We’re all immigrants, or will be

When you live in a culture you didn’t grow up in—

No, forget you, because we both know I’m talking about me. So let’s try that again:

Because I live in a culture I didn’t grow up in, I’m forever stubbing my toe on cultural differences. Is that last meal of the day—to give you an unimportant example—dinner or supper? If I invite a friend over for dinner (I usually say “supper,” but who knows, I might try to go all British and accidentally use the more ambiguous “dinner”), will she show up at noon when I didn’t plan to start cooking until five?

Irrelevant photo: Frost on the what's-it-called.

Irrelevant photo: Frost on the what’s-it-called.

M. came over for whatever that meal’s called recently—showing up just when I thought she would—and as I set the table my mind wandered off into an extended meditation on the intercultural use of spoons. It’s another of those silly differences. Americans will set the table with a fork, a knife, and a small spoon, but the British will add a big honkin’ soup spoon if they plan to pull dessert out of a hat, a cupboard, or a refrigerator at the end of the meal. Because that’s what they’ll eat it with.

At our house, sorry, you don’t get two spoons.  I learned to set a table the American way, and the younger you learn a thing the more some irrational and very powerful part of you is convinced that it’s right.

And by you, as we all know by now, I mean me, because I’d feel roughly as comfortable setting out two spoons as I would wearing a tutu.

For the record, I don’t own and have never worn a tutu. I do have both size spoons, though, so I debated which ones to use. A small spoon’s good for stirring milk into tea, and M. takes her tea with milk. When I make a pot, I pour the milk in before the tea so it doesn’t need stirring, but it was evening and Wild Thing and I would want herb tea (ah, we get wilder every year), so I’d make M’s in the cup, meaning I couldn’t add the milk first. All that weighed on the side of small spoons.

On the other side of the balance, she could stir her tea with a big spoon and then use if for dessert and feel right at home if a little barbaric. For that matter, she could stir her tea with the handle of her knife. Or her thumb if the mood took her. She’s family. It wouldn’t raise any eyebrows.

I put out small spoons. Some of us stirred our tea with them and some of us left them on the table, American style, because I’m not going to pretend that the American way of setting the table makes more sense than the British way. We put out small spoons because we put out small spoons, not necessarily because anyone will use them. What matters is that the spoons are available.

On such moments are entire cultures balanced.

We used forks for dessert—those of us who didn’t use our fingers. It was American coffee cake, which isn’t one of those things that demand a fork. The fork’s so we can show each other that we’re housebroken.

It was all, I’m sure, a very unBritish meal.

End of example and a chance to move on to my real point, which is that British/American cultural differences aren’t the only kind I stumble over, so let’s move on to a new example:

I’ve been gathering a information on U.K. publishers recently. I published a political satire, Open Line, back in the U.S. in 2008. It’s about alternative facts and fake news, although it doesn’t use either phrase, and it’s become sadly relevant recently, so I’m looking around for a U.K. publisher that might want the British rights. My U.S. publisher’s all for it and that’s as much help as they plan to give me. Index cards struck me as the best way to organize what was quickly becoming a mess.

Now, you have to be over a certain age to know what index cards look like, never mind to understand what they’re for or why they seemed like a better idea than putting it all on the computer. I’m not sure what that age is, but you’ll know which side you’re on and we can all do some guesswork from there.

Our nearby town has a stationery store and right beside it an almost-stationery store, which sells newspapers and lots of toys as well as gum and some school supplies. The stationery store, I was pretty sure, would have index cards, but I got there on a Saturday afternoon and it was closed. That’s a British thing, the half day on Saturday. Not all stores observe it, but when one does I shouldn’t be surprised.

I both was and wasn’t. Cultural differences and all that. If you—and by you of course I mean I; or me, but let’s not get into that because it’s a grammatical rat’s nest—don’t plan for these cultural differences, you stub your toe and swear a bit, then you move on. My feet have thick callouses by now. I went next door.

The store had been reorganized since my last visit, so nothing was where I remembered it. I could have wandered around looking for the stationery section but it would have meant spending time with My Little Pony and Bob the Builder and I couldn’t face either of them just then. Instead, I found the cash register, which would be called the till (I think). Two young women looked up with that bright-eyed, can-I-help-you face people make, and I was struck by how immensely young they were. So young that I thought, No, you probably can’t, but I asked anyway: “I don’t suppose you have index cards, do you?”

And by you, I meant you. Which is grammatically less complicated than the I/me snarl.

One of them turned to the other, looking blank and quietly panicked.

“It’s a generational thing,” I said, meaning it’s a cultural difference and there was no reason she’d know what I was talking about.

The second clerk asked if they weren’t those dividers—.

“Not the dividers,” I said. “The things they divide.” Because it made a skewed kind of sense to me that they’d know about index card dividers but not the cards themselves. Why? Because I had a pack of alphabetical dividers at home, which proved to me that they still existed. The cards I wasn’t so sure about.

No, you didn’t miss anything. That set of connections is at least as irrational as the business about the spoons.

The second clerk showed me where the dividers lived. They were the size of a notebook and not at all what I wanted, but they were near something vaguely related to index cards and I figured they were the closest thing I’d find on a Saturday afternoon, so I bought them.

Which brings me to my point: Cultural differences exist between all kinds of groups, not just immigrants and the native born or majority populations and minority groups. Anyone who thinks immigrants or minority groups should just shut up and adapt to every twitch and wriggle of their new country or of the majority, think about your grandmother. Or your great-grandmother. Or yourself if you’re old enough. Because if we live long enough, we all become immigrants to a world we didn’t grow up in. We adapt to some parts of it and not to others. Humans are like that. Some deep part of our selves insists that this will all make more sense on index cards than on the computer, even though she/you/I know(s) perfectly well how to work the computer. Or looks at the soup spoons and thinks, That’s a ridiculous thing to eat dessert with and I’m not setting it on the table.

No, it’s not exactly the same, but maybe it’s enough to make us stop and think.

Welcome to diversity. It’s more diverse than you think.

*

And, although it has no connection with that, I’d like to report that Britain is suffering from a plague of automated phone calls. Some are annoying but confirm medical appointments, so we put up with them because we don’t want our appointments canceled. And by we I mean every ragged one of us.

Others, though—.

Today (and by today I mean the day I wrote this, which as I edit it has already slipped away) I’ve had five automated calls that start, “This is an urgent announcement…”

I hang up at that point, so I haven’t figured out what the scam is, I just know there is one.

Two came when I was cooking and my hands were oily and Wild Thing wasn’t able to answer the phone so I had to pick it up, slathering oil as I went, in case it was someone real. One came when I was ready to stuff the phone down the next caller’s throat, because the last two had been an urgent announcement.

The next call, which I almost answered by saying, “This is an urgent announcement,” was not only someone real, it was someone I don’t know well enough to pull that sort of stunt on. I was glad that good sense had gotten the better of me, however briefly.

We’ve been getting these calls for months, along with a series that start, “Boiler replace for free.” They also arrive in herds.

Wild Thing registered recently for something that promised to track unwanted calls. It did not promise to get rid of them and so far it’s kept that promise.

I’m not sure who thinks it’s a good investment to pay some company to make these calls. By my calculations, they’d cover Wales in urgency to a depth of six inches if we could only round them up. Calculating that slightly differently, I can also report that they’ve called every landline in Britain 74 times by now.

Does anyone who didn’t take the bait the first time take it on the 73rd?