Living on the hyphen

                     Swan and pigeons on ice – photo courtesy of Chris Hill

Coming in and out of a country gives a unique insight into its character.  Airports are 20th-century ‘crossing places’.  They lack the magic of natural, timeless crossing places which have been described so eloquently in The Hermitage blog recently:
‘CROSSING PLACES and boundaries are the habitation of fascination for me. The not-quite-one-nor-the-other is a chancy and magical place, where in-between sorts of people wander, outcasts and wisdom keepers, and left over thoughts blow past. Here on these thresholds between times and spaces: the water’s edge, the way into the forest, the twilight hour or the dawning, doorways, openings, turning points in years and lives, you’ll find the something that you sometimes remember you were looking for, and then forget again.’

There is no magic in airports, but certainly ‘in-between sorts of people wander’ there, including ‘outcasts and wisdom keepers’ (the latter perhaps also Customs Officers, whose own customs are well worth studying).  And yes, airports are thresholds between times and spaces, especially when one has travelled halfway across the world.
On my recent visit to LA, on a mission of friendly and curious surveillance, a green parrot circling the skies – I was immediately struck by the diversity and easy exchange, the superficial warmth of the people.  Even the Customs people who decided to search me at length on arrival, because I had too little baggage (yes, too little!!) were extremely friendly.  I always try and travel with carry-on bags for a short trip to save time, but of course I lost all that I had saved in the lengthy discussion I had with the woman who was carrying out the extremely bureaucratic search, and who was keen to know how I felt about my trip to LA.  I felt myself being ultra-British-frosty to her, but only because it was so annoying to be stopped at the last hurdle, and I was dying to get out into the fresh (well, maybe not so fresh) air and sunshine.
While in LA, my initial enamourment (if that is a word) with my compatriots soon faded.  I enjoyed the cheery hellos on residential streets, and I was intrigued by the detailed discussion about the generation beyond i-phones and other technology that a college student had with a young entrepreneur in an outside eating area, with a middle-aged man idly joining in.  I thought – this wouldn’t be happening in England.
But then I did start to find very off-putting and annoying the way people went on and on about their body problems in the yoga classes I attended, down to the minutest and most uninteresting details.  There seemed to be a kind of excessive fascination with oneself and one’s condition, that obscured a sense of perspective.
And then there was the lunch I had where I started to get indigestion because of the loud discussion (aka ‘argument’ in England) a man and woman were having about her work dilemma.  I thought of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and Deborah Tannen’s various works on gender communication differences in books such as You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, as I desperately tried not to listen in – completely impossible because they were speaking so loudly.  The woman was bemoaning the fact she wasn’t a vice-president in her company whereas the man had been promoted in said company.  He accurately and logically kept drawing attention to her preoccupation with money and status, while she defensively denied this was the issue and insisted it was his lack of appreciation and understanding of her concerns and disappointment, and his lack of interest in her career aspirations.  In a patronising way, he advised her to just get on with it and play the game if she wanted the status, and she said none of her family believed in this and it wasn’t the right way.  While I empathised with her position as I’ve written it, in fact she expressed it in a slightly moany way and she was clearly a victim with chip on shoulder.  When I turned around at last to ascertain their ages, I saw how she was hunched in her chair with one shoulder higher than the other, and that said it all.  Part of me wanted to join their conversation and sort it out (job role comes to mind!), but better sense prevailed and I ate as fast as I could and left.
So I was starting to look forward to my return to the UK.  The plane was once again luxuriously empty and as I had a row of five seats all to myself, I eagerly anticipated lying down and maybe even sleeping – a real treat on an economy flight!  An English man adjacent to my row had started to use one of the seat trays for his trash.  And then I stupidly went to the toilet, only to find he’d moved over when I got back.  It didn’t disrupt my plan in the end, but what occurred to me was the passive (aggressive?) approach he’d taken to achieving his aim, which I see as a trait in the English character – which is not to say that all English people exhibit this trait.  However, I observe a preference for achieving one’s aim by indirect means, and certainly the avoidance of potential conflict.  He didn’t ask me, or speak to me, he kind of pretended it hadn’t happened – which irritated me.  Whereas if he’d asked nicely, I would have swallowed my selfishness and I wouldn’t have had an issue.  Of course if he’d been American he would have asked (told) me he was moving over, and I wouldn’t have been able to object, and I might have been simultaneously won over and annoyed.

