Beer kegs vs Guinness: the culture divide

We hear so much about the ‘special’ relationship, but just how easy is it to pitch up on the other side of the pond? Kelly Neukom (California) and David Horan (York) investigate.

Kelly Neukom (California)

Hi, my name is Kelly. I’m from America. And no, I didn’t vote for George Bush, and yes, I do know things about places outside of America.

It seems like a silly introduction, but I almost wish I could just make a sign and tape it onto my shirt every day. So many people think America is nothing but rednecks who stockpile guns and support the war with Iraq.

Whenever someone starts to badmouth America, my hackles go up. It’s strange, because I’ve never been a very patriotic person. I am the first to go on a Bush-bashing spree, and the people who sing ‘God Bless America’ at the top of their lungs make me want to hurl. But when someone trashes everything about your home, you’re bound to get a little defensive.

It’s one of the many challenges I’ve found living in England. My circumstance is slightly unique, because when I was one year old, my father exchanged jobs with a high-school teacher in Gravesend. The experience made a huge impression on my parents and they’ve brought me back to England four times since then.

Because of this, I grew up knowing about some English traditions. My friends would stare at our Christmas crackers, wondering what to do with them. I knew about Guy Fawkes well before V For Vendetta hit theatres. When we’re in San Francisco, we make a point to drop by an exotic foods store to feed my Lion Bar addiction.

When I got to England at the start of January, I thought I would be pretty well adjusted after a few weeks. Having vacationed here so much as a child, I expected to know much more about the culture than my American counterparts. I knew I would experience some culture shock, but by the two-month mark, I would basically be assimilated.

Well, the two-month mark has come and gone and I am still reeling. The hard thing about England is that it is somewhat similar to America, but changed just enough that it makes you feel as though you are in a parallel universe. Here, I go into a situation with expectations that I have to throw out of the window by the end.

For example, when I first arrived, I met two of the people in my house in the kitchen. I introduced myself and said I was studying abroad from California. They went back to talking. This was so different from California, where people will be all smiles and go out of their way to make you feel comfortable. Here, everyone seemed too wrapped up in his or her own little world to make time for you.

Slowly, though, things started to change. After a few weeks of adjusting to my presence, the others in my house began opening up to me. The first time one of them talked to me for more than five minutes, I felt like crying from happiness. Now when I go down to the kitchen, they will be jovial and talkative. I feel like asking: why couldn’t you have just been like this at the start? But I guess they’re just English.

When they did start opening up, I noticed something I liked much more about England: English people will make time for you. Once you are talking to an English person, they will sit there for hours. In America, this hardly ever happens. Unless you schedule time to talk to your friends, you are constantly rushing around, trying to be productive. No one has time to sit and chew the fat – they must accomplish a certain number of things before they go to bed. English people have a slower, more relaxed pace, and I love that – they seem to care more about getting to know you than completing what they have scheduled for that day.

‘It doesn’t matter if you have the coursest, most cockney accent around – if you go to America, you will get some’

Of course, 90% of the time, this talking involves alcohol. I have never seen people so obsessed with alcohol in my entire life. It amazes me that they don’t all end up like Ernest Hemingway. In America, alcohol is considered the Holy Grail. We can’t drink before 21, so going to weekend parties with alcohol is considered extra exciting. Once we hit 21, we still drink a lot, but the novelty has worn off a bit. Here everyone seems to love beer, especially Guinness, more than life itself. They drink four nights a week, compared to our paltry two. They drink in the afternoon. They drink before writing essays and the night before taking exams. Is there any time that it’s not considered acceptable to drink?

I don’t know how girls here stay so thin with all this beer drinking and rich food. That’s another thing that gets me here. The girls. I read that English girls are basically less-attractive versions of Sporty Spice. This is not true. They have the most impeccable style. The kind where they throw together pieces that almost clash but somehow blend together into an awe-inspiring outfit.

I myself could never create such outfits. With my casual California style and unstick-like figure, I’ve basically given up competing with the rest of them. It worries me because I’m scared that boys will be turned off purely by how I dress. I just wear simple, comfortable clothes, and I feel downright boyish sometimes. Being an exotic American only helps so much in this country – which sucks, because every boy here has an accent that turns me on like nothing else.

English people are obsessed with where everyone else was born and what that means in terms of class. I want to scream “It does not matter!” Seriously, I don’t care if you are from Sheffield, Brighton or Oxford. You all have the same slang (to my ear), the same penchant for tea, and the same adorable little cars. It does not matter if you have the coursest, most cockney accent around – if you go to America, you will get some. It has been my dream since I was 11 to kiss a boy with a British accent and this goal is shared by most American women. I’m even attracted to 70-year-old bus drivers and the crudest Liverpudlian accents (they sound like the Beatles!).

To me, it is fascinating to compare English people to what I’ve always known in America.

