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Columnists > Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis
Toni Summers Hargis is the author of The Stress-Free Guide to Studying In the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students (Summertime). She is also the author of 'Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom' (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.

Toni Hargis

A Very Foreign Christmas

Posted by: Jamie on Wednesday January 04, 2012 (08:54:30)   (3174 Reads)
Toni Hargis
Whether you relocated two years ago or twenty, Christmas can always be counted on to remind you of “home”.

Holiday attire in the States does that for me.. Oh yes, it’s not just the people standing in for Santa who dress up around here. For the subtle look we have ear-rings that look like they belong on a Christmas tree, some take it a little further with red scarves, perhaps a little sparkle here and there, and then there are others who feel the need to remind everyone about Christmas – on their chests.

American author Mike Harling (, now resident in England, just can’t get used to fireworks at Christmas time. “I have willingly absorbed most of the Christmas traditions of my adopted country, and the holiday season is richer because of it. But the one thing I continue to find jarring is all the fireworks. The towns set them off when they light the Christmas lights (or they used to before the money ran out) and they are a feature of many holiday parties. Watching fireworks in the damp and cold, however, without a barbecued hotdog in one hand and a plastic cup half-filled with warm beer in the other just isn't the same. Fireworks mean sultry summer evenings, the glow of a newly minted sunburn and Lee Greenwood blaring from the speakers. Here it means an extra layer and an umbrella.”    more ...

Toni Hargis

Expat Kids - Missing Out on Traditions?

Posted by: Jamie on Wednesday January 04, 2012 (08:47:53)   (2867 Reads)
Toni Hargis
It's almost Thanksgiving as I write and we have no plans. Whatsoever. Most American families will have the menus planned down to the cranberry sauce, but we're still wondering what we're going to do. Some years we get together with other lonely souls who have nowhere else to go, but we don't lose any sleep over things either way. Similarly, with Independence Day we are often not even in the country, so have never gone to join friends at suburban parades, to wave flags and experience the all-American cookout.

Being English, you'd think that perhaps I would make sure that these American-born kids of mine would be steeped in my home country's culture. I'm ashamed to say that apart from a sporadic offering of Yorshire puddings with meals or crackers at Christmas, we don't do much English stuff either. Bonfire night came and went and not a whiff of a sparkler was there in our expat household (I still find it weird that you have to stay up so late on July 4th to see the fireworks. Being used to them occurring on November 5th, when it's dark at about 4pm, it was never a late night for children.)    more ...

Toni Hargis

Halloween, American Style

Posted by: Jamie on Wednesday January 04, 2012 (08:43:30)   (2755 Reads)
Toni Hargis
Despite having lived in the States for twenty years, you’d be surprised at how many bits of American culture I still haven’t embraced. Top of that list is marching bands, which are ever-present at college football games and positively set my teeth on edge. They’re loud, and not particularly pleasing to the ear – especially when they attempt the ubiquitous “Rock n’ Roll”, by Gary Glitter. Fortunately I only ever come across college football on TV where there is an “Off” button.

Parades are another pet hate – perhaps because they include marching bands? For many important days in the US calendar (Thanksgiving, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day) there’s a parade. The big ones in New York City are televised, but many cities and towns across the land have their own parades. Unfortunately, many of them are during our winter months, so not only would I be required to stand on the side of the road with crowds of other people, but we’d usually be in sub zero temperatures. I think not.    more ...

Toni Hargis

Expat Living - Lessons in Humility

Posted by: Jamie on Wednesday January 04, 2012 (08:41:55)   (2555 Reads)
Toni Hargis
Whether you move around the world or just to one country, I guarantee you’ll make a fool of yourself at some point. It can be a language blooper or a culture clanger, but it’s there, lurking on your horizon. For the most part too, it’ll happen when you have an audience of at least five, who will then repeat the story until it becomes an urban legend.

We’ve all done it, so you’ll be in good company. In fact, take comfort from these examples of red faces and cringing embarrassment.

The first wedding I ever attended in the States was just a minefield of social gaffes for me. I wore a hat (it was 1991 after all, and I was hot off the plane from London). I was THE only person wearing head gear, and I think some people looked at it as an English eccentricity. I couldn’t even take it off because I had the dreaded “hat hair”.    more ...

