Tuesday, May 20, 2008

I'm the greatest (maybe)

DH says I am often too self-deprecating and that I lack self-confidence. I tell him that it is a cultural thing. Remind him that I grew up in the UK, and our attitudes there were different. Lucy Kelleher wrote a good article on this phenomenon:

When I was a child, we were taught never to boast. For a start it was bad manners. If you went around saying I got 97% in my algebra test, you made the dunderhead who only got 23% feel even more wretched than he was feeling already. To boast was to let your achievements get out of proportion, and it clashed with that very English idea that everything had to be effortless. Trying was fine - so long as no one caught you at it.

I remember a family friend who used to visit our house. My parents would tell us how clever he was and marvel at the way he wore his intelligence so lightly. The great thing about him wasn't that he was brilliant, but that he hid it so well that no one would have ever suspected that there was anything special about him at all.

I didn't question this attitude until I went to university and took up with an American boyfriend. He looked a bit like Oscar Wilde - which pleased me. Yet what pleased me less was the way he used to tell me that his doctorate thesis on the economy of communist China was an important piece of work. It wasn't that I doubted that it was good. I was just mortified that he felt the need to tell me. Looking back I suspect he wasn't a particularly boastful person. He was just American, and so his mother had never told him that he must hide his light under a bushel at all times.

I thought I had learned to boast like an American quite nicely not long after my arrival here. I applied for a job that I was sure I was a shoo-in for. I didn't get it. One of the committee members was nice enough to tell me that a major reason why I didn't get the job was because I was TOO confident. Apparently, I sounded so confident that I came across as condescending and arrogant. Interestingly, a Kenyan friend who did get hired by the same committee reassured me that it was a cultural misunderstanding - "You just sounded too British." So his perception of the British was that we came across as overly confident . . . exactly the perception that many British people have of Americans! The experience traumatized me and ever since then I've been paranoid, afraid to admit that I know when I'm good at something. I get the job, but then wonder if I only got it because I was too good at bluffing my way in. Can I really do it? When are they going to discover that I'm a fraud?

At a recent meeting with other people in my field, the meeting facilitator made the point that if we don't toot our own horn, if we don't constantly remind people of what we are doing, we will be perceived as doing nothing. So, despite my lack of self-confidence, I will be doing just that, and trying to convince my colleagues that they can't do without me (even though I know they could replace me at the drop of a hat!)

Monday, May 19, 2008


I hadn't been to a Tupperware party in over ten years and now I've been to two in as many weeks, and I'm having one of my own next week. Tupperware is still Tupperware - all the old faithfuls are still there. Some new colours of course. There are a few new pieces that don't look like traditional Tupperware:
and some others that are probably not new but I was never interested in them before. One piece of Tupperware I'd quite like is not available in the US though - Tupperware in the UK sells a bread box.

Given that I had already booked a Tupperware party of my own, Ann invited me to hers with the encouragement that she really didn't expect me to buy anything, but I might as well come over and socialize. She explained that it was going to be a Tupperware 'cocktail party'. DH dropped me off at 4, with the expectation that I would call him when I was ready to come home, probably around 6. Well, there was red wine, rather a lot of champagne, cosmopolitans . . . and I think it was gone 7 when I suddenly realized my own children were in the room. DH had given up waiting and had come to fetch me. Of course then my kids started playing with Ann's kids, and the mothers all wanted to know what was up with DH's strange posture, and it was gone 8 by the time we left and the children still hadn't had dinner!

The next morning I got an email from Ann:
Had fun yesterday... very glad you could join us. But I fear there's something inherently wrong about being slightly hung-over after a Tupperware party!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Happy Birthday DH!

bAs I was writing the previous post, DH came into the room and told me he was going to bed and wanted some help taking his clothes off . . . He added that he'd also like me to make him a sandwich with some chips and get him a large bottle of beer from the basement and bring those upstairs.

