Saturday, 5 February 2011

Full Circle

When my husband and I first met, we were colleagues, teaching in a large British English school in Tokyo. At first, I knew little about him other than his first name and the fact that he got bad sunburns when he played cricket.

One day, I was at my desk, marking papers in our large staffroom when a student came in to ask him a question about her composition. He had marked a phrase incorrect and she wondered why.

"Because it's wrong," he said.

"But my dictionary says it's right," she protested.

"What dictionary is that?"


"Ha!" he scoffed. "No wonder. That's an American dictionary and an American phrase -- and this is a British school! Next time use a British dictionary." He made a deprecatory little gesture to go with every use of American. I gritted my teeth and turned back to my papers. This wasn't the first time a colleague had dissed my country and I was pretty sure it wouldn't be the last.

After the student left, my husband got up to leave too. His desk was around a corner, out of my sight, but as soon as he saw me sitting there, he froze. "Oh!" he said. "I thought I was the only one here!"

"Mmm," I replied, not looking up.

Later that day, I was walking past his desk when he stopped me. "I want to apologize for what I said earlier," he said. "I was going for a cheap laugh and I'm ashamed you overheard. I'm genuinely sorry; I meant no disrespect."

"That's okay," I told him. "I'm used to it."

"But you shouldn't be!" he said. "It's just wrong -- I was wrong. Anyway, I'm sorry."

I was amazed: after ten years of enduring jokes about stupid, spoiled, fat, over-privileged, filthy rich Americans, it was the first time anybody had apologized for a mere gaffe. And what he'd said hadn't even been all that offensive, considering.

After this incident, we got to know each other. I learned that he was good at putting his foot in his mouth, but almost always contrite afterwards; he learned that I too was prone to speaking first and thinking later. Eventually, I was bowled over by his strong sense of justice and integrity; he liked the fact that I had learned Japanese and marched to the beat of my own drum.

Over twenty years of marriage later, we've had plenty of experiences hearing our respective countries trashed. We both wince when comedy routines open with gratuitous Aren't Americans stupid? jokes; we both bristle when we hear people condemn the British as xenophobic, classist snobs.

My Kazakh students used to complain about Sacha Baron Cohen's fictional Borat and his unfair treatment of their country. It infuriated them that Kazakhstan was made to look like a nation of illiterate, uncultured, anti-Semitic boors. "It is wrong for him to say these things about our country!" they used to protest. "Why doesn't he say them about Kyrgyzstan instead?" I used to tell them that when Kyrgyzstan got as wealthy and popular as Kazakhstan, they would get joked about too. Just like the U.S. and the U.K.

My husband now works with a diverse, cosmopolitan group of teachers from all over the world. The other day, one of his new colleagues began telling the staffroom her opinion of Americans and their accents. "They all sound so foolish!" she said. "Like they're sucking on marbles!" My husband listened for as long as he could stand it, then finally held up his hand. "I guess you don't know that my wife is American," he said.

Let's hope she too meets an American one day. And falls in love...


Robert the Skeptic said...

I have often wondered how much of British humor (aka, Monty Python, etc.) Americans think is funny simply because of the accent? Really for me, it is additionally hilarious because of the accent.

Someone once noted that if the British didn't speak English, Public Television in this country would be short half it's programming. Stick that fact in, or under, your "bonnet".>

Carole said...

Great story. It is amazing the things we learn as we get older and wiser. What is really sad is those that never learn and continue in their prejudices.

Bish Denham said...

That's like people who think Southerners are stupid or that people from the Caribbean are ignorant because of their accents.

I don't mind other countries/people making fun of the U. S. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves, to not take ourselves too seriously. The British seem terribly good at a poking fun at themselves, but then they've been around longer than we have. They've had more practice.

Vijaya said...

I love this story of you two meeting. My husband thought I was too young to even look at ... so I had to chase him (I was nineteen and half) and he didn't relish the idea of having to deal with my mother either (she put him through the third degree like a typical Indian mother). Yup, those stereotypes actually have some truth to them.

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- When we first arrived here years ago, we got on an elevator at Heathrow airport and a loud, pompous voice with an over-the-top British accent came on the PA system, advising us to do something or other WHILST we were on the lift. Maybe I was just punch-drunk from being so jet-lagged, but that use of 'whilst' cracked me up. Even now when I hear someone say 'whilst', I want to laugh. 'Lavatory' gives me the giggles too, as does 'knock up' to mean 'wake up' and 'rubber' for 'eraser'.

The only British accents I find funny now are Birmingham accents. Everything else sounds pretty normal.

Carole -- Getting old would be seriously crappy if it weren't for the extra wisdom that gradually accrues. I can't imagine how the people who only add to their prejudices cope -- life must be an endless source of disappointment and misery for them.

