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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

TRAIT 6: Varied VS Single Ethnicity


What is your ethnicity? This question is something that I had never really thought about until I came to America. In the UK, when people are asked where they are from, what nationality they are or what Ethnicity they are – the answer would be simple and direct. They are British. However, American’s answer these questions very differently. Granted, they will always say that they are American (as we have found out in TRAIT 2, they are very openly proud of their American blood). However, I found that they will also add on to their answer, describing every part of their heritage or ethnicity – sometimes going back hundreds and hundreds of years. I will be considering in this entry why American’s do this, but I would also like to try to find out why we don’t. What causes us to be secure with one nationality – or on the other side – what causes them to need to expand?

Factors

For me, being a British person, there are two factors that determine your nationality. The first is where you were born and the second is where you live or have lived for a significant amount of time – usually during your childhood years.

As far as I knew, and this information comes from everyone that I have spoken to about this in the UK, if you are born in the UK and grow up there, you are British. There are many people currently living in the UK who do not have ‘British Ethnicity’ – which is because their parents or grandparents might have come to live in Britain from another country. So, in this case, the individual in question would have a British accent, but his parents may not – and he/she may even speak a different language at home. However, as long as they were born in the UK (or in some cases, came to the UK at a young age and grew up there), they would class themselves as British if they were asked the million pound question.

Look At Me!

Let’s turn the spotlight on me for a minute, as an example in our quest for understanding:  
  • I was born in the UK, but I spent a few of my crucial growing years living in other countries.
  • I am now living in America.
  • My mum and dad were both born in the UK, so were my Grandparents and as far as I know – their grandparents before them.
  • My accent is British.
  • My mum live in Britain, but my dad lives in Dubai and is married to a Peruvian.

So, how do I answer the big question? Drum roll…..

I am British. Of course I am. There will never be any doubt about that. To me, it doesn’t matter how long I have lived in another country, the UK will always be where I grew up and so it will always be my Ethnicity.

Where Am I From? Who Nose!

Something that I have talked about with my friends once or twice is the shape of British noses. Two civilizations that broke into Britain many, many years ago, were the Romans and the Vikings. For those of you who didn’t have this part of history shoved down your throat growing up - the Romans came from Italy and the Vikings came from Scandinavia. Both civilizations were known for having obvious facial features – most notably were their noses.

Viking noses are said to be flat and stay close to the face as they descend. They are said to also be either straight or have a slight bend to them. If you have one of these noses and live in Britain, there is said to be a good chance that your ancestor belonged to the Viking settlement that came to Britain in around 800 AD. However, looking at the helmets that the Vikings used to wear, with a flat piece of metal covering the nose, I don’t know how much of that description is true, and how much of it is based on the helmet design. I am also wondering if the tight helmet might squash the nose towards the face, resulting in the Viking nose we think we know – in which case the nose wouldn’t be genetic. Of course, I can never really know the answer to this so I am just speculating!

The Romans had Aquiline noses, which extend straight outward, away from the face and are predominantly beak shaped. If you have one of these and live in Britain, there is a good chance that one of your ancestors was one of the many Roman soldiers, brought over by the Roman invasion in 55 BC. This is the kind of nose that I have, as does my sister – we both inherited the Macklin nose from my Dad and my Granddad. So, in light of that, let’s talk nicely about the Romans, shall we? A lot of what we know today in Britain is from the Romans – for example, our language was shaped by them (they brought Latin to us, which is still learned in some very posh schools!) We also have many Roman ruins that grace the likes of Chester and other beautiful Roman towns. OK, that should do it!

My Eyes Are From Italy, My Skin Is From France

I have heard Americans state that they are part this and part that – most of the time I can’t understand how they can have a part of ten different countries inside of them and still be a normal person.

Each American has ancestors from all over the world in a very unique way – there are no Americans (who are not descended from Native Americans) who have a fully American lineage. Each person’s ancestors came from somewhere else. Even so, I found this American trait one of the most baffling. I think that it’s because I found so much pride and patriotism in the typical American character that I didn’t think they would ever admit to being from somewhere else or belonging to another nationality. But as I have progressed with this blog, I have also noticed that their heritage and history means just as much (as explained in TRAIT 4).

I am starting to understand that there are many levels to the typical American personality. To be an American, or more precisely to be patriotic, you have to understand that you must be proud of your land and the nation, but you must also be proud of its history and heritage. This means that in turn, you are proud of the other nationalities that came together inside it during its creation. So, you openly show your personal ethnicity because it is a part of what made you who you are, and so, it is a part of what made America who she is.

Why Not Us?

I love history – so when I participate in a conversation with an American who has assigned his/her personality and appearance traits to the several nations that make up his/her heritage – it greatly intrigues me. “I have my strict organisational skills because I am part German,” or, “My hair is light blonde because I am part Swedish”.  It does make me wonder though – why don’t we do that?

I know that Britain isn’t like America in the sense that it is such an old country – the same sense of diversely ethnic citizens just doesn’t exist. However, in the past we have been taken over countless times by many different nations – many of the same ones, as it happens, which settled in America. I suppose the difference is that for the nations that took over Britain, the original British were integrated with the new combined nationality. In
most cases, a new mixed nationality developed and carried on the British ethnicity – the process of which was far from peaceful and went back and forth and changed regularly. For the nations that settled in America, it was their choice and they settled rather than took over (the native American population were taken over or moved, but the same sense of integration between the two populations that happened in historical Britain, did not take place).

The ancestry that makes up the modern American – the ones that are referred to when the ethnicity question arises – lived many generations ago and for some people, can be carried back hundreds of years. However, in Britain, most of the outside nationality influences of our ancestors were injected far further back than that. If we were to trace our ancestors back the same distance as the American’s do when they find what country their first American ancestor came from (looking at the same timeframe),  we would probably find that they came from Britain. We may have been invaded many times, and we may have other nationalities in our blood somewhere, but it is so unimaginably long ago that it would be nearly impossible to trace.