Today is his 40th birthday. Unfortunately the above was not a suggestion to celebrate, nor was it an attempt to show off that he's not so old . . . DH came home early from work today because he'd done his back in. Again. He headed straight for the painkillers and asked me to get the TENS machine for him. I bought it at Boots in the UK years ago in the hope that it might help with labour pains, but never needed it and DH has used it more than I have. The first time DH did his back in (by sneezing!) we would have had to call an ambulance to get him to the doctor's if we hadn't had the TENS machine. Good thing we had it - you can't get one here in the US without a prescription.

The card I bought DH had the following text:
Listen to your mind say: You're young! You're vibrant! You can do anything a 20 year-old can do!

Then listen to your body say: Ha! Ha! Ha!

And then on the back of the card was printed:
Hey, why aren't you laughing?

A couple of weeks ago we had a get together with lots of DH's friends, some of whom he's known since he was five years old. I decided we should get a birthday cake and celebrate a little early. The children decided that if it was a birthday cake it definitely needed candles. Hmm . . . well, we got the candles, and despite the smoke did NOT set the smoke alarm off!

(Image courtesy of Jenn.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The little bloggers!

Back in February, DD decided that she wanted a blog of her own. It seemed as though it would be a good way to get her to improve her writing, so I set one up for her. She is very enthusiastic about it, though she does not always follow through and write blog posts about all the things she decides are 'bloggable'.

My brother in the UK has set up a blog for my niece too, and it is interesting to see what she blogs about. There are some nice intercultural exchanges going on as we share stories from our lives. We hear from my brother and sister more often now that we have yet another way to communicate.

Last Saturday DS and I saw a bear in the backyard. Later, as we were going somewhere in the car he was still babbling with excitement about the bear. I was only half listening at first, but then suddenly I heard him say, "I'll have to write about the bear on my blog."

"Blog? You don't have a blog!"

"But I need one so I can write about the bear!"

So I set the blog up, and in the first two days he dictated three posts. He had a little difficulty understanding how it worked at first. We posted one story about the bear, and then he wanted to add to it later. I explained we could do that, but seeing as Aunty England had already read his first post, we should probably just write a second one. He wasn't too sure about that. He also didn't understand at first that he could actually write about things other than the bear. Nor did he grasp the concept of the interface being the same for his blog and for mine when creating posts, so he threw a hissy fit when he saw me writing a post for my blog as he thought I was changing his blog.

So both kids now have blogs and we're a four blog household. Their blogs are open by invitation only, but I am still teaching them to be very careful about what they post on them. No real names, and we think carefully about what photos we use.

And to think it wasn't that many years ago that my brother and I could not even send each other email because the systems we were on didn't 'talk' to each other! Now I have a variety of email addresses for different purposes. When I say we're going to call grandma, the kids automatically head for the computer rather than the phone, assuming I mean we're going to use Skype. They want the instant gratification of a reply to an email the same or the next day, not a letter a couple of weeks later. They ask if we can scan their artwork to send it to grandma, and they expect responses to their blog postings within the hour! Although their computer use is limited (no Club Penguin or Webkins) compared to some of their peers who already have unlimited internet access from computers in their bedrooms (disasters waiting to happen), they are still very firmly a part of the digital generation.

What was the best decision you ever made?

David asks: "What was the best decision you ever made?" The most influential decision I ever made, which in a very long roundabout way led to the best one I ever made fourteen years later, was many years ago. I'll keep the story short:

I was at university in the UK. I was not a great one for going out to nightclubs, but for some reason when some blokes came around selling tickets for a Cricket Club dance at a local nightclub, I was determined to go. I convinced some friends to go too, pointing out that the blokes selling the tickets were very good-looking and there were going to be more of them at the dance. My friends wondered what had got into me that I actually wanted to go to a nightclub, but agreed that we would all go. This despite the fact that it was on a Wednesday night, and I usually turned into a pumpkin on weeknights by 10:30 p.m.

So we went. I didn't meet any nice men from the Cricket Club. I did, however, end up dancing all evening with T. from the Boston University Rugby Club.

