Wild Thing and I need to renew our American passports. To do that, we each have to send in two passport photos measuring two inches by two inches. British passport photos measure something else by something else, as do driver’s license and everything else photos, so we can’t just plonk ourselves in that little booth in the supermarket entrance, looking our worst, plug some money into the slot, and walk away with photos. And for all I know, an inch in the U.K. isn’t the same as an inch in the U.S. Why should it be when a cup, a pint, and yea, even a breath of air all change size as they cross the Atlantic?
But don’t let me sulk about that. I have and it didn’t help. The U.S. embassy is very clear about what it wants. Send us the wrong size photo, it warns, and we’ll send them back.
And put us on a watch list so we’ll never be allowed to fly again. Because the wrong size passport photo? It’s an indicator of political unreliability and who knows where it could lead.
So we went to a local photography studio. We walked in looking our worst and came away with two two-by-two photos each. In the process, we got to know the photographer’s two dogs (sorry—I’m not making up the numbers; there really are that many twos involved) and their histories and friendships and enemyships. (Did I mention that if you ask about a dog around here, you’ll find out about the dog?) A neighbor stopped by with a chew stick for each of them, as she does every working day. We discussed dogs a bit more, then moved on to being Cornish (“you have to have four generations in the ground here before you’re Cornish,” the neighbor said).
Wild Thing said we had dual citizenship. I can’t remember why that came up, but it made sense at the time. The neighbor said that if we were British we had to say—and I may well get this wrong but I’ll do my best—“dyual.” Or maybe I should spell that DYOO-wel, as opposed to the American DOO-wel.
The photographer agreed.
The hell we do, I thought and didn’t bother to say. It’s not something I need to argue since I have no intention of doing it.
But Wild Thing’s an accent adaptor. She repeated “dyual.” I don’t know how close she was but close enough that they accepted it for at least the effort.
I tell you this story because when I asked what people wanted to know about either Britain or the U.S, bethbyrnes wrote, “My family is from England and I grew up with a lot of rules. When I go back to the UK, I get the impression that the Brits (my family included) see Americans as naughty children and treat us accordingly. I so love England and thought of moving there eventually but I feel I might resent being seen in such a negative light. What do you think? Am I imagining this? I hope this isn’t too rude to ask!”
That isn’t even bordering on rude. But then, I’m an American, and not one with an ear for subtle rudeness.
I suspect the answer depends in part on how seriously you take dual/dyual comments. I heard the conversation as good-humored bullshit—the kind of thing you say to someone so that you have something to say to someone. In other words, teasing. Which has an ugly side, a side that not only hurts people’s feelings but also enforces conformity, but it also a we-all-agree-not-to-take-this-seriously side. What people really mean is often a matter of guesswork, and I tend to hear that second side more often than the first. I won’t argue that I’m right, only that I tend to hear it that way.
Wild Thing, I think, takes these comments more seriously than I do. When—as often happens—people talk about some TV show or comic that they find hysterically funny and we say it leaves us cold, someone’s bound to say, “Oh, well, you’re not British.” Wild Thing hears an element of pity in it. I hear a simple statement of fact. I don’t know who’s reading the signs more accurately.
I can’t remember ever thinking that we were being treated as naughty children, although we’d be an easy target for that. J. did once say that now that we were British we had to start eating dessert with a dessert spoon (which I’d have called a soup spoon) instead of a fork, but again I heard it as good-humored teasing and kept right on using my fork. I do set out dessert spoons for our friends, but you’ll find forks right beside them. Choose your weapon. This comes up often since we’re part of a small group devoted to eating dessert, discussing politics, and occasionally taking action. Not to mention trading the odd bit of gossip. The group meets at our house. So setting out spoons? I don’t expect my friends to change the way they eat any more than I expect to change the way I do. But I’m hard headed. I can take a fair bit of criticism, comment, and teasing, as long as it’s well meant, without feeling like I’m under attack.
And when a comment is meant seriously? When people genuinely do think I should eat differently, talk differently, or turn myself into their idea of what a person should be? I don’t spend much time with people like that and they don’t go out of their way to spend time with me, oddly enough. They’re welcome to their opinion and much good may it do them.
So yes, people like that are out there. But another group seems to think of Americans as free spirits and envy us our lack of inhibition. But Wild Thing, who was a family therapist before she retired, makes an interesting distinction between being uninhibited and being emotionally free. Americans, she says, are indeed less inhibited, but not necessarily emotionally free. I had to think about that for a while, but I’ve come around to her way of seeing it.
Even if it’s not true that Americans are free spirits, though, the belief’s a great counter-balance to the you’re-doing-it-wrong group.
Both responses, I think, stem from the number of rules the British grow up with. As does teasing people about differences. People learn not to call attention to themselves in public. Say you’re out in public and you trip and people rush to help you up. Huge embarrassment. Sat people you know wave their arms to get your attention from a distance. Ditto, apparently. And so on. Not everyone abides by the rules to the same extent, and there are patterned ways to break them, but the rules exist.
Whether as an American you’re treasured or criticized because you break them will depend on who you hang out with. And whether the comments you hear bother you will depend on how deeply you take these things in.