So, then, maybe there is no need to relay the list of nationalities within us, because most of us couldn’t do it, even if we tried. So, then, true to British form, everyone else who has close ancestry from other nationalities but were born in the UK also wouldn’t see the need to relay them – mainly because nobody else does. The only time that I have seen anyone from the UK answer the ethnicity question with more than the simple ‘British’ if they were born there, was when they have foreign features such as darker skin, etc. In this case, they might mention where their parents or grandparents were from. Having said that, I don’t think those conversations ever mentioned the ‘part’ word. Saying that you are “part [insert a nationality]” is very much more commitment to that nationality than it seems to be in the US. I have found that in the UK, if you don’t know much about the country, or your parents/grandparents that came from there don’t teach you the ways or customs, then you generally don’t feel that you have the right to state that you are a part of that nationality. You would say that you are British, possibly followed by your parents or grandparents nationality – but you wouldn’t say that you yourself were of that nationality, unless you feel more or equally as connected to it as you do to Britain. This is generalising of people that were born in the UK and I am sure that there are exceptions, but you get the idea.

Next Time…

Thank you, once again, for reading my rambles. I wish I could know a bit more about my own ethnicity. All I know is that on my Dad’s side, my family were chimney sweeps from Peterborough – but that only goes back to my great, great grandfather. I don’t know much at all about my mum’s side, or what the family from my Dad’s side got up to before great, great Grandpa! Maybe I will never know, but I envy the American’s in that way – they always seem to know where their family came from. Next time, I will be discussing TV and Advertising – Free Speech Vs Legally Unbiased.

See you then!


References:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

TRAIT 5: Free Healthcare VS Expensive Insurance

As I warned in my last post, this subject is something that I feel quite strongly one sided about, but I feel that it is one of the most interesting subjects to look at when considering the differences of opinion between Britain and America. To tackle this, I am going to take the current situation in each country as the preference of the citizens of that country, because it wouldn’t be that way if it wasn’t what the citizens had voted in at some point over history. The UK has the NHS, or National Health Service, which allows its citizens and visitors to access free health care, and the US has a policy where its citizens and visitors must pay for a personal health insurance plan. So, I begin with an apology for the bias of the following writing – the NHS is something that I believe in even more now that I live in America so I fear that this preference may be rather obvious as we work through the subject.

I Love My NHS

I grew up knowing that if I ever had to go to the doctor, nurse, get an ambulance or go to the hospital, it would be available with no charge. It was never something that I thought or worried about, and I definitely never considered my bank balance when faced with an illness. It didn’t matter if I was working, if I was paying taxes, if I was young, if I was old, if I had a pre-existing condition, if I had a family – the only thing that mattered was getting me well again. Sure, there is always a shortage of beds so they have been known to rush people through, it is also clear that there is never enough staff in any area of the medical organisation, but from what I hear, the hospitals in the US have this same problem and they have to pay a fortune to be able to go to those! Adding to that, NHS workers get paid a pittance and things sometimes get overlooked – and of course there is the popular complaint that the best doctors would never work for the NHS. For me, especially now that I see how it all works in the US, these things are insignificant compared to what we do get. If you don’t like these things, you can pay for health insurance like every single person in the US is legally obliged to do for their whole lives. The point is, you have a choice. If you don’t have any money, you can still get care and treatment.


Taxes and Payment… Blah, Blah, Blah!

In the UK, we do pay for the NHS non-directly through our taxes. A general tax is taken from your pay check, the amount of which depends on what ‘tax bracket’ you are in (which is calculated by your income). That money goes towards a large list of things, the NHS is just one of them. What I have found, living in both countries, (and I can’t say that we were expecting it or happy about it) is that we do not pay any more tax in the UK than we do in the US, even though our tax in the UK includes health care. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if there is any difference between the two, the tax in the US would come out as more expensive. Then, in the UK, if you have paid too much tax in the financial year due to moving around or the wrong automatic tax bracket being set for you, the government will send you a check for what you have overpaid without you having to lift a finger.
In the US, you pay tax to the government (which is called federal tax), a tax to the state, a property ownership tax, then depending on where you live you may also be forced to pay an income tax and an inheritance tax. I honestly have no idea where the money goes because everything that I would expect to be paid for by tax, seems to have a separate price tag on it, either for you to pay for, or companies and corporations. Things just don’t seem to add up. For example, when we lived in Boston we paid a certain amount of tax which was much higher than we were expecting when we moved to the US. When we learned that we would be moving to Delaware, we were looking forward to a lower tax payment because you would expect it with looking at the differences in the states and general living areas. Living in a city should incur more tax than living in the middle of nowhere next to fried chicken enthusiasts with chewing tobacco hanging out of their mouth (I apologise for that stereotypical statement…they are not all like that here!). We were also looking forward to having no sales tax, which is a draw for people to come to live in Delaware because you benefit from tax free shopping (and from my research, it seems to be the only draw, but please let me know if there is anything else that makes folks up and move to jolly old DE!) However, when we got here, we found out that we would be paying an extra $40 a month on tax here, which is far more than we would ever save on the sales tax. So why is that?
In the US, on top of the tax, it is illegal in most states to not have health insurance. Usually you will get health insurance with your company, but it is still an insurance payment that you make every month, which is a gigantic amount of money per person – and is paid as a completely separate payment to your tax, to a private healthcare insurance company. I have heard that the amount that people have to pay for an independent insurance plan (not through their company) is even more. Considering that I only know how much we pay to the company healthcare plan to reference it to - which I think is already an extortionate amount - I have no idea how these people can afford it to begin with, even before they get a job and get the company insurance plan. Then, on top of the monthly payments, you have an amount to pay before your insurance even kicks in. For us, that amount is more than we can really afford off our own backs, so we would have to borrow it or travel back to the UK if we got into big health trouble. With all of this, as if it is not bad enough, you have to send your own tax rebate form to the government every year – essentially doing your own taxes even though you pay them a stupid amount of money in the first place, seemingly for not very much in return.


Is This How It Works?