Bish -- I don't mind serious, respectful criticism of America which naturally occurs in the course of a conversation, or gentle humor -- that's fine by me. But the gratuitous "Let's make fun of Americans because it always get a laugh" stuff drives me half wild. This is probably because I've been abroad for a long time and, whether I like it or not, hear a lot of it. Also, I've noticed that when reporters here cover events that happen in the U.S., they tend to look for the stupidest people they can find. I've actually seen them cut off conversations with people who look like rednecks, but turn out to be thoughtful. That sort of manipulation does occur and it makes me angry: it's as though the media actively promotes the image of Americans as ignorant and boorish.

The British are GREAT at poking fun of themselves and I love that, but you should see my husband's reaction to gratuitous British-bashing. Very similar to mine...

Vijaya -- Nineteen and a half? Your husband was right: you WERE too young! :)

Sadly, mothers-in-law weren't a problem for my husband or me; by the time we met, both of our mothers were long gone.

Anonymous said...

I love hearing about relationships that started out a little rocky...and ended beautiful. This is one of those!

You and your hubby both sound like lovely people. And for the record, I love to hear a british accent.:)

I'm sure my southern accent isn't appealing to most folks from anywhere but here. But most folks I've met from other countries are gracious about it.

Glad your hubby stood up for you. I bet her face was beet red!

Charles Gramlich said...

Whew, I generally only make fun of the French.

Anne M Leone said...

Oh, what a lovely story! And really, that is the best way to overcome stereotypes about another country: falling in love.

Anonymous said...

Ahh, love overcomes all. :)

I have American family & I often feel like a killjoy among friends when someone makes a joke about USA stereotypes, and I object (politely). I hope I'd object even if I didn't have those relatives, but sometimes I wonder - socially it can be so much easier to just smile politely and then change the subject, without confronting it, you know?

Kim Ayres said...

As I read your opening paragraph I could have sworn it said "sideburns" instead of sunburns. Now that does sound like the basis of a Monty Python sketch... :)

Mary Witzl said...

WordWrangler -- Thank you for commenting!

Most people here seem to think my accent is exotic and interesting, which always amuses me: I sound so ordinary to myself. When we visited my relatives in the South, they couldn't get enough of my husband's British accent and he was just as enchanted with their drawls. He still loves to do his impressions of my uncle from Florida, and I still love to pretend that his Southern accent sounds suspiciously Australian.

Charles -- I used to love making fun of the French too -- they're a lot like Americans in that they almost beg you to do it! Years of ex-pat life and wonderful kindness from French people has taken away the fun of this. Sad but true.

Anne -- It really is...until the in-laws show up. If you can brave obnoxious foreign in-laws, you can make it through just about anything.

Emily -- I did that for years. But it's in my genes to try and convert people to a better way. Plus, I'm getting old and cranky and generally less tolerant of mindless attempts to get laughs from casual racism or anti-anything jibes. I am polite, though -- fortunately that's in my genes too.

Kim -- Thank GOD my good man has never had sideburns since we've known each other! It would be a neat job if he could sprout them during a game of cricket, wouldn't it?

AnneB said...

Hearing about your husband's foot-in-mouth troubles is immensely comforting. I committed a major gaffe last night and offended a family friend (who fortunately called me on it so I was able to apologize). And then on the phone today, I phrased something poorly and it could so easily been neutral. Gaaaa. If only one could backspace when speaking! Or ramp up the social filter.

I did read somewhere that specific Myers-Briggs personality types typically have this problem of saying what they're thinking, without thinking (and it just happens to be one of the less common, and it just happens to be mine...)

The solution, of course, is to think more more kindly thoughts. I'm better at this than I used to be (much of the time).

Nora MacFarlane said...

Haha! Sideburns... I read it that way too. I love this post!

KleinsteMotte said...

How true to human nature. We do put out words that we regret with," if only I had...."
Happy to hear the relationship was able to stay on course. That is not easy these days.

Eryl said...

Does 'whilst' mean something rude in the states?

I find it astonishing that someone can say an entire nation sounds ridiculous, what on earth was the woman thinking?!

Mary Witzl said...

AnneB -- Welcome to our club! My husband isn't the only one who puts his foot in his mouth! If you lived nearby, we could take turns offending each other accidentally and getting our respective feelings hurt, then making up. I manage to say too much all too often and it's no less painful now than it was when I was younger and (shiver) less aware of it. I'm getting a little better about not writing stupid things and sending them off, but that's cold comfort.

I'm generally kind, I'm just... gauche, I suppose, and socially awkward.

Nora -- Oddly enough, I read the first paragraph this morning and I also thought I'd written 'sideburns'. Weird, isn't it?

KleinsteMotte -- Thank you. We've had our work cut out for us, but we're both happy we managed to persevere past that first awkward encounter -- and so much more.

