Free Resources for Students and Teachers of English as a Foreign Language in China - by Paul Sparks

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Paul Sparks, Sino-Canadian International College, Guangxi University, Online English Lesson Plans, Lesson Material and Ideas for Semester 2 Reading Lessons...



Reading: Xenophobe's Guide to the English - Part 1


Nationalism and Identity

How They See Themselves
Xenophobia (Actually the English prefer "xenolipi" (pity for foreigners) but both words, being foreign in origin, are of limited pertinence in any case), although a Greek word, has its spiritual home in the English dictionary where it is drily defined as an "abstract" noun.

This is misleading. It is, in fact, a very "common" noun - an everyday sort of noun really, with nothing abstract about it at all. For xenophobia is the English national sport - England's most enduring cultural expression. And there is a very good reason for that.

As far as the English are concerned, all of life's greatest problems can be summed up in one word - foreigners.

Nine hundred years ago the last invasion of England was perpetrated by the Normans. They settled, tried to integrate themselves with the indigenous population and failed.

The indigenous population then, as now, displayed an utter contempt for them not merely because they had conquered but more importantly because they had come from abroad.

Even today descendants of those Normans who think to impress with a throw-away remark about their families having "come over with the Conqueror" find themselves on the receiving end of the sort of English frost normally reserved for someone who has broken wind in a lift between floors.

The real English deal with them as they dealt with the Romans, the Phoenicians, the Celts, Jutes, Saxons and, more recently, every other nation on earth (especially the French) - with polite but firm disdain.

The whole thing is rather like cricket, the archetypal English game. It lasts all your life and it is apparently more important to play than to win - a sentiment which is more reminiscent of Confucius than Carruthers.

That is what you are up against. It is useless to imagine that you can succeed where so many have failed. But since it is the proudest English boast that they cannot begin to understand foreigners, it would be gratifying to steal a march on them by beginning to understand them.

How They See Others
English views on foreigners are very simple. The further one travels from the capital in any direction, the more outlandish the people become.

When it comes to their neighbours in the British Isles, the English are in absolutely no doubt as to their own innate superiority. This they see as no petty prejudice but rather as a scientific observation. The Irish are perceived as being wildly eccentric at best, completely mad at worst. The Welsh are dishonest and the Scots are dour and mean.

However, the Irish, Welsh and Scots should take heart. For most English they are not quite as appalling as their cousins across the Channel. They should also remember that "foreign-ness" for the English starts to a certain extent at the end of their own street.

The French and the English have teen sparring partners for so long that the English have developed a kind of love-hate relationship with them. The English love France. They love its food and wine and thoroughly approve of its climate. There is a subconscious historical belief that the French have no right to be living in France at all, to the extent that thousands of Englishmen try annually to turn the more attractive areas of France into little corners of Surrey.

As to the French people, they are perceived as insincere, unhygienic and given to sexual excess.

With the Germans the English are less equivocal. Germans are megalomaniac, easily-led bullies who have not even the saving grace of culinary skill.

Conveniently forgetting the fact that their own Royal family is of German descent, the English make no pretence at liking the Germans. Confronted with one, they will constantly be reminding themselves "not to mention the War" whilst secretly wondering whether he or she is old enough to have fought in it.

For the rest of Europe, as far as the English are concerned, the Italians are hysterical and dishonest; the Spanish, lazy; the Russians, gloomy; and the Scandinavians, Dutch, Belgians and Swiss, dull. Further afield English odium is no less concentrated. Americans and Australians are vulgar, Canadians are boring, and all oriental peoples inscrutable and dangerous.

You will only find this out, of course, by listening at keyholes, for to your face they will always be charming. They appear to be tolerant to a fault. In actually, they only value foreigners for their backs - which they can use for talking behind.

Special Relationships
The English have a natural distrust of the unfamiliar and nowhere is this more clearly seen than in their attitude to the geography of their own country.

Since time immemorial there has been a North-South divide in England. To the Southerner, civilization ends somewhere around Potters Bar (just north of London). Beyond that point, he believes, the inhabitants are all ruddier in complexion, more hirsute and blunt to the point of rudeness. These traits he generously puts down to the cooler climate.