In the US, once you have paid your health insurance monthly bill, you are covered for whatever that entitles you to, much like any other insurance policy. The more you pay per month, the more you will be covered for and the less you will have to pay before the insurance helps you out with your medical bills. If you want to go and see a doctor, you pay the doctor’s office for their service, which could be anything above $100 per visit, even if it is just for a check-up. You also have to make sure that you go to a doctor that is listed in your health insurance scheme, or it will not count towards your insurance money. You even have to pay for the ambulance service that gets you to the hospital if you are sick.
In the UK, your NHS payment is made automatically in your pay check so you have nothing to think about. If you have more income, you will pay more tax (and so, more money towards the NHS) and if you don’t have any income then you will not pay tax, and so will not pay anything towards the NHS. The NHS is there for anyone in the country, even non-citizens and visitors – however there is a limit to what a non-resident of the UK can get for free, and usually the free services include prevention of diseases and emergency treatment from accidents. Citizens will have a local doctor’s office that they will be registered to, but for everyone else there is a doctor at a walk in clinic at every hospital. Your name will be taken and your health history, but anyone can be treated and most treatments (depending on the seriousness of it) will be free. If you are a resident or citizen of the UK and you have the money, you can pay health insurance for a private healthcare scheme such as BUPA– where you will be treated in fancy private hospitals and have the best possible care, pay for it, then claim it back from the insurance much like you would in the US.


Negatives and Positives, What’s Your Result?

The NHS is a big subject for popular complaint in the UK, for not having a good standard of care, for not hiring enough staff, for not having certain non-essential treatments covered for free, etc. I never really understood this argument when I was living in the UK because I am a sickly person and use the NHS a lot – and it may be slow and not the most perfect of healthcare operations but it is still available without charge or complaint if you become ill. They have the general attitude that I have always believed in strongly, that your health is the most important thing and nothing should be more important than getting treatment if you need it. Now that I live in America, I feel even stronger against the NHS non-believers. To all of you who have ever said a bad word about the NHS, imagine this world: you have to pay the same amount (if not more) of tax that you do now, you also have to pay an expensive monthly fee for health insurance, when you want to go to the doctor you have to pay for their fee upfront from your own pocket, you will not get a large amount (if any) of the money that you pay for medical fees back because you have a deductible out of pocket amount before your insurance kicks in, you are restricted to which doctors you can see, the doctors and hospital and ambulance fees leave you with no money after a big illness – I can carry on painting this image for you but I think you get the idea.
Doctors in the UK are not paid a lot at all, considering the vast amount of training that they have to go through to get their titles and the lifelong dedication to work that means most will not have much of a personal life throughout their career. They can go private, however the private sector only seeks out the best and for most, this will not be an option. In the US, doctors are paid a fortune and can afford a very lavish lifestyle. So much money goes into hospitals and medical professionals – everything for the average Joe is so expensive and they can get away with charging a fortune for something that could rip a family’s fortune apart. However, because of that, there is a lot of money in the medical industry and people who end up there will do very well for themselves. This is of course not taking into account the crazy amounts of student fees that they have had to pay for their qualifications – 4 years in university (which can cost around $200,000), 4 years in medical school (which can cost around $300,000), 3-8 years in a residency programme, and 3 years of a fellowship programme. And we complain about our student fees in the UK! I wonder if they would have any new doctors at all if they created an NHS?


Medical Mentality

I have spoken to lots of people here about their health system and most of them agree that it would be better not to have to worry about payments for health insurance. However, through these conversations I have come to understand the mentality of why, in America, it is the way that it is. America is the land of the free, and as we have seen in previous blogs (and I dare say will see in future ones), the mentality here is very much every man for himself. Free speech and the freedom to have your personal independence is a huge deal here and you can see how that relates to their opinions on health insurance. Why should one person pay for a collective to have health care – the money that they make shouldn’t go to keeping someone else healthy. If you are doing well financially, you have worked for that and you should be able to reap the benefits of that hard work – having good health care is one of those benefits. The American people grow up to know that they should always have the money for their medical insurance’s deductible fee saved up and available, just in case they need to use it. So, there essentially should never be any issue with having to pay medical bills. I have to pose the question though, do they know where any of their tax money goes? If there is one thing that I have noticed about the people of this country it is that I have never met anyone who really knows what the hell is going on with their tax. Would they even notice if part of it went towards the NHS? I suppose that would mean that this portion of the tax would be taken from something else that the tax money is spent on – but no one seems to know what any of it is spent on in the first place! I understand that the country of the US is much bigger than the UK so more money needs to go into it, but there are also more people to fill that country and pay its tax, so even that argument is invalid. I am afraid that I must once again resign myself to being stumped. I can’t find one good thing about the US medical system.


Healthcare Is Not Healthy

The main thing that frustrates me is that when you get sick, it doesn’t matter what illness you have, it is common knowledge that being mentally stable and strong plays a big part in your recovery. Do you think that being in the situation that I described above is a way of getting into a positive and healthy mind frame? Whenever I am sick in the US, the first thing that comes to my mind is dread. Not because of the sickness, but because I am not sure if we can afford to see a doctor. You have to really think about it and consider if it is worth it – you can see how many people die here because they have un-diagnosed illnesses that could have been easily treated at the first signs and needn’t have killed them. It is like living in the dark ages.

Obama Care

As you have probably heard, the Healthcare Reform or Obama Care has been put into place and is finally in the beginning stages. There has been so much controversy over it, half of the people loving it and eventually wanting a proper healthcare system, and half hating it and wanting it to fall.
I suppose these things always happen to anything that is new, and true to form, there have been a few issues with it that the Obama Care haters have jumped on. New things always have issues – think about the first IPod! The important thing is that the issues get ironed out and everyone works towards a better future.
Now I don’t claim to know a lot about Obama Care, in fact I really know very little. To learn more about it, I went onto an information page and there I found a lovely little video with YouToons (little cartoon Americans that walk you through political and government issues).
Click here to go to the video
From what I can tell, it is nothing like the NHS really (not that it promised to be, but I am just stating facts!)– what it seems to be is a general healthcare plan to make the little things a bit easier for certain people in certain groups. For the poorer people, elderly people and some other selected groups things will be a little cheaper, then for the richer people things could get more expensive. To allow for the poorer people and the retired to get cheaper health care, corporations will be paying more – corporations such as healthcare organisations themselves (who, if you ask me, are raking it in with the past arrangement).

