Why Americans Think All British People Live in Castles

The other night I did what I don’t often do as a waitress, I became interested in a conversation I was having with some costumers. The interest was impart nurtured by their interest in me (they wanted to know my opinion on American politics and American life in general) and who can resists a ready audience of people who are genuinely interested in you? But it was also mutual because they were from a country which, in common with many fellow members of my age and sex, has always held a certain fascination for me. My fascination with them was enough to cause me to forget that I was supposed to be working, The restaurant had in fact been long passed close before a co-worker reminded me that I had been talking to these gentlemen for almost an hour.  I felt very guilty for keeping my coworkers so late, but I was amazed to realize upon reflection that left to my own devices I would have happily continued the conversation indefinitely. It’s extremely unlike me to go willingly towards contact with strangers and not at all in keeping with my natural work habits to willingly stay at work when I don’t have to be there. These men were engaging and entertaining perfectly within their own right (I wouldn’t like to give the impression that I was only interested in them for their nationality)  but even still my peculiar fascination with their homeland got me wondering about otherness and the hold that certain ideas can have over a person. Why is it that the idea of the U.K., a country from which my distant relatives spilled their blood to separate themselves, still holds such a power over me?

I can easily list the stories which gave me my first affinity for the place. For most Americans, Anglophilia first manifests through something Austenian or perhaps through our old friend Mr. Potter. Though the aforementioned certainly play a part, for me the story of my unnatural love of Britain comes paired with the despicable story of my poor, poor, lonely childhood. Never easy around my peers and restricted by well meaning parents from most of the idiotic, simpering, television of the late 90’s, I watched quite a lot of PBS.

Public Television, if you’re unfamiliar, is devoted to educational and informational programming and by some unique definitions of these words on weekend nights the channel would air British comedies. The result of this unique definition was that instead of quoting Friends to my peers, I was quoting Blackadder or Red Dwarf to the deaf ears of those who both didn’t know and didn’t care what the smeg I was on about. Now an adult and as such master of my own censorship, I’ve watched a bit of Friends and have to say I find Blackadder a thousand times funnier. But is this a result of my natural tastes, or are my tastes simply tending towards the comedies in which they were raised?

When I first started dating the man who later became my husband I showed him one of my favorite shows, Yes Minister, and though he enjoyed it like the clever person he is, some of the jokes required a more insider understanding of British life and politics then he possessed. Consequently by realizing that this was knowledge that my clever future husband lacked, I also realized that this was knowledge I erroneously had. I have in my head all the inside jokes of a culture to which I do not belong. If my tastes were nurtured to enjoy the comedies they were raised in then my tastes and humor are a sort of orphan, parent-less in their inauthenticity and general uselessness. The issue has only built with the advent of the internet because I am able to consume more and more of this inauthentic culture. What an oddity of the modern, globalized world am I? My body is in Texas but my head is 4759 miles away. The inauthenticiity of my preferences makes my feel that in some way I am pretending to belong to a club where I can not possibly have membership. I don’t wish I wasn’t an American (okay, yeah, sometimes I do) or that I was British (okay, sometimes I do (Everyone wishes they were someone else sometimes)). Nor do I believe that my cross-cultural interest is based on the superiority of one culture over another, it’s just that I tend to have a proclivity for things that come from the other culture and sometimes this proclivity takes on the characteristics of a sort of cultural envy.

(I want to pause for a moment to acknowledge that I may be over selling  the difference between American and British culture, as the two have been borrowing from one another for centuries. I don’t think that there is necessarily a chasm between British and American comedies, just that in the past I’ve preferred the British ones. Nowadays Tina Fey exists and Arrested Development happened so it’s probably safe to say I like parts of both cultures equally. Okay. Unpause.)

I tried my best to not let the customers I was talking to know about my proclivity because, for lack of better words, I felt weird about it. Somehow I felt that it might be creepy. I didn’t want to think of me as an idiot American who exotified their culture to the point of ridiculousness. This, I felt, would be their inevitable conclusion if I told them how much I enjoyed panel shows.

For example if I was to meet James Franco I could easily recite for him the history of his career and other various factlets about him such as “You were born in Palo Alto, James Franco.” I know these things because I admire James Franco and the internet exists. (I also have a compulsion to look up everyone and everything I see throughout the day on Wikipedia) But I wouldn’t say that because that’s the sort of insider knowledge, by rights of my strangerhood, I shouldn’t have. So if I were to meet  James Franco I would pretend the internet did not exist and I had no idea he was born in Palo Alto.

Two things can be drawn from this example;

Thing One: Polite society has not yet advanced to the point of allowing for the existence of the internet.

Thing Two: Though I may know things about James Franco, it is a very different animal to actually knowing James Franco.

Back to my nationality envy, if I’m really honest, I do excotify Britishness.  Further back to my childhood, I have very fond memories of our Sunday evening routine. I would get home from choir practice and my mother would make breakfast for dinner, then we as a family would watch All Creatures Great and Small, and that bucolic and thoroughly wholesome show had a great affect on me. For a long while I told everyone that I wanted to be  a vet when I grew up just like James Herriot. However with time I realized I want to be a vet a little too like James Herriot. I wanted to be a vet in 1930’s Yorkshire with Tristan Farnon played by Peter Davison. Now as you probably already know because you’re smart, that show was based on the books the real James Herriot wrote about his real life. But they were nothing like real life to me. They were a fantasy, a fantasy of green hills and comforting accents.

I made this other into my ideal and every other thing that I have read or seen has only added to that, Jane Austen and Harry Potter included. It’s the same, I think, as the people who suffer from Paris syndrome. These real places which are so often romanticized in literature and film take on an ethereal quality to the distant observer. However ridiculous it may seem to the actual members of the culture, what were idolizing has very little to do with you.  Something happens when you write life down. You edit it. How ever true to life the attempt, books and shows can’t help but get a little pasteurized and most tend to have a liberal helping of romanticism. This is why I could never without shame reveal to a real life Brit my love of his culture, because it isn’t his culture it’s mine. It’s the made up Britain in my head. I might as well wish I was a Narnian than wish I was British.

Not to compare myself to the Lost Generation, but it’s a bit like the lost generation isn’t it? Disenchantment lead me to find myself in something other. I poured into my idea of Britishness everything I couldn’t find in my Americanness. A lonely child who couldn’t fit in became a victim of cosmic dislocation, so the not fitting in ceased to be my fault.  In my later life this has become a tendency to prefer the products of one culture over the other. I’m not apologizing for thinking Blackadder is funnier than Friends, that just my sense of humor, wherever it came from. But I do think it’s a interesting situation to consider. In an age where we are able to share ideas across the world with ease, how do we deal with orphan tastes?


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