An American Studying (Boys) AbroadMeghan O'Keefe

When I was a young and idealistic liberal arts major, I did what most young and idealistic liberal arts majors do: I studied abroad for a semester. The whole idea behind studying abroad is learning through cultural exchange. I thought that as a English literature major who minored in watching Jane Austen adaptations and writing Harry Potter fan fiction that Oxford University would be best for me. I know it was never explicitly mentioned in the brochure, but I always assumed that part of this cultural exchange was letting a wonderful foreign boy fall in love with you. As tough as it was to find a book in Oxford’s famed Bodleian Library (seriously, they do not use the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress cataloging systems and it becomes quite the library language barrier) , it was even harder to find a British boyfriend.

Let me re-state that. It was tough for me to find a British boyfriend.

J.K. Rowling may have taught me about friendship and magic, but there is precious little in Harry Potter about how to figure out if the British boy talking to you is gay or not. According to Jane Austen, having a man despise you because of your background is the first step to forming a meaningful relationship. As it happens, when posh British boys are looking down on you, they are actually looking down on you. Flirting in and of itself became an exercise in misunderstanding. Because of the foreign accents, it was tricky to tell when guys were being sincere and when they were being sarcastic. It was then difficult to determine whether their sarcasm was loving or demeaning. And even though I spoke English and all the boys I met spoke English, it was usually like we were speaking a completely different language. I once asked a nice boy I really liked if he wanted to hang out sometime and call it a “date” without realizing that “dating” in British speak didn’t mean, “Let’s hang out and maybe make out if we feel like it,” but something closer to “Let’s move in together and visit each other’s parents.” Needless to say, he was in no rush to meet my mother.

After a month of flirting in pubs without finding my very own James McAvoy look-a-like, I decided to take matters into my own hands. After all, I was the plucky heroine in my study abroad romance. If a meet-cute wasn’t going to happen organically outside the Purple Turtle pub, I would use my resourcefulness to help it along. I decided to sign up for speed dating.

In every culture, speed dating is supposed to eliminate a lot of the long pauses and awkward silences that derail first dates. Instead, it just recreates the first awkward five minutes of a date twenty times over. Those first five minutes end up being even more awkward when they consist of the guy asking, “Where you are from? Where’s that? No, seriously, where is Delaware? Is that even a real place? It’s from Wayne’s World, right? I only know where Florida and California are in the United States. Have you been to Florida? Is Delaware anything like Florida? Why don’t you go to Disney World all the time? You live so close to it, don’t you?” It becomes especially awkward when about half of the guys who said this also told me their concentration at Oxford was “Geography”.

For my part, I wasn’t any more impressive. When they asked me what I did for fun, my only real response was “improv comedy”. Nowadays it’s a cute cliché for a nerdy girl to idolize Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. At Oxford in 2005, it was the equivalent of saying you built your life around some obscure female nuclear physicist. All the guys would tense up and you could feel them biting their tongues. They were all desperate to say, “That’s nice and unique, but why? You could have so much more fun if you liked watching rugby. Or getting drunk a lot.”

It quickly became clear that I wasn’t going to find a boy to date at the “St. Anne’s & St. Catherine’s Speed Dating Mixer”. I was playing the musical chairs of shame. Most of it was my fault. I had miscalculated how boys would react to me and as a result I was failing in sparking any trans-Atlantic chemistry.

Logic would state that as an American, I would have some kind of edge in the Oxford dating scene. My foreignness would be considered exotic, and exotic is sexy. The problem there is that America isn’t really exotic to Brits. They watch a lot of our films and television shows, so rather than be curious about our culture, they assume they have complete understanding of how we think and behave. This is actually untrue and it winds up coming across as really patronizing. So when a drunk guy from Essex insists that you must have had a hand gun in your house growing up because that’s what he knows from soap operas, he suddenly becomes far less dashing and far more infuriating. As I discovered, I went to England with the same handicap. I speak English, love BBC miniseries and have been an Anglophile since I was 10. I assumed there would be nothing lost in cultural translation. I assumed I understood how a foreign culture behaved and that I would be easily welcomed into it by its most charming gentlemen. Obviously, I was wrong.