Eryl -- Not at all, but it sounds SO quaint and formal! To this day, whenever anyone uses the word 'whilst' I go to pieces -- I can't help myself! In Tokyo, my British colleagues used to laugh themselves silly over 'fanny pack'. But that's a whole different issue, of course.

Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane said...

Being Dutch, married to an American, I've done a lot "explaining" both side of the ocean. I don't mind making fun as long as it is not just being ignorant. The Dutch are rather blunt and straight forward and often sound offensive to foreigners, which doesn't help.

I've heard Americans make statements starting with "in Europe" and then I ask them, "Europe? You mean Sweden or Turkey?" That makes them think.

I've been telling my friends and relatives in Holland for years how diverse America is and that in many instances laws are different in different states, to give one example.

Stereotypes and generalizations are often based on some truth, just not the whole truth all the time about everybody. We must be careful.

Pat said...

Hang on to him Mary. A man who can say sorry is a rare breed that should be protected.
Even though many of our individual families settled in America many years ago I still enjoy learning more about Americans and their speech usage. Playing scrabble with them is educational for both of us.

Falak said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Falak said...

People coming from different states within the same country tend to be prejudiced against each other. So I guess it's not surprising that people from different countries do the same :)

KLM said...

Oh, my. We have in common that our first impressions of the men who would someday become our husbands was very poor indeed. I think I referred to my husband as a "complete d*ck" at one point. Couldn't understand for the life of me why anyone would want to go out with him.

Anyone capable of a sincere apology is definitely marriage material. And many thanks to him for sticking up for us yanks.


Anonymous said...

LOVE this story!
And even though I am half-British, I grew up mostly on the North American continent and sound American. I have gotten so tired of the American-bashing from the Brits (mostly centered on the American accent), that now when I hear Americans praising the British accent I just want to tell them to shut up, quick, before the Brit overhears and gets an even bigger swelled head!

Mary Witzl said...

Miss Footloose -- You and I are informal ambassadors for both our own and our respective mates' countries. I feel like I spend half my life explaining the U.K. to Americans and the U.S. to the British.

You are so right: there is enough diversity even within a country as small as Belgium, say, that I doubt you could even generalize about everybody there, and it is IMPOSSIBLE to do this about a region as geographically, politically, and socially diverse as Europe. I had a friend from Zambia who used to grind his teeth whenever Japanese people talked about Africans as though they were all from one country, and the Japanese hardly like to be lumped together with all other Asians.

I think I told you about a spirited discussion I had with a group of Dutch friends about America. One of them had spent a few months in the States as a teenager, with a family who had steaks and Coca Cola for breakfast and took their cars even to places only a few blocks away. She'd had such a distorted view of the States that I doubt she believed me when I told her that my parents were vegetarians who never bought Coca Cola and walked everywhere.

Pat -- Thank you -- he will get such a big head reading that! But I certainly agree: if more men realized how appealing the quality of sincere repentance is to women, I'll bet there'd be a lot more apologizing.

I enjoy comparing notes on English with people from all English-speaking countries. I find all the different dialects, accents, and idioms endlessly fascinating and charming. It's nice to know others feel the same way!

Falak -- You're right: even within states there can be strong prejudices; my mother always remembered the animosity people living in the hills of Kentucky felt towards the 'flat landers'. If only we could celebrate and enjoy our respective differences!

KLM -- Ha! I'm glad your husband also redeemed himself eventually. Do you enjoy reminding him how close he came to getting completely written off?

My husband has had a lot of practicing standing up for Americans now. When we were back in the States, I went to bat for him on many occasions (Brits are generally not popular among Irish-Americans) so it's definitely a reciprocal deal.

Elizabeth -- You and I could swap stories! I don't praise British accents anymore, for the very reasons you give. When we traveled around the States, especially in the South, my husband got a big head every time he opened his mouth -- "Ooh, say that again, would you, I just LOVE the way you talk!" I found that got old fast.

My kids' friends sometimes say they love the way I talk. Personally, I can't get enough of that.

Lily Cate said...

Regional prejudices are just as strong in the states as international ones, sometimes.

For instance, as a Wisconsinite, I'm a little annoyed at the constant implications that we are a region of naive beer swilling, deer hunting dairy farmers.

But the assumption that we are all really nice isn't so bad :)

As for my husband - I would have married him the day I met him, if he'd asked. I thought he was dreamy.

Mary Witzl said...

Lily -- But you guys look fresh-scrubbed and wholesome, plus you yodel out there, right? ;o)

"As for my husband - I would have married him the day I met him, if he'd asked. I thought he was dreamy." (Swoon...sigh...) You are living the dream!!

kara said...

this post makes me want to try to suck on marbles and talk at the same time. an adventure that will no doubt end well.