Tea, Not Coffee

I learned to drink coffee in college over late night Bible studies. I learned to drink tea in a pastor’s house in Glasgow, Scotland.

Shortly after graduating college, a friend and I spent a month traveling Britain. Already an inveterate coffee drinker, I didn’t mind drinking tea there. Their tea tasted better than ours. I don’t think this particular belief is based on a cultural presupposition – I think this is actually true.

So, it was over tea and not coffee that I found myself answering some odd questions about life in the American Southwest. We’d visited a church one Sunday morning on our trip, made friends with the Pastor’s son – a boy about our age – and got invited over to the Pastor’s house for roast, red potatoes and tea.

“Do you have a horse?” The man, about the age of my father, leaned his elbows on the table, his bright, friendly eyes shining.

“No, but I rode a horse once.” I offered.

“Do your friends have horses?”

I looked quizzically at my traveling companion. She raised her eyebrows and answered no.

“Oh, well, do you wear cowboy hats when you are in Tucson?”

“Um, no..” I answered and my friend gestured towards one of the shelves of books that lined the living room. It was weighed down by Zane Grey novels. We understood his questions.

I have never read a Zane Grey book, but I understand they are romanticized stories about the American Southwest.

I have never read a Zane Grey book, but I understand they are romanticized stories about the American Southwest.

We then spent some time explaining that we didn’t own boots, most everyone we knew had a car and the streets were paved. Yes, there are “cowboys” in Tucson, we explained, but those are far and away outnumbered by non-cowboys. His preconceived notion of us as travelers from Tucson, Arizona was based on fictional books about our region.

Certainly, my friend and I didn’t need Zane Grey to set us apart as the “other” on this trip. We wore shorts and sunglasses, we tipped more than appropriate and we couldn’t wait to visit the first international Baskin Robbins we saw. (The pastor’s son snarled his nose at this, explaining that the Scots preferred better, much cheaper local options).

In DissemiNation, The Location of Culture  Homi Bhabha notes that the image projected as national culture is a façade for the variety of evolving cultures that shift and merge underneath. In this case, our pastor-friend saw my friend and me through the projected lens of a fiction writer romanticizing the frontier experience of the American Southwest.

For my part, I was guilty of assuming that things we did in America were universal. Iyengar, in The Art of Choosing addresses this phenomena. She illustrates how the “right to choose” is something most Americans take for granted, but is not necessarily permitted or even welcomed in other cultures.

But my “otherness” was entirely unintentional. In Travel Writing and Gender Susan Bassnet explored how women travelers in the 19th century had to forge their own identity, often doing so through describing exotic adventures or coming up with alternate identities. I didn’t have to do that. My otherness was simply being a naïve college-aged American kid in Britain.

This was not me. I think the craziest thing I did that trip was to take a stroll by myself in a Glasgow suburb in the middle of the day.

This was not me. I think the craziest thing I did that trip was to take a stroll by myself in a Glasgow suburb in the middle of the day.

This made me wonder how Britons, in general, view Americans. In 2009, Londoner Geoff Dyerdec wrote about his perception of Britons. “The first thing I ever heard about Americans was that they all carried guns.” Perhaps he’d read Zane Grey too.

In his article, he captures some interesting contradictions behind the understanding of Americans, “the archetypal American abroad is perceived as loud and crass even though actually existing American tourists are distinguished by the way they address bus drivers and bartenders as “sir” and are effusive in their thanks when any small service is rendered. We look on with some confusion at these encounters because, on the one hand, the Americans seem a bit country-bumpkinish, and, on the other, good manners are a form of sophistication” (Dyerdec, 2009).

He even comments on the reason he thinks Americans are loud. “Americans have no fear of being overheard. Civic life in Britain is predicated on the idea that everyone just about conceals his loathing of everyone else. To open your mouth is to risk offending someone. So we mutter and mumble as if surrounded by informers or, more exactly, as if they are living in our heads. In America the right to free speech is exercised freely and cordially. The basic assumption is that nothing you say will offend anyone else because, deep down, everyone is agreed on the premise that America is better than anyplace else” (emphasis mine, Dyerdec, 2009). Perhaps this a nice British way of saying that Americans are pretty arrogant, so they don’t mind speaking their minds – loudly.