My time at Oxford wasn’t a complete disaster. On the contrary, it was one of the best times of my life. I made incredible friends and had spectacular fun. There were dance parties and shopping sprees. I got to meet and write and rehearse with Oxford’s sketch and improv comedy nerds. Most of all, I really did get a spectacular education–both academically and culturally. The only real regret I have is how I let myself get so disappointed that I didn’t get a British boyfriend. It isn’t that I’m still mad I didn’t have one; I’m mad that I put so much importance on it. Because looking back, I could have had even more fun if I had not stressed out so much about it.

If I could do it all again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Not because I learned anything through my mistakes, but because I learned absolutely nothing. Not a single lesson I learned from flirting with one boy applied to the next. There are no dos and don’ts for how to date a British boy because there are no dos and don’ts to dating, period. All those dating rituals and games that we’re taught are bullshit no matter what country you’re from. You just have to take every person as they come to you and not expect that they know where you’re coming from. Each person is a new adventure.

I think in the end that was my biggest mistake: I assumed that I was living my life according to some Richard Curtis script and that the boys I met would naturally figure out that they were supposed to be my romantic lead. Looking back, it’s completely embarrassing that the biggest thing I learned at Oxford University was that I know nothing about dating. I only know that everyone is different no matter what culture they come from and that should be embraced.  I suppose the point of studying abroad, though, is learning something you weren’t going to find in books. Still, I wish there had been some ancient tome in the Bodleian Library to help prepare me for all the frustration.

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  1. I studied abroad at St. Andrews in Scotland my junior year. I’m from Delaware, so I using Philly as a location too…hoping they’d know where that was. Then it turned into Washington DC. Most Brits I met would ask me if I was Canadian because I have a mid-Atlantic accent of nothingness. At the University that promises you to find your future husband, it did not work for me. (I only ran into Prince William a few times, but I missed my chance.) However, I was the only American in a very diverse group of hallmates from all around the UK & Scandinavia. But now I’m ready to go back and try again. Good thing I’m a historian and can take “research trips”.

  2. I’ve only been to England for a few weeks, since it was a shortened study abroad trip during the winter intersession, but unfortunately I did not find a British boyfriend. :( I really enjoyed this article, because I was on the lookout for a James McAv0y-lookalike (or just James McAvoy himself) too haha. I even stalked the neighborhood where I thought he lived…I’m kind of embarassed to admit that now. Also I love that the photo for this article is from Starter for Ten!

  3. I studied abroad in Scotland last year. SAME THING. I was like, “Oh, I’m American; who doesn’t love American girls, right?!” Boy was I wrong. Most guys just wanted to talk about Obama and politics, when all I wanted was to find my own younger version of Gerard Butler! Honestly, most of the time guys were patronizing and not at all up for my witty banter. There were a few nice ones that I gained as friends (what else is new?), but sadly, no romance worthy of a Jane Austen novel.

    Honestly, I wouldn’t say I learned anything life-changing about relationships over there, but I certainly have a new appreciation for American guys.

  4. Being a Brit myself I have to say that British men definitely do not have the concept of dating figured out. I once asked a guy out for coffee and I might as well have asked him to get married and have his babies! I think it may have had something to do with the fact that I asked him out and that obviously meant that I was desperate and had absolutely nothing to do with the simple fact that I just wanted to get to know him better!

  5. As an Oxford native, I definitely felt your dating pain reading this! Take solace in the fact it is not just you that has trouble with the boys around here, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be.. quite the ass! You’re so lucky to get the chance to have studied in Oxford though, I’m still plotting ways to infiltrate those huge gargoyled walls!

