Despite an overlapping portion of shared language (it’s a Venn diagram really) and a weird obsession with each other, over the years I have come to the conclusion that British and American culture probably have more differences than similarities.
I have spent the last eleven years bouncing and balancing between two cultures. On a day-to-day basis, I am British (officially now too). Having lived in Britain for so long I am no longer surprised by the nuances or subtlety of its difference from American culture. I have two British children, a British husband. Most of my friends here are either British, or have been living here for so long that they too are ‘default British’. To many here, I may still be the American, but it’s not an accurate reflection of how I see myself. Not so succinctly anyhow.
On most days I don’t feel like an ‘other’. It is only when I travel in between the UK and US, when I am suffering from the hazy which-way-is-up stages of jet lag, that not only do I become ‘other’ by my own definition, but I also get a brief window in which to view the culture and customs around me, ones that I now slip on and off like an old pair of jeans. Jet lag, I have discovered, can be an incredibly powerful tool; a window through which one can just observe and note, without judgement but rather with intrigue. A unique perspective that lasts only as long as it takes to adjust to the time change; after a few days that heightened sense of observation closes and the highlighted nuances that the altered state flags up, fade away again as my internal settings adjust accordingly.
This magic really occurs when traveling within cultures one is familiar with but somewhat removed from, and it can apply to anyone who has lived in more than one place. Despite the havoc it reeks on my children and my own sleeping habits, I think I’d like to live in jet lag a bit more, and get a truly clear view on the cultures I live within.
I recently spent some time in America visiting my family during what will forever be my favourite time of year in Ohio. The changing of the leaves, the warm sun but cool breeze, that earthy smell the ground gets when it is wet and covered with fallen leaves; these attributes seem to bring the best out of Ohioans, and I fell deep into the pit of cozy comforting nostalgia. But before I did I had a few funny epiphanies about American culture, cherry picking some of my favourites subtleties of the suburbs to share with the kids.
The first being something so quintessentially American suburbia, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t done it sooner – we went through a drive through Starbucks. Twice. The girls thought it was crazy! People drinking, eating and shopping in their cars! I thought their beautiful little heads were going to explode as they tried to wrap them around the way people moved around the city. This was about as far away from their own daily life as I could get them, but it took a heavy dose of jet lag for me to realise it and use it as a fun learning experience for the girls, instead of just slipping back into old habits (god, do I love car coffee).
During those first few time backwards days I really attempted to take note of the things that bubbled to the surface, each of which brought a new sense of clarity on how I portray myself, as well how I ingest and understand other people against the backdrop of each culture. Perhaps it was a bit of navel gazing, but to have the opportunity to be self reflective without judgement is a gift, even if it requires waking up at 4am to receive it. And, when I came back to Britain, my head spun again as the fuzzy window reopened and displayed a new scene and a new sense of understanding. I was once again other, and I loved it.
I also found myself quick to defend outdated stereotypes of each culture several times in transit. The first time when a British couple sat behind us on the plane attempted terrible loud American accents and perceived values to accompany it. The second when a group of American men did the same with hideous British accents at the airport. I found myself wanted to shout at them both “You idiots, that’s not what we are like at all!”
And that’s just the thing, I get to be a part of both. Not just superficially, but from a gut instinct and reactive perspective. I love embracing the American that lingers when I return to Britain just as much as the Brit who proudly surfaces when we visit the US. The differences are so much more than just words; the (easy) thing that both cultures love to focus on when discussing differences. It will be interesting to see what settles on the girls as they grow up; how will they balance the cultures, how they will portray themselves within each. I wish them both heavy doses of jet lag for perspective, but perhaps when they are bit older and I can stay at ‘home’, wherever that may be.
How do you use jet lag to your advantage? What things do you embrace when you travel? I’d love to hear.