Whilst the genius that was David Bowie was referencing America in a different context in his iconic song, I can’t get this lyric out of my head. It’s a blend of his Britishness, his love of NYC, and his many references to America in his songs that have caught my imagination and perhaps inspired this essay. (You might need a cuppa for this one – it’s long, and slightly contentious!!)
Yep, this is UK that I am living in again and this is definitely not America.
And, during my time back in the UK I’ve noticed and listened to many British comments that make direct reference to the fact that they’re very happy that this country is not America. Whilst I’ve always acknowledged many of America’s failings that I experienced or was aware of, and alluded to some of its more odd, amusing or problematic characteristics through my blog Desperate English Housewife in Washington during my three years there, I am still stunned when I hear Brits let rip at the USA and Americans.
Over the past five months I’ve heard many Brits comment with real negativity about the country and its people. Yes, there is a slightly racist brush which we Brits feel it’s okay to sweep across America.
Oh, I get how the brashness and the commercialism and the bright lights and the fear of those middle States taking over the politics might be a cause for concern, or how ripe certain topics are for scrutiny and that these naturally and legitimately can bear the brunt of our very British wit and sarcasm, but there is also often a real condescending, superior tone from many Brits which I’ve witnessed, especially when I say I used to live in the USA.
You know, that tone. The one that’s saved for looking down on someone who you think has got it wrong, someone who isn’t very classy, someone who doesn’t live up to your standards, someone who you think is dumb, or inferior. You know, that bullying tone.
And whilst it is very clear that, when America sticks its head above the parapet and does make great big dickhead mistakes, or is unjustly arrogant, or there are issues that we feel need to be resolved faster and with more balls – the gun issue, gay rights, race issues, or abortion (for instance) – the country does lend itself to general piss taking or mocking, or is a cause for concern in our modern society.
But, otherwise, what I hear is just bullying.
Yes, yes, I know the USA has positioned itself as a super power and is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and should take it all on the chin, but behind that facade, there are deep-rooted issues and vulnerability. But we Brits like to bring people down. It’s part of us, we say – that’s how we roll. Or is just tiresome and slightly xenophobic? Think about the most successful person on TV, or in your life, that you know – as a Brit, don’t you just love to bring them down? We don’t big them up, we don’t often say ‘you’re amazing, carry on being amazing!’. No, we don’t do that – or, at least, not enough. I bet many a Brit would be loathe to admit that they secretly don’t want that successful person to succeed. We naturally support the underdog – that’s the way we’re inclined. And America is not, nor would it want to be, the underdog.
Are we slightly jealous that once upon a time there was us, the British Empire, and then, well, there wasn’t….? Maybe that’s just history. But our relationship with America is complicated. We’re kind of cool to have you on our side and all that, but we laugh at your commercialism, and your CocaCola, and your obesity problem (Britain – we have one too, you know!), and your guns, and your ‘uneducated’ states in the middle that we don’t really know the names of but mock anyway. Yes, the sweeping stereotypes we like to place on America.
We Brits, with our heritage and culture and etiquette and constant nod to the age of ‘better days gone by’, do we see America as that ‘new money’ place? Is that how this one goes? Silly, immature America that got the money and built the big house, but which will never quite shape up to the expectation of our esteemed order, because it doesn’t ‘have history’ (I beg to differ), and it doesn’t, quite simply, have class (again, I beg to differ).
Don’t get me wrong, I love Britain and am very proud to be British. I love British culture, theatre, our sense of humour, popular music, art, London, the general cultural vibe – that’s my favourite thing about Britain. And I love America. I love its different cultures in one country, its embracing of arts, its genuine desire to better itself, its sense of politics, its new-worldness. And I love the two countries’ differences and their similarities, and I recognise both of their flaws. What I don’t love sometimes – and it really does grate – is the attitude that some Brits have to the USA and Americans, because it does reveal an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance.
There is a perception that all Americans are ill-informed about anything outside their own country, and pretty ignorant of where other countries are, and any facts about them. Of course this is going to be true in some areas – I liked to share facts about Europe and the UK in general with these peeps who didn’t have a vast knowledge. But, in truth, my knowledge about the USA was pretty minimal when I went there. I mean, it was mostly based on West Side Story, Fame!, The Wire, Dallas and Deperate Housewives, for goodness sake.
America is a big old country, and it still makes me smile when I hear the NATIONAL travel news on Radio 2 in the morning here in the UK, whilst in the States my Baltimore radio station would only do the traffic report for a certain length of the I95 (which goes from NYC to Florida) based in their immediate area. That’s just how it works. It’s a big place!
The American people that I met and hung out with on the East Coast were warm, friendly, very very smart, progressive, classy, educated, open-minded and intuitive. They created a fantastically spiritual, welcoming, intelligent environment for me to live in and I thrived on that.
Some of the comments that I’ve heard recently left my jaw hanging slightly. Yes, the crass open-gobness of a Brit who’s obviously been injected with some American non-culture. That’s me!
Many of the comments I’ve heard have been based upon media perceptions and ignorance, and possibly a mix of fear and snobbery.
‘Oh I don’t think I could cope with living in America.’
‘Have you ever been there?’
‘No, but I wouldn’t want to.’
‘Why’s that? I had a great time.’
‘I think it would be….too “American” for me….’
Who said ‘people fear what they don’t understand’?
They were right.
Some Brits actually appear quite horrified that I enjoyed living in America so much. In fact, they seem slightly disappointed and mortified that a fellow Brit feels this way, and no doubt come to the conclusion that I must have been taken there without consent and consequently brainwashed by some American cult. 😉
One fundamental difference about being there in the States and being back in the UK is realising just how much Americans love us Brits. They do. They flippin’ love us (most of them, anyway!). My American friends were always wanting to know more about Britain. Americans I met found us intriguing, they were always asking questions about us and about our culture (and not just Downton Abbey and One Direction and the Royal family!). The Americans I got to know welcomed me, brought me into their community, they were warm and friendly, and they made me feel I belonged. And, honestly, they made me feel special. Do we do this to Americans, British people – do we? Do we see or hear an American in our community and make them feel special? If not, we should.
David Bowie was right: this is not America. Right on. And you also know what, America is not Britain. And that’s why I was so very glad to live in America for a while. But now I really am glad to be back – and in part due to the fact that the positivity I enjoyed over there in the States is actually happening right here, right now, in my little bit of the world in Cheltenham, The Cotswolds. You see, much of the work ethic and philosophy that I’m experiencing in the business community in Gloucestershire, of which I am now part, is based on many very American sentiments. It’s all about making the change happen, living and fulfilling your dream, overcoming the hurdles, bigging up people and supporting their success, not drowning yourself and others in criticism, and networking and embracing new people and new ideas.
So, I’m glad to be back in the UK at what is a very positive, driven time – and it appears there has been an injection of American culture that’s making its mark in the UK, and, whether folks like it or not, I get the impression it is here to stay for a while!
Finally – don’t we tell ourselves, like we tell our kids, to accept everyone; that one way is not right and the other way is not wrong, but that they are just different…….? I like the sentiment about taking a moment to appreciate each other and our differences. We should do it more.
Peace out my many friends 🙂
Comments very welcome!