An Englishman at Notre Dame

Author: Peter Wicks


Four years have passed since I left England to study in the United States. In that time I have of course learned much about America, and I have also made some interesting discoveries about myself.

Nothing surprising about that, you might say; self-discovery is one of the reasons people visit foreign countries. Quite so, but I have nevertheless been surprised at times by exactly what it is I have discovered. I think it’s safe to say, for example, that if I had not come to America I would never have found out that I cannot pronounce my own name.

In the United States, when I meet someone for the first time the conversation follows a certain routine. Things start to go wrong as soon as my new acquaintance tells me his or her name (Alex, let’s say), which puts the onus on me to reciprocate in kind. The next part of the conversation proceeds as predictably as if it had been scripted in advance. Here is the script:

“I’m Alex,” Alex says, reasonably enough, probably while giving my hand a friendly shake, “and you are?”

“Peter,” I reply, these days with a certain amount of trepidation. I know what’s coming next.

“Pizza?” Alex asks.

I wait a moment before replying, allowing Alex to register the fact that he has just asked me if my name is Pizza. Then I say “Peter” again, slowly, trying my best to enunciate both syllables clearly. To be fair to Alex, since I have never been able to work out exactly how the syllables are supposed to sound, it is unlikely that this actually helps matters.

“Pita?” Alex says, as if exploring the possibility that I might be an unleavened bread popular in Greece. It’s usually at this point that I give in and resort to spelling.

As well as introducing a note of awkwardness into otherwise friendly encounters, this inability to pronounce my name so as to foreclose the possibility that I might be a Mediterranean foodstuff threatened to prevent me from enjoying that great American institution, home-delivered pizza.

The problem was convincing the people on the other end of the phone line that I was making a bona fide attempt to place an order. Since from their point of view every time they asked for my name I just kept repeating the word “pizza” at gradually increasing volume, their skepticism was wholly understandable. Under the circumstances it was entirely reasonable for them to conclude that they were talking to a drunken frat boy too consumed by alcohol-induced pizza-craving to remember his own name.

At first I dealt with this conundrum by delegating these calls to my roommate, who was born and raised in New Jersey and knows a thing or two about ordering pizza. This arrangement lasted for almost a year before it occurred to us that there was an easier solution; I could lie. So now I can order pizza by employing the following Machiavellian subterfuge; when asked for my name I say “David.” This works out better for me, for my roommate and also for the pizza delivery boy since, being unsure of the moral status of my deception, I always overtip.

Now I would be the first to admit that all of the above falls far short of constituting the sort of problem country songs get written about. As an Englishman studying at Notre Dame, I have no elaborate tales of cross-cultural misunderstanding. My name game is as bad as it gets.

The truth about being English at Notre Dame, at least in my experience, is that it’s easy. Sometimes I even feel guilty about just how easy it is, because the University has provided all sorts of resources and services for its international students, and, with one exception, I never make use of any of them. The exception is this: Each year a student from the business school does my taxes, a service provided free of charge to all international students, and one for which I am eternally grateful.

Come to think of it, at Notre Dame it may be easier to be English than to be American; you guys have to do your own taxes.

I think it was the great Czech director Milos Forman who said that there are two places you feel at home: at home and in America. I wouldn’t go quite that far. There are certainly plenty of things about America that remind me that I am in a foreign country, but since I came to this country the culture shock has never amounted to more than mild turbulence. I may not understand the rules of baseball, but I don’t understand the rules of cricket either, and I played the game for five years.

When I first talk to Americans, after we get past the whole “pizza” thing, there is admittedly sometimes a brief period of polite incomprehension, during which time they usually smile and nod noncommittally in the way that people do when they cannot make out what is being said to them but are confident that it does not include threats of physical violence or a proposal of marriage. Within a few minutes they tune in to my accent, and then the conversation usually goes so smoothly that it’s easy to forget we are from different countries.

This may come as a surprise to those of you who are familiar with the adage that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. Most of the great British quotables, from George Bernard Shaw to Bertrand Russell, seem to have produced a version of this aphorism (I have even seen the saying attributed to Winston Churchill, although that doesn’t prove anything; all the best quotations get attributed to Winston Churchill eventually). The earliest quip on this theme that I know of was provided not by a Brit but by an Irishman. In The Canterville Ghost, Oscar Wilde has the narrator say “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”

Although I am reluctant to dispute the consensus of such an august pantheon of wits, I have found that the rumors of a great divide between American English and English English have been greatly exaggerated. There are certainly words and phrases that Americans use and Brits do not (and of course vice versa), but it is rare that I will encounter an Americanism that I do not recognize.

