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Dispelling stereotypes

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MARCH 11, 2014

A few weeks ago, my housemate asked me whether the Willy Wonka factory still existed in England, and I almost choked in surprise. Expecting her question to be a vain attempt at making a (very appalling) joke, I laughed disconcertedly, only to be met by unwavering eyes that made it terribly obvious she was actually being serious. “Why are you laughing?” she asked. “Did it close?” My laughter automatically stopped as I realized I was about to deliver an answer equivalent to telling a child that Santa isn’t real. It wasn’t just the fact that someone could genuinely believe the story of Willy Wonka and his minions was based in truth; it was the fact she had gotten to 20-something years of age without ever having been told any different — and now I had to bloody do it. Turning over various responses in my head, ranging from “Willy Wonka’s dead” to “erm, yeah they closed it, like, last year — really sad actually,” I settled on the truth and dealt with the subsequent disappointment I had caused.

Of course, this instance is a complete anomaly. I’ve since double-checked with other Americans whether they too believe Willy Wonka to be real — they don’t. However, some of the questions I get asked due to stereotypes of the British are not far off my housemate’s. For this reason, I will attempt to dispel of some stereotypes for you, all in the hope that you won’t one day be faced by the perplexed face of a Brit like my Wonka-loving housemate was.

The first question I can remember being asked by an American was how I felt about the royal birth. I wasn’t entirely sure how to break it to the person that I couldn’t care less. At this time, the baby (whose name still eludes me) had just been born to Kate and Prince William, and news about his birth had gone viral. I guess this translated into the assumption that Brits have a deep-rooted, marginally unhealthy obsession with the endeavors of the royal family. However, for a majority of the people I know, the birth constituted a momentary pause in conversation, followed by a relatively apathetic “oh, really?” Although I knew the importance of the birth, I had no time to keep tabs on a baby who was already better off than I was after a few seconds of life, especially while I bitterly harbored a plummeting bank balance. Coupled with the assumption that we’ve all met the queen, a British fixation with the royal family is a complete misconception. Unless it’s a birth, a death, a wedding or a jubilee-induced work holiday, life goes swimmingly without a second thought about the royals. (That is not to say I don’t appreciate the queen for being, you know, the queen and all.)

One of the stereotypes I am most perplexed by is the idea that all Brits have bad teeth, and it is a complete mystery to me as to why people believe this to be true. More than once, I’ve been asked why British people have terrible teeth, and with every question, I get more and more self-conscious that my teeth are not up to the American standard. I was never aware this was the reputation Brits had in the United States, and as far as I know, the dental care of British people is as good as anyone else’s. Similarly, the assumption that it’s always rainy in England is a difficult one to deal with, because there is no denying that in comparison to Californian weather, British weather absolutely sucks. It’s pretty hard to defend a country where I actually saw snow in April, but the reputation that U.K. weather has in America is an exaggeration. Yes, our summer is a maximum of two weeks long. Sure, it floods a little every now and then. But does it rain every day? No, it doesn’t. For most, any blame to be had for the atrocity of British weather these days is attributed to global warming anyway.

The only stereotype I can wholeheartedly agree with is the one that assumes all British people drink tea all day, every day. Tea is very much an essential part of British culture — the equivalent, I believe, to the coffee obsession that is prevalent in this country. I embody this stereotype so entirely that it’s almost embarrassing. On average, I drink about five cups of tea a day and can get through a box of tea in less than two weeks. I left England after winter break with 180 tea bags in tow, and I would have had more if I hadn’t stuffed the majority of my suitcase with shoes. That being said, there’s “TEA” and then there’s “tea.” The first I use in reference to the general idea of tea in England, which everyone knows as black tea. Many times you can ask for a cup of tea without having to specify what type of tea you want because of this. However, when I came to America, I was disappointed to learn this wasn’t the case. I would ask my friends if they had any tea, only to be confronted with a list of various fruit teas I’d never heard of. When I asked for “normal tea,” no one knew what I meant by “normal,” and I’d frequently be let down by the lack of black tea in their collections. I mean, what am I doing wasting my time with a loose-leaf cranberry-infused green tea when I can just keep things simple and be done with it? Needless to say, I am a big tea-enthusiast and tea-drinking is pretty much a British hobby. Of all the British people I know, there is only one who dislikes tea, and I have since disowned him after having learned of his treachery.

Of course, stereotypes work two-fold, and there are a plethora of stereotypes of Americans that Brits have, which I attempted to dispel on arrival. The idea that all Americans are fat is untrue, much like the stereotype that Americans are incredibly lazy (although the number of cars I have seen in Los Angeles would suggest otherwise). Having been inundated with requests to prove or disprove a stereotype, my only goal is to completely eradicate my own and never to have a moment like my housemate’s. And if you are one of those who believe Willy Wonka’s factory does exist, take some friendly Brit advice — the whole thing is a lie.

Gena writes the Tuesday blog on cultural exchanges. Contact her at [email protected].

MARCH 10, 2014