As someone whose PhD essentially focused upon British identity, and how the government during the Second World War sought to capitalise on that to ensure full engagement in the war by British citizens, a super-fan of Kate Fox’s Watching the English, along with really enjoying Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island and Icons of England, I was pleased to be sent a review copy of Amy Boucher Pye‘s Finding Myself in Britain… and interesting that I am reviewing it in the midst of undertaking a MOOC in ‘Cultural Intelligence‘!
A spiritually infused, sometimes rain-soaked look at the traditions, quirks, and customs of British life and faith. As Michele Guinness says in the foreword, “There were moments when her honesty and pain choked me, others when she made me laugh out loud. From toilets to tea and tennis, drizzle to driving, reserve to religious observance, sarcasm to self-deprecation, queuing to cricket, not to mention language, class, and vicarage oddities, it’s all there – the British foibles that make other nations think us bizarre… Yet in Amy’s gentle hands it’s a revelation – funny, challenging, surprising, chastening, and cheering.”
Amy had not planned to move from the USA (which she clearly loves), to the UK, but she has now lived here for 20 years, is married to a vicar, and has learnt to live away from family and a culture familiar to her, but also to observe British culture from that unique perspective. She says:
“But in losing ourselves, we can find our true selves… we’re all strangers in a foreign land, longing for our true home. We’re pilgrims on this journey of life, and often we face roadblocks and yearnings and pain and separation. But we also experience joy and hope, and we can do so even in the midst of the challenges we face…”
Throughout the book, Amy gives a sense of searching, exploring and finding identity, not only in our earthly lives, but in our search for our heavenly future. Where does God want us to be now, and how do we ‘shed a dual approach to life’? How do we deal with the feeling of being a stranger and a foreigner – whether travelling, or living out our lives on earth:
We can all feel a stranger at times, whether we encounter an uncomfortable work situation, feel like an outcast at church, are the newcomer at an exercise class, stand at the school gate while eyeing the group of close-knit parents, or feel alone and forgotten in our homes. But life is about community, so I invite you to journey with me….
Amy dives in by looking at the particularly English habit of drinking tea (a habit that could make very un-English … I don’t like tea!) – and the rituals that accompany it… including the hospitality that it indicates. Her next story moves to the day they buried Diana – clearly the evening that her English now-husband was going to propose… but felt inappropriate to do so as a ‘quintessential Englishman’. She continues to consider the differences in the schooling systems – what have her children gained (depth of learning, ease of dressing in uniforms), what does she feel that they have missed (breadth of learning, the yellow school bus) … and a story I love – the scariness of the ‘school-gate’ and the challenge to ‘fit in’ with ‘yummy mummies’. Amy eventually chose to reject this and to reach out to the other lonely looking women, or chat to ‘the yummies’ and realise that she’d over-generalised! We hear about Amy’s learning new stories about First/Second World Wars, and the importance of Remembrance Day in the UK, in a way that it’s not in the US.
Having just passed Thanksgiving this year, it’s interesting to learn that this emerged from the English festival of Harvest, translated by the Pilgrim fathers/mothers in order to ‘in all things give thanks’, despite a harsh journey across the sea, and the difficulties of establishing a new way of life. Amy considers the poignancy of celebrating Thanksgiving overseas, appreciates the good wishes she receives on social media, and wishes that the British would continue to focus on Harvest, rather than adopting other American ‘traditions’ such as ‘Black Friday’. Great story of urban adaptations, especially the guy bringing in a Rolls Royce jet engine to focus on the “harvest” that one of the church members contributes to society. Amy also considers expectations about the role of a ‘vicar’s wife’ (flower arranger/baker/always there) – which she bucked with her own work as an editor! We see the debates (theological!) she and her husband have had about Christmas – including the timing of putting the tree up, but also the enjoyment of encountering new traditions such as the Christingle… and struggling to engage with Advent Devotionals. I like the idea she came up with the other year – focusing on Isaiah 9:2-6, and each day seeking to write a poem (some good, some bad) in response! Also interested to observe the tradition of crib service, meal with stockings for the children, and midnight service on Christmas Eve, before services/main presents on Christmas Day itself… and another roast dinner because that ‘means Christmas’ for her husband (reminds me – what does Christmas mean for you?) – Christmas appears to be one that has so many traditions – where there are possibilities for culture clash! Amy then questions what New Years means … some of the cultural traditions she likes, and how that translates into her desires to live in in following year. I love how she has taken advantage of her birthday at the end of January to invite ‘potential friends’ around for dinner – with a range of questions designed to stimulate conversations – leading to some very interesting friendships… and the opportunity to ‘practise the spiritual discipline of celebration’ that so many Christians can forget about!
