Walking the cultural crossroads between US and UK

Danielle Miller/Courtesy

As summer months fade into fall, a season of change approaches.

The view from my window is different this time of year. Instead of Berkeley’s Fulton Street — with its shady oaks and speedy bikers — regal flats, decked red buses and lush Bloomsbury parks fill the frame.

London has always been a charming city to me — a far-off place across the pond, so distant that its (seeming) inaccessibility gave it an effortless allure. While I arrived in London with a fresh set of eyes and blank slate, a part of me hoped that London would live up to the grand image I’d made of it in my head. Lingering childhood nostalgia from bedtime “Peter Pan” stories, the magic of “Mary Poppins” (let’s pretend Disney’s film rendition wasn’t just a product of Burbank sound stages) and Rex Harrison’s boisterous solos in “My Fair Lady” had acquainted me with a version of “London” filled with energy and sound.

My budding — and eventually full-fledged — love for politics and history made London even more captivating as my interests matured with age. London’s a city at the junction of past and present — an ever-evolving place that’s both modern and cosmopolitan, yet deeply connected with its past and its own timeline of turbulence and triumphs. While I knew, above all, that I wanted to study in the UK during the Brexit years in order to study political themes such as identity politics and populism (and of course to immerse myself in another country’s way of life), I also knew that I wanted to study abroad in order to gain greater contextual understanding of where the United States — and U.S. culture — sits within its global community.

“As an American abroad, I cannot help but notice the threads that connect London back to home…”

Inevitably, my quest for context will grow richer and more complicated the more time I spend overseas. But my first impressions of London still offer insight into what a casual observer on the streets might notice about the U.S. and U.K.’s contemporary special relationship. While there are many differences between British and American society (perhaps for a future article!), as an American abroad, I cannot help but notice the threads that connect London back to home and what these threads say about how my country is perceived from afar.

At the Tate Modern art museum, for instance, I encountered a piece of political protest art featuring Berkeley’s People’s Park. In a Notting Hill bookshop, an extensive feature of Allen Ginsberg poems and other Beat poets brought me back to Bay Area literary circles. William Randolph Hearst-sponsored monuments sit in London’s square parks, and many streets and companies are named after George Berkeley. Homages to American presidents — to Eisenhower, to Reagan, to Franklin D. Roosevelt — encircle the old U.S. Embassy building and New York Times newspapers are plastered with the sad news of John McCain’s departure. Buckingham Palace guards play Aretha Franklin tunes to wish an American queen farewell.

Donald Trump’s influence, unsurprisingly, is an inescapable part of daily life. Some double-decker buses have advertisements reading “MAKE MONDAY GREAT AGAIN” plastered across their sides. Paper Trump masks line the stalls of tourist gift shops along with other world leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. Panel discussions– such as one I went to at the British Library titled “Reporting America in the Digital Age” highlight the struggles British journalists have in reporting an America with “no foreign policy,” as one of the panelists put it. President Trump is the butt of many jokes, though Britain’s own prime minister dominates satirical tabloids.

“As fringe, far-right rallies break out across the States, so do they continue in Europe.”

Most intriguing, much of the debate surrounding Brexit — a hot topic in daily conversation and the press — reflects the same rhetoric used in the States. Take the middle-aged, rectangle-faced health food shopkeeper I met on my second day in London (a rare pro-Leave find for this part of the city). With tofu in one hand and a pack of porridge in another, he gave me a sermon about the pains of living in an England where Brussels takes “control” of Britain’s identity. He spit phrases I’d heard back home by disgruntled Americans: that mainstream media coverage of Brexit is “fake news” and that universities are all “one-sided leftist” institutions. Yet a day later, I met an old man who runs an antique London printing shop and whose great-great grandfather was a member of Parliament. With a sensitivity for institutions and post-war order, he softly but staunchly defended the “Remain” camp.

As fringe, far-right rallies break out across the States, so do they continue in Europe. Yet counterprotests, often much stronger, push back. From the counterprotests in Germany to hundreds of anti-English Defence League protesters this week in Worcester, England, resisting far-right encroachment on their city, to major counterprotests in America after Charlottesville, resistance does not stand idle. I’ve even spotted Antifa stickers on charcoal poles around Bloomsbury: a nod to a movement Berkeley knows all too well.

I’d say, for now, that the greatest lesson I’ve learned from the U.K. is how cultural exchange happens: what elements of other cultures (in my case, American) trickle into mainstream life here, what gets lost in the “translation” process even between two countries that speak the same language and what political inclinations tend to be less about the uniqueness of a particular country’s people and more about innate emotional responses and tribal politics. The forces that stimulate these emotions and allow them to build political culture may differ by country and region, but at the end of the day, the rawest parts of human nature — a sense of pride, anger or desperate longing to feel important in a world that keeps ticking on — remind me how very little the borders and seas that divide up the world can stop human beings from, at times, tapping back to a common place.

Contact Danielle Miller at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dmillercal.