We’re Going Through Changes…

So, even with Obama care, the US still seems to have a long way to go. I know that changes must always come slowly, but this is true even more so with America. Change seems to, for a large section of Americans, be a bad thing. It seems crazy to me because they descend from such devotees of change. Maybe that is another topic for a future blog, but for now, I would like to leave you with this dominating feeling that I have about this subject. I feel that the American supporters of the original healthcare don’t want to change what they know for reasons that don’t seem to make any sense. They don’t know how it can work and they don’t know what they are paying tax for. I would agree if it would be an extra tax on top of what they are paying now – God knows they are paying enough. But we don’t pay more tax in the UK and we have the added benefit of knowing that what I consider to be a basic essential right for a human being is offered to everyone with no bill coming through the post afterwards that makes your stomach wrench in knots. To me, that isn’t a privilege, it is a right – and I am thankful that I am from a country that understands that.


Next Time…

As you can probably tell, I feel very strongly about this issue and if I am completely honest, it is one of the main reasons that I know that I will not be staying forever in the US – and I will surely not be bringing up my family here (I wouldn’t be able to stomach the maternity fees to start with!). So, I apologise again if I have offended the American side – it is not my intention. I wanted to express how I feel about it but also explain to you why I feel this way so that you can understand not only how my country works with healthcare, but also maybe understand a little bit more about your own country and its choices in this subject. I know that I have learned so much about my own country – the bad and the good – by living here in America and I hope that I have given you the same opportunity! Next time, I want to talk about how each side feels about personal family history. I promise that it will be much less biased! See you then!

Friday, March 7, 2014

TRAIT 4: History – Proud but Empty VS Neglecting but Plentiful

History is my favourite thing. Ever since childhood, I have been fascinated with the past and the abundance of fascinating stories kept within it. I remember learning with amazement about the countless kings and queens that have ruled over my country, the abundance of battles and wars that the British have gone through to keep their lands, the magic of the medieval people, the horrific but fantastic take overs of the Romans, the Vikings, the Celtics, the Germans, the French, the Normans, the Danish, the Anglo-Saxons (who I think are a mix of the Anglo or English people, and the Saxons) – the list goes on. I even remember learning about the earliest people to be in Britain, the hunter gatherer types who enjoyed the vast amount of fresh water that flowed in the land and the seemingly endless supply of green vegetation. Anyway, my point is, in this blog, even people like myself who are fascinated with history are examples of the ‘typical’ British person who in some ways, take the huge amounts of history in their country for granted. Let me explain…


My happy place

As I mentioned, I grew up in the UK with a great fascination for history. I would make myself sick with excitement when we were to go on a school trip to a historical site or a museum – I can even feel the excitement now that I am recalling it. I would imagine the people who built them, imagine the characters that lived their lives there, imagine the stories that the walls could tell. I always get swept up in history like some sort of magical spell – my creativity would flow and my mind wouldn’t be able to stay in the present. Of course, I got very good at pretending that this wasn’t happening to me – as if I didn’t get picked on enough at school, I didn’t need them to laugh at me about this as well! I knew how silly it was. It was cooler to think that history was stuck in the past and that there was no relevance in it. I think I even remember myself once agreeing with a kid that history was the most stupid subject because it doesn’t mean anything to us now – what use is it to know the names of Henry the eighth’s wives over learning a language or learning how to add up your Freddo’s (for you Americans, Freddo’s are Cadbury’s frog faces and they are amazing) and divide them by how many days you have left in the week? The truth is, I find that a lot of people in England feel that way.


History is just a walk in the park

One day, back in Britain, I went for a nice lunch with my mum. It was a beautiful day and we found this quirky little café in the middle of a national park. We ordered and decided to sit outside (in Britain you have to make the most of the nice weather because it only comes around for a few weeks in the year!). After basking in the sun for a while, I noticed that in the next field was an old monastery or abbey ruin. I asked my mum about it and she said, “Oh, I don’t know. Go and have a look at the sign.” I walked over to a tiny sign, nestled in the bushes with a picture of the monastery on it. I couldn’t read the writing so I sat back down again and carried on the conversation about how good the food was. That monastery must have been at least 500 years old, probably even more, and it wasn’t a tourist site, it didn’t have guides walking around it with an overtired but enthusiastic crowd of sightseers, it didn’t even have a very good sign. I didn’t think too much about it then, but since I have been here in America and anything that is more than fifty years old is a historical landmark, I am beginning to rethink my outlook on the history of Britain.
*Note: the abbey in the photo is not the one I spoke of, because I didn't bother to get a photo of it at the time. I guess that backs up my theory!*

 
 
Is there too much of it?

The advantage that we have in Britain is that there is an astounding amount of historical sites that have been well preserved for us to appreciate. However, I have known many people (including myself) that will live in an area their whole life and have no idea about its history. History is very much like a whimsical tourist activity that you appreciate when you are visiting somewhere, but we do not really instinctively think to appreciate it in our own town. I used to visit lots of places in the UK growing up and all of them had some sort of historical element (because it is really hard to go somewhere in the UK without a significant amount of history). However, in my hometown of Chester, one of the most preserved Roman cities in the UK, I had no real clue about its past. I had never gone on a bus tour, I had never read the signs on the cobbled roman street, had never walked the Roman wall without it being a necessity to get somewhere. I don’t think I even noticed the archaeological site of an amphitheatre in the middle of the city until I took one of my foreign friends on a tour one day (see photo above, taken on said day in Chester in the amphitheatre - back when I was experimenting with my hair colours... you should have seen it during the green stage...). Well, I have to admit, I noticed that the site caused traffic every so often and I didn’t appreciate that, but I didn't really think anything of it or get excited about it.
Could it be that we are so rich with history where ever we go in Britain that we forget to appreciate it? In America, there is little in the way of preserved history – so what they do have, they cherish and it is the highlight of the town. Dover, Delaware for example, the “city” that I live in at the moment (you would understand the quotations if you ever visited this tiny village-like city) proudly calls itself a historic city. It appeared in the early 1700’s, founded by a man named William Penn and houses were built in the next hundred years – some of which are still around today. These houses are classed as historical and are seen as important history. The only thing that I can think of that is classed as history nearby my village is Plas Teg Manor House, which was built in 1610 - but to be fair, if it had not been a grand house built by someone important, I don’t think we would know about it. On that note, I don’t think many people who live in the area do know about it. I certainly can’t imagine a normal house built in the late 1700’s by an unknown person still being around today, and if it was, there wouldn’t be tourists admiring it, that’s for sure!
I also found it bewildering when I realised the extent to which Americans build structures that appear to be old, with all of the traditional old stonework that you might find in a historical landmark in Europe, but it was built two years ago. My local post office in Dover Delaware is a prime example of this, a new building that looks like an ancient Greek temple from the front. Baffling.
Maybe in the UK we have no need to take care of the everyday people’s history because we have so much famous and flashy history – maybe we have just let the other stuff slip through the cracks. It could be because we are such a small country so we need the space for new and functioning houses to put a roof over our citizens heads – America is in no way short of land space to simply build somewhere else rather on top of an old house.


