Lessons in Being American Part 1

In my Making Friends in the USA post, I wrote about my state of mind when approaching social situations on campus. I was haunted by some bad experiences in the UK. Failure at my new college seemed predestined too. And yet, somehow, I found myself with some truly amazing friends in less than two weeks of being a student at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. I covered those two anxious and incredible weeks in the previous episodes of this series. Now it’s time to cover what happened next.

A routine that quickly established itself was the idea that we would go and grab food whenever we wanted it. We’d have an early dinner and then a late dinner, which Akbar and the Malaysians would always excitedly refer to as “Second Dinner-la!” (it being the custom of Malaysians to add the word “la” to basically anything). The Second Dinners were usually more social, and it was then that I got to be introduced to Akbar and Aaron’s network of friends that resided on lower campus. I was quiet for most of the time, and I kept close to Aaron. No one seemed to question my place at the table, and I guess it evokes that famous quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that you shouldn’t “worry about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do”. It was something I kept going over in my head. I imagined how the folks of lower campus would view me, thinking that from their perspective I had arrived out of thin air, and instantaneously struck up a strong friendship with Aaron. People knew now that wherever he went, I went. It sounds lame, but that’s how it was. I’m programmed to seek out intense, close connections, so when I find a friend that reciprocates I latch onto them. This trait of mine is important, because it determined exactly how my exchange would turn out. On the one hand, I was no longer pursuing any further friendships; I am sure that many doors were then closed off to me. On the other hand however, I had planted a seed that would grow over the years and open up even better doors for the future. It’s precisely because of this particular friendship that I have been living here in the USA on a seasonal basis ever since, and through which I obtained another friendship no less equal in its greatness with my introduction to Aaron’s childhood sweetheart (and now-fiancée Anne-Marie).

Breakfast would be had whenever Aaron and I were both awake, which given our tendency to play Modern Warfare 3 and binge-watch Breaking Bad until the early hours of the morning, was usually at about 2pm. We would go for cereal after most other folks on campus had already finished their lunch. It was always quiet at that time, as students typically spend most of the early afternoon hours in class or asleep. I would always opt for this American cereal called Fruit Loops, because it was coated in sugar. As a little kid I loved to eat cereal and then have plenty of milk left in the bowl, hopefully covered in sugar. I had a best friend called Tristan, and during the sleepovers I had at his house, we’d get up in the morning and eat cereal. Once that was done, he’d declare loudly “Now we’re on to the milk challenge!” and we’d grab the bowls and tip the milk into our mouths. I remember having this habit trained out of me by my parents, who described my behavior as “savage”. The proper way for an Englishman to take care of any leftover milk was to use a spoon, my mother told me, in a voice that was somehow both sweet and draconian. Fast forward twelve years and I’m eating cereal with my current best friend Aaron in the Hilltop Café, overlooking the bright colors of the American college campus and the Chippewa River beyond.

“What’s wrong with you?” Aaron asks me, watching in horror as I daintily spoon the milk into my mouth.

“Sorry!” I have a habit of apologizing without yet knowing my crime.

“Stop that willya? You’re in America now. In America, we take our milk like a shot,” and with that he tipped his head back and downed the bowl’s contents in a single, masterful stroke. The process was liberating. I never spooned my milk again. I cradled my bowl between my thumb and palm and felt like a noble Cossack on the eve of battle, taking a shot of vodka. I’d wipe my mouth on my sleeve with deliberate gruffness, and the gradual Americanization of my mannerisms seemed to begin much as a snake sheds its skin. The milk incident was one I always reflected on as being a great metaphor for my impression of American life, and the adoption of my shy and anxious self by a culture that seemed so direct, open and unpretentious. The Americans by and large have no need for ceremony. I remember a story my host parents used to tell me; they said that when they visited England, they and their English friends decided to crack open a bottle of wine together. My host parents produced some plastic cups and watched in astonishment how this sent the English into a frenzy. Their English friends insisted that wine must be drank out of a wine glass, and rushed back to their place to grab some. It was something I had never thought about before, but it seemed to ring so true. You learn a lot about your own culture by immersing yourself in another one. I’d been on vacations to other countries before, but you can only learn so much being a tourist. For the first time I was living in another country, and everywhere I went it seemed like a mirror was being held up that revealed my own sense of “Englishness”. I recalled all the times my parents insisted that milk could only be drank out of a mug, and that the idea of drinking it out of a glass sent shudders down their spine. I remember as a kid only being able to eat with my fork in my right hand, and my parents trying so hard to instill in me the English virtues that a fork was to be held in one’s left hand and a knife in one’s right. Everyone I know in the UK eats like that. Now, I realize that my parents are of an older generation and that these kinds of customs are probably dying out amongst the young, but even something as small as the way we hold our silverware reveals so much about us as a culture. Recently I was at a wedding in Witney, England. An American wedding. Aaron’s sister Elizabeth was getting married to an Englishman that- for the purposes of this blog and its commitment to pseudonyms- we shall call George. As I went to dinner with Elizabeth’s siblings Aaron, Joseph, and Danielle, I noticed all the little aspects of British culture they were picking up on. It reminded me of the things I noticed in 2012. Joseph and Danielle said to me “Apparently it’s considered impolite over here not to place your knife and fork next to each other, evenly across the plate, after finishing a meal. Is that true?”

It is. Each nation has its collective psyche that trickles down into all these subtleties that only emerge through comparison. These subtleties are representative of their nation’s character profile, its narrative voice. There’s a reason I so often refer to my social anxiety and my struggles with depression in this study abroad series. My experience of America will be completely different to someone else’s. I am not so interested in the America that actually is, so much as I am the America that I have created. It’s obvious now that my student exchange was shaped by my anxiety, but it’s also become apparent through writing this that my impression of America, and what it means to me, is a personal one. My America is emblematic of my state of mind at the time. And ultimately that’s what I hope to share with you in this blog series. I want to share my personal discovery of America, because another person will surely go on the exact same exchange and form a completely different impression of the land around them. How we react to stimuli is determined by so many factors; not just our past experiences and belief systems, but by contextual factors as well. Technically, I’m not at all the same person as the Michael Vowles that first visited the USA in 2012. Every cell that physically made up my body then has since been replaced. All that remains of that person are his memories. I was going through different things then as I am now. And yes, if I were to visit the USA for the first time at the age of 24 instead of 19, surely what I create out of it will be different, but it’s a moot point. I am who I am today because of what I went through in those few, cold months of 2012. My perception of the USA, though it evolves week by week, will forever be formed out of the very distinct impressions I made back then.

I’m different now. And I wonder how powerful something as small as drinking milk out of the bowl could have been in the unmaking of myself. But we’re just getting started, of course. There’s so much more to discuss. Want to find out? Stay tuned for the next essay in this series!




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4 Replies to “Lessons in Being American Part 1”

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