Looking American: On culture, nationality, and immigration

A few months ago, M. told me, “You’re looking very”—and here you have to imagine a short pause— “American today.”

When I stopped laughing, I asked what American looked like, and you can insert another, somewhat longer pause before you go on, because he had to think about it. Or else he was looking for a gentle way to say it.

“You walk as if the sun always shines on you and you own the world,” he said. Not unkindly, I should add, although from someone else it might have sounded like a complaint.

Semi-relevant photo: The sun shining on a herd of cows. (Actually, they were making sure we left their field, and I can't remember if the sun was shining on them or not--it looks like diffuse sunlight. Does that count?)

Semi-relevant photo: The sun shining on a herd of cattle. Actually, they were making sure we left their field, and I can’t remember if the sun was shining on them or not–it looks like diffuse sunlight. That may or may not count.

The sun wasn’t shining on me that day. I’ll skip the details, because they’ll take me off in a whole ‘nother direction, but I’d been shaken by some bad news a few hours earlier, and I was still feeling it.

What does it mean to be so American that I look like I own the world, even (or particularly) when I’m don’t feel that way? Well, what does it mean to belong to any nationality?

The question’s been rattling around in my head lately, at least in part because of the anti-immigrant sentiment that seeps into so much of British politics these days. And into American politics, while we’re at it. You could probably drop any other more or less solvent nation into that sentence, because trouble drives people to immigrate, and the world’s a troubled place these days.

Part of the anti-immigrant feeling is about jobs: If immigrants come over here (wherever here is), they’ll work for less and wages will drop. There’s some logic to this, although what’s really undermining wages is that jobs, and whole industries, have moved overseas, where wages are ruinously cheaper. On top of that, unions don’t have the clout they once did (those two aren’t unrelated), and they were a major force driving wages up.

But another, more emotional, strand of complaint is that immigrants don’t blend in. Basically, the problem with immigrants is that we’re foreigners, and couldn’t we please stop that? Stop talking our languages in public. Stop eating funny foods. Stop dressing differently. Stop running around with different-color skin. Stop cheering for foreign sports teams or holding to foreign religions or using all those alphabets that no decent person knows how to read. I mean, who knows what we’re writing in them?

But once you grow up in a culture, you don’t get to leave it behind—not entirely, even if you want to. No matter how much you work at blending into another one, you carry some part of the original. I walk, apparently, like an American, and I know I sound like one. I even eat like one. The American way of eating involves juggling the fork from the left hand, where we hold it if we need to cut something with knife and fork, to the right hand, which we use to bring the food to the mouth. The British way leaves the fork where it started, in the left hand. This is great, because it lets you use the knife to push food onto your fork—and it’s perfectly good manners when you do. That solves a problem built into the American approach: How do you get the last bits of non-spearable food onto the fork without sneaking a finger onto the plate and hoping no one’s looking? Although it doesn’t solve another problem, which is how to keep the food on your fork, because the British hold the damned thing with the back—the hump—facing up, so that you can’t use the fork’s valley to cradle your food. I haven’t a clue why they do this, but it may explain why mashed potatoes are so popular: you can use them as mortar to hold the rest of your food on your fork.

So I’m a partial fan of the British method, and periodically I try to eat that way—usually with the curved part of the fork facing up, but never mind, I’m compromising here and I want some credit, damn it. All you anti-immigrant campaigners, are you listening? I’m making an effort.

What happens, though? The minute my mind wanders—and it doesn’t take long—my fork’s magically moved itself back to my right hand and I’m eating like an American again. And the sun shines on me.

At this point, while the sun’s shining on me alone, I have to interrupt myself, because I read this post to my writers group and they told me that holding the fork with the hump facing up is posh, presumably because it makes you eat more slowly. Holding it valley-side up is working class. Who’d have thunk? I swear, you have to be born here to figure this stuff out. On the evidence of that alone, though, I ask you: Who should be running the country?

Because of my (sometimes absurd) efforts to publicize both my book and this blog, I’ve written a lot of bios lately (I will post just about anywhere, about almost anything, as long as I get a bio and a link), and I keep describing myself as an American living in Cornwall. That reflects the reality of who I am culturally, but it ignores the fact that I’m a British citizen as well as an American one.