In the North they frighten their children to steep with tales of the deviousness of the inhabitants "down South". They point to their softness, their mucked-about food and their airy-fairness on all matters of real importance. Nevertheless, any English man or woman, no matter how soft or hairy, is entitled to special treatment as, to a lesser extent, are the inhabitants of those countries which represent the English conscience - once the Empire, now the shrinking Commonwealth.

How Others See Them
To outsiders the English are intellectually impenetrable. They express little emotion. They are not so much slow as stationary to anger and the pleasures of life seem to pass them by as they revel in discomfort and self-denial.

Their culinary appreciation is incomprehensible to most, but especially the French, and in their hesitation to be direct or state a view, they are rarely understood.

With an unparalleled sense of historical continuity, they appear to carry on in their own sweet way largely unmoved by developments in the world around them. The unlikely effect of all this is that outsiders have a kind of grudging respect for them. This is partly because they amuse, and partly because they are consistent.

Fascinatingly ghastly they may be, but you know just where you are with them.

How They See Themselves
The English don't just believe themselves superior to all their nations. They also believe that all other nations secretly know that they are.

They feel themselves to be natural leaders, the most obvious choice for "top nation". Geography reinforces this belief as the inhabitants look out to the sea all around them from the fastness of their "tight little island". Nobody would ever question the aptness of the newspaper report: "Fog in the Channel - Continent cut off."

With their wealth of experience of "running the show", as they see it, they are also deeply aware of their responsibilities to others. These they take very seriously, which means that throughout life they act rather like head boys or head girls in school. They see it as their solemn duty to protect the weak, strengthen the faint-hearted and shame bullies into submission. These are their roles in life and they fulfill them, by and large, to their entire satisfaction.

How They Would Like to be Seen
Although it is impossible for the English to appear to care what others think of them, deep down they would like to be loved and appreciated for what they see as the sterling qualities they possess. These qualities, which they bring selflessly to the world forum, include a reflex action which leads them to champion the underdog and treat persecutors with a firm hand, absolute truthfulness and a commitment never to break a promise or to go back on one's word.

In a perfect world, the English suspect everyone would be more like them. Then, and only then, would they achieve the recognition and affection they feel they so richly deserve.


Stiff Upper Lip
The characteristic English pose involves keeping the head held high, the upper lip stiff and the best foot forward. In this position, conversation is difficult and intimacy of any kind almost impossible. This in itself is a clue to the English character.

Puritanism has always found in the English its most fertile breeding ground. For hundreds of years their children have been brainwashed with trite little sayings - "Silence is golden", "Empty vessels make the most noise" and, most telling, "You are not put on to this earth to enjoy yourself".

Small wonder that they end up, as adults, acting rather like the three wise monkeys and emotionally in traction.

But still the English defend their character and behaviour against all comers. Perhaps that is because Puritanism with its punishing work ethic assures them that their reward for all that restraint will come at a sort of school prize-giving ceremony in the world to come.

If it is the latter, they are forgetting that since God is also English - a firmly-held belief - any hedonism in the next world will probably be accompanied by mugs of bromide.

Nevertheless, the English continue to bask in this certainty to the general astonishment of the rest of mankind.

If there is one trait that absolutely singles out the English it is their shared dislike for anyone or anything that "goes too far".

Going too far, as the English see it, covers displaying an excess of emotion, getting drunk, discussing money in public or cracking off-colour jokes and then laughing at them noisily. Beyond the pale altogether is the man or woman who regales one with his or her titles or qualifications. The only acceptable place to air these is on an envelope.

To the English the proper way to behave in almost all situations is to display a languid indifference to almost everything, though one may be seething underneath. Even in affairs of the heart, it is considered unseemly to show one's feelings except behind closed doors.

A Good Sport
If an English man or woman refers to you as "a good sport", you will know that you have really arrived. For to them it is a qualification normally never awarded to a foreigner and by no means within the grasp of all the English.

The term is not exclusively a sporting one. It describes the sort of behaviour both on and off the playing field that characterises everything the English really respect. In all physical trials, the good sport will play without having been seen to practice too hard and will, ideally, win from innate superiority. He of she will then be dismissive of their victory and magnanimous towards the loser.

