Friday, October 1, 2010
The English Are Not Like You And Me
I met an Englishman on a visit to a temple fair in Pitsanalok, Thailand a couple of weeks ago. He wasn’t shy, and he got right down to the business of explaining to me in detail why so many people around the world don’t like the English. That was not his intention, to be sure, but the effect was the same.
He lives, he told me, “much of the year” in Thailand, while spending “most of his time traveling” around Asia and the world. His trophy girlfriend was nearby, she was about twenty-five or thirty years younger than his fifty-five or so. I never actually met her, she never said anything, she was standing by awaiting instructions or something. He has a “big house” in Pai, in the province of Mae Hong Son, which is very nice, and a “new” Toyota Camry Hybrid, which, he explained, was “quite expensive here.” Then he got to the meat of his argument.
He had stopped bothering to speak with Thais, he explained, because “they have nothing at all to say.” They are very backward, he went on, there’s no real manufacturing here, they can’t do anything but grow rice and pick fruit, so “they have nothing on their minds.” He maintained that his Thai language was “quite good,” although I never heard him use it. I told him that I found Thais to be delightful, resourceful people, and very interesting, which he allowed was probably due to the fact that I was working with them, and so we had more in common. The comment was intended sarcastically.
He cast aspersions on Thai politics, and I responded that I stay judiciously away from those discussions. I allowed that I would occasionally complain about my own country if the situation called for it. That really struck a chord.
“Never run down your country in front of them!” He almost shouted it. He was no fan of America, he was speaking generally. Thais, he felt, were all certain that Thailand was a lousy place and were equally certain that any developed country was much, much better. He reasoned that if one complained about one’s own, developed country, Thais would get the idea that the developed country was a dump too, and that it carried a status that was very close to Thailand’s. According to his logic, this would allow the Thai to believe that he was as good as you, which the Englishman obviously felt would be a fate worse than death.
“They’re all very status conscious, you know.” Yes, I thought, much like the English. This fellow had just spent a large part of the first five minutes of our conversation establishing his status as higher than mine, with the house, the car, and the traveling all over the world.
But he seemed so insecure in this status, didn’t he? Maybe he’d started out as a working class lad back in some ancient industrial backwater of Great Britain. Maybe his family was Irish. What secret was tormenting his soul, if indeed he has one? Was he struggling desperately to escape his low-status origins?
Probably not. England is a status conscious country, it’s important to those people, in all situations, to find out who is better than whom. The moment an Englishman opens his mouth, other Englishmen peg him immediately by his accent. Upper-class Englishmen are very anxious to do this, it’s like performing a service to society, it’s like they consider it a form of noblesse oblige.
An upper-class Englishman, or, these days, a merely rich Englishman (I’m not sure what category my temple friend was in), looks down not only on most of his own countrymen, but also, with all available distain, on all of the other peoples of the world. “The wogs begin at Calais.” Many Thais have noticed that Englishmen look down on them, treat them like simpletons. Thai women have told me: I like American men . . . English men look down me, talk bad me. Bangkok taxi drivers have told me: America very good . . . English people not polite. I smile and commiserate, the English look down on me all the time, like this guy in question, and always have, on the simple basis that I am an American, a Colonial, and an Irish-American at that.
To paraphrase: Americans are friendly, but often not polite; the English are polite, but generally not friendly.
So this Englishman at the temple annoyed me, so what? He wasn’t the first. In groups they are even worse, they’re liable to start talking about you like you weren’t even there. That’s surreal, when that happens.
You know, my name is English, the “Ceely” bit. The man who brought it to America was Robert Ceely, no middle initial, “just Bob Ceely,” born in London in about 1845. This Robert Ceely married an Irish girl in New York, Mary Desmond, and had a couple of children, including my grandfather, Robert Emmet Ceely, named after the Irish patriot as a concession to her having married an Englishman. Mary died young, probably in childbirth, which was something of a local custom in New York at the time.
My mother’s entire lineage, almost to a person, was Irish. I notice that my Irish relatives always expressed a love of Ireland and celebrated Irish things. Even after 100 years, if they became prosperous, they’d try to swing a vacation in Ireland. The Ceelys? I don’t recall any one of them ever mentioning England in a positive way or going back for the simple purpose of seeing it again. It was more like, good riddance. This anti-English fetish of mine could be a race-memory.
Americans are a mongrel race, thank God. This might be the genesis of the distaste that the Old-World upper-crust has for us. The English are bad; the rest of them aren’t much better. I’m as mongrel as anybody, notwithstanding my English name and the preponderance of Irish in my blood. Americans are not a breed, like being English, or Austrian, or Japanese. One of my grandmothers was born in New York of parents who were both born in Germany. Even my mother’s family included one person foreign to Ireland, a Swiss man. If your family has been in America longer than mine, your blood is probably more mixed by the experience. So perhaps by the old rules we are all low-society by definition. Being happy, though, is the best revenge, and this stuck-up prig of an Englishman that so annoyed me at the temple was anything but happy.