Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A deprived childhood?

We were having a family conversation recently about what to have for Christmas lunch. Growing up in the UK, it was almost always turkey. I remember having goose once, but turkey was the traditional choice. Here in the US we always have turkey at Thanksgiving of course, and with Christmas only a month later we in this household always end up discussing whether we should have turkey 'yet again' or have something else. Personally, I like turkey and would be quite happy to eat it 'yet again', i.e. for the second time in the calendar year. However, so long as I'm not doing the cooking (and I never do for special occasions) I don't really mind because I know my dear husband will always produce a wonderful meal whatever the choice. The decision tends to be to buy some really good beef, and some salmon for those of us who don't really like beef. The little ones are encouraged to have some of each. It's very nice of the chef to cook fish for me when he hates it so much! He does a good job too!

Well, we were having the usual discussion and the Little American overheard us. She apparently then spent some time thinking about it. On the way home from school a day or so later she asked if she could request something special for Christmas lunch. "What would you like?" I asked. "A really special treat. Can we PLEASE go to McDonald's for Christmas lunch?" "You want to go WHERE? WHEN? You have got to be kidding!!!"

Actually, it wasn't such a bizarre request. You have to understand that McDonald's is not somewhere we ever go. The Little American has had food from that establishment precisely once, and I can tell you exactly when: she'd had 10 stitches after tripping and slamming her head* into a wall, and her father (for some inexplicable reason**) decided that it would help make her feel better if he went through the drive-through and bought her some french fries. So, yes, to her it is something special. However, although we may be depriving her of a truly American childhood, Christmas lunch at McDonald's will only happen over her parents' dead bodies.

* As my mother used to say, "Not to worry, it's only her head!"
** They'd already given her ice cream at the hospital - she needed another treat?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

First, shoot your turkey

Ask a class of seven and eight year olds how you prepare a turkey for Thanksgiving and you get some interesting answers. In today's class a large proportion of the boys' answers started with variations of "First, kill your turkey." Yes, we live in a rural area where there are flocks of wild turkeys, and people do hunt them.

The Littlest American agreed when I asked him where we are going to get our turkey from for tomorrow's lunch. "In the woods. First you have to shoot it and then you have to get the chicken out of it."

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Unclear on the concept

The Little American made a 'Happy Thanksgiving' card for her cousins in London yesterday. I can't blame her for not realising that Thanksgiving is an American holiday given the number of American adults who have asked me over the years how we celebrate Thanksgiving in the UK or if I miss my family at Thanksgiving.

In fact when I asked her, she really had very little clue what Thanksgiving is about at all - this despite having been 'taught' about it in school every year for at least the last three years and at daycare before that.

We emailed the card to her cousins anyway and there will be a forthcoming trip to the library to find some good books about Thanksgiving.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Unicorn bits

When I left the UK 21 years ago, Halloween was not a particularly big deal there. We never went trick-or-treating and didn't carve pumpkins. I do remember bobbing for apples. I also remember trying to carve what I think must have been turnips at Guides - boy, was that hard! One of my nephews celebrates his birthday at the end of October and for one of his birthday parties when he was very little I sent over a box of Halloween related stuff - paper plates and cups, and decorations. My sister had asked me to send them over because it wasn't easy to find them in the UK. She's told me that's no longer the case. I believe it as my brother has just sent me pictures of the pumpkins he carved with his kids this week - beautifully done - and the kids and his wife trying on their costumes before the big night. Fun as it is for them, I think it's a bit sad really - another example of the homogenization of cultures.

We live in a neighborhood with lots of kids and Halloween is definitely a big deal here. I forget how many pounds of candy we got through last year and I'm a bit worried I haven't bought enough for this year. Of course I'd rather have too much than too little. The leftover candy always gets eaten eventually, so it's not wasted. It does contribute significantly to the seasonal weight gain though - Halloween followed by Thanksgiving and Christmas. Three occasions for overeating, all too close together. We have neighbors who give out stickers instead of candy, which I think is a great idea. A dentist friend always has a bowl of candy and a bowl of toothbrushes. It's amazing how popular the toothbrushes are with the kids!