It goes without saying that the good sport will also be a good loser. There will be no arguing with umpires or outward signs of disappointment. On the contrary, a remark such as "The best man won!" tossed airily to all and sundry, and never through clenched teeth, is obligatory even in the face of crushing defeat.

This does not really fool anyone, for the English are fiercely competitive especially in matters sporting. They would rather be crossed in love than beaten on the tennis courts, but to let it be seen would be going too far.

It is the apparent colossal self-confidence and moral certainty of the English that is paradoxically one of their greatest stumbling blocks. For both qualities are, to a certain extent, only illusions. Whilst they may appear fearless and calm on the surface, deep down the English suffer from agonising self-doubt, feeling that in many areas of human activity they just cannot cut the mustard.

All the time there were countries to be conquered and foreigners to be governed, the English could sublimate all their clamouring uncertainty. The scent of success served as incense at the altar of their self-assurance.

But with the helter-skelter slide from Empire to Commonwealth and ever downwards, their doubts, like itches, have begun to plague them and it is considered bad form to scratch in public.

The English have a strong sense of history. Because their past was so infinitely more glamorous than their present, they cling to it tenaciously. Mix this love of bygone ages with an unrivalled sentimentality and you have a heady mixture which can be sensed in every aspect of the English life.

Antique shops clutter up every town and village. English homes are filled with old things not only because please the eye but because there is a feeling that anything that has stood the test of time must be better modern counterpart.

The English generally distrust the new-fangled or modern. Shininess is vulgar and the patina of age lends respectability. Thus they cling on to old furniture, old carpets, old chipped china, old kitchen gadgets and garden implements long after common sense dictates that they should be replaced.

"If it was good enough for my grandfather/grandmother, it's good enough for me!". The English cry goes up and each new invasion from the future is greeted with the indignant question: "What was wrong with the old one?".

And as far as the English are concerned, there is no answer to that.

The English are endlessly resourceful and inventive, but rarely profit from their inventions. The inventor in his garden shed turning out gadgets and widgets tends to be almost exclusively male, lacking the more practical female genes in any great numbers.

Often perceiving needs in daily life which have gone unobserved by the rest of his compatriots, he will beaver away 24 hours a day creating such indispensable items as the perfect egg boiler or the self-creasing trouser.

Occasionally, though, he will come up with something with real promise like the hovercraft which will then be ignored by his countrymen and taken up by foreigners.

Attitudes and Values
The English are governed by a simple set of attitudes and values to which everyone pays lip service, whether they believe in them or not. There is, however, one exception to this rule and that is:

Common Sense
Common sense is central to the English attitude to almost everything in life. It is common sense to carry an umbrella in case of rain. It is common sense not to sit on cold stone (which bestows hemorrhoids). It is common sense to wear clean underwear in case one is run over and taken to hospital.

In fact, it is common sense and thoroughly English never to be wrong-footed in any way. To fall foul of changing circumstances is inexcusable. One should "be prepared" at all times.

For the English, common sense is part of the historical imperative. It was common sense that beat back the Armada and won the Empire. The lack of it caused the Fall of Troy, the French Revolution and almost any other foreign debacle you care to mention.

It is common sense that sets the English apart: they may look silly in their plastic macs on the Riviera, but the last laugh will be on them if the Mistral comes early.

Of course it does not always work; sometimes germs do get through despite their efforts. Then, as well as looking ridiculous, they sport that archetypal affliction, "le sang-froid habituel des Anglais" - the English person's usual bloody cold.

Belonging is important to the English. Individuality is all very wel1, in some cases it can be commendable, but, on the whole, being part of a team is their preferred situation and they are never happier than when they are surrounded by a group of people with whom they either have, or affect to have, everything in common.

This urge for togetherness manifests itself in many ways. Historically its most obvious symptom is found in the English devotion to the class system which is central to the whole English way of life. Its importance can hardly be overrated and it should never be dismissed. It is the unseen joker in the pack - the card that negates or validates the whole game of life and turns winners into losers and vice versa.

