Defining a culture as a whole is a difficult task to take on. It involves much more than a brief glance or quick read of a Wikipedia page. Culture is more than events in a history textbook or foods on a table; rather, it makes its home in the psyche of the people.
One must first cut through layer upon layer of stereotypical thought to arrive at what can be called the true heart of a culture.
I now find myself writing to you from Oxford, England, as an active participant in what I’d call a cultural experiment. Some weird American who half expected to show up at Hogwarts now lives, shops, cooks, studies and walks as a resident of not just a new town, but a new society entirely.
Some might think England is just America with different accents, but upon closer examination, one realizes the way people think, interact, go to school and live is different at the core.
At the first thought of England, many picture teapots, Queen Elizabeth, Big Ben, Harry Potter, pubs, double-decker buses and stuffy, proper people who turn up their noses at unintelligent American tourists.
These stereotypical images, though parts of the United Kingdom, by no means encompass what it means to be English.
I recently was tasked to read two articles on the subject of “being English.” Both writers addressed important characteristics of the English people, and they seemed define quite well the culture I have only briefly known.
These people like things in their places. Their self-deprecating humor and satire keep me laughing. Small talk isn’t always their forte. They really do drink tea all the time. They are modest and moderate, but contrary to popular belief, they don’t eat fish and chips for every meal, and I’ve never seen anyone using the red phone booths around town.
Observing a culture as an outsider always causes me to reflect on my own culture as well. I don’t know all of the things British people think about us Americans, but they, like me, have a view that mixes stereotypes with truths that we sometimes don’t like to fulfill.
I’m sure the English think we ask too many questions, and I know for a fact we are too loud. Most of the time, they probably assume we intend to barge in, interrupt their lives and pretend we are all wizards.
As tempting as that sounds, it is of the utmost importance to think of things such as cultural definitions and stereotypes and people and borders and different ways of life. Wouldn’t it be a waste of a semester to not ever think about what is actually occurring?
So, what does it mean to be English? As an outsider, I will never fully be able to answer that question. But in the mean time, I hope to better understand what it means to be a person, no matter where in the world I go.