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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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nanila’s lessons on living long-term in England [20080507|11:32]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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I'm nearing my fourth year of habitation in the UK. At the beginning, of course, there was a sharp learning curve, during which I made things like American-to-English vocabulary lists and figured out how to ride the bus without being petrified. Once I’d managed those, however, the process of adaptation slowed and became more subtle. As I prepare to settle here permanently, it seems like an appropriate moment to reflect on those tiny kernels of hard-won knowledge that have allowed me to survive here.

nanila’s lessons on living long-term in England

  1. In the immortal words of Pumpkin, “Be cool, Honey Bunny.” Tone it down. And I mean everything. In particular, your opinions, your dress sense and your volume level. Especially your volume level. Additionally, if you can learn to express your opinions with a modicum of self-deprecation, you will win over your new English mates. Don’t take offense when they disagree with you. Your ability to handle disagreement is a test of your sense of humour. Don’t fail it.

  2. Learn to apologize for everything. Apologizing for the dreadful intrusion your existence has upon everyone else is really terribly English. It includes things which are not your fault. If someone steps on your foot on the train, you apologize. S/he will also apologize, and everyone is happy. If only one person apologizes, particularly if it’s the perpetrator, there will be mild frowns of disapproval, which is the equivalent of a righteous diatribe to the English.

  3. Develop a thick skin with regard to politics. You may on occasion be held personally responsible for everything your English companions find wrong with the American government. And by “on occasion” I mean every single time the topic comes up. Since the English love to talk politics, this means you may have to deal with this whenever you go down the pub. Which will be on average at least once a week if you want to have a chance of building up a social life. Be prepared to be open about your politics, but do not, whatever else you do, get defensive. You do not have the high ground here. You’re a visitor in their country, and they are not obliged to welcome you. The responsibility rests on your shoulders to convince them to like you. That said, once you do have an established group of friends, the likelihood of being grilled when you meet new people decreases, so you'll be able to relax. However, you should be prepared for that process to take years.

  4. Complain, but not too much. You must cultivate the delicate, wistful way of remarking upon the state of the trains, the weather, the traffic or your boiler which clearly conveys a deep sadness, but also total acceptance that this state of affairs is unlikely ever to change. Also, you must learn which topics constitute acceptable complaint fodder. The aforementioned are the old standbys, but there are certain English institutions which must never be assaulted, even if you feel yourself justified, if you want to make friends. Tea with milk, for instance. Actually, that might be the only one.

  5. Be prepared to reach out to people. People are very busy, particularly in London, and they likely have their own well-established social groups, especially if they’re English. They’ve been here all their lives, they have long-standing friendships to maintain and not much time to do it in. You’ll find it takes a lot of work to make real friends. Don’t be afraid to invite people to the pub or out to dinner, and when you do, get the first round of drinks if your bar-fu is good. (This is particularly difficult for those of us who are not naturally extroverted, but it’s got to be done.)

  6. Subsequently, be prepared to be rebuffed. You will get it wrong sometimes. The English can be very difficult for Americans to read. They’re generally reserved, even when mightily drunk, and their passion for understatement often means that their changes in mood and feelings escape us. Even when you’re dating an English person and therefore have a more intimate relationship, you may find yourself missing signals which s/he considers to be quite obvious. If you’re confused, you’ll probably have to ask directly for clarification, as embarrassing as that may be, because otherwise you’re not going to be enlightened. Be self-deprecating about it (see item 1) and you'll be forgiven.

    Finally, but still significantly:
  7. The toilets, they will not flush properly on the first attempt. Don't ask me why this continues to frustrate and annoy, but it does. Each toilet has its own special unique quirk. You may have to hold down the handle for an additional few seconds to get it to finish flushing. You may have to wait in the stall for a good three minutes while the tank refills after the last person flushed it. You may have to pull a chain, in which case you should try pulling it smoothly and then releasing it abruptly. If you absolutely cannot get the toilet to flush after several minutes of trying, then slinking out of the bathroom with a guilty look on your face is likely your only recourse. You must become accustomed to the remorse and learn to let go of it.
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Comments:
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-05-07 15:04 (UTC)
Please do send it on. I wrote this because you got me thinking about it!

I wonder what the order of acceptability for slapping the British royal family would be. My guess would be something like this (from most to least) of the ones I know anything about:

Fergie
Camilla
Charles
Harry
William
Philip
Her Majesty
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[User Picture]From: chickenfeet2003
2008-05-07 10:59 (UTC)
but there are certain English institutions which must never be assaulted, even if you feel yourself justified, if you want to make friends. Tea with milk, for instance.

