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Thoughts from abroad: Grasping UK culture allows for full study abroad experience

June 6, 2012


Editor’s Note: Views expressed in guest columns and letters to the editor reflect the views of the author, not the views of The State News.

Having been in the United Kingdom for a little over three weeks now, I have made no fewer than ten trips to Sainsbury’s, the local grocery store with ubiquitous orange plastic bags that one sees everywhere in Cambridge.

Sainsbury’s has, in many ways, encapsulated many of the changes I’ve observed and adjusted to during my stay across the pond thus far. Most obviously, it emphasizes an occasional disparity in food quality — pretty much every item I buy carries an expiration date for, if not the same day, then the day after, and the sometimes sad baskets of fruit make one grateful for California harvests and good truck drivers back home.

The English vernacular, too, is on display at Sainsbury’s, where orange juice doesn’t have pulp — it has juicy bits — and vegetables are referred to as, simply and quaintly, “veg.”

But what has opened my eyes lately is not so much these differences in culture, which I fully expected, but the changes I’ve begun to observe in myself.

I’ll be paying at the checkout line, and after the cashier hands me my bags, I say, “Thank you,” in a voice that sometimes, to my surprise, bears an inflection reminiscent of Madonna.

I wouldn’t say I’m absorbing an accent, but I find myself saying certain words and phrases with a decidedly more English tone these days, and it makes me wonder why.

I had been told by friends and family to be cautious about flaunting my Americanism in Europe. Our nation, apparently, has a rather spotty international reputation, and I was prepared for people to be rude or cold when they detected my Midwestern flatness.

People brushed me up on vocabulary “faux pas” — for example, never refer to trousers as pants — and gleefully anticipated my return with an authentic British accent.

And it seems to be happening. My old “ah” in sorry has become a bit more “sore.” My “r’s” are fading like Michael J. Fox’s siblings in that “Back to the Future” photograph.

But what I’ve noticed is that this only occurs when I’m operating in disguise — when I’m navigating the aisles of Sainsbury’s, for example, with an intent to avoid notice.

I’m rather pleased to say that, most of the time, I own my Americanism quite assertively. I speak naturally, and I think, by being comfortable in my own accent, I come off better than I would trying to fit my voice into shapes where it doesn’t belong.

A guy behind the counter of a London Starbucks asked me last weekend, “Where are you from?”

I told him, “The United States.”

“I can tell,” he said, with a kind of smarmy smile that made me think English people sometimes have the same funny pride over recognizing foreign accents as we Americans do.

One thing I’m grateful for so far is that no one has asked me to talk politics, or made any generalizations about America that I would have to argue with. Mostly, people’s curiosity — of which there really hasn’t been much — doesn’t extend much further than the American school system. Comparing high schools and colleges or exploring the transatlantic definition of “public school” leads to interesting enough conversations.

Maybe by the end of summer, I’ll be ready to talk global politics with the Britons, but at this point, I’ve begun to doubt that they’ll even be interested. America, at least as represented by a university student, feels quite a bit off the radar.

Which is perhaps why I feel so compelled to embrace my accent and assert my nationality.

It’s one thing to talk about our country and its policies in class or gape at Facebook brawls and YouTube comment battlefields online. It’s another thing entirely to experience the alternative in real life.

Most students in international relations or other such majors will, I imagine — and hope — visit foreign countries during their education.

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For someone like me, I admit that such relations are little more than a curiosity. I amuse myself with my inflected “thank yous” and “sorrys.” I consider the implications of modifying my accent to shroud my nationality. Then I finish bagging my groceries and head home to read a book.

There, for me, is where I am perfectly happy to shed my Americanism for a while. Reading English literature — true English literature — is a pleasure much better experienced on location. Recognizing the towns traveled to by Jane Austen’s protagonists, or driving through the fields that could have inspired Kazuo Ishiguro, I feel grateful to be able to tap my bloodline and call up my English roots.

There’s a time to be an American, and there’s a time to remember what went into the melting pot. I’m happy to live with both.

Craig Pearson is a guest columnist at The State News and a biochemistry junior. Reach him at


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