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Framing Your References Abroad

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”While my fellow Brits in the UK are merrily talking about Blue Peter and Coronation Street*, (see below) I have to find less convoluted ways of expressing myself. For example, when someone is boasting about having done something clever or difficult, many Brits will sarcastically respond, “What d’you want then? A Blue Peter badge?” This refers to the coveted award given to viewers in recognition of achievement or talent. All I can manage is a very pathetic “What do you want – a medal?”

When making something that doesn’t quite work out as per the instructions, I long to say “Here’s one I made earlier”, which pokes fun at presenters on children’s shows who always had a perfectly constructed thingy-majig under the table to save the day. In the States, my “audience” would actually be waiting for me to produce it. Cue more quizzical looks.

Every so often I meet up with Brits in the US, and boy do I make up for lost time. The fact that I’m reaching for reference points that are at least twenty years old doesn’t deter me, and I ramble on about everything from the Oxo Lady to Marmite (challenge – Google them!).

Americans do the same, talking about The Beaver, The Clampetts and Love Boat, (if you’re over forty). Although we got the last two in the UK, they weren’t half as popular over there and so aren’t quite as heavily stamped onto the British collective memory. After years of asking questions, I am now able to understand many Americans references, but sadly because most weren’t part of my childhood, they evoke nothing in me.

* Blue Peter is a long-running children’s television show taking viewers on a voyage of discovery, and teaching them how to make dolls’ furniture out of sticky back plastic (contact paper).

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* Coronation Street is an almost equally long-running, gritty soap about life in a northern town. Affectionately known as “Corrie”.

Toni Summers Hargis is the author of "Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom", (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.

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