  6. Some interesting observations. I was a cultural anthopology major at Uni and it’s always interesting for me to read about how people fit in to different cultures. I lived in The Netherlands for a year and a half, and it was interesting to see how people reacted/spoke to me in the beginning and how they eventually began to accept me into their culture. I learnt Dutch and at first, people would reply to me in English because they could hear my accent, but by the end, they would always talk to me in Dutch because they realised my Dutch was passable, and i think they were happy that I made the effort to learn the language.

    And to be fair to the Brits and Americans, I’m an Aussie with British parents and I don’t even know where half the counties in the UK are on a map, so I think it’s normal – people tend to focus on the geography more in their own country.

  7. as an english major myself, i had an english boyfriend for a year. funny though that i knew more about his history and culture than he did. he was definitely a dating adventure that the books did not prepare me for.

  8. I love this article! But to be fair to us Brits, America is a massive place! I’m sure that if I went to America no one would have a clue where I’m from so that’s a little unfair.

  9. Nice to know it wasn’t just me then. lol I spent a year in England getting a Masters degree. I’m not sure when I thought I’d have time for dating in fact, I went the whole year without a single one. However, our masters group hung out (read went to various pubs a lot) and had an amazing time. Easily the best year of my life, even without the British bf I was sort of hoping to find. =o)

  10. I’ve had people ask me where Delaware is… in the US. *sigh*

    • I ended up just telling people I was from Philadelphia. At one party, I tried to get a very drunk foppish Brit in an all cream colored suit to guess where I was from. He said, “You’re from the Philadelphia area.” Dumbfounded I asked, “How did you know?” He answered, “You have the Fresh Prince of Bel Air accent about you.” Apparently I rap all the time.

  11. I think we should start a club (or rather, a society) for people like us! I was a media and film student and spent my third year at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. I had the same experience and not until 7 months in did I understand the lingo and cultural differences well enough to make some good friends. Best of all, these Brits weren’t even from my uni or any societies I had tried to meet people through – I met them while hitch hiking to Morocco with a charity organization during Easter holidays. Explaining the slight disappointment to people (but still having an amazing time) is difficult though -you did get it completely right!

    • I was able to make amazing friends when I lived in London after graduation. The irony there was they were all people with international backgrounds who worked in Covent Garden with me. But you’re totally right! We need to start a club!

  12. this is a great article! Being a Potter nerd and completely in love with Jane Austen, my dream has always been to go to England to meet the love of my life. This opened up my eyes to the reality of things :O

  13. Haha I literally did the exact same thing!!! Except at a different London school. Then I came home to find an awesome American boy waiting for me and we’ve been together ever since. I was so convinced that I was in England to fall in love with an English boy that I let all those annoying little differences really just slip by until I was completely over the entire idea of dating anyone ever again. Oh my goodness this article was so spot on I couldn’t even stand it, I was cracking up the whole time. Great job, girl!

  14. haha that guy in essex was an idiot because he’s from essex, it’s like ‘the valley’ area of england, i know because i’m from there. great article though! glad you had fun anyway and not everyone is as stupid as those people you went speed dating with, although in fairness I have only been to california and florida.

  15. Great article! But next time you want a British affaire try Glasgow. Scottish people are waaaaaay more open and thoughtful.

  16. as an idealistic arts major myself, i spent my entire third year abroad in England too! in York, to be exact. it was easily the BEST year of my life thus far – something i’m sure you can understand. i was determined to have lots of fun with English boys, haha, but not get into anything serious. i didn’t delude myself that life was a Hugh Grant film, and was well aware of the realities of England, but i still wanted to have a good time. as it was, on the very day i moved into halls i met the man who i’m still in a relationship with today! boyfriend or not, though, i’m so, SO glad i got the chance to study abroad.

    • You never find someone when you’re explicitly looking for someone!* You always have to be chill and then it comes to you. Congrats on finding your guy, though!

      *Unless you’re one of those people who meets their spouse on an online dating site.