What Wilde, Shaw and Russell have in common, aside from sharp tongues and large egos, is that they lived before the advent of an international Anglophone culture dominated by American films, television and music. True fluency depends not just upon knowledge of the meanings of words but also shared reference points. These days Brits in America quickly find that we have both.

My friend Mark will serve as a useful illustration of how much has changed since the days of Wilde and Shaw. Some years ago Mark became a devotee of the television show Dawson’s Creek, a coming-of-age drama set in rural Massachusetts. Mark told me that he liked the show because it reminded him of his childhood growing up in America. This might not sound all that strange until you consider that Mark did not grow up in America. Like me, Mark grew up in a small village in the southeast of England. He had not even set foot in the United States until he was well into his 20s. But, like the rest of us, he grew up watching American television, and now he finds that watching shows like Dawson’s Creek makes him nostalgic for the American childhood that he sometimes forgets he never had.

While growing up with American popular culture gives people like me an effortless sense of cosmopolitanism, the common ground thus gained comes at a cost. I do not think the problem is one of quality, which is not to say that America has not produced plenty of programs that make me wince. When I first heard the premise of The Bachelor I worried that this was the show that would finally provoke God to destroy the City of Los Angeles unless 10 righteous producers could be found within its walls.

In England we like to complain about the baleful influence of American television almost as much as we like to watch it. For us such programs as Temptation Island offer an added benefit not available to their domestic audience: We get not only the salacious viewing pleasure but also the frisson of superiority that comes from being able to congratulate ourselves that this sort of thing could only be produced in America. This is true, but not for the reason supposed; the British television networks are prevented from creating shows like Temptation Island by their limited budgets, not any highly developed sense of propriety.

Besides, while it is true that a sizable proportion of American television shows can only be the result of an unannounced competition between the networks to see how far they can lower the bar—a sort of moral limbo dancing—it is also true that the best American television is the best in the world. So if you have been watching The Simple Life with Paris Hilton, it’s probably about time to admit to yourself that this is because you like it and not because there is nothing better on.

The real problem with American pop culture is not that it is bad but that it’s pop culture, and hence ephemeral. It has to be. The obsolescence built into pop culture is, as designers like to say, not a bug but a feature. Room always needs to be made for the new new thing. You can see this by browsing any magazine rack and surveying the countless periodicals committed devoted to the ongoing search for the newest star, the hottest band, the most recent book sensation, and of course the new diet that will allow you to fit into the latest fashions.

I can travel around America, and to some extent around the English-speaking world, confident that I will have grown up listening to many of the same songs and watching many of the same films and television shows as the people I meet. The catch (and it’s a big one) is that this applies only when the people I meet are relatively close to my age. A shared pop culture helps forge connections horizontally but makes it harder to connect vertically, across generations. It is said that the family of the 21st century is made up of friends and not relatives. That’s exactly what you would expect in an accelerated culture. My generation has less in common with our parents than any previous generation in history, and our children will have less in common with us.

One might hope that education could serve as a corrective here. Cicero said that the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present. Or maybe it was Winston Churchill. Either way, schools have not been immune to the bias toward the new. On the contrary, eager to keep up with the latest thinking on pedagogy, educators have joined in a large scale capitulation to students; a capitulation often made with the best of intentions, but a capitulation nonetheless. Our age, as Flannery O’Connor noted, is the first in history that has asked the child what he would tolerate learning. Some schools still manage to instill in their students a sense of history and a familiarity with some of the permanent works of art, music and literature, and those schools that are most successful by Cicero’s measure do not seem to be any worse in preparing their students for modern life. On the whole however, education is in a bad way, and this is just as true in Britain as it is in the United States. So that’s another thing we have in common.

Since coming to Notre Dame, I have often been asked—on both sides of the Atlantic—how British and American educations compare. A widely shared prejudice amongst the British holds that Americans are poorly educated, and I often find that people are disappointed to hear that this prejudice seems to be based on nothing but the wish that it should be so. The British are attracted to the idea that a British education is superior because, confronted by the world’s undisputed superpower, it is comforting to believe that there is still something we can do better. What has surprised me is that the idea of the superiority of British education also holds considerable appeal among Americans. Some are Anglophiles, but I suspect that in most cases the reason why many Americans think that the problems with America’s schools are peculiar to the United States rather than part of a trend observable in Britain, Europe and throughout the modern world is that they want to believe that they are the result of, and potentially correctable by, government policy.

I do think there are some real differences between British and American students however. I have managed to shock more than a few of Notre Dame’s faculty members by telling them that I am convinced that, generally speaking, American undergraduates are better organized and harder working than students at similarly prestigious British universities.

They are better organized because they have to be. At British universities students don’t work toward liberal arts degrees but focus entirely on one subject. They do not have to juggle five or more potentially unrelated courses every semester, an arrangement that makes good time-management especially important.

