A Wellie-wearing, Tea-drinking, Englishman in Nashville
“I don’t drink coffee, I take tea, my dear,
I like my toast done on one side,
And you can hear it in my accent when I talk
I’m an Englishman in New York.”
With Nashville substituted for New York, this song by Sting has become my theme since arriving at Vanderbilt in 2007. I find myself humming the melody as I walk across campus to class, and when I contemplate the lyrics, I realize that Sting was right. Even though I speak the language, I sometimes stick out as a foreigner. From food choices to clothing to the sound of my voice, I really am an alien. A welcomed and legal alien, but an alien all the same: an Englishman in Nashville.
The first time I stepped foot in Tennessee was August 2007, a week before classes started. I arrived at Nashville International Airport armed with two suitcases and a backpack, appliances pre-ordered online from Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond, and an interest in American political science. Many people say I should have visited the school I was going to attend in advance, but there hadn’t been time. My weeklong U.S. college tour the previous summer had focused on Northeastern schools—those best known in England. Yet conversations with my best friend’s mother, a Vanderbilt alumna living in the U.K., piqued my interest. However reckless it seemed, I was secretly glad that I hadn’t visited my future home: It appealed to my impulsive side and added to the adventure.
However as I got out of the plane, felt the 110 degree Fahrenheit (43 degree Celsius) heat, and heard the voice of Dolly Parton welcoming me, the realization hit. I was definitely not in England anymore. Even though I was excited, I began to feel a little nervous.
I had been warned of the differences between America and England, but the variations most Englishmen see when they go on vacation are the obvious ones. “Don’t forget they drive on the other side of the road,” they said. “Remember they spell words differently.” These are differences one can learn from watching any Hollywood movie.
Once here, I noticed the less obvious, perhaps things that are more Southern, things most Americans don’t think about being different. I found a sweet potato is a dessert as well as a vegetable, that country is a well-liked form of music, strangers say hi on the street, and it costs money to both make and receive phone calls. Even though I had been to America before, in the South I felt naïve, like a newborn baby. Gone were the things of home: the narrow country lanes, the Marmite, the silence on the Tube, and of course, the rain.
Not only did I have to modify my everyday life, but I also had to adjust to a completely different school system. My education back in England had been at an all-girls boarding school called Wycombe Abbey. It was everything Americans imagine a typical English boarding school to be. In many ways, it was like Hogwarts. Instead of magic spells and wands, we had calculus and pencils, and instead of Quidditch, we had lacrosse, but it was still rather similar. On campus was a forest we couldn’t enter, our main school building was a castle, and our uniform included striped shirts, ties, kilts and long cloaks.
As classes began, I began to notice that although some differences didn’t matter—no uniforms and men and women attending classes together—there were others that did. Phrases and writing techniques my classmates understood were foreign to me. In my first-year writing seminar, one early homework assignment was to identify the thesis of an article. I remember looking bewilderedly at the professor and my classmates as they nodded and wrote the assignment in their diaries. A thesis? Wasn’t that the article itself? Later I embarrassedly asked the professor what exactly a thesis was. I discovered it to be a statement of argument, not a 20-50 page paper, as it is in England.
I continued to learn the ways of an American university. I quickly learnt that instead of the final grade of a class resting on one exam, assignments throughout the semester also contributed. I attempted new things, joined new organizations, and considered classes that I didn’t necessarily think I would enjoy. With the help of multiple cups of tea, bars of Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate and new friends who laughed with me, I slowly but surely muddled through my first semester in the College of Arts and Science, aka American College Life 101.
When I went home for Christmas, excited to see my family and England again, another realization hit. After having lived in America for only three and a half months, I looked at my country through a completely different lens. England actually looked downsized compared to America. As I looked out the car window at the cottages and village greens passing by, the word that came to mind was “quaint.”
As soon as I thought it, I wanted to kick myself. Quaint? Who, apart from American tourists, uses that word to describe England? English people definitely do not. This time, I saw what they were talking about. It wasn’t an insult—England is just on a smaller scale.
With the help of multiple cups of tea, bars of Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate and new friends who laughed with me, I slowly but surely muddled through my first semester in the College of Arts and Science, aka American College Life 101.
Attending the College of Arts and Science has opened my eyes to the world and has made me versatile. More than a year later, instead of a tea-drinking, Cadbury Dairy Milk-chocolate-eating English schoolgirl, I am a student who listens to country music whilst reading the BBC News Web site. I am a girl who uses American colloquialisms whilst walking across campus in her wellies. I have both U.S. dollars and pounds sterling in my wallet. While I still find American politics interesting, I have found my true passion: history. Not only the history of a different country, but relooking at the history I already know from a different perspective. So now, perhaps, instead of being an Englishman in Nashville feeling slightly out of place, I combine two cultures, am able to fit in, and have wonderful friends in both places. I am an American college student with an English heritage.
Sophomore Ruth Kinsey is a double major in German and history. She hopes to eventually work as a journalist.
photo credit: John Russell (top)