And then when we came through Customs, I was struck by two things: first the layout of the area.  A poor design meant that big pillars blocked the passenger queue’s view of the Customs Officers, so we couldn’t see when they were free.  They refused to call us for unknown reasons and had no other system to communicate, so we had to keep peering around pillars to see when they were free.  They didn’t even make eye contact, seriously lacking in social skills.  Then when I got to the desk, their communication skills took a further nosedive – still no eye contact and an indifferent style of engagement.  I was wondering if there had been a big announcement about Customs job cuts while I’d been away to account for this glaring lack of welcome, but no, just another day at Heathrow.
I am an American Expat, a UK Yankee.   These are the best terms I can come up with.  I like Anglo-American which feels more integrated but since it means an American of English descent, it’s not technically correct.  I’ve lived in the UK longer than in my home country.  Recently I heard an expression which I strongly identified with – I live ‘on the hyphen’, no longer a green parrot, soaring high, but instead a swan amongst pigeons on the ice, struggling to get my grounding.

There are aspects of both countries and both characters which I prize – and other aspects which I cringe at and detest.  I feel I know both well, and am neither.  Nor do I want to be either.  I like being ‘on the hyphen’ – that feels so much more inclusive than ‘on the edge’ or ‘on the margin’.  I love the surge of energy that comes when I see the best aspects of the American character; and I prize and feel relief at the sense of honesty and realism that I sometimes feel in the presence of the English character.   These are the ‘somethings’ that I sometimes remember I am looking for – and then forget again.  Maybe someday I will stop hankering after what each could give the other, and accept and just be the difference.  Well, in fact I do that a lot of the time, and I notice the imperceptibly jarring effect, like a tiny earthquake aftershock, that can have in whichever culture I am in.
I would love to know your views of these national characters, or any others.  And whether you agree that airport crossing-places tell a deeper story about their home countries.  Or maybe you feel that you are at a connection point, a crossing place in your life.  Who else reading this feels that you are living on the hyphen too?  It may be a very crowded hyphen, rather like the number of angels clustered on a drawing pin.

As a final note, I feel that we are at a ‘crossing place’ in our societies – British and North American – at this point in time, poised on the hyphen.  I am thinking of the socio-economic situation in which we find ourselves.  I cross my fingers that we are crossing to more solid ground. 

Rainbow in a desert land – LAnzarote not LA

Photo courtesy of Chris Hill

Someone who was at a workshop I ran last week where there was a mild insurrection amongst the group leading me to throw out the agenda (which they’d created) and just be in the moment, reminded us of this quotation from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities

‘It was the best of times,

It was the worst of times,

It was the age of wisdom,

It was the age of foolishness,

It was the epoch of belief,

It was the epoch of incredulity,

It was the season of Light,

It was the season of Darkness,

It was the spring of hope,

It was the winter of despair.’

Or, as I’m told the Irish put it (and don’t ask me to explain – two cultures is enough for one post!):

It is the madness of the moment

It is the day that’s in it

This entry was posted in American character, British/English character, connections, organisational life. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Living on the hyphen

  1. Pingback: Living on the hyphen | Well House Words-Discover the magic | Discover the magic

  2. Viv says:

    I work with many different nationalities but have little experience of Americans, the US friends I have had all being penpals. I do notice that Americans are generally a lot less reserved than us Brits.
    The world is changing at a hell of a rate and we may hang on to stereotypes well past their sell-by dates, but my experience is that if you approach a nationality with an awareness of the cultural stereotypes, but without rigidly applying them, you have a chance of discovering the real human being beneath.

  3. Karin says:

    I agree with you, Viv, about recognising and suspending/seeing beyond the cultural stereotypes to the real human being beneath, certainly this is the way to be when it comes to individuals. Here I am reflecting on the cultural collectivity of a nation, and experiencing it afresh as I do when I move to and fro UK and US. I am having a sense of a Human Being free of cultural habits and dispositions, and finding that the starkness of such habits can be magnified when you are at a crossing place.
    I’m glad you’re back in one piece from your recent journey.
    Karin x

  4. Madhu Sameer says:

    Ah…..what a topic ! Much to say on hyphenated world, but I’ll let it go for now. Karin, I have been thinking of returning to India too, but am afraid that I may not quite fit in anymore…..what a mess life of an expatriate becomes….!

