Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Living in a country that speaks the same language

There are many "guides" and "dictionaries" and "phrasebooks" for members of one English-speaking culture to use while in the other. Living in the US and having lived in the UK, I often find these guides a little funny, being able (I believe) to see something of both sides of the story. It's a reason why I found Notes from a Small Island somewhat humo(u)rous when I read it. It think, too, that it's a contributing reason why I like Andrew Sullivan's commentaries. Growing up as a "third culture kid" and an "expat" means that I am perpetually living in a not-all-the-way-inside feeling to life, and that - at least for me - is normal.

Sullivan recently began posting some of his own perspectives and feelings about being British in America, and on Saturday posted some excerpts from a piece written on the BBC America page. The original piece ("10 Things Americans Do that Drive Brits Nuts") was quite humorous, and it's one of many, many, many similar types of "top 10" lists that embody the "people separated by a common language" trope. However, there was one thing that struck me as having great insight about British views of Americans:
5. Their over-zealous patriotism
We get it, you’re proud to be an American. It’s not like Brits are immune to nationalism, but perhaps we’re better able to separate feeling glad (I was lucky enough to be born in a country with democracy and Kit Kats!) from feeling proud. Shouldn’t the second one be reserved for my actual achievements? Oh, and to your average Brit, hanging a giant flag from your house is a tiny bit creepy.
I've written about this before - how Americans seem to be obsessed with the flag. Maybe the British used to be obsessed with their flag - during WW2, during "empire", during troubling times, etc. After all, their flag, the Union Jack, is of analogous symbology as the US flag: one of unifying disparate nations/states (Scotland, England, and Ireland, in this case). However, even though there are many photos of British people wearing Union Jack clothing, and these are popular pieces of tourist tack (along with "mind the gap" stickers), and - outside of the Olympics and other nation-wide events - these rarely get taken out and worn non-ironically. The same way with flags: other than certain roads that are lined with the Union Jack, few are seen outside of specific days marking memorials, nationhood, etc. Walking down the street and seeing the Union Jack on a non-special day is just ... the height of bizarre.

In Scotland, things are a little different: the Saltire is flown in many more places (public and private) than either the Union Jack or the Cross of St. George is flown in England. (Indeed, the Saltire is flown more often than the Union Jack in Scotland, too.) I think that a large part of this is due to national identity; of constantly being the "younger brother" to England, of having autonomy effectively stripped away at the union; of feeling like (and sometimes being) the underdog.

However, moving back to the US, even in "liberal" and "flag-hating" portions of the country, there are many Americans who proudly fly the Stars and Stripes every day of the year. Indeed, it's normal. It's creepy for someone who comes from almost anywhere else in the world, where flag-waving is often associated with a history of dictatorship or mindless nationalism (which often have overlapped in history).

The staccato chants of "U! S! A!" seem to strike me in a similar way to this sentiment of incessant flag-waving. What it lacks in musicality, historical invocation, and artistry it makes up for in pure syncopative, droning repetition that insists on its own apparent correctness.

Traveling to Canada - a country that lies within biking distance of Ann Arbor - makes for another travel between cultures separated by a common language. I sense the misstep that might occur; the conversational hand-off that doesn't come at the right time; the different set of implicit cultural instincts that will run the unwary aground. To me, these are outcomes of implicit cultural imprinting. It's this that makes the conversational hand-offs awkward or certain statements to hang in the air, waiting for someone to choose whether and how to continue the conversation. I grew up learning to sense and anticipate these gaps caused by cultural instinct, and these things that often make me cautious in stepping too fast or too far. Although sometimes - thanks to drink - I speak more freely.

Traveling to Mexico after being to Chile (and being more proficient in Spanish) made me recognize that what was happening between English speakers in different parts of the Anglophonic world was happening within the Spanish-speaking world. And why should it not have been this way? After all, Chileans and Mexicans (or any other nationality) come from very different histories, local cultures, and therefore have different social expectations and norms that form their implicit social interactions.

UPDATE (5/30/2012): With the Queen's Jubilee coming up soon, the UK has been in really high flag-waving spirits of late. Sullivan points out this trend:
And this is where British patriotism is particularly interesting, because it also focuses on the monarchy, which is a way of indirectly celebrating the country. Next week, Brits will have a four-day weekend to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II. Bunting, flags, flotillas, marches, street-fairs will proliferate. And it will not be some jingoistic thing. It will simply be a royal anniversary. Because the head of state is not a politician, because monarchy taps into the irrationality of love of country, it deftly deflects nationalism into patriotism. Its very anachronism empowers it. Which is why I couldn't really defend the monarchy's persistence on liberal grounds. But because I'm a Tory, I don't have to.
And I wonder, "why can't it be the same in the US?"

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