14 March 2009

An American Encounter with the English Class System

I try not to write bad things about England. Sure, there are things I really miss about the U.S. but, all in all, I really do love this country. That's why, on the rare occasion I run across a real cultural difficulty, it makes me so uncomfortable.

Because I don't know some of the cultural norms of this country, I upset someone this afternoon by chaining my bike to a peg attached to the outside of a townhouse. In retrospect, I probably should have realized these weren't public--but England is so generous with right-of-ways and public property, I just took for granted that these were appropriate places to park my bike. When I left ballet rehearsal, her son's bike chained to mine in what looked like, but wasn't definitely, a trap so she could confront me. And confront me she did, angrily, and at great length in the most horrible English fashion--smiling all the while with contempt. Apologies weren't enough. She was inconsolably angry for a full five minutes, and seemed to be loving it.

And it wasn't really my person she was angry at. She was angry at what she thought I represented. She seemed to already expect that only a golden-spoon-fed Oxford student would dare chain her bike to her house: she was excited to ream me for feeling entitled to whatever I wanted in the city. The fact I'm obviously American only seemed to make her more irate. She was a member of England's 'less posh' (for lack of a better word) class, and she was fully prepared to defend her rights against someone 'like me' encroaching on them.

Nevermind the fact that I'm not necessarily the child of privilege she obviously deemed me to be--my parents have helped me a lot, but I've worked pretty hard on my own academically and financially to be where I am. The real problem is that her perception justified a really cruel action. There seems to be a real undercurrent of class resentment in the U.K. that encourages people to do horrible things they would never think of otherwise: a friend of mine can't walk down the certain streets a on Friday night in a suit for fear of catcalls and threats of violence.

I'm sure similar things happen from the other direction, but I'm not really in a position to see them. I guess we all behave like that sometimes--doing cruel things to a 'class' or 'race' of people we'd never dream of doing to an invidual. That's what stereotypes can be so dangerous, even when they're deserved. I'm truly sorry that I trespassed on the woman's property. I really wish she'd believed I was sincere, so she wouldn't go away thinking that, once again, someone from a higher class has taken advantage of her in an unfair way. I hate that, to her, I was everything she expected of someone 'like me.'

Maybe the real difference between England and the U.S. is that, in the U.S., I'm not really a member of a group large numbers of people resent. Or at least I don't come across as though I am. But sometimes being the 'other,' the educated, upper-middle-class, Oxford student feels claustrophobic and dangerous. And I feel alarmed, hurt, or afraid here in a way it would never occur to me to do in the U.S.

09 March 2009

They're Gone

My sisters are gone, so hopefully I'll be back to regular (albeit lonelier) posting by this afternoon. Pictures from their trip should go up over the next couple of days.