Thoughts from an American Stanford Student in Oxford

It’s difficult being an American in Britain. Every British movie or TV show I watch, from A Fish Called Wanda the to the Oxford classic Inspector Morse, is sure to include at least one stereotypical American, who is without exception overweight, loud, and characteristically rude. These Americans fail to appreciate the subtlety of British habit and custom, forget to drive on the left, and generally act as though Britain is some kind of peculiar, provincial region of the United States in dire need of a dose of Americanism.

I acknowledge the truth in the stereotype. Americans have to be some of the worst tourists on earth. We display little curiosity towards local customs and, if we experience the misfortune of learning anything about them, tend invariably to pronounce them inferior to our own. We tend to mainly associate with other Americans when abroad, and love nothing so much as bumping into fellow countrymen on our travels. One wonders why we don’t simply stay home!

Part of why it’s so hard to be an American in Britain particularly is that, in a way, it’s too easy. It’s possible sometimes to forget we’re abroad, thanks to our common language and, to a degree, common culture. Doing so invariably means confirming the aforementioned stereotype. But even forcing ourselves to remember that we’re in Britain, it’s unclear to know how to proceed. As a friend in the Stanford program said, it seems we have a choice. We can disparage our own Americanness to demonstrate our self-awareness (a habit, as you can see, I’ve wholeheartedly embraced). Or, alternatively, we can glory in the stereotype, say ‘y’all’ even though we might not at home, and happily play the part of the blissfully ignorant American.

The best approach, I’m starting to believe, lies somewhere between these two poles. Playing the part of the American all the time gets tiresome both for the performer and the audience, while being self-aware all the time, even if it were possible, doesn’t sound too fun. As for me, I’m getting abreast of my own self-awareness by singing in the Corpus Christi choir.

As for me, I’m getting abreast of my own self-awareness by singing in the Corpus Christi choir

Singing in choir has the dual advantage of being so uniquely English that I am forced to be aware I am in a foreign country, and also of being a situation in which I am so far out of my depth, musically and culturally, that I cannot help but play the part of the bumbling American. You can spot me at Sunday evensong looking out of place in my blue blazer and grey slacks (I didn’t pack a matching suit), stumbling over the verses of a hymn or the notes of Tallis’ Magnificat. Due to having grown up something of a Voltairean in godless Southern California, I’d never been to any church service of any kind before singing in my first evensong two weeks ago. My first experience singing was overwhelming: frankly, I didn’t know that people still did this in 2017, sang the same songs and recited the same prayers as centuries ago. I have to admit that during my first evensong I stood mute through the Nicene Creed, unsure whether you were ‘supposed’ to say the prayers even if you didn’t, in fact, believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

It’s in choir (and in the pages of Burke that I’m reading for my tutorial) that I’ve been learning to more fully appreciate the importance of tradition, in Britain and in general. There’s a complexity, wisdom, and flexibility in tradition – if sometimes also a kind of apparent irrationality and slow-movingness – which is more or less foreign to the American way of life. As I’ve discovered, tradition often defies easy explanation. I find myself wanting to know why the fellows of All Souls sing the Mallard Song once a century, or how Britain manages to function politically without a written constitution, only to find the answers are not straightforward.

Still, I think that being immersed in this world of tradition, even in a time where some traditions seem increasingly outdated or retrograde, might give me a better sense of my place in history, and a benchmark against which to measure future events – two things usually lacking in the American attitude. Of course, like singing in choir, internalizing Oxford tradition requires both relinquishing your own sense of cultural superiority, as well as not being afraid to be the fool American who came in a beat early on the final ‘Amen’ of the hymn.