For me, becoming a British citizen was about security, not love or allegiance or culture. I do love the country, but I’m not romantic about citizenship. I wanted to be a citizen because it’s harder to get rid of a citizen than a resident alien. Since the U.K. government had already changed the rules once before Wild Thing and I got the right to stay in the country for the long term,and since we just about got kicked out of the country because of it, we were touchy on the subject. It may be crass, but we wanted the safety that comes with citizenship. We’re grateful for it, but it hasn’t, and can’t, change who we are.

So when I hear someone say that the problem with immigrants is that we don’t acculturate, I can only suggest moving abroad and seeing what happens.

*

A final note: Before my writers group before we fell down the conversational rabbit hole of what it means to have a constitution that isn’t a written document, I learned something else about forks and nationality: More and more of the British are acting like Americans and shuffling their forks from hand to hand as they eat.

And we’re not even the immigrant group anyone’s upset about.

If you want to blame someone, you can blame movies or television, because there aren’t enough Americans here to have that big an impact.

How do foreigners change a culture? Sometimes it’s from a distance.

41 thoughts on “Looking American: On culture, nationality, and immigration

  1. So, the neighbor had supper with us last night, and I noticed that she holds the valley side down. I am sure that I have never consciously noticed anyone hold their fork that way.
    Which means that I have spent my entire life surrounded by nothing but other working-class-bully-walking Americans.
    And all this time I thought that my world was so multicultural, so egalitarian.

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  2. Two comments, Ellen. When we were supposed to be picked up in a German train station by somebody we had yet to meet in person, we asked how he would know us. Oh, don’t worry, we were told, he’ll find you. ???? Jeez, are we that stereotypical? And my mother is German so my siblings and I were sort of ambidextrous using knife and fork. We would switch back and forth depending on venue. A German once called the American way of switching knife and fork a “ridiculous ballet.”

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  3. Some people assume I’m Spanish or Italian when they first see me, and before I open my mouth ;) Then they think I’m English because that’s the language I speak. When I tell them I’m Irish, they’re delighted – seems everyone loves us but isn’t really sure why when you ask them ;) There’s a lot of anti-immigrant feeling going on in Germany at the moment as well. And anti-anti-immigrant feeling. Complicated world we live in!
    Great post Ellen – you’ve made me think about how I hold my fork now! Will have to watch myself at my next meal ;)

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  4. Personally, I had a most awful experience when I first came to live in Britain. We were invited to dinner and my hostess was watching me while I ate. I became very very self-conscious and asked her what was going on–politely, of course. She said she wanted to watch me eating with the fork “upside down” and then went on to add that children are corrected when they try to eat like that — “shoveling in the food” ….wow. She didn’t mean to say this politely, either. She was being sarcastic and critical of Americans (why did she invite us to dinner? Because my husband was the new boss and she had hoped HER husband would be getting the job. I didn’t know that, but I found myself saying later–sweetly– when she brought out the “pudding (a creamy something-or-other”–and I pointedly observed HER–in response to HER own query–“what am I looking at”: “Just wanting to see how you are going to eat that with your spoon upside down.” Rude, I know, but for goodness sakes. Needless to say, we weren’t invited back–but my husband WAS the boss–and went on being the boss for six years. We made a lot of British friends, and I told that story a number of times, leaving off the names to protect the guilty. I didn’t change the way I ate, and still don’t know how to use chopsticks, even after two years in Hong Kong.

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  5. Right… You did get me thinking… In a bit of a different direction from yours! By the way, I didn’t know this stuff about the fork either. Without realising it, I’ve always been eating the American way, and my (Bulgarian) husband keeps criticising me for this, as well sd our son. Perhaps a part of us two is secretly American??

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  6. Pingback: On Nationality, Culture and Religion | Not Another Tall Blog

  7. Re: your last salvo about distance. I have an interesting story a friend of mine who was in China briefly on a teacher exchange told me. The kids were instructed to come to school dressed in whatever clothes demonstrated what they’d like to do when they grow up (one could take that and run with it but another time) . One kid came dressed as a copy with a holster & toy gun. The American teachers flipped out and started in on “Zero Tolerance.” The Chinese teachers looked at them with some distain and said, “Are you kidding, we see your movies and television shows.” One young woman was afraid to come to the U.S. because of said shows. She was under the impression that blood runs in the streets here. I haven’t heard about Americans shooting the Chinese or shooting each other while in China so the impression obviously is based on our media “penetration” of that very large place.

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  8. Sometimes I think people just look for things to criticize instead of accepting that everyone is different, especially if they’re from different cultures or even different states! I got it in Nebraska one time for “talking funny”. Really? A Chicago accent is that different??