That's why I had to emigrate. I can't stand the stuff.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-05-07 15:06 (UTC)
I know a few folk who think of it as an abomination, and when I'm at home, I don't drink it the "proper brown" stuff from a tea bag. I make loose-leaf. I get round the tea snobbery by thinking of tea-with-milk as a separate sort of drink.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-05-08 09:27 (UTC)
no one apologizes for anything (in fact, the neighbor's kids started shooting off fireworks at three-thirty in the morning)

Haha, see, the English wouldn't apologize for a caper like that either. But neither would anyone complain about it. They would remain behind closed curtains with a pillow stuffed over their ears. But the seething resentment - oh, that will last for years.
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[User Picture]From: greyface
2008-05-07 11:43 (UTC)
You know... a remarkable number of those things totally apply to Japanese living.

Here, the toilets basically all work PERFECTLY, just... not in the way you think it should work. Actually, that goes for everything from buying a liter of milk at the super-market to riding buses, to figuring out who pays for dinner.

I'm sort of torn on whether or not I should try your advice about inviting people (co-workers) out. I mean, on one hand, it makes it clear that when I said, "Yeah, invite me out any time!" that I meant it (even if I didn't give any actual contact information, I vaguely assume that the communication pipeline is face-to-face). On the other hand, because I'm their JUNIOR (後輩), they would be half-expecting to pick up the tab, which makes it... hard. OTOH, I could be clear from the outset that I'm buying, but... then I'm buying... and I'm getting paid for crap... and going out drinking gets pricey rapidly (generally involves everybody dining as well). Maybe the answer is to eat instant ramen for a month and a half, until I save up the money to afford it... then invite some of them out? But... ugh.

Complaining is pretty much the same. The more immutable the target, the better. The scale runs from "weather" (perfect) to "your hand on my ass" (totally inappropriate to mention). Expressing opinions is pretty much similar... except, hypothetically, you're just supposed to not express opinions. If you HAVE to have an opinion, try to have the same opinion as everybody else. If you must have a DIFFERENT opinion, admit that it's your personal moral failing as a human being that lead you to that state.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-05-08 09:43 (UTC)
Maybe the answer is to eat instant ramen for a month and a half, until I save up the money to afford it... then invite some of them out?

Probably. I have to do the same thing. London is almost as expensive as Tokyo, right? I mean, I don't have to resort to instant ramen, but I do eat at home and very frugally most of the time, and ration my nights out because I don't feel right going out if I can't at least pick up a couple of drinks rounds or my portion of a meal. I definitely don't have as much of a social life as I would like, but on the other hand, choosing very carefully helps me to value the time I do spend going out.

"your hand on my ass" (totally inappropriate to mention)

Yikes. Can you launch any form of protest? Is smacking someone's hand appropriate, or calling them a filth-monster? What I mean to say is, if the objection is non-specific, is that all right?
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[User Picture]From: greyface
2008-05-22 14:31 (UTC)
If you basically eat Japanese food, Tokyo is less expensive than London. If you want to eat like you live in Los Angeles while you live in Tokyo, it's much more expensive than London. (Those underripe mangos you get in LA grocery stores for 99c are about $5 in Tokyo... when they're in season... and don't even get me started on watermelon)
Anyway, the problem with the co-worker-drinking system in Japan is very often (not actually always, but uncomfortably often) somebody will decide that they're picking up the WHOLE tab. If you're not used to it (e.g. me) this makes you uncomfortable. I don't have the slightest idea how to present the idea that we'd each pay for our own food and drink on our own. Unlike, "It's my treat," "we'll pay for ourselves" implies that I expected that they expected to pay for me (or vice versa) which seems a bit brusque.

And the "your hand on my ass" was a mild exaggeration. Though the ability to actually do something about it other than complain is minimal on the insanely packed rush-hour trains. Which is why there are women-only cars on the busiest lines. I don't know how common train gropers really are... but the women-only cars lead me to believe it's not a rarity. As a final note, I'm not actually tuned-in enough to Japanese manners to know how much of a ruckus you can politely make on one of those insane-trains before you're considered to have disturbed more people than the groper has disturbed you (weighted for seriousness of disturbance etc).