Many schools here are careful about how they deal with Halloween as there are families that strongly disapprove of it for religious reasons (even to the point of keeping their kids home from school for the day.) The Littlest American had a Halloween celebration at his pre-school on Friday though - they were trying to spread out the sugar high. He had a wonderful time wearing his frog costume and trick-or-treating. He said his favorite treat of the day was the 'unicorn bits' on the cupcakes. It took us a while to figure out that he was talking about candy corn - a popular candy at this time of year. We asked who told him it was called unicorn bits and he insists he decided on that name for himself. Seems like a good name for it.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Lingering memories of last Christmas

The Littlest American was asking recently if we can go to see the baby penguins and the house where Father Christmas lives again this year. I had to think for a moment to realize that effectively what he was asking for was another trip to the UK for Christmas - we spent Christmas there last year and went to see Father Christmas at the zoo. There are a host of reasons why we can't do that this year so he is going to be sorely disappointed.

Meanwhile the Little American is proving herself to be surprisingly bilingual. On our trip last December we'd only been in London 24 hours or so before she started sounding like her cousins. Even now when she really wants something she switches to calling me 'Mummy' instead of 'Mommy'. This morning she commented that Daddy didn't buy her any of the sweeties she saw at Stop & Shop. Upon questioning her, I discovered that she did indeed mean 'sweeties' and not 'candy' - she'd seen some Smarties on the shelves of imported foods. Smarties are from England and therefore are 'sweeties' whereas M&Ms are 'candy'! Rats - I knew I should have been speaking to her in French all along so she could be truly bilingual! I guess it's not too late, though Spanish might prove more useful to her in the long run around here.

The wonders of technology?

American education blogger Will Richardson wrote about his most recent trip to the UK this week. He feels that in some respects schools in the UK are ahead of the US in their use of technology. He mentions the proposal that by 2008 every student in the UK should have a digital portfolio as one example - it's a concept that has not been bandied about much here in the US yet.

I am sure the reality is that there are some schools in the US that are well ahead of the curve just as there are schools in the UK that are leading the way in technology use. Will surely met some of those in the UK who are most interested in it - they invited him to come and speak to them after all! Mr Chalk, a teacher in an inner city comprehensive somewhere in the UK, wrote back on September 14th:
The kids still share textbooks, discipline has gone out of the window, lessons have become crowd control. [...] There is no shortage of computers however.

OK, so Mr Chalk is often very cynical and writes with an eye towards entertaining, but clearly simply throwing technology into schools and requiring it of kids and teachers is not a panacea. Will has a very positive attitude to educational technology - it's his livelihood after all. Mr Chalk sees what other things the money might have been spent on rather than computers.

The question is, will the investment in technology pay off? Will it inspire kids to learn, and more importantly to learn how to learn? (And if I visit a couple of schools in the UK on my next trip there, can I write the trip off as a business expense?)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Supersize me

My parents have just spent a couple of weeks in the United States. Not visiting us, sad to say, but travelling to interesting places such as the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Pike's Peak. (Oh, and Wyoming which they dismissed as 'boring - avoid it at all costs!') My mother wanted to know why I hadn't warned her what she would get if she ordered ribs. She claimed the plate of food was so large it arrived in a pantechnicon. OK, so she has a tendency to exagerate, but her point was that she still finds American portion sizes overly large. She complained that she put on a significant amount of weight in the short time she was here. Hmm - I guess despite thinking the portions were too large, she indulged anyway?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Suburban assault vehicle

Is this another step in my Americanization? This summer my 8 year-old Chevy Malibu ticked over 190,000 miles and it was time for a new vehicle. It needed 4 new tires, the air conditioning had died, and it was leaking oil. It needed far more money poured into it than it was worth. After much thought and lots of test drives, I decided on an SUV - a Toyota RAV4. I drove the Toyota Matrix and the Pontiac Vibe, which are basically the same car and they were OK. But then I drove a used Subaru that was on the lot at the Pontiac dealer's. (I would have liked to test drive a new one, but I couldn't find anywhere to park at our local Subaru dealer's, the lot was so full of cars!) The Subaru had a lot more oomph to it which was nice, so I decided to try the RAV4 and the Honda CRV. The CRV somehow felt very truck like/barebones. I think it had something to do with the strange traytable between the 2 front seats. The RAV4 on the other hand was very comfortable and just felt right. ("And the first car Goldilocks tried didn't have enough horsepower, the second felt too much like a truck, but the third was just right." OK, so I tried more than 3 cars - I'm clearly spending way too much time with little kids when I start seeing my life in terms of fairy stories )

