Thursday, June 30, 2016

An American in England: How do you hold your fork and knife?

I'm in the middle of reading I Capture the Castle, a book published in 1949 by English author and playwright, Dodie Smith.  While I'm enjoying the plot so far, what has stood out to me far more is the way the main characters in the book--two English sisters and two American brothers--interact with the differences in the two cultures.  It's been fascinating to me because some of the conversations that take place in the book are conversations I've had with English friends.  We've made the same sort of observations and probably felt some of the same feelings, and that is made even more interesting to me since this book was written nearly 70 years ago!  For instance, I overheard a man in our church explain to another man about how Americans eat in almost the exact same words as this passage from I Capture the Castle.

"And it was no use trying to copy Neil 
because his table manners were quite strange to me.  
I fear he must have seen me staring at him once because he said:  
'Mother thinks I ought to eat in the English way--she and Simon 
have gotten into it--but I'm darned if I will.'
I asked him to explain the difference.  It appears that in America 
it is polite to cut up each mouthful, lay down the knife on your plate, 
change your fork from the left to the right hand, load it, eat the fork-full, 
change the fork back to your left hand, and pick up the knife again--and 
you must take only one kind of food on the fork at a time; 
never a nice comfortable wodge of meat and vegetables together.
'But that takes so long,' I said.
            'No, it doesn't,' said Neil.  'Anyway, it looks terrible to me 
the way you all hang on to your knives.'
            The idea of anything English people do looking terrible 
quite annoyed me, but I held my peace."

Just listening to the amount of time it takes to explain how Americans use their fork and knife makes me feel that Cassandra is right, "That takes so long."  But like the English Cassandra, who tries to change how she eats for a moment, it is extremely difficult and awkward to attempt eating in a different way, the way I feel trying to eat Chinese food authentically.

I was so intrigued by the gentle way Smith captured the meeting of two cultures with such accuracy that I looked her up and found that she and her husband had moved to the United States during WWII because her husband was a conscientious objector.  Wikipedia tells me she wrote I Capture the Castle in Philadelphia whilst feeling homesick for England.  Living outside your own country makes you think about all kinds of things you never gave a thought to before, like how you hold your fork and knife and why.  

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