Generally I get asked 2-3 times a week where I’m from. My reply usually elicits one of three responses. The first is an argument, because the person asking had already decided, and maybe even bet, that I’m Australian, or at a pinch from New Zealand. Once I was asked if I was from Austria. I’m hoping they meant Australia because I can forgive that, seeing as most Americans grasp of world geography is on a par with Europeans living in the 1400s. In some extreme cases I’m identified as South African, but that’s probably based on their misinterpretation of my saying that I was raised in a small village. Yes and my father is the tribal headshrinker.
The best is when some know-it-all strolls up, having heard my accent and says: “So what part of Australia are you from?”
Oh, you know, I reply, “the bit that lies about 14,000 miles off the coast of Sydney.”
Actually, that’s one of my old stand-up bits, but it still works and it’s still true. The second response is a little nod and a smile, accompanied by a not-so-covert scanning of the room for an ally. This indicates that they haven’t understood a word I said, which marks me as a foreigner and undesirable. Or a terrorist. A smilarly blank response can be found when one Brit is introduced to another by a mutual friend, who clearly hasn’t understood the main purpose of emigration. Namely to get away from other Brits.
The third response is also the most common. This is the ‘need to find common ground’ approach and the most irritating of all. First of all, if you tell people you’re from England they’ll create some random segue by telling you how hilarious they find some dreadful imported show they watch on PBS. I’m so sick of explaining how heinous I find shows like Keeping Up Appearances, Are You Being Served and Benny Hill, that now I just deny any knowledge of them and explain that they were probably just made for the American market. After this, most people ask what part of England I’m from. Usually I’ll just say London because it’s easy and I know that once I tell them I’ve never stepped foot inside Harrods and never will, they tend to shut up. Occasionally I’ll say I’m from the South-East and this is the cue for more feigned interest. Why? You don’t know anything about the place and you won’t remember this conversation in 5 minutes. Generally, I think the purpose of this question is to demonstrate some basic understanding of the layout of Britain, before then proving quite the opposite:
“OK fine, I’m from Kent, near the coast”
“Well how about that! I have a friend/cousin/ hairdresser/babysitter/chiropodist living in Grimsby”
*This is delivered in a tone of amazement at the proximity of the two places, which are in fact at opposite ends of the country. Then I’ll be told that person’s name, as if the mention of it will trigger some deep memory in me. Oh my goodness, not THE Mary Smith? Sometimes it won’t even be a place in England that they mention. It’ll be Scotland, Ireland or Wales, the latter of which I refuse to even be drawn into conversation about.
Americans are fascinated by Scotland and Ireland. Given the number people here who claim to be descendants of the Scottish or Irish, it’s a wonder there’s anyone left there. Martin ‘Ramon’ Sheen has something to answer for with his ‘Irish legacy’ TV promo spots for the Ireland Tourism Board, but then again it is Martin Sheen and since he became President it’s been illegal to trash him. Though I find something a little Michael Jackson-ish about him giving a ‘Presidential’ Pardon to Irish Peace Activists earlier this year. But on the whole, claims of Irish descendency have a decent level of truth to them.
Scotland is another matter. Americans regularly make pilgrimages to Scotland to seek out their clan and the Scots just see them coming. Spin them some old yarn about knowing their family, direct them to an empty overgrown field and tell them it was a battle site and mention Flora MacDonald. Once you’ve got them hooked, sell them a box of traditional Shortbread that was made in Ohio and a clan family crest with a Latin inscription that translates to ‘My relatives went to Scotland and all they got was this lousy motto’. And of course no-one’s just from Scotland or just from Ireland. They’re all Scottish on my mother’s side, Irish on my father’s, part French and a quarter Afghan Hound. Americans just seem to have this need to trace their ancestry and then brag about it, good or bad. Some keep it closer to home. Try finding a male Italian-American who doesn’t claim his family belonged to the Mafia. [And try finding a woman who’d date him] And it just warms me to think of future generations of Bloods and Crips as they trace their grandfather’s first murder, third illegitimate child, fourth prison stretch and more.
What I really love though is those Americans who claim their relatives came over on the Mayflower. A bit of bragging is ok. I told my primary school class that my dad was a squadron leader in the Battle of Britain. But I can’t help thinking that the Pilgrim Fathers would have been better off chartering a P&O Cruiseliner to accommodate the number of people who must have made that trip. And think about how much more fun those 66 days at sea could have been with a few games of Shuffleboard.
Footnote:*Very occasionally this rant is entirely uncalled for. This is in cases where the person actually does know the South-East of England and is even familiar with the village where you grew up. These people are to be avoided as they’re probably the same ones that you overcharged in the pub for two shandy’s and a packet of Smokey Bacon crisps, when you were 17 and fancied a laugh.