Although I know I will never lose my enthusiasm and upbeat outlook on life, I feel as if their level-headedness and good sense would be worthy attributes to have rub off on me. I love the little traditions. I love the willingness to laugh at themselves and the attempts to imitate American accents (which always sounds like a demented John Wayne to me). I love how older people call me “love” and how (almost) everyone is polite down to a fault.

As my sister (studying abroad at Oxford) wrote to me after spending a weekend in Italy, “It’s good I’m not studying in Florence. Italy is so easy to like – like saying you like The Beatles or pizza. But it is a shallow love. Loving England is different. Love for Italy is a middle-school crush on the quarterback – love for England is our-socks-get-mixed-up-in-the-dryer wedded bliss.”

Oh, “middle school” is the time when you’re 12-14 years old and a “quarterback” is a position in a football team. And when I say “football”, I mean American football. Because we call football “soccer,” which is a billion times better anyway. And when I say “billion,” I mean your “thousand million.” See how hard this is?

David Horan (York)

It was hard to imagine a more arduous journey. I was flying from Heathrow to Chicago two days after the increased airport security procedures, and when I finally got to my seat – three hours late – I had to wait another hour whilst my personal contact and credit card details were sent to the CIA (probably). I honestly wondered whether I’d get there at all. Yet, the trip went smoothly from thereon (there evidently being no terrorists aboard), and I eventually arrived in Chicago on a sunny Thursday evening.

I’m on an exchange at the University of Illinois. Found in the middle of the Illinois cornfields and containing over forty thousand students, it is one of the largest universities in the United States. On arrival it was already distinctly different from York; the campus resembled a small town and had a notable absence of ducks. The scale of the country belittles Britain by comparison. With streets twice as wide, it’s not surprising that a car is a necessity. Fortunately though, the University has an excellent free bus service; the ftr has not yet crossed the pond.

Since I was going for the American college lifestyle, I opted for a double room in a bid to get the full ‘roommate experience’. I wondered what I’d let myself in for when one evening I came back to my room to find my pithy suitcase overshadowed by an entire bedroom furniture suite, and a rather tall American. With bright green hair. And a tie-dyed shirt. Alarming, yes, but if I’m honest the first thing that went through my mind was this: thank God he’s not a Republican.

The British would probably sum up America with the words: Christian radicals, George Bush and obesity, and there is some truth in this. On the way to the University we passed several ‘megachurches’, and there does seem to be a sizeable number of Republican students here.

People also tend to live up to the stereotype of being either fat or fit, with little in between. However, there is much more to America than this. For instance, you probably think your house parties are cool. Well you are wrong. Why? It’s because you don’t have a keg. We Brits lack the complex keg-etiquette rules and statutory drinking games, such as keg-stand and beer-pong. The legal drinking age is 21 but to be honest it has absolutely no effect, and my fake ‘European Driving Permit’ works nicely.

The most surprising aspect of life here is the inability of the average American to understand me. Of course, I expected there to be some language difficulties but I honestly had no idea how many words and phrases we use that are redundant here. Even simple things like telling the time require a change of habit. For example, ‘half-past four’ is greeted with bemusement, requiring a swift ‘four-thirty’ to clear up the confusion. You’re not ‘working on Saturday’; such sentences are diminuted to just ‘working Saturday’. You have to circumvent the phrase ‘as well’ (e.g. ‘I’ll have a drink as well’) in favour of ‘also’.

The upside of this is the Midas touch I seem to have with girls. If you’ve seen Love Actually you may remember the effect that Colin has on girls in Milwaukee and probably assumed it was fanciful. Well it’s all true (up to the point of a threesome), even if the conversation can get a bit repetitive (‘Oh my God, are you British?’, or even ‘Are you Australian?’); and I don’t mind controversially saying that guys, if you’re wondering, the girls here really are better looking.

As a Politics student it seems fitting to comment on the most recent political trends here. Illinois is a fiercely Democratic state and producer of the party’s new star, Barack Obama. The largely liberal student population is rather hyped up by this man, and many of my friends went to see him announce his candidacy for the presidency in Illinois’s capital, Springfield. I would get excited too, if it weren’t for the fact that I can’t realistically see him winning, due to the prevalent attitudes of powerful rural America.

Before I came here, I thought that most people could be divided into two political camps, and for a large part this is true. But there is a plurality of views, and more importantly there’s a lot of debate and discussion on the important matters affecting the country and the world. Most students I talk to are well aware of the implications of global warming and often have some constructive views on Iraq and the ‘War on Terror’.

I asked some of my friends what stereotypes they thought the rest of the world had of America. Response: stupid, loud, ignorant, wasteful, fat, rude, etc. What’s more, all of them said these were probably true. I, however, have a sneaky suspicion that there might be just a little bit more to our friends across the pond.

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