Wednesday, 18 May 2011

British teeth and other stereotypes

Last Thursday, as luck would have it, I cracked my front tooth right off. While calmly applying mascara, I bit down and suddenly my tooth was not where it was supposed to be. This was the fourth time in my life it had happened, so I wasn't alarmed, more inconvenienced. The dentist couldn't fit me in until the next Monday.

My dentist also happens to be an antique collector and interior designer. His office is visually stunning and I figured that if he could make my mouth look as good as his office, I was in.

The procedure took 3 hours and made him 45 minutes late to an event. All for the sake of my front teeth. The procedure didn't need to take three hours, he could have done it in one, but he's a perfectionist, and I appreciate that quality in a dentist. The last time I cracked my tooth several years ago in England my dentist had me in and out in a lunch hour.

British dentistry is, for Americans, classic fodder for stereotype. Bad teeth along with mediocre food (but quality ale) is to the British stereotype what obesity and ignorance (with a winning smile) is to the American. How much truth exists in these impressions is something different all together. Most Brits I know have perfectly fine teeth, and I actually liked my dentist a lot in London, who was South African, but nevermind.

The other day, as we were going into a supermarket to pick up supplies for a BBQ, Dan commented that our life in America was completely different to how friends back home in England might imagine. Or at least how TV shows and movies might portray life in America. In Dan's America, he'd just finished eating a local, organic leek and onion tart from work (a nice French restaurant), was planning to review world music star Femi Kuti that evening and could talk in depth with his co-workers at a local arts magazine about Nigerian music and global politics. And just the other day he'd said, "I think 70% of the population of Seattle is, at any given point, on a cleanse." Seattle is simply more wheatgrass than loaded potato skins.

Likewise, so often I felt like my experience in England was completely at odds with what I had expected of life in the UK. The England I'd carried in my head going in was akin to a Hugh Grant or Colin Firth film -- riddled with posh wit and charming eccentricity. It was lined with white terraced housing and cute cafes and fruiterers who knew my name. But, even while living in England I'd long for that England. That England exists, in small pockets of West London, but it certainly wasn't my everyday life. The guy in the market I bought veg from (occasionally) was actually a bit of a jerk, though perhaps making fun of his customers was his way of building rapport. I learned quickly that there are many Englands, just like Dan is learning about the many Americas.

Liberal, latte-drinking Seattle may be as different to Texas or Boston as it is to London, but it is still one of many authentic American experiences. One that doesn't get highlighted in international media very often though, because it's not the story of our country that sells to the rest of the world. People want, I believe, Americans to eat chicken-fried-bacon and be unable to find Australia on a map. Just like I wanted England to feel like the set of Notting Hill, rather than a place populated by real people with a variety of personalities and characteristics.

I think about trans-Atlantic stereotypes way more than your average girl, being married to a Brit and having done my four years in the UK and all. I've struggled to not get defensive about brushstrokes about my country that were far-removed from my own experience and I've struggled not to brushstroke back an entire nation on days when I felt foreign and frustrated. As a writer authoring a book about living in England, I sometimes struggle to describe real differences in two distinct cultures without resorting to caricature. Because though very real differences do exist, so do many shades of gray in between. And as everyone knows, black and white is much easier to deal with than gray.

Every time I'd be riding a bus in central London and cringing at the LOUD American students or tourists I'd be reminded where that stereotype comes from. Dang it! But for every exuberant group on the bus I knew there were a handful of thoughtful, quiet Americans just getting on with their lives, unnoticed. Or at least I imagined this.

Due to a personality that hates being pigeonholed and can't accept inaccurate generalization easily, stereotypes drive me insane. Almost literally. I used to want a name tag that read..."Hi, I'm Alisha. I'm American, but not every American." I wanted room to breathe within my cultural heritage, to not feel constantly apologetic, to not feel like I had to prove that America is diverse and intelligent and not what you think. I'd get all fired up defending America against inaccurate stereotype, and defensiveness is an exhausting habit.

Me and stereotypes have yet to completely reconcile, but now that I live in the US I have less to defend. And I just don't care as much anymore, which is refreshing. Often, I love thinking about the differences between the US and the UK, but other days, like today, it's even better remembering that, really, we're all just the same, trying to live normal, fulfilling lives marked with love and happiness. And moderately straight teeth.

Do you have any stereotypes that drive you insane? Have you ever been challenged by a stereotype? This is beginning to feel like a book club discussion guide, but really, what a great topic, huh?

{Photos by}


Anne-Margaret said...

As an American who has lived in Germany and is currently living in the UK, I have had my fair share of experiences with stereotypes.

Stereotypes are a truly complex thing because often times they were, at least at some point, based in fact. Take the UK's food stereotype for example. To be honest, the food I have eaten here generally lives up to its mediocre reputation, save for a few more posh places in inner cities. Maybe I am just going to the wrong places but I definitely miss the variety and quality found in US restaurants.

And my own experience with American stereotypes has been far more bearable here in the UK than it was in Germany. Brits are generally pretty polite (how's that for another stereotype, for ya) and are never as in your face about their views on Americans. Germans, on the other hand, often have no problem letting you know their take on Americans the minute they hear your accent.

It definitely takes getting used to and eventually I learned how to deflect it. I also realise now that we ALL come with preconceived notions of what it means to be from whatever country. So, I try not to hold it against someone when they slip up and make a generalisation about my home. If the person seems open to the fact that maybe there is more to the US than just fried chicken and grits, I am happy to help educate them.

Chris Yang said...

I hate to lift my example completely from something else, but given the "This American Life" logo right there on the page I can't help. Heard this last week: Heated school board meeting about whether or not to take a cultural class out of the core curriculum. Racial tensions boil over into shouting. A woman watching all of this, when asked why she was there says that she wanted to "observe democracy." She is from Iran and says..."After 12 years in the United States, I still don't think I exactly get it."

That's basically it. There is no IT. Once you come to terms with the fact that there is no one category to dump it into, America becomes more interesting to unpeel. My personal biggest annoyance? Americans who think their own brand of the country is IT.

Oh and BTW, the Notting Hill set does indeed exist all over the place! Just costs a bloody fortune that almost no one can afford...

alisha said...

Anne-Margaret, I think you're right about not holding people's preconceived notions against them. We all fall into generalizations sometime.

Chris, you're right about the Notting Hill lifestyle being bloody expensive. :) And there's always room for This American Life anecdotes on this blog! And I agree, America is still an interesting country to unpeel, 30 years on.

Jocy May said...

Chris- I listen to TAL every week too- I will now know that we're listening to it together :)

Dee said...

Another brilliant post!!! I love your writing Alisha. Hope you guys are well? xxx

alisha said...

Thanks Dee! All is well here. I love checking into your blog and seeing your lovely family too. :)

Rachael Randal said...

I'm totally with you, Alisha. I can't stand stereotypes. Not only because they are the foundations for sexism, racism and other -isms, but also to some extent they input into shaping an individual. If you're a little blonde thing, people expect ditsy and scatterbrained, and its sometimes easier just to play up to that... that's my excuse anyway! ;-)

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