Why not the natives?

I found it hard to understand when I arrived in America, why they don’t seem to count the Native American history as their own. The Native American people have been on this land ever since there were humans on this land, and they have just as much history as we do in Britain. Yet, Americans go crazy for a hundred year old house that is still standing, and state that their oldest historical site is a structure that was built when the first settlers came over in in early 1600’s (but have been heavily modified to make it structurally sound, to the point of little original recognition). I understand that to Americans, their blood is everything. Where they came from and who their ancestors were are paramount to their idea of history. I will discuss this in a blog post in the future, but in terms of this discussion, I wonder why the history of settlers coming over is so important to them, and why they seem to value every speck of that history so much here – when it can be considered quite recent. And why, even though the Native Americans might not be in their blood line, they have not taken on their history as much as the settlers? I feel that in Britain, we do not consider our blood as a mark of our history quite as meticulously – there are many civilizations that took us over, just as the Europeans did in America. There is no way of telling what is in my blood, and whether I have the same lineage as the person next to me. We just see the general history of our country as it is, rather than concentrating on one part of it and one civilization who settled. So, in that sense, America says that it is a young country, but is that really true? Why isn’t the history of the land classed as the history of the American people, rather than just the history of America?


Nostalgia

In America, everything seems so new. It might be just me being accustomed to ruins and wreckage in our history, but the atmosphere of the historical sites here just don’t feel the same. It will definitely have something to do with the fact that the historical sites are not as old as ours, but even with the Plas Teg manor that I mentioned before, it is around the same age as some sites in America but it just has this feel to it that makes me go weak at the knees. You can smell and touch the past in the sites in the UK – it just happens all around you. Why do I not get that same feel from American sites? I feel that the desperation and passion for history here, the same emotions that allow small working-men’s houses in a village to become historical sites, force the sites to be overworked and unintentionally modernised. The need to preserve and share a rare site might erase the very thing that I love the most about history. Of course there is the issue of building materials. In the UK, the historical sites are all made from stone or a hard substance – much like we use to make our houses today. The historical sites in America tend to be made from wood or such substances, much like they use to make their houses today. The settlers would have come to the new world and found an infinite amount of wood, free for the taking. It would have been a perfect choice for house building, as it still seems to be for them today (I am writing to you from an apartment in a building made from wood). However, as good as wood is for a cheap and quick build, it is not good for preservation so the historical sites of buildings made from wood would be hard to protect without modernising it sufficiently. Still, I miss that feeling of my happy place – the whirl of excitement and possibilities, the smell of the past, the cold feel of ancient air on my skin and the promise of lives come and gone before me on this very spot. I feel so lucky to have this in my homeland and wish I could have understood what a rare thing it is to have it in this world without having to see it for myself.
*Note: The photo was taken at Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House (the Little Women house) in Concord, considered a historical area just outside of Boston. The house was occupied by the writer from 1858.*


Next time…

Well this post was quite a trip down memory lane for me, wasn’t it! Next time I am going to tackle a subject that has frustrated me from day one of living in America and I dare say, apologetically, that it might be slightly biased because of that. I think that it might be the only subject that I will face on this blog where I truly think we British are doing it better. So, next time my dears, I am going to talk about the somewhat currently relevant topic of healthcare. See you then!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

TRAIT 3: Optimism VS Pessimism


This post is about one of the things that I really like about Americans. Since I moved here I have actively tried to take a leaf out of their book and implement their default appearance of optimism into my own reactions to social situations. It has almost been infectious, and you find yourself playing along without even knowing it. The American optimism is one of my favourite parts of their culture and counter to that, the British pessimism is one of my least favourite parts of our culture. So, what made the day to day mental attitudes so different?


Social Supermarket Politics

In both countries, there is a built in script for generic social situations. To walk you through my thought process, we will use an example scenario to demonstrate.

Scenario: You walk into a shop to buy a few things. You find everything that you are looking for and walk towards the check out. You walk up to the assistant and she begins to put through your items.
(This scenario is something that might happen to you a few times a week, maybe even every day. The conversation that follows is a much generalised one, but I have been involved in both conversations in these exact words at least five times in each country, so I take this from personal experience.)

Here is how the conversation would go if you were in Britain:
Assistant: Hi there
You: Hi
Assistant: How are you today?
You: Fine, thanks.
*Assistant finishes putting through items*
Assistant: That will be ten pounds and forty five pence.
*You pay*
Assistant: Here is your receipt, thanks very much.
You: Thanks.

Here is how the conversation would go if you were in America:
Assistant: Hi there, how are you today?
You: I’m good thanks, how are you?
Assistant: Good thanks!
*Assistant finishes putting through items*
Assistant: That will be Fifteen dollars please
*You pay*
Assistant: Here is your receipt, thank you so much for shopping with us, you have a wonderful day!
You: Thank you, you have a great day too!

