America Is Under Attack! Defend Yourselves!

A quick update, and then on to my ostensibly more “profound” observations of life in Britain. My life is pretty much currently non-stop déjà vu of freshman year at Princeton, only better in every way. I’ve spent my last days before the deluge of classes bonding with my roommates, exploring Oxford, setting up my new life, and, of course, signing up for twenty activities for which I will never have time. Today, I even succumbed to the mentality of the herd and wandered down to the boat house amid a horde of undergraduates for the first session of Worcester’s crew team, which, in typically English “athletic” fashion, involved drinking and eating donuts and about four strokes of rowing.

By far and away the defining activity of my time here so far has been sitting in a pub, chatting over a pint. My awkwardness in any social situation notwithstanding, somehow I have managed to get invited out to drinks with all sorts of people (old friends from Princeton, flat-mates, fellow graduates from Worcester, and second year Development Studies students, in the last four nights). So far, I positively love pub culture. Pubs are exactly what I always wished eating clubs or bars were: warm, cozy places to hold a long conversation. I am particularly appreciative of the fact that pubs close at 11 p.m., giving me an excellent excuse to go home and get to sleep at a reasonable hour. It doesn’t hurt that the worst English swill is ten times better than the beer we drink at Princeton.

So far, I’m in awe of Oxford’s diversity—at least intellectually and nationally, if not racially. While as an undergrad, most of my friends had different majors, it really can’t compare to sitting at a table with M.B.A.s, law students, doctoral candidates, and undergraduates all at once. More than anything, though, Oxford is ridiculously international. I know Princeton also has a large international cohort, but the diversity of Oxford is much more pervasive. My program, for example, has only a single student from the U.K. among thirty first-years.

It’s a bit ironic, then, that many of the conversations that I’ve been holding with people from South Africa, Ghana, Thailand, Romania, Germany (to name a few) in those quintessentially English institutions, pubs, are about America. In Uganda, I got used to people asking about America, but I really didn’t expect Europeans also to be quite as fixated on the United States. But—at least so far—they are. And usually, any discussion of the U.S. here quickly turns to indignance or frustration. So far, I’ve found myself on the receiving end of criticisms that range from the absurd (“What are you doing spelling ‘tyre’ with an ‘i’?”) to the pointless (“You really shouldn’t have elected Bush”) to the valid (“You really can’t agree to have universal healthcare?”).
I’m not particularly patriotic, and sometimes I even find myself joining in on the criticism. It seems that laughing about the idiosyncrasies and idiocies of American policy and culture seems to be just an easy, and sometimes almost default, topic of conversation. It’s a good way for an American like me to escape at least one stereotype—that we are arrogant—which seems commonly held. Sometimes, though, I find myself a little bit defensive. What I realized, though, is that my ability to retort is limited. A Romanian friend of my roommate was ranting about how annoyed he was that Obama nixed plans for an anti-Russian (or is it U.S.S.R.?) missile shield in Eastern Europe, which segued into a general denouncement of American politics. I quickly realized that I had nothing to say in response, because while I would love to point out Romanian politics are also probably fairly messed up, I actually don’t know anything about Romanian politics.

I’ve read a lot of literature debating whether or not the United States is disliked because of its culture and values (as G.W.B. argued) or its policies (as every sensible academic asserts). Since these articles are usually about why people in the Middle East chant “Death to America”—not why people in British pubs bitch about the U.S.—I don’t have anything particularly constructive to add. It does strike me, though, that perhaps the source of some resentment is unavoidable, because it stems from the simple fact that American matters so much and no one is quite sure why. An acquaintance from Scotland described to me staying up all night in 2004 to watch the results of the U.S. election come in. It goes without saying that I would never imagine doing the reverse. He was particularly—and rightfully—incredulous when I told him that Barack Obama would probably be hurt among certain constituencies in the U.S. for having received a “peace” award from a European organization at a time when he is attempting to assert his credentials as a strong leader.

One of my goals here is to avoid the stereotypical situation of the American studying abroad who associates solely with other Americans. What I am realizing, though, is that even simple interactions are still loaded from world politics and cultural difference. There is a weird inequality created by my nationality that I haven’t quite sorted through yet.

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