We ended up writing to each other after he returned to the United States, and the following summer I flew over here to visit him. My first visit to the United States! I had a nice visit, though it was clear by the end of it that the romantic relationship wasn't going to go anywhere, he was a good person to have as a friend. He was already looking ahead to when he would graduate from BU, and planning where he would go to graduate school - preferably somewhere overseas. This was a revelation to me. I had never thought of going to graduate school, nor of studying abroad to get an actual qualification, despite the fact that I was about to spend a year in France for my undergraduate degree. I spent a lot of time thinking about that over the next couple of years, and eventually ended up applying to an American university to do a Master's degree. (No language problem, sorta, and they funded me!)

Had I not made the decision to go to that dance, I would never have met T., would never have visited Boston, and in all likelihood would never have considered coming to the US to study. It's amazing to think that I can pinpoint so precisely the first in a long chain of decisions that led me to life here in the US and the best decision I ever made - to marry my Dear Husband.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Understanding the UK

The new Rough Guide to the UK says:
"The only certainty for visitors is that however long you spend in England and however much you see, it still won't be enough to understand the place."
Does an immigrant to the UK who has spent as long there as I have in the US (23 years so far), feel as English as I feel American? Although much of one's integration into either culture depends on mastery of the language and the personal effort one is prepared to expend, I wonder if it is easier for an immigrant to feel at home in the US than in the UK? Never having been an immigrant in the UK, I don't know. I do know that when I think about the fact that I have spent most (almost all) of my adult life in the USA, it does feel like home and I do feel as though I belong. I know I would go through significant reverse culture shock if I were to return to the UK for good. My grandmother left the UK for close to 20 years and I am not sure that she ever completely lost the feeling that the country she returned to was a different one to the one she left.

People certainly have had plenty to say about the new Rough Guide at the BBC Have Your Say forum. (Discussion there is now closed.) Although I haven't read either of them, it sounds as though Toni Summers Hargis' book Rules, Britannia would in many ways be a more helpful guide to the befuddled visitor to the UK than the Rough Guide.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mother's Day

My American Mother's Day got off to a pleasant start - I was told I had to stay in bed and not go downstairs until I was called. You won't find me arguing with the idea of some extra time in bed in the morning! DS stayed with me and we sat and read Frog and Toad together. Wow, his reading is getting good! He can't read little words like 'is' and 'on' (complains they don't have enough letters!), but has no problem with 'tricky' words like 'friend'!

Breakfast, when I was called downstairs to eat, was served in a much cleaner kitchen than I had left last night. We had scrambled eggs and bacon, toast, canteloupe, strawberries, and watermelon. DH and I had coffee and mimosas to drink. The children had orange juice.

I got my usual Mother's Day present - lots of nice plants. I had picked out most of them myself yesterday with the children, but they had also gone out with DH and picked out a couple of surprises - a rose bush and two flowering quinces. Most of the annuals will go in pots on the deck and front porch. The kids were disappointed I didn't plant them all today, but the weather forecast for the next couple of days is for temperatures low enough to damage the plants so I'll keep them in the garage for now. Last year the begonias got badly frost-bitten, and although they recovered they looked quite ugly for a while.


This afternoon I had a new experience. Despite having grown up in the UK and having been a house-owner here in the US for the last eleven years, I had never ever mown a lawn until today! I decided today was the day I should learn. (DH will get much ribbing when he tells people that for Mother's Day he let me mow the lawn!) As we have about three-quarters of an acre of lawn, we have a ride-on mower. It's not quite as easy as DH makes it look. It's not always easy to tell where you've already mown, or to see the wide swathes you've missed. After I thought I was done, DH walked around pointing out all the bits I had to redo. It took me longer than the hour it usually takes him, but I'm sure I'll get faster at it. Yes, I will do it again. With an mp3 player and some decent music or downloads from NPR, I don't think I'll find it much of a chore.

DH has just brought me a glass of champagne, so it is time to stop writing for tonight. I shall go and snuggle with the children as we read bedtime stories, then snuggle with DH as I finish my champagne. I am really an incredibly lucky person. I have beautiful, talented, adorable children and an amazingly loving, talented, and thoughtful husband. It's good to have a special day to celebrate, but really every day with my husband and kids is special.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Not been there! (Or there, or there, or there!)