We are faced with the significance of language (and struggling occasionally in a second language), as well as the impact that an accent can have (apologies Josh for our ribbing of your accent at CODEC – but it did lead to some v interesting conversations!) – especially in the UK where there is such a range of accents! Amy moved to the UK just before Lent – she struggled to settle in whilst her husband returned to his ordination studies – and has found that the emotions of joy and sorry often overlap… and prays that we will be sensitive and caring at the time of Mothering Sunday (which was another new thing to adjust to). Oh dear – at Amy’s first Easter service in the UK, she’d been told by a grumpy old man that she was sitting in his pew… although clearly not a uniquely British problem:
Amy considers the different attitudes to Christmas (cute baby) and Easter (bloody crucifixion) in British culture, with a friend commenting:
Many are happy to accept [Jesus] as a baby, but his teaching and adult life make them uncomfortable and demand something of them.
Amy draws heavily on thoughts from Tom Wright … and why not – I did so for two years with Big Read! As we move through the year, we hear about Spring Harvest from the perspective both of a visitor, and as a speaker. Reflections upon British plumbing and the ‘chilled to the bone’ feeling that we can get form dodgy heating made me laugh .. I grew up in a 16th century farmhouse – I definitely recognise that (and consequently am often to be found still saving on the heating bills, wrapped in several blankets!). Of course the topic of the weather also appears… and offers a reminder to pray for the healing of the earth after the recent floods.
Another echo in my head (see my piece from Bible Reflections, 2012) when Amy says Preach it to yourself, sister! in relation to this comment:
We aren’t machines; we can’t work ourselves nonstop without our bodies crying out in response, whether through headaches or ulcers or more serious complaints.Looking at the creation account in the early chapters of Genesis, we see how integral rest is to us human creatures. We aren’t God; we are frail and need the rhythms of work coupled with rest, worship and play.
Plenty of thoughts then given to leisure activities in the UK, especially the large number of historic homes! Then onto the tricky subject of the etiquette of names … as Amy sought to ‘be less’ the ‘brash American’, and sought comfort from God that she is enough as she is – including when she embarrassed her son by cheering an award he won a ‘little too loudly’. She then seeks to understand Wimbledon, The Ashes, football and the Olympics – and the passions each raise in the British! After an exchange back to the US, conversations with God to relinquish her desire to move back to the US, Amy reflected on the fact that there is a culture in the US with a ‘can-do’ attitude, especially in relation to ‘what you can be’ – not to be held back by the past… and has now stopped grieving for friendships – and been grateful for technological advances that allow continued connections! The sacrifices of living in the UK have to be underlined by a belief that it is worth it, otherwise the US would call tomorrow… and Amy has been able to reach out a helping hand to a number of other expats … and if you fancy any of the recipes that she refers to in the book… there is a collection of them at the end of the book!
This book was provided to me courtesy of Authentic Media in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.
Dr Bex Lewis is passionate about helping people engage with the digital world in a positive way, where she has more than 20 years’ experience. She is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Visiting Research Fellow at St John’s College, Durham University, with a particular interest in digital culture, persuasion and attitudinal change, especially how this affects the third sector, including faith organisations, and, after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, has started to research social media and cancer. Trained as a mass communications historian, she has written the original history of the poster Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster (Imperial War Museum, 2017), drawing upon her PhD research. She is Director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst (Lion Hudson, 2014) as well as a number of book chapters, and regularly judges digital awards. She has a strong media presence, with her expertise featured in a wide range of publications and programmes, including national, international and specialist TV, radio and press, and can be found all over social media, typically as @drbexl.