Technically the RAV4 is a 'compact crossover SUV', which means that it's not as huge and gas/petrol guzzling as some. It's supposed to get around 28 mpg in highway driving, which means I'll average less than that. I haven't checked to see exactly what I'm getting, but I will do soon. Although this vehicle almost certainly gets worse mileage than the one I just got rid of, I've done a huge amount to reduce my contribution to global warming simply by switching jobs. I used to do a commute to work and back of over 130 miles a day and now I'm commuting less than 30 miles a day, so I don't feel quite so guilty about buying a car that gets fewer mpg than my last one. Eventually I think I'd like a hybrid. Hopefully, by the time I buy my next vehicle there will be more of them and the concerns about battery life and cost of replacing the batteries will be non-existent.

The RAV4 is by far the biggest vehicle I've ever owned, but probably the most comfortable too, despite the fact that I bought the base model with only a couple of options. It has 4WD, which I decided I really wanted for the new commute. The old commute was long, but on major highways which are always very well maintained in the winter, and I didn't have to go in on snow days anyway. I still won't have to go in to work on snow days, but the road is not a major highway, it's very steep in spots and quite twisty (and worse if I take the shortcut that cuts a mile or two off the route.) I know enough not to think that the 4WD is going to make me invincible, but it will be reassuring to have.

One really big surprise - the insurance is only $10/month more for exactly the same coverage! Oh, and the same vehicle (or the closest I could find listed anyway) in the UK would have cost me around $10,000 more!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Life is not a computer game

Life is not a computer game;
there is no 2nd level,
there are no extra lives

Found on this site

Thursday, September 07, 2006

More American than I thought

This Being American thing keeps sneaking up on me. I was surprised to find myself actually quite annoyed the other night to discover that we had no peanut butter in the house. Definitely not a culinary item I grew up with. The Littlest American in the house has put his own twist on it though - he likes peanut butter and turkey sandwiches. No idea where he got that idea from!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Flying the flag

I guess this explains why national flags are far less in evidence in England than in the US:
Currently it is illegal to fly a national flag without permission from a local council - unless it is flown from a vertical flagpole.

The rule means thousands of football fans were technically breaking the law during the World Cup by displaying the Cross of St George.
(BBC news)
We must have been breaking the law then when we hung both a UK flag and a Stars and Stripes on my parents' house when we got married. From this article I would guess that English flags were very much in evidence recently, until the English football (soccer) team lost. Sounds like another example of an American tradition (flying the flag that is, not losing at soccer) catching on in the UK, just like the increasing commercialization in the UK of pseudo-holidays like Halloween.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Being an American

I recently found this MSNBC site about Being An American. I tend to think of Americans as being more visibly patriotic in general than the British and the survey results on this page on the site seem to confirm that: "Patriotism is mostly a New World concept, the researchers said". You certainly don't see the Union flag flying everywhere in the UK the way you see the stars and stripes over here.

There's a quiz on the MSNBC site called Do you have what it takes to become a citizen? I scored only 65% :-(
65-80%: Hey, you may make a good citizen yet! Look at your wrong answers and a little revision should do the trick.

Hmm, well, I passed the citizenship interview at the INS office - maybe I've just forgotten stuff in the last 5 years! Or maybe the INS officer was just nice and gave me easy questions because I was clearly very stressed. I had travelled to the office with a 6 month old, been told I couldn't eat my lunch in the waiting room, and was suffering pretty noticeable post-partum depression.

