NOTES FROM THE UNDERGRAD

American Abroad
In London, a Thanksgiving that finally clicks. .

 

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Notes from the Undergrad In London, missing America

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By Maanvi Singh | For as long as I’ve lived within its borders I have never really felt American, until this November, when I found myself defending pumpkin pie.

I’ve spent the fall semester studying at Kings College London, and along with another exchange student, I was hosting a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. This was unfamiliar territory for me. My family moved from Bombay to the Bay Area when I was nine, and I’m still not an American citizen. Before I came to London, I had never really celebrated Thanksgiving. But here, I’m a Thanksgiving expert. I had to explain to my British flatmates about the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, roasted turkey and Black Friday. And pumpkin pie.

“Why would you put pumpkin in a pie?” Well, it’s sort of warm and sweet, and it tastes great with brown sugar and cinnamon.

“Don’t Americans eat apple pie?” Well, yeah, but…

“I had pumpkin once. My mum made soup. I didn’t really like it.”

Before I came to London, I could hardly have imagined professing allegiance to such a quintessentially American dessert. I didn’t think there was anything quintessentially American about me. I had never made hand turkeys in kindergarten. I hadn’t watched Sesame Street, either. Or had a Tamagotchi pet, like seemingly every other kid in California. I never learned the rules of football, and I still don’t quite have the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” memorized.

But mainly I’d never really felt American because I had spent so much time looking back, missing India. I missed the sensory overload, the community, the food—even run-of-the-mill produce tasted different there. So even after living in the US for more than a decade, when people asked, I usually told them I was from India, but my family had moved to California a few years back.

But to all my friends in London, I’m just American. They ask me to explain the Electoral College and bipartisan government, the history of Prohibition, the four-year university system, and American words for things. They make fun of the way I say zee instead of zed, and pants instead of trousers. Here, I get smiles when I encounter other Americans at cafés and on the train. And when I meet other study-abroad students from the States, I tell them I’m from California.

When I left for London, as part of the Penn in London program for English majors, I was more excited than apprehensive. It didn’t occur to me that I might miss a place where I didn’t even think I belonged. I left without expecting to look back.

To an extent, I was right. I love living in London and I’ll be sad to leave. I love all the old things here. I love that one of my classes is held at the reconstructed Globe theatre, and that on my way to the shopping district I pass a pub where George Orwell liked to hang out. I like that my campus building shares a wall with Somerset House, where Queen Elizabeth I used to live as a child.

I like all the fanfare and tradition: the change of the guards at Buckingham Palace, and the fact that, due to a city charter drafted in 1215, every time the Queen wants to leave Westminster and enter the City of London, she has to receive the Pearl Sword from the Lord Mayor of London.

I like how huge this city is. Five times as big as Philadelphia! I like that it can take over an hour to get from one side of the city to the other by train. I love London’s short, haphazard streets. I like that Wellington Street turns into Bow Street, which turns into Endell Street—all within a span of three blocks.

But occasionally I long for numbered streets on a grid system. And I never thought I’d say this, but I even miss SEPTA. The Underground is amazing, but sometimes I wish I didn’t have to transfer from the Eastern to the Western branch of the Northern Line, or skip from the Bakerloo to the Piccadilly to the Jubilee just to get from A to B. I miss the simplicity of the Market-Frankford line. Eastbound or Westbound: no public-transit calculus required to decipher those options.

Sometimes I wish people here would stop asking if I’m “all right” and just say, “How are you?”

And though I genuinely do like Marmite and cheese toasties, and all those weird flavors of potato chips (Haggis, Prawn Cocktail, Parsnip with Black Pepper and Essex Honey), I miss thin-crust pizza and Mexican food. And as much as I appreciate the English respect for rest and recreation, I miss the American commitment to efficiency and organization. I miss the fast-paced life, stores being open on Sundays, the 24-hour libraries at Penn.

I miss good, strong coffee. Bluegrass music. Bay Area hippies and their West Philly cousins. Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show.

And I miss pumpkin pie.


Maanvi Singh is a College senior.


 
     
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Last modified 01/05/13