Finding your feet in a foreign culture
I chuckled a while back on reading that Lakeland Jo had been called an “anorak” because she blogs. How very insulting. Unfortunately there was no one around with whom to share the joke. The word “anorak” isn’t used a lot around these parts. There are heavy duty Parkas and rain slickers, which are light rain jackets (like cagools). Anoraks however, are simply called jackets, or quilted jackets at the most. And there is certainly no inference of anything train-spotterish attached to them.
Similarly, I can never really use the term “sticky back plastic” with any great results. First, because it’s called contact paper in the US, and second because it was never used for every flipping project on Blue Peter. Saying “Here’s one I made earlier” just makes you look very well-prepared, or obsessive compulsive, depending on the circumstances.
It’s very odd, living without a frame of reference. When I’m with other Brits, I find myself over-indulging in words like “sodding” (my fave), “chuffed” or “dodgy”. After almost 19 years here, I still haven’t lost the urge to say them, and the word “knackered” (my permanent state) constantly creeps into my conversations, only to be met with the glazed-over look Americans get when you’ve completely lost them. The Ball & Chain lived for three years in England and travels there on a (far too) regular basis, so I’m better off than some expats in that he sometimes gets it.
My sons watch Top Gear on a (far too) regular basis, and I’m thrilled at all the English they’re learning. However, they miss so much because they don’t have the “frame of reference”. For example, in one episode where they’re all trying to cobble together a car out of potato peelers, hair accessories and bread bins (or something), gently playing in the background is the Blue Peter theme tune. They couldn’t understand why I was laughing. Another time they asked what “bloddy” was. I knew they didn’t mean “bloody” as I sssay it all the time and they’re very familiar with it.
“Give me the sentence” I asked.
“Oh look, it’s bloddy”, they responded.
No, it wasn’t Noddy.
“Give me the scene” I ventured.
“Well, Hammond was off looking at exotic birds and they called him bloddy.”
“Ah….Bill Oddie”, followed by half an hour’s background information.
I give up sometimes, I really do.
As an expat, I often feel as if I am adrift in a sea of idioms. After seven years, I now know where most of the reefs are, but there is still the overall feeling that I am, ultimately, an outsider, both because I occasionally find myself not understanding what is going on around me, or because, more frequently, I will say something that elicits confused stares instead of understanding.
Even now, while watching TV, my wife will suddenly begin laughing but will be unable to explain why, beyond the brief and unsatisfying explanation that it was, "in reference to a show that was on before you came over."
Conversely, when I make suggestions that our MPs should be enrolled in "Accounting 101" or allude to them arriving at Parliament "on the short bus," no one nods or smirks; they just look confused.
At restaurants, when someone at my table orders the Chocolate Mousse—an occasion that, in the US, practically insists you say, in an appropriate cartoon voice, "Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!"—I have to remain silent, or risk being thought quite mad. And no one gets the double-entendre implicit in "Nice sweater, Mrs. Cleaver," either.
I also sorely miss in the ability to find out a great deal about my drinking companion by his answer to the question, "Ginger or Maryann?" If I tried that here, he would probably think I was asking about his preference of spices. It really leaves me feeling vaguely out of touch, with my companions, as well as society in general.
By not sharing the same frame of reference, you can never truly be one of the crowd; events and conversations will continue to unfold in a place you can only peek into but never be part of; and you will find yourself staying quiet a great deal more than you might prefer.
But for me, the most annoying aspect is—now that I am attaining an age when I can recall a lot of things many of my companions cannot—I can no longer get any mileage out of the fact that I met Virginia O'Hanlon of, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," fame. My one brush with greatness and, just when it starts to do me some good, I move to a country where no one knows who she is.
At least now I can trot out the previously useless fact that I grew up next to the house Jennie Jerome used to live in.
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