As for American students working harder, this might just be part of the American work ethic. But I suspect it has more to do with the sense of investment that comes from undergraduate education in the United States being so astronomically expensive. In Britain, where until very recently all tuition was paid for directly by the state (and where the legal drinking age is 18), there are many more students who essentially regard their university as a state-subsidized bar to which lecture halls have inexplicably been attached.

American colleges like to recruit students who have demonstrated achievement in a range of domains. Elite schools like Notre Dame (yes, I know, there are no other schools like Notre Dame, but suppose for a moment that comparison is possible) get to recruit many students who are absurdly accomplished for their age—Resume Gods, as columnist David Brooks likes to call them. Last year one of the incoming class of undergraduates arrived at Notre Dame having just won a gold medal for fencing at the Olympic Games in Athens. As far as I can remember, when I was her age my greatest accomplishment was completing the computer game Doom on the “insane” difficulty setting.

While some of the graduate students at Notre Dame are tied to their laboratories, in my day-to-day studies I work with books and articles rather than, say, NMR spectrometers, so I have a certain freedom in where I spend my vacations. I usually manage to make a short visit to England over Christmas and a substantially longer one during the summer months. While back in England people often ask me questions about America, including “What’s America like?” This is what we in the education business like to call an “open question,” indeed it’s the kind of question you could fall into and not be able to get out. Generally, when asked what America is like, I just say “big.”

Of course we Brits know that the United States is large, but the sheer magnitude of the place is something we only understand in an abstract way; it never quite sinks in to our imaginations. So when I said before that Britain and America are not separated by a common language, I could have mentioned an exception: The American word “near,” as used in sentences like “South Bend is near Chicago,” is untranslatable into British English.

While I don’t presume to be able to tell my fellow Brits what America is like, I do try to disabuse them of some of their sillier prejudices about America, like the belief that Americans spend all their time telling each other to have a nice day. I try to point out, aside from the inherent implausibly of the idea that America could maintain its supremacy in the world economy if its people made nothing but verbal gestures of good will toward one another, that the small fragment of truth from which this myth derives—the fact that in American restaurants and bars the waitstaff are generally upbeat and friendly — hardly qualifies as an indictment of American culture. Of course it’s true that the person serving your pasta probably does not really care how well your day goes, but that doesn’t show that American culture is phony any more than my saying “pleased to meet you” to people the meeting of whom has not been accompanied by any noticeable feelings of pleasure makes me a hypocrite.

While living in the United States I have found the Americans I have met to be genuinely friendly, and I have lost track of the number of people who have barely had a chance to assimilate the fact that my name is significantly less exotic than it first sounded before they have invited me into their homes for a meal. Notre Dame, of course, prides itself on being a welcoming family, and in my case it certainly has been. I have also now visited five of the Midwestern states and met countless people resolutely determined to confirm the stereotype of the friendly Midwesterner.

New York, which I first visited some years before I came here to study, is, of course, a very different matter. New Yorkers, or so it seemed to me, are rude not out of animosity but of duty and civic pride. I got the impression that they were working on the not unreasonable assumption that if you wanted your day to go easily you wouldn’t be in New York, and if you managed to visit without being shouted at by a complete stranger it would be like going to Disneyland and never seeing Mickey Mouse.

New York was also where I first experienced the strange sense of half-belonging that foreigners often encounter in America, especially those for whom English is their mother tongue. Walking around uptown Manhattan soon after my arrival I was struck by how much of it I already knew. The streets and especially the yellow cabs were familiar images from countless films. I recognized Columbia’s Low Library (from Ghostbusters), the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine (featured briefly in Six Degrees of Separation) and of course Tom’s Restaurant (from both Seinfeld and the Suzanne Vega song “Tom’s Diner”). So for a while I was feeling quite pleased with myself for being on such familiar terms with a new city, but then I walked past a policeman and noticed the gun on his belt, and I stopped dead.

It is not that I did not know that American policemen carry guns. Any minimally attentive—indeed any minimally conscious—filmgoer knows that. But until I saw that gun, that loaded gun, there is a sense in which that know3ledge had not been real for me.

I am not trying to make any point about gun policy here. However I will note, purely as an anecdotal observation, that in England, where policemen do not carry guns, I have seen far fewer overweight cops than I have in America, where they do. You can make of that what you will.

Familiarity based on films, television and music, punctuated by a sudden reminder that I was far from home; that first afternoon in New York set the pattern for my subsequent years as a student at Notre Dame and my experience of the United States so far. After four years here I find that, unlike Milos Forman, I don’t quite feel at home, but I’ve had a lot of nice days.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department at Notre Dame. His biweekly column, “Englishman Abroad,” has been published in the Viewpoint section of The Observer since the fall of 2002.