John Walker's Electronic House

Culture Shock

by on Oct.17, 2005, under The Rest

If there’s one topic of conversation I’m the most boring and irritating about when in America, it’s comparing and contrasting the nation with the UK. I hear myself beginning another sentence with, “In the UK this is…” or “Do you guys have…”, and cringe as much as those around me. I’m going to get some sort of kit that will electrocute me every time I do it.

But it happens so frequently because of the dramatic difference between the US and UK. It seems counter-intuitive when you consider how much of our cultural intake is in common, the shared language, and to some extent, the same commercial empires. But this is only aesthetic. The two nations are as diverse and peculiar as two countries on opposite sides of the planet might otherwise be expected to be. It trips me up so often that I voice my surprise, and become the stuck record.

I have a theory that the Brits fictionalise America. Because so much of British television, and almost all shown at the cinema, is American, the nation and its semiotic flags become markers of our fantasy fiction. If you’re watching a film about dragons, and you see a twisty castle on the top of a cliff, you don’t question this. There are no twisty castles on the tops of cliffs in your life, but because this is a film about dragons, you accept it entirely. But you still recognise it as fiction. I think the same occurs when Brits see images of children playing in fire hydrants on street corners, steam rising from of drain covers in the middle of a road, or high school sororities selecting who can try out for the cheerleader squad. It’s all pretend – the stuff of movies – fantasy. But of course, it’s all real.

Everyone does have huge refrigerators. There are keg parties. Yellow school buses do take kids to school. People’s houses really are toilet-papered (there’s two on this street currently tpd). Mail boxes do have flags on them to show when there’s mail inside. All these iconic images that tell us that we’re watching American output are not exaggerations, but life. To come here, to see it all for real, is to at once break the illusion and feel as if you’re within it.

This is not romaticising – it is, in fact, the opposite. It’s recognising the iconic as mundane, removing a layer of disbelief from US TV and movies.

And I want to live here. Which makes things awkward.

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