When a colleague referred yesterday to the landmasses on either side of the Straights of Gibraltar as Russia and the United States, I was unable to bite my tongue and I blurted out, "No, that would be Africa and Europe." If looks could kill . . . I should have kept quiet. No one else in the room would have known, and I wouldn't have shown her up. I keep forgetting that most Americans haven't done the travelling that I have, and indeed many have never left their home state. Still, I am often surprised by their lack of geographical knowledge.

Watching travel shows with my family we would often chorus "Been there!" as they introduced each new place. However, when I put the map below together it was quite humbling to see what a tiny portion of the world I have actually visited. (I didn't include places like Japan or Iceland where I never actually left the airport, and there are a few countries between Greece and Italy that I know I drove through with my parents when I was a baby.) I've never even been to Scotland, although my mother was born there. (We set off to get there on one occasion, but got sidetracked by Hadrian's Wall. Apparently it does a good job of keeping the Sassenachs out!) I have been to very few of the US states, though I admit that there are some that I have no interest in visiting. Highlighting the whole of China is misleading as the portion of China I have actually visited is really very small - half a dozen cities. There are still whole continents I haven't made it to yet. Sadly with the cost of travel going up and up, it is going to be a long time before I get to add any more locations to my map, though there is the slim possiblity of adding Washington state and Alaska in the next year or two. I'd definitely like to add Australia, New Zealand and India to my map eventually. I'd like to go back to China and add Thailand and Vietnam to my list too, but it would have to be without DH as he has no interest in visiting Asia

I would guess many of my fellow expat bloggers have been to far more places than I have - I'd be interested to see your maps!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Photo IDs

When I first arrived in the US, I had no need of a driver's licence, but was advised that a photo ID would be a necessity. After my first experience of trying to get into a bar using my UK passport (refused entry - say what? It got me into the COUNTRY but not a bar?!!) I decided a photo ID would indeed be a good idea! I took the bus to the Registry of Motor Vehicles to get a 'liquor ID' - good for buying alcohol and identification when writing cheques, but not for driving.

A couple of years later, I took a Russian friend to the same Registry of Motor Vehicles to get a liquor ID. They wanted to see two forms of photo ID in order to issue her the liquor ID. Huh? If she had two acceptable forms of photo ID, she wouldn't have needed the liquor ID. She got so frustrated, she ended up yelling at the woman behind the counter, "This is worse than f***ing Russia!" Of course that didn't get her very far! The solution? As I by then did have a driver's licence, I was allowed to vouch for her - say that she was who her passport said she was so she could get the liquor ID! Current requirements for international students wanting a liquor ID are:
  • passport
  • birth certificate
  • home country license or home country ID (must contain the person’s signature)
  • a bill or letter received with your current Massachusetts address
So I guess that leaves a Brit with no UK driver's licence out of luck as we have no national ID card. (Yet.) And you probably didn't remember to bring your birth certificate with you, did you? Of course, if you're a British undergraduate studying in the US who hasn't turned 21 yet, you're out of luck anyway as you can't legally buy alcohol here even though you can back home :-(

Many years later, I went to renew my driver's licence once more only to be told that it would not be renewed until I handed over the liquor ID I'd been issued with originally. I had just spent over an hour queuing at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, so I was not best pleased, especially as I didn't have the faintest idea where the card might be given that I hadn't used it in years! I was amazed that they had finally made the connection. Although both the liquor ID and the driver's licence obviously had the same name and vital statistics on them, the ID numbers were different and I had renewed my licence at least twice without having been asked to surrender the ID card. Although I have very few photos at all of me back then, I still have my student ID as a souvenir of those days when I was so much less wrinkled and had no grey hair. I am puzzled by one thing about my student ID though - it has a validation sticker on it for the semester AFTER I graduated. How I weaselled that (entitling me to student discounts for another few months) I have no idea!
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