Now as you will be able to tell, a lot of the differences are just what we might call manners, such as repaying the assistant’s good wishes and positivity with some of your own. However, there is something to be said that I am the same person in the same situation, with the same manors, but in two different countries I say two different things. There is a feeling of optimism and happiness in America that persuades you to act in the same way. The same is to be said in Britain, there is a no-nonsense feel that persuades you to take the conversation for what it is.
There is also an important note to be made here that cannot be shown in the scenario (aside from the odd exclamation point!) – that is the tone used by both parties in the conversations. In Britain, I find that conversations like this are almost said under the breath, quiet and necessary but in a loose tone and at a normal low pitch. In America, these conversations are said in a high pitched tone which automatically illustrates happiness, optimism and enthusiasm.
The main thing that I understand from the two conversations is that British people seem to not like to admit to happiness if they feel it, and they definitely do not like to say that they are happy if they are not. I always felt that I would be bursting the seams of the accepted tone of the situation if I were to come in to it in an optimistic way – almost as though I would not be playing my part in understanding the pessimistic British outlook on life. It makes sense in the scheme of things, why say that you are doing well when you are not. Instead, we use words such as, “OK”, or, “fine”, to express our dissatisfaction with the day in the nicest possible way, but keeping our chins up and plodding through, like we have always done. You would also use these words if you are indifferent, and feel neither happy nor sad. I suppose we enjoy keeping our feelings to ourselves and see no need in veering off the classic British outlook, things are never brilliant but we struggle through and carry on regardless. I think the famous sign from the war tells it best, Keep Calm And Carry On.

Are you faking it?

The general thought when British people think of the American optimism, is that it is so extreme compared to our automatic mentality that there is no way that it can be real.  I must admit, I used to think the same. I used to see the big smiles and high pitched happiness as being over the top fake and I didn’t think that there was any value in it. After all, they can’t possibly be that happy all of the time, so they must essentially be lying to me when they say that they are. I always wondered why they do that, why they smile so much and why they pretend that everything is wonderful in the world when it clearly isn’t – I am just out to buy some butter because I ran out again, why should I be ecstatically happy about that?
The thing is, when I came to live here, I realised something. I was looking at it the wrong way. They are not pretending to be happy to be creepy or over the top or to be annoying, they are doing it for a reason. I found that reason when I began to do it myself.
To explain to you exactly what I found, we are going to do a little exercise:

Please follow my instructions carefully. Pretend that someone has asked you how you are at the food store, just like in the scenario above. Now answer as follows, “I am fine, thanks.” Do not change your facial expression and do not pay much attention to what you are saying so that the words just roll from your mouth without much thought or effort or enthusiasm.
Now think about how you feel. Do you feel any worse or better than you felt before you began the exercise?

Now imagine yourself in the same situation where someone has just asked you how you are at the food store. Now answer as follows, “I am good thanks, how are you?” Change your facial expression to a smile as you answer, put your head up high, shoulders back and create a higher tone in your voice by putting in enthusiasm and optimism.
Think again about how you feel. This time, do you feel any worse or better than you did before you began the exercise?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
It is a safe bet to say that you probably felt much happier and optimistic the second time than the first. That is because even though you may be putting on your happiness a little bit, it still makes you feel more positive for doing it. It actually makes you feel more optimistic inside if you act happy, as well as making you seem like a more optimistic person on the outside. It also helps that you can’t say the word ‘good’ without spreading your mouth open in a smile-like manor.


Automatic (not stick)

I think the main point with this is that it is an automatic response for people from both countries to react this way to a circumstance. It may be counteracted and forcefully changed, like many of the other traits that we have talked about in this blog, but I feel that the default response is procured through the environment or culture that each country creates.
It is strange how the scripted responses such as the scenario earlier are acted out so differently in the two countries, and I would imagine that the other country’s response might seem odd to their counterpart. I know exactly how the British people feel about the American response, but I can also imagine how American’s feel about the British response. It must seem strange to them to think that we would be so unhappy and seem so cold. That is exactly what the generalised “British” character is in movies and TV shows – icy cold with a dry sense of humour. Well we are not far from that, in truth, when put against the American’s in general social situations.


Do British people like to be negative for a reason?

It does make me wonder though, why are we like that? It could be said that we are actually more open than the Americans because we do not hide how we feel – if we are not feeling particularly sad or happy then we will appear very unresponsive. It is not our default response to appear happy because in general social situations, we are not overly happy. We would much rather be at home with our family drinking a nice glass of wine than in the middle of this awkward social charade where we play a part.  Again, this is a very generic assumption based on my own inner feelings in these situations and of the majority of the people that I have observed – there are many in Britain that enjoy a nice chat with the assistant at the food store and conduct themselves with a smile and oozing optimism. One of them, in fact, is my grandmother Jean who is always very cheery in social situations, so my apologies to her!
There are many things about the UK that I find to be quite depressing at times, the consistent grey weather is a good example. I know that it is classic British talk to complain about the weather, but I honestly feel that it is impossible to feel cheery and optimistic when all you can see is greyness and rain. Not even normal rain, the slanted rain that gets underneath your coat – the one that is carried heavily on the wind that breaks your umbrella. That is our weather for most of the year. I think that the weather is just one of the many issues that we feel, as British people, we have been given the worst deal in when it comes to culture and country. It is only when you go to other places that you realise just how great our country actually is – but we are very quick to fall back into the national hatred pattern as soon as we settle back in. That may be true for all cultures I suppose, the grass is always greener on the other side, but we British do excel in the skill of feeling sorry for ourselves. Strange really, when the name of our country has ‘Great’ in it…


Is it historical?

