Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Stranger in a Familiar Land

Last year, I spent nine months living in Newcastle upon Tyne. And I had repeatedly said that if there was ever a time in my life when I felt the most American, it was then. In I’m a Stranger Here Myself, Bill Bryson talks about this phenomenon in his first piece, “Coming Home.” He says, “In a funny way nothing makes you feel more like a native of your own country than to live where nearly everyone is not. For twenty years, being an American was my defining quality. It was how I was identified, differentiated” (3). It can be difficult to notice the markers of your own culture, no matter how subtle or exaggerated, when you are surrounded exclusively by others who practice or share those same markers. But as soon as you are transplanted into a culture that refers to a zucchini as a courgette and underwear as pants, every facet of your lifestyle and the lifestyle that you’re now a part of are compared side by side.

I believe that at the core of every response to a joke is its level of relatability, and most of this stems from whether a listener is a part of the culture or subculture that the joke is intended for. In the case of I’m a Stranger Here Myself, I have spent time living in both of the countries and am familiar with both of the cultures that Bryson writes about.

Because the book was published in both America and the UK, it is clear that either country’s audience would understand and appreciate the jokes from their own cultural perspective. Bryson even addresses this in the introduction when he reminds the reader that because the pieces were originally intended for a British audience, he had to pare down the “chunks of explication that an American would find unnecessary” (xii-xiii). But for those who have lived on both sides of the fence, it’s almost as if they would understand the joke twice – once as someone who has lived in America and once as someone who has lived in England. These nuances and details would be lost one someone who had spent time in only one place, though the joke would still be funny in it’s one-sidedness.

An example of this is when Bryson reminisces about Thanksgiving in “The Best American Holiday,” and notes that “in Britain the Christmas shopping season seems nowadays to kick off around the August bank holiday” (144). This truly cracked me up because I  remember walking down the main shopping street in Newcastle just a few days after Halloween and being completely outraged – “How dare they decorate Northumberland Street so early!? It’s like they’re skipping Thanksgiving entirely! Oh, wait, they actually are because it doesn’t exist here…”

Bryson’s commercial success in both countries proves that his work is relatable enough to members of either culture because of his position in between the two, but this rewards those even further who have shared in his experiences.

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