On Expatriotism

The weird thing about living in Britain is that most of the time it’s not very weird. On the whole, everything works basically the same way as I expect it to: I don’t get run over if I look right before looking left, alcohol’s still legal, and nobody would shoot me if I had political beliefs.  But every so often there’s a quirk, like when people ask me to fetch some “crisps” or when I order rabbit at the pub and they bring me a cheese sandwich. 

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Maybe it’s made from rabbit milk?

It’s a sort of cultural uncanny valley – the very fact that Britain is very nearly the same as home makes it all the more unsettling when it’s different. The natural urge of any expatriot is to denounce these unsettling divergences in the strongest terms possible, because otherwise the Brits might never realise just how wrong their marmite is. Anything unpleasant would never happen back home. No divergence can ever be acknowledged as having potential merit (like having different words for different kinds of deep fried potato). 

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All civilised people know that these are the same thing

It is very easy to go overboard with this. A few weeks ago I heard myself say, “you know, in New Zealand we don’t have insulation, so when you wake up you know it’s a cold day and dress accordingly, but here you get to the door and suddenly discover that it’s freezing!” (Like a savage!)

Apart from becoming a massive whinger, being an expatriot means that all of a sudden your nationality is your most distinctive feature. “Where are you from?” is going to come somewhere in the first three questions you ask a new person. There’s probably more to be said about it than “What’s your name?” and “What are you studying?” (Nobody really cares about what anyone’s studying). All most people know about New Zealand is sheep, hobbits, and rugby, so context makes me an instant expert and people are pretty keen to learn about Kiwi customs if it will make me stop talking about Sicilian numismatics.

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Look how the dolphins recall the  earlier windmill incuse design! Isn’t that fascinating?

 

This quickly gets out of hand: in my first week here I found myself trapped in a protracted conversation about Team New Zealand’s performance at the America’s Cup. It’s presumably more difficult for people from countries which actually matter, who get called on to defend actions of their government that they may never have heard of. You can’t know everything about even a small country; my knowledge of New Zealand is full of gaps of varying severity: I can’t name a single All Black, I can’t remember when matariki is, and I haven’t the slightest clue how to shear a sheep. But there are only 68 of us at the University; if I say that shearing involves throwing the dags in the direction of R’lyeh, who’s going to know any better?

Especially when one mostly brings up home as a foil for the foibles  of everyday British life or in order to make up silly stories, it’s very easy to forget all the faults of everyday life at home. Really, everyday life is mostly the same in both places – the price of milk’s the same, even. And it may be annoying that everyone expects you to pay in cash here and that the Sun is rarely seen – but, really, back home it’s equally annoying that… hmm… that buying things is more convenient and the weather is glorious? I don’t think this is quite where I was going with this…

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3 thoughts on “On Expatriotism

  1. Can’t name a single All Black? What about Victor Vito, BA in Classics, Victoria University of Wellington. Oh sorry, he got dropped from the team. You’re right, can’t name a single All Black.

  2. Just wait. One day, there will be a heavy night out when, on the way home, you decide to start running down the middle of the street, and decide to start singing the national anthem. In Maori.

    I never did that, naturally.

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