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culture

This is starting to become a theme, but I was at my organ teacher’s house and we (him, the lady from the choir who is the widow of the late minister, and I) were in the kitchen, and mostly talking about Scottish things. They were both saying I should get a kilt, but I really don’t have a clan affiliation. Yes, my family name is loosely linked to a clan which is not really an active clan, but the last member of the family who would have been Scottish, if there even was one, would have been so many generations ago that I can’t say I’ve ever felt myself to have more than trivial Scottish roots. English family history – absolutely, German, definitely, and also a small amount from some European ethnicities that can grow melanin. Also, wearing a kilt might give some people the idea that I am willing to wear something other than trousers, which would be misleading and only cause me more grief later as they start imagining that I might do things which I would not do, against all sense, and I’ve got to either suffer through wild imaginings in which I magically morph into a different person, or set them straight as vaguely as possible. Aside: when some people say things like “the boys will all go chasing after you”, they are trying to pay me a compliment, but they are also disconnected from my personal reality, which is generally quite obvious to most people under the age of 40. Usually when boys, or “the lads” go chasing after someone who looks like me, it’s to beat them to a bloody pulp (or worse) for the crime of being themselves out in public.

Because I am easily irritated and have the internet, I looked up a few key family names. I looked up the main family name from my mother’s side of the family, which is the one accused of being slightly Scottish, and a family-name history website tells me that it came out of Yorkshire. Then I looked up the principal family name from my biological father’s side, and it turned out to have also originated in Yorkshire. Huh. So I guess I have lots of Yorkshire roots. So there.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/20/new-york-bar-british-applicants

There’s been a thing floating around the anglophile blog circuit about some Welsh-themed pub in New York being fined for saying they wanted a British bartender.

“Energetic and enthusiastic men and women with an appreciation of craft beer, good food, whisky and real football (aka soccer),” the advert said. “Being British definitely works in your favor.”

Personally, I think the ad would have been fine if they left out the part hinting about being British. Apparently they do actually have americans on their staff, too. Wanting somebody who is culturally competent really isn’t too much to ask, it would probably kill their business if people came in wanting to feel a certain kind of “at home” and found the barkeep not knowing one silly scarf pattern from another.

“The attorney for HRC countered that I could train someone in Welsh and British culture, a notion that is not only absurd but insulting to Welsh people and Brits everywhere.”

I’m just going to sit here and laugh at the idea of someone being “trained” in a culture.

Aside: One episode of Life on Mars involved some guy in a pub being murdered, and he was wearing an atrociously ugly orange and white striped scarf, and the Guv saw it and said “Well, we have a motive right here”, and I nodded along and thought “that is one fucking ugly scarf”, and then wondered at when the Guv became fashion-conscious. Soccer teams then became a plot point. I suppose before I raise my eyebrows at people murdering over it, I should consider the fate of someone wearing a Leafs jersey walking into an establishment in Montreal. (Merciless mockery!)

I had to complete this rather involved form through Queen’s for my exchange, it’s basically for their high-risk activity stuff, and all activities involving undergraduates not being in Canada are considered high-risk. However, it is fairly clear that an awful lot of their safety stuff is a bit beyond what I’ll be doing – I am of a nationality towards which most others have neutral or pleasant relations, and I am travelling to a safe city in a safe country to which I also have citizenship. Side note on that, the form required me to state what kind of citizenship I was travelling under (UK), except for that UK wasn’t an option, and I had to choose between England, Scotland, and Wales, which is stupid because that’s not how citizenship works. I am not remotely Welsh or Scottish, so given where actual family members come from, I had to say I was…hrrrrk…English (there was an involuntary full-body shudder of the type that usually happens when I try to drink orange juice). Now I feel like a dirty imposter. There was no place in the form for comments, so I couldn’t correct their weird mistake or write “I’M CANADIAN, IF I LIE MAY I BE SUBJECTED TO PANCAKES WITHOUT SYRUP”. Of course if I lied and wasn’t Canadian, I might not care about the lack of syrup, but I can’t imagine pancakes being properly enjoyed without it. (I’m going to suppress early memories of young me happily eating pancakes with granulated sugar piled high) DAMN IT, DO YOU SEE THE HORROR I LIVE WITH?