    Normally I’d laugh it off, but the guy did it to be offensive. A Chicago accent should warn of a Chicago temper and I let him have it back. My Nebraska friend laughed her ass off at the look on his face that I wasn’t as sweet or passive as he thought I’d be.

    Nancy

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  9. I like this stuff, it reminds me very much of Bryson’s ‘Notes from a Small Island’. ( I expect that has been said already, but I’m new)
    Fork usage is very much a class thing here. But even working-class people (at least us older ones) were taught how to use it the posh way when in company, or in restaurants. The American way, of cutting things, then transferring the fork seems crazy to me, but I agree that it is catching on- at least with the trendier young people in some cities. (TV is to blame…)
    As for looking like Americans, I am sorry to confirm that you do. It is a brashness, not a harsh brashness, but still a brashness, that can be spotted amid a crowd of thousands, in somewhere like Trafalgar Square, in London. Older Americans (at least the tourists in London) also have a way of wearing totally inappropriate clothing, more suited to youngsters. If it’s any consolation, and it probably isn’t, I was always spotted as ‘Le Rosbif’ when visiting France, and in Africa and Asia, I was generally taken to be German.
    I am going to follow this blog. It’s ‘got legs’, as we say here.
    Try this. https://beetleypete.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/americanese/
    Regards from Norfolk. Pete.

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    • I love the idea that the blog’s got legs. Even if they’re clad in (probably inappropriate) jeans, which they almost always are.
      As for my own, as opposed to the blog’s, legs, I’ve gone totally post-fashion, so I’m not unhappy being inappropriately dressed. Or Americanly dressed, although I’ve been here long enough that most of my clothes were bought in the UK, so presumably I’m imparting some essence of Americanness to them. It’s an odd business, nationality. Totally artificial and at the same time totally real.
      Anyway, welcome.

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  10. Love that you brought up the ‘fork management’. I have been ‘left-handed hump up’ now for almost 10 yrs and not looking back. With the exception of peas, I may just slip into the crowd of British Royalty without notice. :-D

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  11. This is such a fun conversation! I remember the first time I had my Peruvian friend over to dinner and served him roti and sides. He deftly rolled them all up into a fat burrito and ate it :) I am always tempted to eat a burrito like roti/subzi.

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  12. Sorry for commenting in such a late manner, but WordPress suggested I might like this article too, and I did, as I am thinking hard about citizenship at the moment, as we will shortly have to go through the rigmarole of extending my two year “permanent” status to a ten year “permanent” status. (I won’t even start on the grumbling I do about the various definitions of permanent.) Not only for the security you mentioned, in what is an increasingly insecure world for immigrants, but also for the right to vote, which as one of four daughters of a politics professor and a social worker, was drummed into me as a duty as well as a right, from a very early age.
    I have been wondering if I will feel less British, your post gives me hope that it won’t, not that I think there is anything wrong with being American, but I think it is probably something you are born to. And while being British was something I was quite blasé about when I lived there, I do find it quite comforting to cling to, now I do not.
    On a lighter note I do hold my fork in the left hand, hump side up, as taught by my parents. We weren’t a posh family, but my mother was keen that we would never be let down by not knowing the right etiquette for situations. She herself was raised in a time when even a butcher’s daughter didn’t leave the house without hat and gloves, and my father made it from the coal mines of Yorkshire to Oxford Uni in two generations.
    My step children still look at me as if I am going to ask them to enact the Hunger Games if I lay the table with knives, so from time to time, to be contrary I will lay just forks and serve pork chops. As yet no one has called my bluff by stabbing their pork chop and nibbling at the edges, but no doubt it is only a matter of time. I’m quite looking forward to it :D

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    • There’s nothing like moving to another country to make you realize how deeply you were formed by the place you came from. Or at least that’s my experience–and it sounds like it’s been yours as well. With apologies for the self-promotion, this longer essay might interest you. I put it on Medium, where it’s more or less invisible.

      As it turns out (and I only learned this recently), even citizenship in this country’s not all that secure. A dual citizen’s British citizenship can be snatched away by the Home Office without appeal, without trial, without any process at all. It doesn’t hover over us as an immediate possibility, but it is frightening–and very wrong.

      But let’s not get too serious. I love the image of everyone sitting at your table ripping bits of pork chop off the fork.

      Liked by 1 person

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