The class system is a reflection of the fierce competitiveness of the English. For whilst they believe that, as a a race, they are superior to every other nation on earth, they have a surprising need to establish their individual superiority within their own society. They do this by maneuvering themselves into cliques in whose company they feel comfortable. Once there, they adopt mutually exclusive fashions of all kinds and nurture a kind of phobia about other groupings to which they do not belong. All this Is achieved through skilful manipulation of the class code.

The existence of the class system is a living proof of the English devotion to tradition, their innate fear of their own inferiority and their desire to better themselves in the eyes of their compatriots. The whole thing can appear to be of paramount importance but there is also, ironically, something of the game about it. Like all English games it is more important to play, than to win.

English tradition demands the existence of three classes.

Once upon a time these equated to the old groupings of aristocracy, merchants and workers. However, with the irresistible rise of the merchant or middle class, the aristocracy and workers were squeezed out of the frame and the middle class turned its attention to dividing itself into an upper, middle, and lower class. Around 98% of the English are, in fact, middle class.

The aristocracy, representing barely 1% of the population, is historically above joining in the class game although it still serves as the arbiter of it. The working class is now pretty well extinct and today represents at most 1% of the population. For them the whole social game is beneath contempt. Thus it is left to the middle class to provide all the players.

However much English class structures change, class consciousness never disappears. When BBC interviewer Sandra Harris met that beldame of letters, Dame Barbara Cartland, in the 1960s, she asked her: "Have English class barriers broken down?" Dame Barbara, with saccharine honesty, assured her: "Of course they have, or I wouldn't be sitting here talking to someone like you."

The Dame was, of course, exaggerating. Class barriers still exist and competition to scramble over them ahead of one's compatriots is fierce.

Because of this, the middle-class English can never relax. They are conscious that in every aspect of life they must project the "right" image - one based on their perception of what their betters would cultivate if they had to bother. They care desperately about what they wear, what they say, what they eat and drink, where they live and with whom they are seen.

It is an exhausting business because there is so much at stake. For while it is almost impossible to move down a class, a glorious upward bound can be achieved provided the player does not make a single false move when on trial. And, of course, social life is nothing if not a succession trials for the middle-class English.

Trial by Conversation
The English attach enormous importance to accents. Nowadays a regional drawl is not necessarily a fatal flaw but what used to be called an "Oxford" accent or "BBC" pronunciation will still stand the accused in the best stead. Probably even more important than vowel sounds is vocabulary. Traditionally the upper classes have always agreed with the working classes that a spade should be called a spade and never a garden implement.

Although they are adept at avoiding saying what they actually mean, the words the well-bred English use to conceal their real feelings are preferably direct. They never use foreign words when there are perfectly good English ones for the same things (i.e. napkin and not serviette). Short Anglo-Saxon words are used to describe bodily functions. All euphemism is anathema and hyper delicacy, abhorrent.

This makes life tricky for the middle classes who confuse delicacy with refinement and tend to avoid any direct confrontation with what they perceive to be coarse or vulgar. Until they learn to refer to "lunch" not "dinner" at lunchtime, sit in the "sitting room" rather than the "lounge", on a "sofa and chairs", not a "3-piece suite", go to the "loo" not the "toilet", and use "scent" rather than "perfume", they can never pass the conversation test.

The most important single word in the social climber's vocabulary is "common". It should be used frequently to describe anyone or anything which offends one's assumed level of sensibility. There is no appeal against "commonness".

Trial by Table Manners
The English have a growing interest in food but it is the ritual of meals and table manners which hold an unrivalled fascination for them. This means that mealtimes are probably the most testing times for any player.

If the meal starts with soup, remember the English maritime tradition and tip the bowl away from you to avoid the soup spilling on to your lap in the event of a swell. And note that a knife should not be held like a pencil and that "pudding" is never "sweet" except adjectivally.

Trial by Dress
The English are, understandably, primarily concerned with keeping warm and admonish impractical fashion victims that they will "catch their death of cold".

