When I was a teenager, I had your standard romanticized view of what the U.K. was about. I lapped up anything and everything that I could get my hands on. It never got to the point to where I wished I were British, but I wanted a chance to live over there because I imagined this world full of witty, intelligent people with cool music and fascinating history. I bought Dream U.K. lock, stock and barrel.
Of course, what we are sold over here isn’t Dream U.K. It’s Dream England. It has nothing to do with Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland. It’s a place where Received Pronunciation (the Queen’s English) is spoken. It’s a place of castles, the BBC, and white people putting on airs. Or, if you are a teenager, it’s that Boy Band world where all those sweet words of undying devotion sound extra romantic with an English accent.
Well, the Britons are probably having a good chuckle at my expense right now. Rightly so. Have a good belly laugh. Go on.
OK, so I did meet witty, intelligent people. I did hear cool music, and I learned more about its fascinating history. But the U.K. is a real country with real people and complexities and deserves the same amount of celebration and scrutiny as the United States. Even at age 19, I should have known better, although the Boffin says I should cut myself some slack on this. I have to say I am really embarrassed with how shallow I was with the knowledge and misconceptions I had when I first arrived in 1992. (“What do you mean you don’t go trick-or-treating here? It’s Halloween!”) But what I had in naïveté, I made up for in enthusiasm and a desire to learn where I was going wrong.
And learn I did. I made friends, read the newspapers, asked questions, and traveled. I tried to make the most of the limited time I had there and bumbled all along the way. I knew I couldn’t learn everything, but I just wanted to understand better what eluded me.
And what did I learn? Well, I learned about the diversity of Britain thanks to the city of Cambridge being so close. My discovery was still at the time of ethnic minorities being 8% of the population as opposed to the 13% now, but it was still eye-opening to see how Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Jamaicans, Chinese people, and a host of others gathered to study and live in one spot that was not London. It also showed me how they made the place so much brighter and dynamic just by their culinary contributions, let alone their societal ones. It made for a refreshing change from the Italian/Slavic/Hispanic/German backgrounds that the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania population had.
My journeys did take me into Scotland and briefly into Wales. (I married into a Welsh family. I think that counts for something.) I never did get to Northern Ireland because of the tumult at the time, but that does not mean it won’t be on the docket when we get back to the country. It only showed me how different those nations are to England and to just lump everything together is like lumping Canada in with the United States. I learned to take each one and enjoy them as their own entities.
I was still able to enjoy the BBC shows, food, and all the stuff I did when I was in my romantic phase. But, you know what? It was even better because I understand the context in which they were created better.
However, I also learned the U.K. was also a country with its own problems. I remember the beloved National Health Service being in need of funding back then. The Real IRA decided to restart its bombing campaign in various locations around the U.K., including, I later discovered, some perilously close to where the Boffin was going to university. The country was in a recession when I arrived in 1992 with unemployment reaching as high as 10%. Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD, the human form of Mad Cow Disease) reared its head during my time there, and I still am not allowed to give blood over here because of the inability to screen. Being a romantic meant ignoring what was happening on a human level and only led me to make the Britons into characters in my mental play. That was demeaning and wrong. I am so glad I now see them as the people they are, and I appreciate those who helped me open my eyes.
Little did I know that my experience would do more than personally enrich me. Fast forward to 1999, a young American divorcée meets a young English widower. Several things were in my favor when I met the Boffin.
1) I was immune to his accent, so I was listening to what he was saying and not gushing over the fact that he was English. Admittedly, he wishes I listened to him a little less. (“Yes, you did say that! You were wearing your hunter green polo shirt and standing by the bow window. It was on Tuesday last week, and you just got home from work!”)
2) He didn’t have to explain every little thing about himself to bridge the cultural gap.
3) I didn’t have doe eyes when it came to his country of origin and was more understanding about why he was making his home in the States.
And while I missed my time across the Pond, I managed to get the good parts back in a way through the Boffin. Meanwhile, he was left with the mixed feelings with being an immigrant and very complex reasons why he left the U.K. behind. (It’s not my story to tell, but I can say that part of the reason is that the country knows how to educate its STEM stars, but it doesn’t know how to employ them.) It only goes to show just how complicated, once again, the country truly is and how I just cannot hold the “tea and crumpets” version that so many Americans carry.
I guess you can say the process of my love of the U.K. has been like a marriage. I went through my honeymoon stage with Anglophilia, but it developed into that nice settled bit. There are bits of the U.K. that I absolutely adore. There are bits that make me apoplectic. In the end, the U.K. and I have been through a lot together, and I see it for what it is and still love it, faults and all.