As discussed in an earlier blog post, a long time ago some of us Brits decided to pack up shop and travel blind to an unknown and unchartered land. It was probably done for many reasons but I would dare to venture that the main one is that they were fed up of the way that things were in Britain. It is written in the constitution that Americans have the right to the pursuit of happiness because that is essentially what they were doing when they hopped over to the new world – pursuing happiness. It is built into them that this is their dream land – something that they fight for and a place where they are personally free and independent. Could this in built feeling of success in finding their dream land full of liberty and happiness be the reason for what we Brits see as “overly happy” pretences in social situations? Could it be that they won the war for their happiness and now, on the other side of it, it has been passed down the generations to subconsciously feel the need to express their happiness socially so that the sacrifice wasn’t all for nothing?
We Brits are constantly complaining about things in our country, we are actually quite famous for it, but why do you think that is? As much as we complain, we have put up with a lot in our country in the past. It has been taken over countless times by many different civilizations so we have so much foreign influence in our blood that we couldn’t really know how much of it is actually British. We used to own so much of the world, then they all decided to leave us one by one to become independent countries – leaving us as a tiny little island that you can barely see on the map unless you squint. We get floods and rain and floods and rain and it seems that the only thing that people know about us from the outside is the luxury of having tea with the queen, and around 99.9% of us haven’t even done that! My point is, we put up with it. That’s what we are good at. There is a reason that so many nations have left our sad little bosom, and that is because we do tend to do lots of things wrong. The thing is though, the people that are left and haven’t deserted Britain – our ancestors – are the ones who have stuck it out. I can say with all certainty that they complained like hell along the way, but when push comes to shove, they stayed. That’s what we are descended from – survivors. Tough cookies. We know that things are not great, we know that life is hard, but we stick at it non-the-less. Could this be why we don’t like to put a face on when we are in a social situation like in the supermarket? We are all survivors. We all know what the deal with life is and so our default reaction is to just plod on, not unhappy but not ecstatic either. We just say that we are fine and we get on with our day.


Is it just me…?

I don’t mean Miranda Hart’s hilarious book, “Is it just me…?” (If you haven’t yet read it, you really should, it will make you snort out loud – even if you don’t snort!). I wanted to find out if this is something that I am alone in thinking about Britain and the US, or if there is any truth to it. I also wanted to find out other people’s thoughts on why their automatic response is what it is, and how they feel about the other countries automatic response in comparison to their own. So, I sent out a questionnaire to a set of Brits and a set of Americans, and here is what I found:
When asked the general opinions that American people have about British people, and vice versa, the results were generally as I expected. I will be touching on some of the other impressions that were mentioned in another blog, but for the interest of this subject, I would like to concentrate on the relevant impressions that the selected answerers have.
The Americans that were asked, used words such as “formal”, “cold”, “serious”, “unaffectionate”, and “reserved” to describe the British people. These answers make me think about how our natural inbuilt pessimism comes across to the Americans – them being such an extreme example of the opposite. The British answers enforced this, with the words, “amusing”, “annoying”, “fake” and, “awkward”, describing the general view of the Americans. We just find it difficult to comprehend the go-to positivity, which seems to us to be fake simply because we know that there is no world where people can always be that optimistic. We simply do not see it to be very realistic. The interesting thing is that from the American answers, I get the feeling that it is not about showing your optimism – instead it is more about not showing your pessimism. Showing your true feelings or showing your discontent with something is more revealing to them and more open than just pretending that everything is fine. From the answers, I found that they feel as though they don’t want everyone to know their business, so instead they play a role in a social situation to almost create a perfect world. British people, it seems, do the opposite. There is an unsaid understanding that the world isn’t perfect and it is automatically understood in a social situation – almost a role to play in the opposite way. If someone in Britain went around happy and optimistic it would feel different, and might click the situation out of the normal scripted socially accepted role play.
The general view of the American answerers was that it is polite to have a conversation with the assistant in a store, and to not do so would be strange. The British answerers generally said that they try to remember to have a conversation with them but will not usually find themselves doing so automatically – they also stated their awareness that others in Britain do not carry out a conversation in a social situation, so they like to do it to make up for their fellow Britons. The British people also said that it is polite to only say hi or hello, and that you are either in the mood for the conversation or you are not, but either way you will usually stick to the script which has pessimistic undertones. Americans always carry on the conversation, without fail, and it will always automatically have optimistic undertones, even if you are not really in the mood.
I would also like to point out that, although I know far more British people than I do Americans, I had double the amount of American responses to the questionnaire than I did British. Is it stretching it too much to suggest that Americans are more comfortable about talking about their opinions and feelings than British people – so the British will put off the questionnaire even though I am sure that they had every intention of answering it? Maybe approaching that subject is for a different blog post, but if there is some truth to it, you can understand our issues with being openly optimistic if we find it hard to be open about our opinions in the first place.


Next time…

So, I hope that you are finding my little rants entertaining and not taking me too seriously – after all, I am speaking mainly from personal experience here by looking at how I view the world. I am glad to have you with me on my quest for cultural understanding! Next time I am going to look at how the two countries appreciate their history. See you then!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

TRAIT 2: Visually Patriotic VS Silent Promotion

Before I moved to the US, I knew that I was embarking on a journey towards a proud nation that could be seen as bordering on obsessive in their patriotic duty. Whenever you watch a movie or television programme that is set in America, or even listen to American music, you can’t help but notice the patriotism that coats everything that you see or hear. In this entry I am going to consider why it is so noticeably important to be openly and obviously ‘American’, and why the need for promoting your home nation doesn’t seem to translate to us cousins across the water.

 
A righ’ Bri-ish housewarmin’ shin-dig!”

A few weeks ago, I organised a housewarming party in my lovely new apartment in Dover, Delaware. I decided that, as I am now residing much deeper into US territory, I would spin a British theme into the occasion as it seems to be almost exotic here. That made me think about all things British – the flag, the music, the food, and so on. The whole thing was such a classic ‘theme’, just like a beach theme or for the more adventurous type, anything beginning with the letter ‘z’ (how many of you said “Zee”?). It was at that moment that I realised … everything that we associate as being generally British, is just a cog in a theme’s wheel – a joke or a fun gimmick. On a general day to day basis, we don’t seem to openly celebrate our nation or the privilege of being British. Well, not unless there is some sort of Football game on or if a member of royalty is getting married – and of course we are not counting the Olympics! I mean a general feeling of patriotism, without the excuse of an event. I guess that we don’t really think about it much. When we go abroad, that is when we notice the not quite so obviously British things that we miss from home - like the NHS, the British accent or Tesco. But these are not the kind of things that you associate being patriotic with – can you imagine Americans going around and saying that they are being patriotic while talking about Walmart?
***As a side note, I cooked some amazing food at my house warming party (see image above) with great thanks to my Facebook friends for their advice and suggestions.***

 
Flagtastic!