In The Rhetoric of Empire Spur talks about language as being a signifier of colonial rule. Is our American loudness just continuing proof that we threw off British rule years ago? Dyerdec humorously describes this from a perspective across the pond, “the grounds for all our feelings of superiority have been steadily whittled away. It turns out that the qualities that make us indubitably British — that is, the ones that we don’t share with or have not imported from America — are no longer conducive to Greatness” (2009).

And maybe that’s what traveling (being the “other”) or watching the “other” is about. To have the layers of culture pared back a bit, so we are able to see our quirkiness from a different angle, to learn about ourselves as much as about the “other.”

Maybe this is where he got the idea that we all ride horses...

Maybe this is where he got the idea that we all ride horses…

References

Bassnett, S. (2002). Travel Writing and Gender. In P. Hulme and T. Youngs (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing (225-241). Cambridge University Press.

Bhabha, H. (1994). DissemiNation, The Location of Culture (pp. 139-170). New York, NY: Routledge.

Dyerdec, G. (December 31, 2009). My American Friends. The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/books/review/Dyer-t.html?_r=0

Iyengar, S. (July 2010). The Art of Choosing. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/sheena_iyengar_on_the_art_of_choosing?quote=785

Spurr, D. (1993). The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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7 thoughts on “Tea, Not Coffee

  1. Hi Vanessa!

    Once again, I enjoyed reading your blog. I was particularly fascinated when you wrote, “Civic life in Britain is predicated on the idea that everyone just about conceals his loathing of everyone else. To open your mouth is to risk offending someone.”

    Are you familiar with the Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park? It’s an area where anyone and everyone can debate anything! Debates there can get heated, and even more so when a foreign tourist debates a Briton.

    Your blog really tells a great story, and I felt like you were echoing some of Bassnett’s ideas about how women travelers include more details and conversations than males in their pieces. Very nicely done there.

    Also, your images really keep the piece moving. Good job!
    Denise

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  2. Hello Vanessa,

    I couldn’t help but chuckle uncontrollably with the series of Zane Grey questions. My family and I ate at the Zane Grey restaurant at Kohl’s Ranch in Payson where he frequented. It was over-the-top western, I felt weird not wearing an over-sized belt buckle. I am also very curious about British tea now that I have read your post. I believe you when you say that it just tastes better, and I am not dying to try it myself. What do you think would happen if I asked for it iced? I have a feeling I would be 86-ed out of any restaurant. I really like how you combine aspects of almost every reading into your post, not only do you have a thorough understand of the reading material, but you know how to apply it to your life as a travel writer. I wish I would have read your blog before I completed my discussions.

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  3. Your blog was enjoyable. I especially liked the writing about the Brits since I am currently writing this response from there. I find that many times in trying to understand people we apply our thoughts and knowledge to the situation. When we do this we have the propensity to add stereotypes that we may have heard just like the ones which you included.

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  4. Once again…great ideas. I was impressed how many references you made to the readings this week. You should get bonus points for that! I wanted to break things down in my comments for you. Overall, I loved the post, and as your “blog buddy” I am having a tough time finding suggestions. So…here goes!

    Things that I loved:
    The references and scholarly quality of the writing
    The fun story of your travels
    The tie-in to your theme of travel and coffee
    The dialogue in the story
    The images of the novels

    Suggestions:
    Maybe mention your story a bit more so it is the focus rather than the readings.
    In the paragraph that starts, “For my part, I was guilty of assuming that things we did in American were universal” I think that it should say, “America.”

    Wow. I’m sorry my suggestions are lame. I’m trying to help you, but you are doing great. It’s reaching!
    I look forward to reading more next week. Keep up the great work!

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  5. Stacey… thank you for your suggestions! (And thank you for catching that typo). I appreciate your input and try to improve this blog accordingly.

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  6. Hey Vanessa!

    I really connected to your tales of the Scots and the Brits, as I was lucky though to study over there for school for a year. I came from Texas, and encountered the very same assumption that I was from a ranch. Same thing happened in Germany! As a side note, I’ve noticed that Americans from other parts of the U.S. think Texans are all the same…and often, we do fulfill the stereotype of cowboys.

    I thought your integration of multiple academic sources was engaging and interesting, thanks to the framework provided by your fun narrative. I particular enjoyed your reference to the Brit description of Americans, and the connection of our loudness to colonialism in language. Brava! It’s interesting to think that two cultures considered to be the colonizers are head to head in culture clashes.

    I would love to hear a little more about your thoughts on travel as a female…and if you fulfill Bassenett’s theories in reality.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Katrina

    Like

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