Friday, July 16, 2010

I Speak Amurican

It never occurred to me that I was speaking English. People speak Spanish. They speak Chinese. They speak Turkish. They may speak English with an English accent (which as I have been lovingly informed, apparently they are not the ones speaking with an accent (the language, I am told is called English after all not American)). You are probably sitting there thinking; “Geez Chris, what an amazing revelation! I didn’t know that I was speaking English! Thank you for bestowing this nugget of knowledge on me! You are my best friend… and incredibly handsome… and awesome…”
Okay… I may have known that I spoke English. I just wasn’t always conscious of the fact that the words I spoke or the thoughts I thought were in a language. To me it seemed like the world just worked in English. We know that a tree is a tree, it may be called an ağaç in Turkish or a árbol in Spanish but we can be certain that the tree-shaped structure I see out my window is, in fact, a tree.
I didn’t start thinking these thoughts until I lived in a country that functioned in another language. In Istanbul, those tree-shaped things actually are ağaçs they are merely called trees in English. Mind-blowing, I know. I could grasp the fact that I did not understand the secret code language that everyone around me was speaking, but surely they could understand me when I spoke the language that the universe works in. If they could not understand it, I would simply speak louder and slower.
Being an American, I think in the back of my mind I just assumed that I spoke a meta-language, a sort of way of talking that I assumed must even be the way God speaks. The place I grew up did not have a culture or a language (actually rural Arkansas has a very distinct culture and language). It was just simply they way the world worked. In America, I live in the real world and in other places they have funny things like culture and customs and languages. The way I interact with other people in my hometown is not a part of culture it is just the way people act. Central Asian people do things like take their shoes off before they enter a house, Russians won’t shake hands over the threshold of a door, or British people drive on the wrong side of the road and mispronounce lieutenant because they have a ‘culture.’ In America, the customs we have and even the way we think are not part of a culture; it is just the way the world works.
I was shocked to hear someone in the little English village I live in tell me that they could hear my accent. “Why no, you foolish Brit,” I wanted to inform them, “You are the one speaking with an accent, I am speaking the way people actually talk.”
Now I realize that I am breaking new ground here with the discovery that we are speaking English and that there is an American culture. You can send your royalty checks my way. I just think it was an interesting self-revelation. Like when you hear your voice on an answering machine, but on a grander scale. ‘Wow, that is the way I sound to the rest of the world, and it is kind of weird and unique.’
Now that I have blown your mind, (or you may have already known that you speak English), I will leave you with this. In Cappadocia, Turkey we had an old Turkish tour guide who was showing us around the underground cities and caves. He had a very thick mustache. (That is not part of it, it was just a very nice mustache.) At one point he started imitating tourists from different countries. Japanese people waddle out of the buses like penguins, say ‘oooh and aaah’ take a picture and then waddle back onto the bus. Italians apparently sing all of their observations. When asked what American tourists are like, he stuck out his chest and strutted around saying “Show me this. Show me that. I own everything!” It was like we are looking at the rest of the world like fish in an aquarium. (Actually he was very offensive and quite rascist.)
We have a place, as Americans, in this world and in history. And I typed this entire blog post in the English language, with an American accent.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Wimbledon: The Real Story

A friend of mine and I went to Wimbledon last Friday. We planned ahead and decided to get there an hour and a half early. After all we did not want tickets on Centre court, we just wanted to sit on the hill in the grounds and watch. We had no idea what we were in for. What follows is what we made of the day...
Wimbledon, 2010: Would the practice and dedication pay off? People from all over the world converge on this posh corner of London. This quiet residential area is transformed into a place where the best come to prove themselves once a year. You can see the looks of concentration on their faces. Many have been working for this since childhood. Hopes and dreams ride on their performance…
Across the street from this showcase of monumental prowess, another tournament is played: the Wimbledon Tennis Championships. But is this game for women and children where the real talent actually lies? (Yeah, it probably is.) Or is it back across the street to what I was talking about earlier: the Queue for the Wimbledon Tennis Championship?!
British love to stand in line. They love it so much that they created a term for it; “queuing.” At first an explanation of the queue itself may seem as needless as the last four letters of the word ‘queue.’ However upon deeper investigation, one discovers an entire subculture; chock full of a gritty dose of patience and politeness.
“We have been coming to this queue to wait for the past ten years,” proudly exclaims one queuing supporter. “I have been queuing ever since I was a little boy!” exclaimed a pensioner who chooses to spend his free-time queuing. The diligence has paid off for him, because at 10 a.m. on Friday, he was the first person in queue for Saturday’s tennis matches. With a look of triumph, he goes back to perusing his manual on proper queue etiquette.
Over 7,000 queue enthusiasts form different sections of the queue in a field a half mile from the tennis grounds. Older queue attendants, called stewards, patrol the area and direct the slow plod of the queue. They solemnly warn stragglers that “the Wimbledon queue waits for no man.” The queue participants continue their march past posted signs that give the queue code of conduct such as: “Queue jumping is not acceptable and will not be tolerated” and “You may not reserve a place in the queue for somebody else, other than in their short term absence (eg: toilet break, purchase of refreshments etc.). If you have to leave the queue, you should negotiate your position with those around you and/or a steward.” These and other Spartan-esque guidelines are engrained into British progeny at an early age.
“We British will queue for anything,” says one waiting woman. “If we see a queue, we jump in it, afraid that we are going to miss something.”
As impressive as this display of queuemanship is, an even more elite group of queuesmiths position themselves to the side of the field in rows of tents. Not content to merely wait several hours to get into Wimbledon, these titans of timeliness are willing to wait for days. Entrenched in their nylon fortresses, the elite pass the time with conversation, tea, and a healthy helping of Pimm’s coupled with strawberries and cream (a Wimbledon tradition.) “We could have gotten tickets online, but waiting in the queue is what makes the experience what it is,” said a couple who were setting up their tent and digging in for the long haul.
The throngs of those waiting grow more and more patient as the queue snakes its way to the tennis grounds. Fueled into a frenzy of civility and politeness, the crowd patiently waits their turn for the chance… the chance to get tickets into Wimbledon grounds. As the fields are slowly evacuated, the wreckage from this proliferation of patience is all that remains; a few trash bags that the patrons have kindly stuffed their waste into. Sheer chaos…
After the smoke clears (metaphorically, of course, because the queue guidelines state that barbequing and camp fires of any type are strictly prohibited) fans make their way into the tennis grounds. They have earned a well-deserved respite of calm games of tennis after the excitement they faced outside in the queuing fields. Until next year’s showdown, Britons will be in training. One does not have to look far to see British politely queuing at restaurants, grocery stores, checkout counters, or any chance they get to display their waiting prowess. “To be British is to queue.”