Toni Hargis

The World at Your Fingertips

Posted by: Jamie on Wednesday January 04, 2012 (08:38:22)   (1369 Reads)
Toni Hargis
If you'd moved thousands of miles across the Pond in 1990 like I did, it wasn't such a big deal. Television had given us details about many countries around the world so it was hardly an unknown quantity; even less so for me as I was moving to the USA. Although I now know the two countries can be quite different at times, television had made it seem so familiar that there was little anxiety before my move. I often wonder what early nineteenth and eighteenth century emigrants to American or Australia must have felt like - leaving families behind in Europe, knowing that they would probably never see them again and having at best, an unreliable mail service for communication. The Proclaimers' song "Letter from America" ( tells such a story.    more ...

Toni Hargis

Expat Parenting - A Surprise Element

Posted by: Jamie on Wednesday January 04, 2012 (08:36:06)   (1292 Reads)
Toni Hargis
As an expat, it’s all very funny when you have little children, born and raised where you weren’t. They often have a different accent from you, a slightly different vocabulary, and they invariably make fun of your pronunciation. As they get older, and closer to leaving the nest however, things take on a more serious tone.

My daughter is entering her last year at an American high school, and we’re currently looking at colleges. My long term plan has always been to move back to England once the big kids were in college, at least for a little while.

“But mom”, said one of them, “What if you stay there?”    more ...

Toni Hargis

Framing Your References Abroad

Posted by: Jamie on Wednesday January 04, 2012 (08:34:07)   (1389 Reads)
Toni Hargis
When I first moved to the States from England in 1990, people used to ask me what I missed or what I thought was really different. Yes, family and friends come top of my list every time, but even after twenty years, one of the biggest things I still miss is my frame of reference.

No matter where you are in the universe, you’ll unwittingly mention something from your childhood, a long-running TV commercial or from part of your school curriculum. I’m no different, but when I do that in the States, it falls on deaf ears or is met with a stony, quizzical silence. I can almost hear Americans saying to themselves, “Oh there she goes with one of her funny British phrases again”    more ...

Toni Hargis

It’s Life (Jim) But Not As We Know It

Posted by: Jamie on Wednesday January 04, 2012 (08:30:22)   (1253 Reads)
Toni Hargis
It’s strange moving from the UK to the US. It sort of looks the same, and in some of the older cities you feel you could almost be in England. The flora and fauna however, are a constant reminder that you’re in strange territory.

Gardening is a different kettle of fish in the States - you can’t just plant any old thing in your garden. North America is divided into eleven climate/hardiness zones, enabling you to choose plants that will survive in your specific region. Plants are usually sold with a small map or zone number indicating their suitability, and “unsuitable” plants, trees and shrubs are often not even available in the local nurseries. For avid gardeners, this can be quite limiting and frustrating. A walk round Chicago neighborhood gardens gives you an immediate snapshot of the relatively small number of plants that can tolerate both the freezing winters and the hot, humid summers. (Hostas and astillbes are very popular.)    more ...

Toni Hargis

Expats - Unlearning All the Time

Posted by: Jamie on Wednesday January 04, 2012 (08:24:30)   (1108 Reads)
Toni Hargis
When you move from one country to another, you sometimes have to unlearn subjects that you were quite happy with, such as education systems. I grew up with the UK system, which is so different from its American counterpart I have almost had to erase it from my memory to survive. They start school a little later here, although many children go to some type of nursery or pre-kindergarten school. The first required year of education here is Kindergarten, when the children are turning 6. This is the equivalent of Year 1 in the UK. First grade is Year 2, and so on. Although high school consists of grades 9-12, the students are more commonly referred to as Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors. “Freshmen” and “Seniors” makes sense, but I always have huge trouble remembering the order of the middle two. Thank goodness they use the same terms for the four years of university. Adding to my confusion, students in the last two years are also referred to as Upper Classmen. (Oh, and by the way, they’re “students” not “pupils”, no matter their age.)    more ...

Toni Hargis

Learning the Lingo

Posted by: Jamie on Wednesday January 04, 2012 (08:19:24)   (1347 Reads)
Toni Hargis
How long do you have to live in a country to feel like you know what on earth everyone’s talking about? In my case, there’s not even a second language involved as we’re all supposed to be speaking English. I’ve written at length about the vocabulary differences between British and American English, but in my experience, the real confusion comes from day to day expressions which bear no relation to their actual meaning.

For example, even though I’ve been in the USA almost twenty years, I apparently have had no idea what “being behind the eight ball” means. It’s a very common phrase here and I always assumed it was a good thing (don’t ask me why but I had really good pool/snooker players in mind), but no, in fact it means quite the opposite. If you’re behind the eight ball, you’re in serious trouble, or in a tricky situation.    more ...

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