Clearly, I still have a lot to learn!
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[User Picture]From: nimoloth
2008-05-07 13:46 (UTC)
Good list! How can anyone not like tea with milk?
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-05-07 15:10 (UTC)
Hm. Perhaps it can be managed by being French? ;-D
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-05-07 15:11 (UTC)
a complicated set of social signals that involves both making sure the other person realises they need to apologise, and making it quite clear you're not REALLY mad at them

Yes! That's it exactly. Thank you for clarifying.
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[User Picture]From: nationofsheep
2008-05-07 14:55 (UTC)
Four years? Wow. I still think of you as having just gotten there.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-05-07 15:07 (UTC)
It's bizarre, I've gotten so used to being hyper-aware of my own behaviour all the time that it takes me by surprise when I go home.
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[User Picture]From: nationofsheep
2008-05-07 15:37 (UTC)
People ask a lot about culture shock moving to Hong Kong. But I know me and Justine had a harder time with culture shock moving back to the states. American culture is super aggressive with very little subtlety. Getting used to the aggression in normal daily interactions was very difficult.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-05-08 09:15 (UTC)
Yes, I remember being taken aback by it on my last visit home. People were being friendly, but it was in a manner which I've come to consider pushy and intrusive rather than welcoming. I think it's just as difficult to re-assimilate as it is to adapt away from your native culture, especially if you've been away for years.
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[User Picture]From: dizzykj
2008-05-07 14:56 (UTC)
perfect (although I also have to adhere to the tone-down section ofpoint 1, and I was born here!).

If you don't mind, I'll link to this on my blog?
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-05-07 15:09 (UTC)
You're definitely one of the most outgoing English people I've ever met!

I don't mind, and thank you.
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[User Picture]From: danaid_luv
2008-05-07 17:00 (UTC)
Self-depreciating, apologize for everything. *blinking* I'm so in. \o/

Fabulous list. *uses toned down avatar. It apologizes for being too moody/black/square*
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-05-08 08:59 (UTC)
You also have to be quiet. Take the American version of "quiet" and lower it a few notches. Also, decrease the physical expressiveness by quite a bit, particularly in public. You'll just have to trust me when I claim that this is a lot harder than it sounds and it takes practice.
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[User Picture]From: wurlitzerprized
2008-05-07 17:31 (UTC)
so it's all really true, all those "myths" about life across the pond, huh?
wow. four years.
good job!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-05-08 08:56 (UTC)
I didn't know the "myths" before I arrived here, so I can't confirm or deny. What I do know, though, is that #6 contains a whole subset of other lessons that are quite specific and would take me some time to parse. For instance, it is often difficult to tell when you've offended an English person. They will not let you know in an obvious way, verbally or through body language. A slight tightening of the mouth and possibly looking away from you, that's about it.
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[User Picture]From: wurlitzerprized
2008-05-08 18:20 (UTC)
ha.
the loo is the only thing i didn't know about.

(ps - i've had a month of weird illnesses and other things; i still owe you a smattering of "s's" and some snail mail. i owe much to many, it's just going to take a while to catch up. hope all is well - and i love your foray into holga).
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-05-08 09:01 (UTC)
Yeah, the rest is probably fairly standard, but I think the thing to remember is that actually practicing them is quite difficult and it takes a long time for them to travel from conscious gesture to subconscious reaction.

But the toilets! Oh good lord the toilets. AAARGH.
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[User Picture]From: lesyeuxouverts
2008-05-07 20:55 (UTC)
I have found this place : http://www.volupte-lounge.com which sounds beautiful, and I'm dying to try it out. I think you'd be the perfect partner-in-crime for this venture, how does it sound to you ?
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2008-05-08 09:10 (UTC)
Ooh, that looks delicious. Wednesday the 21st? What do you say? Shall I invite others?
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[User Picture]From: lesyeuxouverts
2008-05-08 09:47 (UTC)
The Kitten Club cabaret ? Yes, start asking others, and I'll case out the joint - hopefully going there for there for tea and cake today so I'll let you know. We should probably book soonish ?
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[User Picture]From: omniana
2008-05-12 22:37 (UTC)
There are some aspects of my personality that seem perfectly English (#1 & 2), but yet I've found #5 to have little success, leading to #6. But definitely, the one that I noticed right away were the toilets. The one thing I waxed rhapsodic about initially was Trader Joes, but now all I'd want to import are the toilets that flush with conviction with the light touch of a lever.
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