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 3



Leisure and Pleasure
English magazines will often advertise themselves as being devoted to sport and leisure. This is puzzling for to the English sport is seldom leisurely.

The reason they are lumped together can only be that, in English eyes, leisure activities share with sport the element of competition so essential to the English way of life. Leisure is a challenge and one must make one's own better than anyone else's.

The high flying executive who plays with model helicopters on the Common is subconsciously waiting for another high flier with similar toys to compete with. The man who cleans his car in a suburban street on a Sunday morning is really running a polishing race with his neighbours with every grunting sweep of the chamois leather.

Even a peaceful pint in the pub can easily turn into a drinking competition if the right adversary turns up.

When bad weather threatens, the English, unlike other people, do not invariably take shelter in their houses. For heavy weather is the ultimate adversary - a worthy and familiar opponent.

Wrapped from head to foot in waterproof clothing, they set out on extended hikes, best feet forward, carrying maps in little plastic bags around their necks. Up hill and down dale, the English follow vehemently protected footpaths on these route marches which they deceptively refer to as "rambles".

The Challenge
Uncomfortable forays of this kind are a particular English favourite. In summer months they will travel miles to the Lake District, where rain can be almost guaranteed, to pit their stamina against the worst that nature can throw at them.

So popular are these struggles against the elements that some enterprising individuals have formulated courses in physical discomfort in remote and inhospitable areas of the British Isles where other English people pay substantial fees to be assured of a serious challenge.

These courses, posing under such romantic titles as "Survival", are pursued for their perceived character building qualities. The stiffening of upper lips is guaranteed.

English companies, sparing no expense, will send their executives away for days on end to play these games. The assumption is that a man or woman who can shine in physical adversity will also excel in stressful business struggles. It never occurs to these companies to sack all their employees and take on the men who run the courses instead.

However they justify these excesses, the fact is that the English just love a physical challenge and eschew comfort as sybaritic. Even in a potentially comfortable situation in the Mediterranean sun, they will pit their white skins against its harmful rays until the evening comes and they are thoroughly burnt.

The English are devoted to sports of all kinds. Their children have always been trained from the earliest age to take them seriously. Even today in schools up and down the country little boys and girls in shorts are exhorted to "play the game!" by their elders and betters who will come down heavily on "slacking" whenever they see it.

Whether it be football, rugby, hockey or any other team game, they start young and carry on, barring accidents, until they have to hang up their boots and watch others doing it.

This they do with boundless enthusiasm and extremely vocally in spectator stands or from touchlines, often in sub-zero temperatures or force ten gales with the ever-present threat of a downpour. Nothing can dampen their ardour. Even at night they carry on watching in stadiums bright with floodlight.

Cricket to the English is not just a game. It is a symbol - a twenty-two man personification of all English beliefs and philosophies. Ignore it at your peril.

If you do you could be "on a sticky wicket". You might then be accused of not having put your "best foot forward" and of not "playing a straight bat", both hallmarks of the bounder.

Cricket is the national summer pastime of the English race. Visitors to England would have to be blind not to spot at least one weekend cricket match in their travels. And even the blind cannot avoid the coverage of international matches which dribbles out of radios in every public place throughout the season. It is inescapable. On every village green or television screen, a group of men, dressed in white, stand around waiting for something to happen.

The English invented cricket 750 years ago and are fiercely proprietarily about it. Its laws are one of the great mysteries of life, passed on among the initiated in a coded language. In the past they took the game all over the world and always won. Gradually, though, other nations' teams have got better at it, until now the English stand a jolly good chance of being beaten wherever they go.

Whenever this happens, the English get very heated. They accuse everyone in sight of having cheated: of tampering with the ball by roughing up the surface (so that it behaves in an irregular fashion); of shaving the head to reduce wind-resistance on the run-in; of "sledging" (hurling abuse at the batsman so as to put him off his stroke); of wearing the wrong clothes, and of playing too fast for a one-day match - all of which they vigorously complain is just "not cricket".

