14 March 2009

"keen" on the uk

Occasionally I need to remind myself that here at Cambridge I am living in a fantasy world. To paraphrase/possibly butcher an old cliché, these are the good old days that I'm going to miss later on. It's like I get to relive the best features of college life, but as a full-fledged adult with a few years in the "real world" under my belt and all of the increased confidence and self-possession that comes with that.

For the most part, my preemptive nostalgia hasn't had much to do with the fact of being in England. As I have observed before, cross-cultural immersion is not the point of my being here, and it's hard to imagine myself feeling wistful at the prospect of leaving this country, in contrast to the way I felt as the end of my time in the Philippines drew near. But at a restaurant during my weekend in Seville, something strange happened. After a couple days of not hearing any British accents, I overheard a group of British tourists talking at a nearby table, and I felt a completely unexpected surge of fondness. Despite being in the Cambridge bubble, I think a little bit of this island has been seeping into me after all.

Another funny moment came a few weeks ago when I spent the day in London to get a visa for my upcoming trip to Cameroon. In the middle of a long walk to meet a friend for dinner, I had a lip-bitingly full bladder, so I stepped into a Starbucks for relief. At the back of the shop a man was waiting outside the entrance to the men's room, and I asked him, completely un-self-consciously, "Is this the queue for the toilet?" It was remarkable not just for how easily the British idiom spilled out, but also because "toilet" -- as the preferred term for restroom -- was one of the British English terms I have most vehemently resisted. (It just sounds too graphic to my American ears.) I've also become an ardent user of the word "keen," which can refer to both a state of mind ("I'm keen to go to the formal") and a personality characteristic. ("She's really keen" conjures up a generally overenthusiastic person.) Still, there are still a few areas of language where I refuse to budge; I don't think I can ever refer to the 26th letter of the alphabet as "zed," for instance.

My interactions with Brits have been almost entirely smooth, but occasionally there have been reminders that this is a different culture. Lots of these experiences have revolved around the different definitions of politeness and courtesy that operate here. To take a small example: I was at the women's rugby match versus Oxford, and I was standing at the railing in the upper stands. A woman behind me asked, "excuse me, would you like to sit down, please?" A very civilized and quintessentially British way of making such a request, and I promptly complied, but to my ears it sounded, well, passive-aggressive. Another time I had a study group meeting with some classmates in the seminar room where our class is held. One of the administrative assistants came in and said something along the lines of, "some political science people want to use this room, heh?" Again, I knew she was being polite (by not phrasing the request as a command, or even as a request for that matter), but it just rubbed me the wrong way. Why can't you just come out and say it, I wanted to ask.

I'm down to my last few days and my last essay before I check out of here for a while. Stay tuned for a preview of my upcoming Africa travels!

1 comment:

Tae-Yeoun Keum said...

next thing we know, you'll be saying "loo."