My husband grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1960s. He tells me that he got his work ethic and determination from his dad, his politeness from his mom, his sense of right and wrong from “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” and his sense of humor from “Petticoat Junction” and “The Beverley Hillbillies.”
Oh, he added in a way that implied I should understand, “Also, ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ and ‘I Love Lucy’!”
OK, I can relate to the first two. I knew his father, who grew up dirt-poor, worked hard six days a week in order to never be poor again and probably had the strongest will of anyone I have ever met. My husband’s mother, who moved to Richmond Hill during her last few years to be closer to her family, was lovable, a real Kentucky sweetie who never said a bad word about anyone. So the family references I totally understand, but the cultural references, I must admit, are lost on me.
Who is this Beaver? Why should the actor who played “Matlock” in the 1980s have been a source of moral code? Where is Petticoat Junction, do they really have hillbillies there, and why is that funny? Most importantly, should I be jealous or worried about his feelings towards these Jeannie and Lucy women?
When I immigrated to the United States — and, specifically, to beautiful Coastal Georgia — people went out of their ways to make me feel welcome and included. Nearly six years later, they still are warm, gracious and neighborly.
However, there is one area that they cannot take me, one circle of companionship that no amount of friendly inclusiveness can ever help me penetrate: the shared cultural background that comes from growing up in the USA. This, I genuinely believe, is one of the toughest parts of immigrating.
Back in England, my friends and business colleagues all had broadly the same cultural-reference points in growing up British in the 1970s: TV shows, music, political events and news items … most of which never made it across the pond to U.S. newspapers and television broadcasts. For instance, if I said “four candles or fork handles?” to pretty much anyone reading this column today, they would look at me strangely and politely wonder what I was talking about. In England, everyone would chuckle and know exactly what episode of what show in 1976 I was referring to, because my entire generation says it again and again and we laugh every time.
We were exposed to some American imports by the late 1970s and early 1980s. On our side of the pond, we all were desperate to find out who killed J.R. as “Dallas” had become an iconic show in the United Kingdom. My school friends and I were fascinated by those Texas drawls, cowboy hats, big hair and shoulder pads. “The Dukes of Hazzard” also hit the UK airwaves in the 1980s, but fortunately, I never got into this show. I might never have considered living in a small Southern town if I had been exposed to the antics of Bo, Luke and Daisy Duke!
Several British cultural references have slipped out of my mouth over the past few weeks, which I immediately had to translate to my American friends:
• “Don’t be a Womble” translates to “Don’t be a Muppet.” The Wombles were furry puppets living in secret burrows underneath Wimbledon Common in London, and had a popular children’s TV show. The Wombles, like the Muppets, went on to have pop music hits, too.
• “Lovejoy” equates to a slightly rainy version of “Miami Vice;” Eddie Booth of “Love Thy Neighbour” equals Archie Bunker in “All in the Family.”
• D.C. Thompson are the leading British publishers of children’s comics like “The Beano and the Dandy,” which I have equated roughly to Marvel Comics publishing “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “The Fantastic Four,” “Iron Man” and “X-Men.”
My understanding of my U.S. friends and family gets a little better with each day I spend in this wonderful country. American actor and comedian Shawn Wayans sums it up very well: “If you keep up with pop culture, everybody knows the joke.”
God bless America!
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