Predictably, upper-class fashions mostly reflect tradition. The natural habitat of the English gentleman or woman is the country, not the town, and this is reflected in their wardrobe. Preferred colours, dismal browns and duns, remind them of their estates and often bring a whiff of the Borders to the West End of London, where green Wellington boots and Barbour shooting jackets are not considered any more out of place than four-wheel drive Range Rovers.

For while fashion itself is transitory, the English way of life goes on for ever. So, it sometimes seems, do English clothes. Formal outfits have to be bought on occasion, but they should never look new. Neither should old school, regimental or club ties. Casual clothes are chosen for their comfort, not for their appearance.

Fashion, even foreign fashion, interests the English increasingly, and this is reflected in a growing awareness of cut and style. However, no designer can change the Englishman's penchant for trousers which are a little too short for the leg, as if he had somehow grown out of them.

Trial by Love
Love is something that does not come all that naturally to the English, who see romanticism as a threat to practicality and common sense. In terms of the social climb, however, it is central. It is, after all, the one way in which one can move upwards in one bound. A good marriage can put a social climber in a commanding position. But in the game of life, even the English acknowledge that the love card is wild. That is why they are so wary of it.

If you come through the trials and establish your credentials, you may earn a grudging respect in English social circles.

Finally, though, the laugh is on you. For if you have really had to try, you have lost. The accused in this trial needs to exercise every care except, perhaps, that of caring too much.

It is hard to believe that the English reproduce, for while other nations celebrate their sexuality, to a greater or lesser extent, the English regard theirs as the enemy within.

The sexually-unattractive Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans in general have got a lot to answer for. Together they drove die issue underground hundreds of years ago and it has been growing there ever since quietly choking the flower of English youth and occasionally upsetting the entire garden plan.

But instead of ploughing up the whole area, the English have played around with trowels and forks for centuries. Consequently they have never, so to speak, solved the problem.

This is strange, for the English are fearless in their confrontation of almost everything else. In all other matters emotional or psychological, while angels hover nervously on the sidelines, the practical English rush in, dragging their tea urns behind them, ready to cope. When it comes to sex, however, they are struck dumb and stumble about helplessly.

Because of their inclination to ignore the existence of the sexual impulse, the English have never really seen sex as a fit subject for study or discussion. The result is that their attitudes towards it are still characterised by the superstitions, myths and taboos of less enlightened ages. In consequence, many English see sex in terms of domination - a liaison being termed a "conquest" of one party by the other.

When it comes to the act itself, the English have always felt themselves to be inferior practitioners. As far as men and women are concerned, sex was, and to a certain extent still is, primarily about reproduction. Lights out, face to face, is the name of the game.

It is as well, too, to remember that for the English, even sex is not free of class distinction. Tradition has it, for example, that the sign of a gentleman is that he will take his own weight on his elbows and, however, intimate the moment, he will always remember to thank his hostess for having him, just as she will thank him for coming.

Voyeurism is a favourite hobby. The English love to read about sex. Newspapers are full of the bedtime exploits of others and the peccadilloes of the famous are a constant thrill. Nothing, even the act itself, can enthrall the English quite as much as reading about some sado-masochistic pillar of society caught bending over in Bayswater on a Sunday afternoon.

But safer, and perhaps even more to the English taste, in sexual innuendo of the seaside postcard kind. Naturally nervous of sex, they feel happiest when they tittering about it. So it's Benny Hill and "Carry on Bottom" for a really good night out - followed by a comforting an aphrodisiac - a few too many lagers or a mug of steaming cocoa.

Wealth and Success
The English generally prefer the old to the new in their daily life and dislike change in the status of their relatives and acquaintances.

"0ld" money is preferable to "new" money and inherited money is infinitely preferable to money earned. Those who suddenly achieve wealth are referred to dismissively and anyone who talks about their financial status or hints that he or she might be anything more than "comfortably off", will get a very cool reception in desirable social circles.

Overt enjoyment or the flaunting of wealth is also considered rather bad form and the innate puritanism of the English warns "Pools" winners that ho good will come of their having won and that "money cannot buy happiness".

Unlike their transatlantic cousins, the English have an inherent distrust of success and look upon money with disdain. Misquoting the Bible to underline this attitude, they aver that: "Money is the root of all evil." What they really mean is that everybody else's is.


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