Games with Animals
The English adore horses and dogs to such an extent that they even involve them as partners in some of their sports. Over the centuries these animals have proved themselves admirable assistants in the eradication of foxes and specially-bred game birds.

Although they are seen as archetypal English pastimes, field or "blood" sports have always been the preserve of the rich few - not for the masses. But one animal sport everyone enjoys enormously is racing horses. Wherever and whenever racing takes place, all strata of English society congregate, brought together by a common enthusiasm for that magic combination - horses, the great outdoors, and physical discomfort.

Annual Holidays
Once a year most English families take an extended holiday. Until air travel became more common these family holidays were almost always spent in one of the many English seaside resorts.

During July and August convoys of Austins, Rovers and Fords would snake their way down winding English lanes to seaside towns. Here shops on the seafront sold buckets, spades, lilos, candy floss, toffee apples, seaside rock, risqué postcards, fish and chips and brightly-coloured canvas wind breaks.

Pitching their little camps on the beach, English families spent days on end appearing to enjoy melting ice creams, leaking thermos flasks and sand in everything.

Rain on at least half the days could be guaranteed. But then there were the delights of the seaside pier. Here the maritime race enjoyed all the sensations of going to sea without being seasick or, worse, meeting any foreigners.

Nowadays the English start their holidays at Luton, Gatwick, Stanstead, Manchester, Birmingham or Heathrow airports and fly over those winding English lanes, bound for Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Florida or almost anywhere where they can still be guaranteed amusement arcades, risque postcards to send home, the reassuring smell of onions frying, and fish and chips.

Here they carry on just as if they were still in Bognor Regis, Blackpool or Brighton. They stick together, ignoring the existence of the natives, stake out corners of the beach and spend most of the day lying in the sun. At night they drink, dance, and throw up in discotheques thoughtfully provided for the purpose by the locals.

At the end of the holiday, the English return home with burnt noses, diarrhea and alcohol poisoning but otherwise ready to face any challenge that life can throw at them.

Eating & Drinking

The English once perceived food more as fuel for the body than as something to be enjoyed for its own sake. Consequently they never really applied themselves to the art of cooking, until they became aware of the sheer awfulness of their own cuisine.

Of course it is not all dust and ashes. The rest of the world does acknowledge the supremacy of the great English breakfast (chosen from bacon, eggs, sausages, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, potatoes, kippers, kedgeree and so on) and French chefs tacitly compliment them on their "roast beef" which is found the world over. Universally acclaimed, too, are their puddings - steamed jam roll and apple crumble. The unwary should take care with "Yorkshire" and "black" puddings. Neither is quite what it seems. The first is baked batter eaten with roast beef, and the second a ferocious blood sausage, taken, by the brave, at breakfast.

On the whole, England has always been, culinary speaking, the underdog. The puritan backlash is ever present. "Good plain cooking" and "honest simple fare" continue to be held in semi-religious awe in many quarters, with the clear implication that complicated and pretty dishes are neither good nor honest.

Nevertheless, continental habits have insinuated themselves, not least in the matter of eating out. Restaurants have proliferated and, as the interest in foreign food has grown, so have the choices. The supremacy of French and Italian fare is now challenged by others - Thai, Chinese, Mexican, Spanish, Russian, American.

There are even restaurants specialising in English food. One highly successful example in London calls itself "School Dinners". There tired and overwrought businessmen can go and enjoy such nursery fare as rice pudding and "spotted dick" all served by well-developed girls wearing school uniforms.

The English have been accused of starting life two drinks behind the rest of the world. This is a shame, for they have an extraordinary expertise in the matter of alcoholic beverages.

While the charge of sophistication has never been levelled at English food, the English have consumed it for hundreds of years accompanied by a bewildering range of the world's finest wines.

The best ones from France have always been shipped over the Channel in bulk for the English to drink and enjoy. For centuries they have imported the lion's share of Portugal's port and Spain's sherry in addition to brewing their own pale imitations of them.

