1. Holidays mean camping and the smell of sheep.
When I think of my childhood in South Yorkshire, and holidays spent away, I think of being cold and wet in a tent or leaky holiday cottage. Sometimes the cows and sheep of Scotland or Wales, whichever field we were in, would try to eat our tent in the night. Now that I live in Asia and have easy access to tropical beaches, there’s something that doesn’t do it for me. I blame my parents. Without the chance of getting rained out of a picnic, washed off a campsite, or blown off a cold, bleak beach, it’s just not a holiday.
2. You were taught that cups of tea are absolutely mandatory for every visitor.
If there’s anything my parents instilled into me, it’s that you offer a selection of beverages to whoever comes through your door. No matter who they are, no matter how long they’re there for, they get to decide between regular tea, Earl Grey, or something herbal. And whatever you do, if someone offers you a drink, you do not say no.
Once I left, I realised the beverage tradition wasn’t observed everywhere. But when a guy from Northern Ireland came to stay with me in Taiwan for a week, we took great pleasure in making cups of tea for each other. When I invite non-Brits in for a cuppa, there’s a cycle of expressions that pass over their face: confusion, amusement, acceptance.
3. You secretly scorn how Americans speak.
Or sometimes not so secretly. Because I teach an American syllabus, over the past year I’ve incorporated more and more American vocabulary and phrasing into my daily talk. ‘Sidewalk’ not ‘pavement,’ ‘fries’ not ‘chips’ and ‘zebra’ said with long ‘e.’ I didn’t even realise I was typing ‘mom’ not ‘mum’ when I was messaging her one day until I got the curt message back, ‘If you ever call me mom, I’ll disown you.’
When your parents spend your childhood correcting the way you talk and enforcing your use of ‘u’s and ‘s’s in words like ‘colour’ and ‘fantasise,’ do you end up silently judging the way Americans speak and spell words as, well, a little bit ignorant? Absolutely.
4. You can’t go on a long car journey without a supply of sweets.
Fruit Pastilles, Wine Gums, Extra Strong Mints, and Werther’s Originals — these were always necessities for car trips of over an hour. Now when I get on a flight or a long bus journey, even though I normally never buy sweets, I need some in my carry on bag or it doesn’t feel right.
5. You know how to ‘mind your Ps and Qs.’
Or manners, to the rest of you. Say please and thank you, or you won’t get what you want. Write thank you notes. Hold open doors, respect your elders, apologise profusely when you bump into someone. Even today when I go home, my mum calls me out on not saying please enough. When I’m in public, half of my time is spent worrying that I’m bothering other people by my actions, and wondering if an apology is necessary.
A warning to British parents: this only sets up your child to be shocked, confused and insulted when they leave home and realise the majority of the world doesn’t function like them. Recently when I was standing on a bus in Taiwan, we careered round a corner and I slammed into a middle-aged woman’s back, possibly fracturing some of her ribs. She didn’t even flinch or turn around to hear my apology. In the UK, not only would I have said ‘Sorry! So sorry!’ at least ten times, but so would she. Because that’s how we apologise.
6. You feel ashamed when you can’t identify a bird or a wildflower.
Half of your childhood was spent going on long, healthy country walks wearing North Face’s entire stock of waterproofs. ‘Stretch your legs! Get some air!’ Your relatives would shout. No matter the weather, your family would take you out for long countryside rambles every weekend. These walks wouldn’t be brisk and for exercise, but rather they’d be weaving as your parents disappeared into the hedge to identify the vetch in the undergrowth, or take out binoculars to look at a sparrowhawk in the distance that was probably just a pigeon. Even though flowers and birds were drilled into you, you now find you can’t remember any of them. And with a twang like failing your ancestors, this bothers you.
7. You worry about not seeing enough culture when you travel.
If I don’t make it to at least one art gallery in the city I’m visiting, and one historical building, I feel like I’ve failed my family. There’s a nagging voice that’s always in the back of my head checking up on whether or not I’m reading enough literature, visiting enough museums, and contemplating enough art. When I travel, I can’t just stay by the pool for the whole time. I have to make sure I get a decent amount of ‘culture’, or my parents voices will haunt my subconscious until I do.
8. You think the weather makes great conversation.
When you call your family, you inevitably need to allot a certain amount of the phone call to just talking about the weather. It’s either too hot, too cold, too wet, or just right. Just right is very rare, and will be talked about with confusion and distrust. It’s built into us from an early age that you don’t trust the weather anymore than you would trust an American not to simplify the spellings of your words. Whenever I ring my grandmother, at least the first ten or fifteen minutes are just spent talking about weather and what she has or hasn’t been able to do because of it.
9. You moved out when you were 18.
And you think people who didn’t are weird. You still remember how there was that one person on your university course who still lived at home, and they were always left out of things as a result. It was one of the first things mentioned about them. If you asked someone what halls they were in and they replied that they lived at home, it created an awkward tension between you. The only thing to do was say ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ and back away slowly. Moving back home after university is more normal thanks to the economy, but not desired. Some parents even charge their child rent — they’re that keen for them to move out the moment they’re legally an adult.
10. You may not see your family often, but it doesn’t mean you’re not close.
There’s an understanding that even if we live on the other side of the world, and even if we don’t talk often, we’re still family and we’ll still be there for each other. We don’t need daily or even weekly contact, because we know that we both have busy lives and space is sometimes needed. In Asia, people quite often assume that I’m not close to my family because I left the UK, but that’s not true. And when we do pick up the phone, the conversation lasts for hours.
11. You wait for an introduction before joining a conversation.
There’s nothing worse than standing like a lemon, waiting to be introduced to the person your friend is talking to and not feeling comfortable to talk until that happens. How do you tell two British at a party? They shake hands, amid the techno music and the dancing. That’s what our parents taught us to do. I’ve been at beach festivals and in night clubs before, where neither I nor the other person are clear-headed, and yet somehow it’s hardwired into us to shake hands when we meet.
12. There are books in your loo.
You know you’re in a British person’s toilet when the first thing you notice is a large stack of books or magazines. Usual suspects are a book to dip in and out of like The Book of General Ignorance, a heavy-going historical novel that no one ever reads, a biography, and a Reader’s Digest no one remembers buying and putting there. It’s a good thing most of us British kids have quite small families and therefore not much competition for the bathroom, because you have to allow at least half an hour per visit to finish that chapter or article.
13. And there’s squash in your cupboard.
“You have a pumpkin in your cupboard?” ask people who don’t know what squash is. Almost every British home with children has squash, or diluting juice, sitting and ready to be added to water. Robinson’s or Ribena if you were lucky. When I moved out of my parents’ home I continued this trend: adding small amounts of highly concentrated artificial orange to my water to make it taste like my childhood. Except by then I was a student, so it was Tesco value squash with a half-peeled-off label.
14. You don’t know how to react to compliments.
We’re taught from an early age not to talk ourselves up, and to be modest about everything. Even if we’re the best at something, we don’t say it. When other people do, it breaks some sort of unspoken taboo. Being praised unsettles us, and makes us feel uncomfortable. Just like we understate our enthusiasm about something, we don’t talk ourselves up and always prepare for disappointment and failure. We’ve learned that it’s just easier that way, and we’ll be all the happier if something works out.