When I first came to America, I flew into Boston through Philadelphia airport. My first experience of living in America was
in Philadelphia airport, walking to my next gate. I looked up to see a big picture of Obama in front of the United States flag. Then, the first time that I left Boston to explore the surrounding areas, every street that I drove down had the United States flag hanging proud from around 90% of the houses. When you are in Britain watching television programmes or movies and you see the excessive amounts of flags everywhere, you think that it must be for show and that they can’t possibly have that many people that are willing to hang up the flag outside of their house. Oh, how wrong you would be! The only thing that I can remotely relate it to, is how British people will religiously wear their football team shirts, and that it is a regular sight to see the football team scarf flying out of the window of a moving car when it is on its way to the game. So, in this way, American people seem to have the same dedication and patronage towards their country that a British person might show towards Leeds United (my Fiancé is a dedicated Leeds fan, so I apologise for any bias here). Of course, Americans are huge on sport as well, most Americans will follow at least one or two sports and show a great amount of dedication towards their teams. I may be clutching at straws here, but would it then be valid to suggest that for Americans, dedication to your homeland is like the lifelong dedication to your sports team? As we dive further into this post, we can see that the patriotism for America is really quite intense – but some would argue that a lifelong patronage to your team is also intense. Curiouser and curiouser…
 
 
 
 Flag down the reason for the flag obsession
 
The Union Jack flag that we know today was actually formed in 1801, to symbolise the uniting of the four nations – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales (but since 1921 it has only been representing Northern Ireland, not the Republic of Ireland). The American flag, even though the nation itself is young, is one of the oldest flags in the world and as it was formed in 1777, it is indeed older than the Union Jack. The United States flag has changed since the original – there were originally 13 stars on it to represent the 13 states that had been formed from the 13 colonies that existed at the time. It came about as a symbol during the war of independence against Britain. It is said that George Washington once said that the stars represent heaven, the red stripes represent Britain and the white stripes represent the purity of the independence and liberty that they seek. The American national anthem, which I will get into a little later, was originally a poem that accounts the sight of the newly made flag, or the “Star Spangled Banner”, on the battleground and how it lifted the spirits of the Americans who were fighting for their freedom. The American people seem to know everything about the flag from an

early age, even the name of the lady who allegedly made the first flag, Betsy Ross, a seamstress from Philadelphia. In fact, my local pizza place is called Betsy Ross Pizza!


There is also such a thing as “flag etiquette” in the United States, and there is even a National Flag foundation (NFF) that sets out the regulations that must be followed when it comes to the flag. They even have a question and answer page which is definitely an interesting read: (Click here to read)
With this much meaning behind the flag stemming from such an influential time for the country – in essence, the birth of the country – it is understandable that they are so proud of it. It seems to me that the obsession with the flag as a visual tool for their patriotism comes down to the subject discussed in my last post – American people seem to value the expression and visualisation of their feelings, wants and needs much more than British people do. In my last post we discussed how Americans tend to ask for what they want more boldly than we British, and how our default answer to most questions is ‘no’, even though sometimes we actually want to say ‘yes’. Here it seems that Americans feel a need to express visually their patriotism in order for it to be true. Could this be because such a short time ago, their recent ancestors fought for and created the country, and so it is more a part of them than you could say the ancient Britain is to any of us? Why does the Union Jack flag feel more like a symbol of a party theme to me, rather than a symbol of patriotism?


O say, can you see God saving the Queen?
 
The American national anthem is a phenomenon that I honestly began to feel quite awkward about very quickly. It gives me a strange feeling when I hear it – there is so much passion in the singing of it as well as in the hearts of the people who are listening around me, so you can’t help but get goose bumps. You are made so aware of its meaning and authority that you find yourself giving it a certain amount of respect. I am not saying that we don’t have a national anthem in Britain, because obviously we do. But the
mumbling that you hear at a football game when even the players are pretending to remember the words is not in the same league. Does anyone actually know all of the words? (“God Save The Queen” doesn’t count…everyone knows that bit!) If you do, I apologise and kindly ask that you teach them to me because I fear that you may be the only one who does know it. And anyway, the wording doesn’t remind us of the sacrifices of our ancestors for our country, it talks about the queen as though she is still the head of the country which, bless her heart, she clearly isn’t.  
Whenever the national anthem plays here in America, I always get mixed feelings. As I said before, I feel a strange respect for it, but I also feel terribly awkward in not being a member of the culture that it creates within earshot. I hate to connect the two, but it is very much like that old British children’s show, the demon headmaster (for you Americans, the show really isn’t as bad as it
sounds!). Let me paint a picture for you. Everyone stops what they are doing. Everything goes silent. Everyone stands up. Hats come off. If there is a flag within the proximity, they will face it. Heads go up. Hands cover their hearts. Then they sing. They sing every word, and they have known every word since they were old enough to read - sometimes even earlier. I am describing the opening of a baseball game and every morning as they raise the flag in a US summer camp, but the same thing happens in bars, at concerts and even in some cases in the workplace. Before this, I had never seen anything like it in real life and it knocks me back every time. Luckily, I am usually with my British Fiancé when it happens, so we can look at each other and feel awkward together. Can you imagine being in that situation that I described but not knowing the words – and even worse, being of the nationality that refused them independence to lead them to create this song about war in the first place? Even more intense are the times that they don't sing along because they are listening intently to the singer - that happened at a baseball game and we were high up in a bar so we couldn't actually hear the singers voice, all we knew was that everyone had stopped everything in unison and had all faced the same way with hand on heart in silence. Very strange experience.
You have to wonder though, why do they hold such emotional importance in the song hundreds of years later? Is it because they want to visually show their gratitude to their ancestors? If it is, I am starting to see a pattern in our revelations!


Next time…
 
I hope that you have enjoyed my experiences of the differences in patriotism between the two countries! In my next post I will look at the American default optimism verses the British default pessimism. Thanks for reading and I hope to see you next time!


References:
 
 
 
 

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