Yesterday I met with my prayer squad: three British friends, me, and Jackie, a fellow American and native Wisconsinite. Somehow, Jackie and I got to talking about how moving to London forced us to sort and purge possessions and decide what should be stored in bins in our respective parents’ basements.
“Different kind of bin,” I remembered to clarify. In the UK trash/garbage cans are bins. The ones inside the house are bins, the ones outside are wheelie bins, because they have wheels. Here, Bin it means toss it. Not store it.
“What’s a bin then?” one British friend asked.
“A box. A plastic box to store stuff in.”
“That’s a bin?”
“Yes,” I said. “What would you call it?”
“A plastic box.”
“And the bins are kept in a basement?”
While Jackie went on to explain that storing things in bins in basements was a very common American thing to do, I was recalling an episode from months ago, when I borrowed Christmas costumes out of storage from a church worker who stressed the items needed to be returned. Don’t worry, I had assured. I’ll put everything back in the bin! Probably should have clarified my intentions.
“How many bins are you allowed to have?” one friend asked.
“Allowed?” I said, confused by the verb. “As many as you want. Depends on how big your basement is, which can be dangerous because you end up keeping too many things. Our basement ran the full length of our ranch house.”
I’ve gotten into trouble with this word before, so I rushed to explain that ranch merely referred to the style of our single-story house. Living in a ranch is not the same as living on a ranch. We’ve literally been asked how many horses we owned. Doesn’t help that we Americans periodically refer to one another as dude.
“I can’t imagine having all that space,” another said. “What do you do with all of that space?
“Fill it up. With bins.”
“So basements are used only for storage?”
“No. Some of the space is used for storage and some of it might be finished, used for living. For the kids usually.”
“Yeah, when you have people over or when the kids have friends over, the basement is often where you put the kids. Elijah and his friends would hang out in the basement all the time. Sometimes I’d bring them pizza, sometimes they’d all sleep in the basement.”
“But they like it,” Jackie added. “The basement’s not a punishment. The kids and parents both like having their own space.”
This, we have found, is an Americanism. Maybe it’s a space issue but here older children and teens (not the under 10’s – they’re tucked into bed at 7) tend to stay at the dinner table when company’s around. Maybe not for the entire three-hour dinner, but for a good portion of it anyway.
With no basements in London, it occurred to me that they might be envisioning a crypt, which are abundant here, and I left that day hoping my English friends didn’t think Americans kept their children and rubbish in crypts beneath their hundred-acre dude ranches.
Conversations like this, where words need to be teased out for their cultural definition, are not rare; English may be our common language, but we haven’t come to a consensus on what all the words mean. Trickier yet, is the unspoken. When is it appropriate to hug? Laugh? Be direct? Help yourself? Will asking a personal question strike as rude, or demonstrate our friendship? And how long and how well do we need to know each other before we are friends? An hour in America? A year in England?
We might not be aware of it, but we interpret gestures, smiles, jokes, volume, facial expressions through our cultural lens. My friend from West Africa once told me that in her home village if you saw someone you knew you’d shout hello! even from a distance, even from across a busy street. It’d be rude not to, and shouting wasn’t rude. Londoners, in many contexts, would say otherwise.
Neither is right or wrong. It’s culture.
In our three and a half years of living here I’m sure I have overshared, asked insensitive questions, interrupted with too many uh-huhs (very American), and boasted about a deal I snagged (Classic midwestern-ism: Do you like my dress? I got it for a dollar at a garage sale!) in a way that struck my English cousins as odd.
I love being here, I love London life. I’ve learned to accept, even appreciate, silent spaces in conversation, a thoughtful approach to word choice, and a calm exterior and I hope our family’s Americanness has opened the door for others to express a feeling, to get to the heart of the matter, to ask a direct question simply because you’re curious and want to know.
Last summer when I returned to the States, I experienced a kind of social exhale. In my native culture, I didn’t second guess myself or feel perpetually awkward. I could rightly assess (at least I think) context and cues; there was no trying to read between cultural lines, no deciphering nuances and hidden meanings, or at least not nearly as much. Yet I also noticed how loudly and constantly many Americans talk, how freely we gesture, smile, laugh. How we talk over each other, bounce from one topic to the next, insert personal anecdotes whenever we feel like it. Being back with Americans was enjoyable and reassuring and annoying.
Only when we step outside of our surroundings and plop ourselves down elsewhere can we discover what our culture is, unpack it and objectively consider the pieces, poke around, determine what we like and don’t like.
American and British cultures are not opposite. We’re close. But two neighboring notes on a piano can be played to work together or to create dissonance. It depends on the song, it depends on how you play.