There are some interesting comments following this BBC article on "What makes you British?" At least one person comments on the distinction between being British and being English - many Americans (and other foreigners) forget that being British does not necessarily mean being English. Hmm - in the same way, people often forget that Being American doesn't necessarily mean that you voted for the current government!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The view from the UK

The view from outside is often only of the things that hit the news headlines - the murders, the problems, the disasters. Outsiders hear of the extremes, the exceptions, the stories that make the news. If we haven't visited somewhere we judge it by what we know of it second-hand - what we've heard from friends or more commonly through the media. When I told the kids I was teaching at a comprehensive school in Yorkshire that I was going to be leaving to live in the United States for a couple of years, I got the same response from at least one pupil in every class: "Ooh, miss, you'll get mugged!" There were 2 particularly popular American TV shows in the UK at the time. The kids I was teaching knew I certainly wasn't going to be experiencing a Dallas-type lifestyle, so all they knew was the violence and crime of Miami Vice

A recent poll for the Telegraph newspaper suggests that 21 years later, the average Brit's view of the US hasn't altered much. 90% of the respondents said that the USA has "A lot of violent crime". (Hmm - the only place I've ever been mugged was France!) Ironic given today's headlines on the online Telegraph:"Homicides soar by a quarter under Labour" and "A week in the life of lawless Britain". A foreigner reading those articles surely wouldn't feel reassured that the UK was a good place to live! Of course it helps if you have a sense of what the Telegraph's political slant is . . .

Although in general people describe their feelings about the US as "Fairly positive" or "Very positive" (54%), opinion of the USA is generally fairly negative. 51% responded that American culture makes the world a "Somewhat worse" or "Much worse" place to live. 65% think badly of the Bush government. 69% say that their opinion of the US has gone down in recent years. 76% believe that Bush is not using American power and influence in the right way to bring about a more democratic world. I haven't seen any similar polls of Americans, but I suspect if one were done in the very Democratic area where I live, the results of the questions about politics might not be too different to the poll done in the UK.

The overall view of the US is very negative - the respondents say that Americans are
  • uncaring
  • divided by class
  • unequal
  • don't care what the rest of the world thinks
  • vulgar
  • badly led
  • preoccupied with money
  • ignorant of the outside world
  • racially divided
  • uncultured

67% say that, given the chance, they would not go to live in the United States. Interestingly, I had a conversation with a family member this week who commented "You wouldn't want to come back to the UK. You couldn't afford to live here." I'm not sure if she just meant we wouldn't be able to afford the same kind of lifestyle - we wouldn't expect to.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

This I believe*

The Belief-o-matic quiz says my religious tendencies are as follows:

1. Liberal Quakers (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (97%)
3. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (91%)
4. Neo-Pagan (89%)
5. New Age (84%)
6. Mahayana Buddhism (78%)
7. Theravada Buddhism (72%)
8. Reform Judaism (70%)
9. Bahá'í Faith (69%)
10. Secular Humanism (68%)
11. New Thought (63%)
12. Scientology (60%)
13. Taoism (57%)
14. Orthodox Quaker (56%)
15. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (54%)
16. Sikhism (52%)
17. Jainism (47%)
18. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (38%)
19. Nontheist (38%)
20. Orthodox Judaism (37%)
21. Hinduism (37%)
22. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (34%)
23. Islam (31%)
24. Jehovah's Witness (29%)
25. Seventh Day Adventist (24%)
26. Eastern Orthodox (20%)
27. Roman Catholic (20%)

Not surprising to me to see Roman Catholic at the bottom of the list given that I went to a Church of England school for 7 years! I might have expected to see the Bahá'í faith a little higher on the list, except of course that they don't approve of drinking any alcohol, nor even using any in cooking and given my apparently alcoholic cultural background (see previous post) it makes sense that Bahá'í wouldn't be any higher on my list ;-) Actually, Belief-o-matic doesn't ask about alcohol and there are many things about the Bahá'í faith that I like, including the fact that children of Bahá'í parents are required to explore other religions before committing to the Bahá'í faith themselves.

Guess which questions put Roman Catholic at the bottom of my list?

I'd be really interested in seeing the overall results from the site so far - what's the 'average' response (if such a thing could be calculated.) What's the average American or Brit nowadays in terms of religion? Is American society as diverse as it seems? Is Britain still the Anglican country it once was? The media portrays faith as either being the central tenet of one's life or playing little to no role.

