When you enter a new and unfamiliar culture, as I did nearly nine years ago when moving to London, you prepare yourself to feel out of your element. You read up on the pending changes. You think about them, try to imagine yourself experiencing them first hand. Stand on the right, walk on the left. Ok got it. Sweet corn on pizza. Um, I’m not really convinced, but ok, fine. Stop referring to trousers as ‘pants’. I’m still working on that one.
I have lived in the UK now for so long that its culture and customs no longer surprise me. However, having spent twenty-six years growing up in the US, I’d like to think I can transition between the cultures pretty seamlessly, whenever the opportunity to travel arises. There are differences between the two cultures of course, but none that I have stumbled over too drastically in the last few years, especially after a couple of days reacquainting myself.
What I had failed to acknowledge up until recently however, is that my children are, in fact, British. Obvious you would think, but I just had never categorised them in such a manner. I never really had to. The truth is they are very British, and especially so against the backdrop of American culture. America, for a British 3-year-old, is an entirely confusing place, but in ways that I was not prepared for.
Case in point; our multiple run-ins with hot dogs. Hot dogs are a socially deemed ‘kid friendly’ food in the US. The first experience we had with said dog was at a family barbecue. Nell and I sidled up to the large picnic table, overwhelmed by the array of standard American barbecue picnic items. The classics were all there: potato salad, pasta salad, spinach and artichoke dip, copious amounts of ranch dressing etc. Nothing abnormal I thought (for American culture). Nothing that made me even think twice. I loaded up both of our plates, making sure to grab us two of the plump, freshly grilled hot dogs, slathered them with ketchup, then headed for a table so we could sit and eat. Nell sat down next to me, eyeballing her plate with uncertainty and looking around to see what everyone else was doing.
“Mummy, why is my sausage in a sandwich with ketchup?”
She looked at the plate some more, before breaking out into tears of frustration. Poor girl was so utterly confused with this ‘thing’ on her plate that she ended up abandoning all of it. My adventurous eater was totally unprepared for this so-called-kid-friendly-familiar-but-foreign alternative, as was I for her reaction. It struck me how culturally relevant our definitions of ‘kid food’ were. We had just expected her to lap up the new items without even bothering to recognise how different they were from what she was used to.
She ate lots of other new foods during our visit. Many were even deemed adventurous for a three year old’s palate. “Yes” to giant chef salads filled with vegetables, cured meats and cheeses. “Yes” to salt beef ( or corned beef in the US) and half done pickles. But very strong, very definite “no” to hot dogs and “no” to pizza (the crust was much thicker than we normally have in the UK). She wanted nothing to do with anything that looked like a food she was used to, but tasted completely different, or was eaten in a different way.
We had a great trip all in all. The girls soaked up all of the grandparent attention they could. I ate as many half done pickles as I could possibly manage. Nick reveled in the wide driving lanes. Nell and Isla roamed the open spaces and giant playgrounds with joy. But I will remember next visit to prepare both girls for the changes in culture that I have grown so accustomed to navigating, I have forgotten that they need explaining.
I’m pretty sure both girls, and Nick too (although I’ve had a good few years converting him already) will eventually find a place in their hearts for the American experience of a hot dog at a baseball game, New York pizza by the slice, a breakfast burrito slathered with Hatch green chillies in New Mexico, and many other regionally-specific foods that have won over my heart. And I will make sure that there is an explanation from me on what they are eating and why, before they even take their first bite. Lesson learned.
Now, who knows where we can get a good half done pickle in London? I’ve got a few people here jonesing for one…