An American Studying (Boys) Abroad

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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