People rarely admit to watching a lot of TV. In truth, the people who actively claim to “hardly ever” watch TV are lying (and if you talk to them long enough, they always give themselves away – judging from Conversations With American People, I’m the only English-speaking person here who has never seen an episode of NCIS, Criminal Minds, Breaking Bad or House). The people who genuinely don’t watch TV don’t talk about it, because they have something more interesting to say.

That said, I hardly ever watch TV.

So it stands to reason that when we moved to our own place, we wanted a TV of our own to go with it. In fact, 3 months before we moved to our own place, we wanted a TV of our own. Just so we’d be ready for when real life began again.

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