Of the more successful native English drinks, English ale has now been partially eclipsed in popularity by lighter lagers from the Continent and the antipodes. But for years beer was one of the country's greatest sources of pride and even today there is still a sizeable number of local breweries producing regional beers which are sold extensively in pubs up and down the land.

The catalogue of English alcoholic triumphs continues with London Gin. This is drunk all over the world along with Indian (English Imperial) tonic water and provides the base for thousands of cocktails. Whisky, of course, comes from Scotland but the English consider it peculiarly their own, keeping the choicest malts for themselves, perhaps because they do not want the rest of the world to get more than two drinks ahead of them.

What is Sold Where
Until a few years ago the English used to shop at their local greengrocer, butcher, baker and so on. Now these small shops have all but capitulated as their customers pile into their cars and get everything they need at huge out-of-town-centre hangars filled with all their hearts' desires.

The only shops to have survived the march of the supermarkets in any numbers are the corner shops, known in some quarters as "Patelleries" since so many of them are run by Ugandan Asian immigrant families. These corner shops are often supermarkets in miniature and sell anything from sweets to sweat bands, nappies to newspapers. Many of them are also open all day and half the night.

In all this cultural upheaval, there appears to be only one golden rule. You can get anything you need in very small or very big shops and nothing in medium-sized ones.

Health and Hygiene
The French are fascinated by their livers, the Germans by their digestive systems and the Spanish by their blood. To the English, none of these have anything like the appeal of the bowels.

From earliest childhood, the English are brought up to take a keen interest in the regularity and consistency of their bowel movements. The day that does not start with a satisfactory visit to the lavatory starts on the wrong foot, and the English child who fails in this morning duty is deemed to show signs of "crankiness" or to have "got out of bed on the wrong side". It is a preoccupation that lasts for life.

While their continental neighbours breakfast on pastries and jam, the English tuck in to bowls of cereal, rich in fibre and advertising their efficacy through such names as "Force" or "All Bran".

Correctives for bowel disorders throng English bathroom shelves and old-fashioned remedies continue to sell well. "Carter's Little Liver Pills" promise to cure "that out-of-sorts feeling due to constipation". "Califig - Syrup of Figs" is billed as an effective laxative for all the family. Both are less violent and unpleasant than their no-nonsense rival in shirt-sleeves - good old-fashioned Castor Oil.

To correct the effects of over-indulgence in one of the above preparations, "looseness" as the English term it, there is another splendid proprietary medicine. The origins of "J.Collis Browne's Chlorodyne" have become obscured by time. The good doctor's patients obviously got about a bit. One of the ecstatic endorsements accompanying his little bottles boasts: "I have even used chlorodyne with great effect on Mont Blanc."

Reasonably steady on home ground, English bowels suffer exquisitely abroad. Thanks to the appalling nature of local food and water, the English traveller constantly runs into bowel problems. From "Delhi-belly" to "Montezuma's Revenge" or The Aztec Quickstep' they strike him or her in every far-flung corner of the earth.

Many of the English juggle with laxatives and binding agents all their lives in the hope of one day returning to that blissful childhood state when an adult would nod approvingly at the first droppings of the day. For many of them this faecal nirvana is never reached.

None of them can be persuaded to flirt with the ubiquitous suppository so beloved of Europeans. While the French will even treat a headache with one, the English doctor their bowels with pills and prunes.

With more serious illnesses, the English are at their most stoic. Not for them the wailing and gnashing of teeth heard in foreign hospitals. Fortitude in the face of adversity is the thing. Remember Queen Victoria's dying words: "I feel a little better..."

When it comes to hygiene, the English are traditionally inclined. Showers are gaining in popularity but in most English houses the bath still reigns supreme.

Whilst the rest of the world looks on horrified, the English wallow in baths filled with their own dirt and diluted with warm water. But then they do use more soap than any other nation, which, as far as they are concerned, counts for a lot. For as every English person knows, other nations, especially the French, just put on more scent when they start to smell.

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