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.
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 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.”
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.