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Monday, August 20, 2012

England is my foundation

After returning to the States, I've realized there's one thing I miss about England more than anything else: the history.  In my opinion, it seems as if England is just chock full of history.  Everywhere you go, every house you enter, every cemetery you walk past has some sort of amazing connection with a famous writer, a revolution, a member of the royalty, etc.  Less than a mile away from my flat is a station where John Keats went to school.  A little further on is an ancient church with stonework from the thirteenth century, as well as a marketplace that has been in use for just as long as the church, if not longer.  A school next to the church has existed since Tudor times, and the stream which runs nearby all of these landmarks was dug in the late sixteenth century.

The rest of London seems to follow the same pattern of historical abundance.  Wherever you go, there are always those little blue plaques reminding you of the vast and important history of the current location.  For a girl from a neighborhood that's only thirty years old, a city that's 153 years old, and a state that's barely older than that, the very notion of entering a 700 year old building is dizzying.  In fact, sometimes the amount of historicity is so overwhelming, I'm tempted to think that the little plaques are ploys for tourism rather than historical facts, like the inordinate amount of hotels in Memphis claiming "Elvis slept here."  But whenever I doubt these historical claims, a bit of research always proves them correct: yes, the man who was the inspiration for Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde did own that restaurant; yes, this little building is the oldest wooden edifice in all of Europe; yes, this grocery store was built on the site of an ancient Roman burial ground.

What I have learned from these experiences is that England has ten times more history than any civilization could ever find a use for.  If you are a Brit living in London, the lives of your ancestors and forebears surround you to the point of asphyxiation.  Especially in central London, where you can't even cross a street without walking in the path of half a dozen famous events or people.  And while this may seem mind-boggling, it's also rather comforting, in my opinion.  It's comforting to know that people have been living and dying in your city for the past two thousand years, that life has always pressed forward, and that life will continue to press forward.  It's comforting to know that your ancestors may have lived only a few dozens miles away from where you're living right now.  It's comforting to know that this land has been a safe haven for human life for centuries, and that you can go to a library and read about their own experiences in this old-as-time-itself land.

My home in Utah seems like a small boat adrift on a sea of novelty and temporality in comparison to the galleon of England, firmly anchored by the weight of history.  Yes, I know that Utah has a rich history, with the pioneers of the 19th century, the Utes before them, and--who knows?--maybe the Nephites or the Lamanites before them.  But for me, for Averyl Dietering, Utah is not the foundation of myself or my family.  My father is from Texas, and his ancestors are English and German.  My mother is from Massachusetts, and her ancestors are Welsh and English.  When I think about my ancestry, my people, and my home, I find myself returning to England.  Though I've lived in Utah for 21 1/2 of my 22 years, there's something about the infinite history of England which seems like home, like finding a foundation which countless of my ancestors spent their lives building. 

It is for this reason that I don't think I'll ever cross England off my list of places to see, like people cross off the Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall of China or the Pyramids of Giza.  I will keep returning, if only to feel the confidence of that great weight of history, the feeling of that ancestral foundation beneath my feet.

Why you should never get comfortable

(This post is also to make up for one I missed.)

I always find it a bit humorous when anyone purports the ability to teach members of one culture how to "act like a native" in another culture.  It simply isn't possible, and it's a ridiculous notion.  I think I might trust someone to read my palm and tell me my future before I would trust someone who guaranteed that they could teach me to act like a native Samoan, Tibetan, Russian, Mexican, etc.

However, before I start sounding as if I believe all attempts at cross-cultural learning are futile, I suppose I ought to share the aspects of cross-cultural learning which I do believe can be taught.  For example, it is important to learn taboos and potentially offensive words or actions, if at all possible, before you go to another culture (and hopefully not during or after).  It's also possible to learn how to dress in another culture, and what your dress may say about the role you play in that culture.  In cultures with a different language, it is important to learn the spoken tongue, although you might have to wait until you are living in the culture to learn local slang or idioms. 

So yes, it is possible--and frankly, vital--to learn all you can about a culture and how to function in it before you go.  But when someone says they can help you learn to "blend in" and be indistinguishable from the native population, that person is far too overconfident.

I was rudely reminded of this when I started going to church at my ward in London.  Last summer, I attended the YSA ward, and by the end of the three months, I had become quite adept at understanding the quirks of young people from England, South Africa, Australia, Europe, New Zealand, Canada, and all across America.  Most of the people I spent my time with were from these areas, and although it took quite some time to understand the differences between an Australia sense of humor and an English sense of humor, it was well worth it.

This time around, I did not attend the YSA ward on Sundays.  Rather, I went to a family ward with many people from England and America, but also many others from Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and Brazil.  Unfortunately, most of what I had learned about working with people in my YSA ward did not apply to this new ward.  It was somewhat upsetting to have to learn how to work with different people and different cultures all over again--I had already done this before!  Shouldn't London culture be the same no matter where you go in London?  Shouldn't living in a culture once make the next time a breeze?

What I have discovered is that there is no finite amount of "items" to be learned in order to accomplish the feat of blending into a culture.  For instance, no matter how much I had learned about Australian and English humor in my previous ward, I had to basically start from scratch when learning about Nigerian and Ghanaian in my new ward.  Culture varies greatly from region to region, and can even vary from neighborhood to neighborhood.  Even though I was living less than fifteen miles away from my previous residence, I felt as if I had entered a completely new world.

 I suppose I should share with you all of the stories of my blunders and how I completely embarrassed myself because I was unprepared to interpret and function within the new types of African humor that I encountered.  But I will have to disappoint you, because to be honest, I'm still nursing those wounds a bit.  Maybe one day I will become an expert on African humor and how not to embarrass yourself in front of your Ghanaian/Nigerian/Kenyan church leadership, and maybe then I'll feel confident enough to share with you all the stories of my unfortunate experiences.

Until then...