    Oh well!


  5. Karin says:

    Hello Madhu,
    now that I have got a glimpse of your inner circle, I can see that the Indian culture is integrated into and alive in your everyday life. I can also see you as a glamourous exotic native should you return…maybe I have been watching too many clips from Indian films/Bollywood! The integration of Western psychology within an Eastern frame…
    I would love to hear more of your views on the hyphenated world, here, somewhere else, sometime or now….
    I am not sure the life of an expatriate is a mess – but I do feel it means you see the world ALWAYS through a different frame from where you are now…

  6. Stephen says:

    My brother has lived in California for over 25 years and therefore is someone who has travelled in the other direction. I’ve visited on a number of occasions and have had an opportunity to live within a variety of communities as he has moved from suburban San Jose into urban San Francisco. It never ceases to amaze me how Americans just love the sound of an english accent and I’ve always received excellent, polite service as a consequence however I fear that Americans travelling in the other direction have to tolerate some unflattering stereotyping but that isn’t anti American more a reflection of the British attitude where we take the mickey out of all foreigners and hold them in contempt for having the misfortune of being born outside of Britain, this is also felt about the Scots and the Irish so it may be particular to those born in England.
    Of course with any discussion on such a subject there is always a danger that one moves from the general to the particular and back again without recognising the difference and the inherent risks of such rationale.
    I once drove from Albuquerque to San Francisco (with several stopovers) and the experience was one of the many highlights of my life. The variety in terms of landscape and people was incredibly exciting – from the Red Necks found in the film Deliverance to the sophistication of The Deveil Loves Prada in Downtown SF – marvelous.

    • Karin says:

      Hi Steve, one of your most enjoyable comments to date – especially the contrasts described at the end. Like and agree with it all. Might your brother like to comment on this post? I did meet him in passing at your retirement ‘do’ – then your successor intervened!

      • Stephen says:

        I passed on the links to my brother for comment but I don’t think he’s a great social writer. Ask him to write some complex computer code that enables graphics to be shown in a particular way and he’s on it straight away but that’s about the extent of his writing.

      • Karin says:

        Oh well. I am beginning to appreciate it is a very rare species that dialogues on blogs.

    • Stephen says:

      For the pedants amongst us that should read “The Devil Wears Prada”

  7. Stephen says:

    I see no pigeons, only seagulls and ducks. Were they just off camera?

  8. Chris says:

    I’ll be back on the topic shortly but I’m hi-jacking ‘the hyphen’ to tell Stephen that the new Ruso reads well, at least as far as p55 which is where I’ve got to. This comment should go into the Well Readers but sadly we seem to have abandoned that option lately.

    • Stephen says:

      Hi Chris – I’ve purchased the new Russo but haven’t had the time to read it yet. On your recommendation I might start it in the next few days. I have been looking at Well Readers from time to time but as you say it doesn’t seem to have inspired many followers. It could become and on-line book club however my wife is a member of the village book club and the number of times she comes home from a wine driven meeting telling me how horrendous the next book looks and then she struggles through loathing every page she reads. Perhaps an on-line book club should give the option to say, “Nah I’m not reading this one, I’ll wait for the next one”.

      • Karin says:

        An on-line book club to resuscitate The Well Readers is a very good idea. My only concern is that I am not sure this would draw in (m)any more participants – unless there are some who might be invited to participate. Your thoughts please…..

  9. Chris says:

    Hi Stephen and Karin

    There’s a book club in the next village along but as far as I can make out they do well if they get six people there. Sadly as yet I’ve not been tempted by any of their ‘book of next month’ ads. I’m always fascinated to know what other people are reading and whether they are enjoying it or not and why. I scan the Sunday papers for ideas of what to try next. And having finally given in and bought a Kindle I am getting through reading material even faster than usual. I’m now buying Kindle versions of books I own but that have graced other people’s shelves for so long that I have resigned myself to them never coming back.

    • Karin says:

      On reflection, my problem with book clubs (and I belong to one) is that I struggle to find (I mean make, of course) time to read the chosen books. I would not want to belong to another just now. My blog and the few others I read and contribute to are time-consuming enough! I think we should just put up thoughts about what we read on The Well Readers page as and when. I will do my best.

  10. Chris says:

    I agree.

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