Thanks to Bernie Dodge for pointing me in the direction of the Belief-omatic site.
*If you listen to NPR, you probably recognize the title. All I can say in my defense is : 1) I'm acknowledging where I got it; 2) Bernie stole it first; 3) I'm too tired to be feeling very creative right now.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Looking in from the outside

It's funny how different a culture looks when you view it from the outside. I had never thought of my culture as being particularly alcoholic until after I moved. I remember someone challenging me in grad school in the USA when I rejected their offer of cocaine - "You're such a hypocrite, you look down your nose at people who do recreational drugs, but you abuse alcohol!" I had never thought of myself as someone who abused alcohol (and certainly never as an alcoholic!) But when I thought about it, I realized that although I didn't drink every day I did in fact binge drink. Many years later I quit drinking altogether for a while in reaction to dating an alcoholic. I picked it up again a while later, but have never indulged in binge drinking again.

I was still somewhat surprised reading on the BBC news website today:

Nearly one in four secondary school children aged 11-15 reported that they had drunk alcohol in the past week when surveyed in 2005.

Then I thought about it - at 13 my mother sent me to parties with a litre of (hard) cider. Clearly we were all drinking! (OK, there was one party where in response to the request BYOB, I brought a pint of milk! People thought I was really weird, but it got drunk!) Although I didn't drink every day, I was allowed wine with lunch on Sunday, I would guess from at least the age of 13. So - had that been me being surveyed, I probably would have answered the same way. But what REALLY surprised me was the following:

The average amount of alcohol consumed by this age group doubled between 1990 and 2000 and currently remains at 10.4 units (or about 10 small glasses of wine or five pints of beer) per week.

An average of 10 small glasses of wine a week?! I don't drink that now, let alone when I was a teenager!!! That does seem like a lot! Especially given what we now know about the adolescent brain and the influence of alcohol on it. (And of course remembering that 10.4 units is an average, so there are clearly 15 year-olds in the UK who drink more than that!) I wonder what the statistics are for American teenagers? Although this report is about older teenagers, it seems to imply that the problem is just as big in the US, with 16% of those surveyed having reported that they have blacked out from drinking. I think one serious issue in the US is that in general the driving age is lower, and teenagers are much more likely to have a car. Looks like we have some serious education work to do on both sides of the Atlantic!

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Educational snobbery

When I left the UK to do a Master's degree in the US, many of my friends and colleagues in the UK wondered why on earth I would want to do that. They knew that the British education system was so much better then the American one. I agreed with them to some extent, but I was still happy that I was going to have the chance to be a student for another couple of years and to live abroad.

When one of my students in a class I was teaching at the university told me that she had got 5 CSEs in the UK my (private) reaction was that she would never have gotten near a university in the UK. Another of my students attributed his success in the American system to the fact that he had gone to school until the age of 18 in Jamaica - a more 'British' style of education. Looking back on it now, that first student might not have gone to university if she had stayed in the UK, but she got plenty out of going on to further education in the US. Some people are simply not ready to study hard in high school. The second student would have done well no matter where he went to school.

I have met many extremely well-educated Americans - and not all of them went to highly competitive Ivy League schools! My husband is an engineer. He worked for a company that did business with a company in the UK. There was a problem with the manufacturing process of a product that he had designed. The company flew him to the UK for a couple of days to sort out the problem after the British engineers had tried and failed. While he was there he overheard the British engineers making snide comments about how terrible the American education system is. He asked them if their education was so much better, then why had they needed him to sort out their problem?

From what I understand, more people in the UK go to college than did when I got my undergraduate degree, so the system is becoming more American in some respects. It is still different though, and vive la différence, I say!

Saturday, June 17, 2006

21 years later

I came to the United States in 1985, expecting to stay 2 years. Here I am, almost 21 years later, still here. I've had an American passport for almost 5 years now but it doesn't really make me an American. Sure, I don't line up with the 'foreigners' at the airport and I sound American when I go back 'home' to England. I am as American as I'm ever going to be, as American as I need to be, and as American as many other Americans, but I am still less American than someone who was born here and grew up here. I lived elsewhere for the first 24 years of my life and I will always be able to see the United States as an outsider. Quite frankly I don't always like what I see.

On the other hand, now that I am almost an American, I see my homeland in a different light too. I'm no longer completely English, but I'm not completely American either and I like it that way. I can pick and choose, take the best of both for my own, and reject the parts I don't like. I criticize both and love both. If only I could spend equal time in each country - but until I win the lottery that's not going to happen, and given that I don't buy lottery tickets it's never going to happen!
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