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Austin Chronicle Coming to America

By Stuart Prestige

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  The cultural caricature is a ubiquitous, but often erroneous animal a media-perpetuated stylisation of lands and people we may never meet conspiring to fool us into thinking we actually have. As we can all attest, Frenchman wear berets, Englishmen sip afternoon tea with the Queen, Scotsmen wear kilts, and Italians make love every waking hour of everyday. These cultural myths, however misguided, are often the only comfort we have when venturing into an unknown land, an in-built tourist guide of the subconscious. It was with one such set of preconceptions that at the age of 24 I left England to live in America.

In December of 1997 I sipped my last cup of tea, packed my Bowler hat, bid my faithful butler farewell, and left my homeland for the U.S. of A., with only the following expectations of a land I had never visited: I expected Americans to be loud, who, compared to the softly spoken deferent tones of the English, most certainly are. I expected big cars and got them, skyscrapers taller than the Yorkshire Dales, and an overabundance of corpulent businessmen smoking even more corpulent cigars. I expected movie stars to litter every corner of every street, standing until they were gunned down by the constant flow of drive-by shooters. I expected the bright lights of the McDonald's logo to brighten every shadow, and an ever-present odour of fast food to assault the olfactory nerves, tempting the svelte from their ignorance to the joy of a good burger. I expected to witness numerous grizzly bears, wolves, raccoons, and other forms of exotica rampaging across fields at will, pursued by an equally abundant number of pro-hunt activists wielding all and every form of firearm with Constitutional glee. I expected to be mugged within the hour, asked if I knew the Queen, and to repeatedly utter "Yeah Baby!" with humorous response. I expected the constant shrill of "Yee-Haw!" to fill the air, all males to be wearing cowboy boots, the National Anthem to be sung, with little or no encouragement at even the most insignificant event for a minimum of 20 minutes. I expected big hats, and most of all I expected Americans.

In some respects I was misled by the internal tourist guide I trusted so much. I have yet to see one celebrity and thankfully have yet to be mugged, however, in the nine months that I have resided in this fascinating country I swear I have yet to meet an American. I would consider myself neither insane nor hermetic and in fact have met many, many people. From the accents with which they speak, to their places of birth and upbringing, the majority of the people I have met would be considered, by the layman, to be American. But as I have found, ethnicity goes far deeper than that: I have met a 200-year-old Scotsman who looked remarkably well considering his advanced years; a girl, who by herself could be regarded as a crowd, as she claimed she was half-Japanese, half-Asian, half-French, half-English, and lesser parts of an assortment of other nationalities; a number of African-Americans who have been no nearer to Africa than most Polar Bears; and various other "prefix"-Americans with their link to the chosen "prefix" nation ranging from tenuous to non-existent.

illustration by Jason Stout
Initially I found this trend to be somewhat amusing but also puzzling. In England if you are born there you are English, and only if your parents are from another country can you officially upgrade your title to the extremely exotic "English with foreign parents" category. The most puzzling aspect of this trend, however, was its clash with the notion of pride that Americans exude in monstrous proportions about the fact that they are from America. I would challenge anybody to show me a more openly patriotic nation than the U.S.A., and yet no one would claim that they were 100% pure American.

I then thought this tendency was more indicative of the English's xenophobia the fear of the ridicule that would surely come from espousing such pretentious declarations that you are anything but an Englishman. To declare such a diverse ethnic background in England would also have the effect of lessening your Englishness, diluting your cultural roots, going against the grain of thousands of years of English history.

Being English is about being English.

It then dawned upon me that it is this dearth of history that is the solution to the non-American puzzle. America is a boiling pot of cultures yet to settle down into a definitive, reproducible cliché. Each state has its own individual feel, due to the cultural and ethnic backgrounds of the people who initially settled there, and as a country, America has embraced each and every culture and what they had to bring to the cultural table. Only in America can you find influences in the very way that daily life is lead from every corner of the globe. In no other country is there such access to foods, literature, clothing, and people of such an eclectic nature. In essence, therefore, it is completely and utterly American to claim your non-"Americaness" and is exactly what the ever-changing, elastic American culture, as it stands, is all about.

I, however, am still in pursuit of the trophy hunters dream: the elusive American-American.

Stuart Prestidge left his home outside of Oxford, England to marry a Yankee. He plans on staying in the States for a very, very long time.

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