Monday, 11 April 2011

Going Native

Since I've been in the UK off and on for 3 1/2 years now, I often think of myself as having "gone native." I don't feel like a tourist anymore. I have 'a local' to call home, as well as favourite cafes and shops around town. I understand most British pop culture references, but sometimes I don't get American ones (Beiber fever, for example...I was completely clueless on that phenomenon until I looked it up). I'm not entirely sure when the shift happened, but it was probably when I stopped living with international students and started living with a real live English person. My culture learning became "immersive", 24/7 contact with the culture and I no longer had an international "bubble" to live in. It's been about 18 months now, and I definitely feel more & more English.

Last week, however, I went to London and realised that I was wrong. I hadn't "gone native" to Britain--I had "gone native" to the North. It's really gotten me thinking about the stereotypes of Northerners and Southerners (there's a long history of this...Gaskell wasn't the first nor the last to notice differences between the two).

I found myself getting annoyed with Southerners. Heads down, bumping into me as they push past on the pavement, their cold stares answering my smile...What a bunch of miserable people. At the British Museum, I mostly just ran into tourists-- Americans, French, Germans and Italians. But in the rest of Bloomsbury and Holborn, I saw locals being miserable. They'd bang right into you and you'd say sorry and they wouldn't say anything--but English culture dictates that you both say sorry. In the pubs, their behaviour was worse--we actually saw a man drinking a pint from a straw. Who does that??? He was also unacceptably boisterous and irritating, throwing chairs about and being a nuisance. If that had happened in a pub in Headingley, he would've been kicked out. In another pub the next night, the waitress was very rude when I ordered a pint. She took Richard's order and then when I asked for an IPA she didn't believe me. "You want ale?" I smiled and said yes, an IPA. "Are you sure?" Ummm...yes? I drink pints. Is that so hard to believe? Eventually she got it and brought us our pints. While she was gone, I looked around and noticed that among all the suits in the pub, all the men were drinking pints (mostly lagers), and all the women were drinking white wine. It suddenly made sense--as a girl, I "shouldn't" like ale. Well, up north, I never get asked "are you sure?". They just give me what I ask for, which is much more in line with the American customer service ethic, 'the customer is always right.' Besides, up north, women are 'allowed' to drink pints ;)
As a disclaimer, the other pubs we went to weren't full of suits, and nobody thought it was odd that I ordered a pint there. There were also Southerners who didn't shove past on the pavement, who smiled when I smiled, and weren't drinking pints from straws. But, it's easier to remember the outliers than the commonplace ones. This is especially important to keep in mind when I do my research and try to interpret student experiences...

In terms of my research, this observation shows how important context is to a student's experience. Regional differences become cultural differences--someone who just went to Leeds would say women drinking pints is acceptable in the UK, while someone who went only to London would say it's frowned upon in the UK. The important thing to do is to get as many experiences/views as possible, so that we can get some generalisable results that go beyond stereotypes.

For the next couple of weeks, I'll be working on my upgrade document. As always happens when I'm trying to write something, though, I keep finding more and more vital, seminal literature to read. Just today I found 2 more in the library: the 1976 book The World's Students in the United States by Spaulding & Flack, et al., and Students as Links between Cultures, a UNESCO publication from 1970, edited by Ingrid Eide. Tomorrow might be spent in the library...

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