The rest was short slides with stupid true/false quiz questions like “The academic culture of your host institution will always be similar to that of Queen’s University”, “If you are travelling to a country, you may be required to obtain a visa”, “Many travelers spend more money than they intended”, and “I will always have access to ABMs while abroad”. Sheesh. But it was mostly stuff like “be prepared for different standards of living”, and “cultures are not better or worse, just different”. I objected to that last bit. I don’t think for a second that all cultures are ethically equal, and they did mean better or worse in that sense. Overall, the whole thing seemed to be aimed at people who are traveling to less modernized areas, or places where there is a huge cultural gap.

They did talk a lot about homesickness, which will be relevant in my case. They also talked about culture shock, and reverse culture shock upon re-entry. It’s really hard to know how much I’ll be culture-shocked. It’s easy to read some brief summaries about the differences in culture between the UK and here, and think that as an incredibly socially awkward, reserved person who has a weird, dry sense of humour, and avoids physical contact and outward sentimentality, I’ll be fine. However, I have also read many accounts of Canadians going to England or elsewhere in the UK and not expecting culture-shock, and then being culture-shocked. That said, from their examples of what particularly surprised them, I’m coming from a place of more knowledge. Even so, I should expect some degree of it. After all, I am extremely ill-traveled. On the other hand again, I have a mind like a sponge, and tend to adapt to things fairly quickly.

Here’s some things international students at Queen’s have said about Canadians:

Canadians Smile a lot and are very friendly

Accept differences and are truly multicultural

Require at least 14 inches of personal space

Always think they are busy

Are so polite it is hard to know what they really mean or really think

Are time keepers and rule followers

Live in a beautiful and clean country

Don’t like to be mistaken for American

Talk a lot and interrupt other people

Finish our sentences even though it’s not what we meant

Avoid disagreement or argument

Jealously guard personal space

Stick together and speak English

Ask lots of questions to fill up the silence

They talk a lot about their own abilities and accomplishments

Expect others to make choices (i.e. “Do you want to go to the movie?”)

Bolded for being particularly true. Though the one about living in a beautiful, clean country made me proud. Another funny one was a quote from a different section that was about how a Canadian will invite you into their home and be extremely hospitable and friendly, while cheerfully insulting and inflicting mild cruelty on their own family members.

There is a thing I like to call Whilst Disease, which is the really irritating urge to use “whilst” whilst writing things, or whilst talking to people.

It took me until basically within the past year to realize that “whilst” was a british thing, and not just ridiculously old-fashioned. Since I thought it was just old-fashioned, and I was a pretentious little teenager, I liked using it in speech and in writing because I thought having two words for “while” at my disposal was pretty cool. Then someone told me it was british, and then I had to go scrub it from my vocabulary because at that moment it flipped from harmless eccentricity (in my mind) to an intolerable bit of pretension. In retrospect I needn’t have worried, since that was a drop of water in the bucket. However, within the past year I’ve had to go to the websites of a very large number of various british institutions, and then I understood that it really was very very british.

british airways whilst

And people were just using it like it was a perfectly respectable, ordinary word (british people do that a lot with weird words). Never mind that I’ve heard “whilst” all the time from certain specific people, or read it often enough, but for some reason, when one is on random websites, or on a student forum or something, and people just use “whilst” like it’s not a completely weird word, or people who suck at writing use “whilst”, then things get odd. If it’s on the internet, then I suddenly have to acknowledge that it is a perfectly legitimate word, despite that as a confessed former occasional whilst-user, I am fully aware that it is a real word.

My problem is that I see “whilst” a lot, and so I’ve started thinking with “whilst”, because my brain is a traitorous and pretentious sponge, and I feel strange shame whenever I almost have a whilst moment. I actually have this shame whenever I feel as though I am getting into things too much. Yes, I know that I’m going on exchange to the UK on purpose (hopefully), but I really don’t want to turn into one of those aggravating people who goes away for a year and then likes to try and convince people they’ve turned british. 

