by Zixin Jiang
Picture this: a class of teenage Chinese students sitting with their desks arranged in a circle, listening semi-attentively as their American teacher reads from an essay by an Etonian from the 1940s about what ‘Englishness’ is.
This was my sixth-form English literature class, and the essay we were studying was George Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius”. As its subtitle suggests, the essay begins with an enquiry into the ‘genius’ – that is, the characteristic spirit – of the English people. Responding to the events of World War II, Orwell writes about ‘English anti-militarism’ and ‘the respect for constitutionalism and legality’. Other things he mentions include ‘a love of flowers’, which he says is indicative of ‘the privateness of English life’. Most criticisms of Orwell begin with his pretensions to detachment, which one notices in his unusual readiness to speak of the English as ‘they’ instead of ‘we’. The fact that I was reading an essay written half a century ago, about a country half the world away, merely added to my own feelings of detachment from the subject of the essay. Little did I know at the time that I would be living in England within a year from then.
Some time after I came to Oxford, I was given a humorous book called How to be an Alien, which happened to have been written just five years after “The Lion and the Unicorn”, but by a different George: George Mikes, a Hungarian author who moved to England in later life. How to be an Alien was the perfect book for a clueless foreigner – alien – such as me. Mikes, the alien, was able to offer a perspective on Englishness that Orwell, the Englishman, was unable to give me.
Perhaps, then, my own perspective – however narrow – can be valuable to the average reader of The Poor Print by virtue of its being quite a different perspective from his or her own. But first I owe the reader an apology for the title of this essay. It is misleading to call my perspective ‘the perspective of an alien’ when in fact it is the perspective of a particular alien, namely, me.
When I first came to Oxford, I was often asked what I thought of my new environment. Back then, my typical answer was that I had adjusted very easily. For one thing, the food and the weather were both nicer than how others would have had me believe. In fact, I would like to take this opportunity to chip in a word of praise for English weather! Where I come from – Hong Kong – the sky is always a bright white haze; bright, yes, because of the strong sun, but nonetheless hazy because there are always clouds in the air. In Oxford, the days are often shorter, colder and dimmer, but this is compensated for by the blue sky that shows its face every once in a while. I think this is mainly because of the difference in humidity.
The first ‘culture shock’ I experienced was how normal it seemed in Oxford to socialize over alcohol. Back home, the most common social activity was karaoke singing – badly – with close friends. Pub trips, clubbing and even tutors’ drinks were all things I had never experienced before and which took me a while to get used to. One of my best memories from Freshers’ Week is one night when, after a long, exhausting JCR drinking social, a second-year invited me and a couple other international freshers to tea in his room. He understood that I was coming from a culture that made Freshers’ Week both unfamiliar and just a little bit scary.
It took me a term or so to notice the subtler differences between Hong Kong and Oxford. Surprisingly, many of these were differences not between Chinese and British culture, but between a big city and a university town. It may sound counter-intuitive, but the town of Oxford seemed far busier to me than did the city of Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, everyone had been busy but they had had room to go from place to place; in Oxford, everyone always seemed to be running about in frantic circles (apart from my lethargic room mate, who is asleep as I write this on a Saturday afternoon), since a lot of fast-paced activity was concentrated within half a mile’s radius from the college. I grew tired of this frenzied activity after a while and welcomed every opportunity to visit parts of town that did not revolve around the university.
I also started to notice that there was something subtly different in the way that people communicated at Oxford, although I could not quite pinpoint what it was. At first, I thought it was that people here spoke less directly. But it seemed strange that this would be an obvious difference between British and Chinese culture; if anything, the Chinese seem to disguise their opinions even more than the British do. Only after several holidays back home did I realize that the difference was not that the British say one thing and mean another; it was that at times they say something, and mean nothing in particular. It was quite a revelation when I understood that these formalities were what others had told me was called ‘small talk’.
The culture I had been used to was pretty much as different from small talk culture as possible. In Hong Kong, it is not unusual for someone to spend the entirety of a family dinner staring at a phone. In restaurants, a customer will just raise a hand to call a waiter, without having to make eye contact. Coming from this culture, I find small talk symbolic of a more general pressure in Britain to take an interest in the people around oneself and to demonstrate this interest through one’s behaviour and speech.
This pressure is, to an extent, a good thing. Living in Oxford has changed the way I behave, in simple ways such as saying ‘thank you’ to the waiter, chatting to the porter, and asking ‘how are you?’ once in a while. In my opinion, these are certainly changes for the better. Something I wish my reader to reflect upon, however, is this: When conversation becomes routine, and ‘how are you?’ becomes a formality that ceases to mean anything, and when, like a reflex, the question is returned without any thought, how is small talk any better than not talking at all? I believe that society has invented a way of making eye contact without looking at the other person. There is a point at which societal pressure to ‘small talk’ stops being a good thing, and instead makes routine what otherwise might have been autogenic – coming from within. In a culture without small talk, if your sister who has been staring at her phone looks up and asks you ‘how are you?’, you know she means what she says, but in a ‘small talk culture’, it is difficult to tell when a person is asking in earnest or merely as a formality.
Or at least, so it seems to the alien; or, more accurately, to this particular alien. Maybe it only seems that way to me because of my ignorance towards the subtleties of the English language. If so, I hope you will excuse me; after all, I am still learning.