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Culture clash

January 15, 2001

One thing I'm learning about antiquity is that (for all my romanticizing it) it's better to visit than to live with.

Something about Cambridge is frozen in those 1300bc piles of stone. Maybe it's England at large, except for London. Maybe even London?

 

I see London as a huge, vivid metropolis of art and style and culture and music. But I have spoken to ex-Londoners who see it just as I see Cambridge: decaying slowly, stodgier than its constantly evolving child, New York.

 

New York! We were just there over New Years, then back to San Francisco. After three weeks in Cambridge, then a week in New York City, suddenly New Yorkers seemed so vital, so excited with life, and so friendly!

 

Then only three days in San Francisco was enough to remind me what I've forgotten already about my own neighborhood. Walking down Fillmore Street to visit the organic market on Haight one sunny Friday morning in early January, people were out all over, laughing and joking and calling out... buses cruised by from every direction, street corners buzzed with kids and their boom-boxes, and couples chatted and walked arm-in-arm up the hills or peeked in the windows of the new Indian restaurant. There was a sunny, festive feeling around. People seemed genuinely glad to be there, to be out and to be together.

 

I don't know... maybe it's the warmer weather or the loopy San Francisco inhabitants or the relaxed California modus operandi which I'd simply forgotten about. But even New York City, which was friggin' freezing while we were there -- much colder than England -- felt vibrant.

 

Walking around Central Park two days after a huge snowfall, it seems like the whole city turned out to walk the snowy paths. Dozens of people paused at the top of a hill to watch sledders zoom down icy trails into a perfect white meadow, where they'd slow to a halt, or lose control and flop over, or gently bump into a pile with the other recent arrivals; and the onlookers would cheer and clap with delight. It was 22 degrees farenheit, and the allegedly-jaded New Yorkers took as much pleasure as I did in what joys the day held. Even the news on television featured lots of stories centered on how much fun everyone was having in the snow... like they'd never seen it before.

 

Back in Cambridge, stores close at 4pm, shoving money-wielding customers right out of the shops -- one bookstore employee even nailed me in the head with a huge elecronic gate as she deperately tried to get it shut ten minutes before closing -- and the dim, beautiful city is an impotent ghost-town by 6pm on a perfectly good weekend.

 

Last night Ash and I went to see a film, "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon". I had heard lots of recommendations for it, for the high-energy fight scenes and the romantic storyline, and the Brits must have too because the theater was full. Now, here's how neurotic the English are: they laughed their asses off throughout the entire film, especially the romantic scenes. Sentiment, emotion, the quiet dignity of the Chinese cinema Zen-master, just embarrass the English to tears.

 

Of course the surreal acrobatics of the Kung Fu genre didn't help -- they just kept asking each other from behind me, incredulously, "Is this supposed to be serious?" Yes, in Chinese martial arts films the kickass karate master flies. And runs on water. Okay? That's how the genre is, and that type of superstitious, superhuman Master of Physics business is what makes martial arts films so wonderful. Dude, my chi's gonna kick your chi's ass!

 

Cambridge!! These people conduct commerce like crap, have lousy service and can't deal with genuine emotion or any sort of confrontation. Forgive me, because I love the English (I have one of my own), but I'm fed up with parts of English culture at the moment.

 

I learned valuable lessons about tipping recently. While in New York, I sent a cabbie to the wrong airport. Three-quarters of the way to La Guardia, I glanced at my ticket and gasped, "Holy shit! Kennedy! It's Kennedy!!"

 

The driver asked calmly, "What time is your flight?"

 

"Seven," I said, breathless with fear.

 

"No problem," he said, looking at his watch and passing about a dozen cars on the shoulder. "You take care of me, I take care of you."

 

I knew exactly what he meant. He immediately began asking around on the radio the shortest route to Kennedy from where we were. An entire community of cabbies working together got me there in perfect time, and I tipped my driver ten bucks. Everyone's happy.

 

Two days ago here in Cambridge, a big presentation I had planned for Ashley's company went smoothly thanks to the competent and professional help of the videographer and stage manager. It was a stressful day and we all worked our butts off, and at the end I pulled out ten quid for each of them, separately. First I approached the stage manager, a man with whom I'd had to fight a hard battle just to get to do the job. It's like pulling teeth to get people to take your money around here; bitch, moan, bitch, moan! What do they have the business for, if they don't want any? For all his moaning he came through and did a great job, and at the end I passed him the tenner alone backstage.

 

"Thank you for your professionalism and for pulling this off so well. You've done a tremendous job."

 

But giving an Englishman money is no easy feat. He was embarrassed and flustered and maybe even a little disgraced. Same thing with the videographer; but he was a young guy, and gave in with a gentle smile; "Oh alright then, I'll buy my mates a beer."

 

Later I learned that the only appropriate, acceptable way to tip an Englishman (outside the normal tipping realms of cab rides and restaurants) is to pretend like you want to buy him a drink, and give him the money instead. Or if it's a woman, I'm told you should suggest she buy something pretty for herself, or perhaps for her mother. Seriously.

 

And even though you're supposed to tip cabbies here, I had one attack me with such overwhelming verbal abuse that I cried when I got into the house, for simply trying to tell him that I wanted to tip him extra for my heavy luggage. He was convinced that I was trying to get out of tipping him; and he was disgusted that I should be so condescending as to tip him extra. Guh?!

 

It's one thing to wander the luxurious gardens of Clare College, or hang out on the chunky angular stone bridge over the Cam behind Queens College, or climb the slopey steps up the claustrophobic 800-year-old tower of Great St. Mary's church. But: getting a grip on modern English culture, which has hidden codes from hundreds upon hundreds of years of history, monarchy, chivalry, antiquity, class struggle and conservatism tightly embroidered into its seams, is fraught with complication. No tourist could begin to comprehend it, and even in Ashley's own "yes which means no" as I call it, which I've picked up on over the years, I only get a slim spark of a view into this compex social code.

 

I feel like, in comparison, Americans are such simple and direct people. And of course the English satirize us for that too, among all the other things they hate about how they see American culture: cheesily sentimental, money-driven and insipidly cheerful.

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