Maybe I should just go with it so as to avoid spending extra brainpower thinking about Whilst Disease. It’s not that I think it’s better in some way, because I don’t, I just absorb things, that is the way my brain works. This will likely be a repeated theme. I used the word “whilst” in my personal statement, and I feel kind of funny about it, because I don’t know if they’ll go “wow, this Canadian sure was trying too hard, lol”, or they won’t notice really, because they think “whilst” is a perfectly normal word.

Yes, I’m aware that normal people don’t spend 500 words talking about “whilst”. I take linguistic self-consciousness to abnormal depths. 

I just wrote in a comment to a blog about North American fork usage, I think I should just go to bed or something. There was lots of mystified pondering on the subject of why americans switch their fork to their left hand when they’re just eating with a fork, and people saying things like it being an older etiquette tradition that only the right hand delivers food. I can see that being true, history has a strange aversion to left-handedness. Case in point, in choir today, I conducted a piece, and one of the tenors noted that I conducted southpaw, and as I sat down, reassured me that many great people are left-handed, himself included (I laughed rather derisively on the inside).

Me, I think the modern convention is really just because most people are right handed. I’ve never heard an adult tell a child who kept their fork in their left hand to switch to their right hand, but I have heard parents tell their struggling right-handed children that it is perfectly acceptable to switch their fork to their right hand when not using a knife.

I found a new blog, run by a group of Guardian-US people and Guardian-Guardian people, which is about the differences in English on different sides of the atlantic. I found a lot of their posts interesting for a few reasons, one being that it seems that Canada is more on the fence than I thought – I had figured we’d be essentially american in language use. There are also interesting hints of cultural differences in there, like this post on manners:

http://english2english.tumblr.com/post/50105486287/on-manners

It basically characterizes Americans as

An american trying to figure out the best way to get food to his mouth

and this:

I don’t actually do this, I’m the freak who eats chicken legs/ribs with a knife and fork. I absolutely hate grease on my fingers.

[I’m also going to interject that I eat pizza with a knife and fork when given the chance, and it is not polite-looking – I do it because I hate pizza sauce (one of these days I’m ordering a sauceless pizza) enough to perform surgery on pizza in order to remove as much sauce as possible. I also used to perform multiple blueberry-ectomies on blueberry muffins, but I’m gradually getting over the blueberries, so I can do the whole thing with just a knife now. I really prefer eating muffins with a knife and fork though, wow I’m weird. ]

and British people as this:

English kids, trying their best to lull you into a false sense of security, they’re CLEARLY evil, look at all those evil little faces

There’s some obvious bias here, the entire thing is written by Guardian people, and I’m betting most of the US writers are either expats or anglophiles, so they’re going to find the nastiest US pictures they can lay their fryer-greasy fingers on, and include the most improbably polite-looking british pictures they can find. I can’t really tell how true this is. Though that american guy looks better at eating than I am, I am the worst. Funny story, I once was eating lunch with a knight, and it was all I could do not to get those damned peas and scalloped potatoes and the ham all over myself…

But I’m not typical for Canada, I am remarkably awful.

They were also saying that American kids will say things like “Nah, I’m stuffed”, or “sure” when asked if they want more food, whereas apparently English kids say “yes please” and “no thank you”. This does complicate my worldview somewhat, as I was led to believe that British children are horrible, horrible evil little fiends** who dish out the sort of mayhem and rudeness that North American kids only see on TV. Then again, I’m rather biased.

I’m inclined to not take this entire thing seriously – I’ll go “nah, I’m stuffed” when I’m stuffed and I’m with my own family/friends, but if we’re having my overly-prim extended family for dinner, or worse, eating at their house, yeah, I’ll try my best to remember how manners work. My table manners are overall atrocious, though, so I always get the stink-eye from my mother, at least…

**though I will say there is nothing like an English kid saying “stupid”, it cracks me up every time

Edit: I’m looking at the picture of the English kids again, and while doubtless they are trying to look as nice as possible (that’s how evil they are), going by the posture of their hands, lack of elbows on the table while eating, and the fact that their food is actually on their plates and not the table, the floor, or themselves, they’re using their cutlery, the plates actually look breakable, and none of the elements in the picture suggests that there is an income disparity between people featured – I may have to concede that they give the appearance of being more civilized than their Canadian public-school counterparts in terms of table manners.