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 4


Custom and Tradition
The English are a deeply nostalgic people and value customs and traditions above almost everything. It does not seem to matter just where traditions have come from or why they have survived. They are traditions, and that is enough for them.

The rest of the world accepts and quite enjoys the outward trappings of this English trait. Thousands of people fly into London every year to watch traditional jamborees such as the Changing of the Guard or the State Opening of Parliament.

Tradition, to the English, represents continuity, which must be preserved at all costs.

Family Gatherings
Though they are the least family-orientated people on earth, the English would not dream of spending their Christmas anywhere else but in the vipers' nest they refer to as the "bosom of the family". This annual festival almost always ends in tears and to get over it takes many families a good six months.

But tradition rules and, come September, English families are beginning to plan for another family Christmas, having apparently completely forgotten the mayhem of the one before.

Christmas apart, family members avoid each other religiously throughout the year except on compulsory occasions such as christenings, weddings and funerals. Of these, funerals and christenings, being the shortest, are the most popular. Weddings are only distinguishable from pitched battles by the uniforms of the participants.

Planning for these nightmare events starts early, as do the arguments. Even though English etiquette books try to help by pointing out who is responsible for organising and paying for the bride's dress, the flowers, the church, the choir, the organist, the cars, the reception, the food, the photographers and St. John's Ambulance, the English will fight furiously on every single issue for months before, right through and even after the great day.

It came as no surprise to many survivors of similar occasions to read the newspaper report of the bride's father who initiated legal proceedings against his son-in-law's parents (about who should pay what) while the "happy couple" were still on their honeymoon.

It is the triumph of English hope over English experience that these gatherings ever take place at all.

For Queen and Country
Fighting is one of the things that the English do best. Over the centuries, they have confronted almost every race on the planet at one time or another. Naturally, they have become rather good at it.

Nobody can curb English pugnacity. It is in their blood, and displays of ritualised ferocity are even seen as socially desirable and glamorous.

Nearly a century after the armies of all other countries became entirely fighting machines, the English still keep several large bodies of men from mainly aristocratic families in barracks in London. One of the major duties of these men is to dress up in period costume from time to time and march about the streets looking fierce.

Once a year, these same men meet on a large parade ground and do quite a lot of marching about and looking fierce in front of the current monarch. In this they are accompanied by noisy wind bands playing mostly German music.

When it actually comes to war, the English are extraordinarily tenacious once they get going. Images of London under the blitz reinforce their perception of their own indomitability, and the lack of proper equipment and a shortage of men are never seen as a handicap. Remember Dunkirk.

And it is not only in formal battle conditions that the English snap to attention. Their natural bellicosity is, at all times, just below the surface. The work started by away teams led by Raleigh and Drake is continued by the supporters of English football squads. It seems they have a fundamental need to prove their physical superiority not merely to each other but to others. Despite this, England alone of the major countries in Europe, indeed the world, has abolished military conscription with all the opportunities it affords for formalised aggression.

The English are not a deeply religious race. Hundreds of years ago they decided that Roman Catholicism with its teachings about original sin and the unworthiness of the human race could not really have been meant for them. So they designed a church of their own - the Church of England.

Attendance at church services is not obligatory and, indeed, not a widespread habit. Membership, on the other hand, is assumed to be the norm and English bureaucratic forms with their inquiries about religion mirror the national attitude to the rest of Christendom with their query: "If not C of E, state, "other"."

The broader purpose of religion in England is to inculcate in the natives a system of morals and behaviour loosely seen as Christian but more specifically as English. Originally born out of the desperation of Henry VIII to get a divorce, the Church now officially holds marriage sacrosanct and may well have to reinvent itself if another monarch wishes to emulate its founder.

In English eyes, the Church is made for man and not the other way about. Holding fast to this belief, they are probably the most tolerant race on earth when it comes to the beliefs of others. Mosques, chapels, synagogues and temples abound in England and they cannot understand why the rest of the world feels so passionately about something which is, for them, essentially a diversion.

England is the country of Shakespeare, Milton, Byron and Beatrix Potter. The first is, by common consent, a hero of the human race, a Titan of literature against whom all other writers in the world over the past four hundred years have been measured. The second two are worthy names in most literate households. But the work of the fourth is best known to the English; for while the first three tended to write about people, Beatrix Potter wrote about animals and the English prefer animals and understand them better.

So it is that a mention of Peter Rabbit, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and Jeremy Fisher elicit an immediate response from English audiences while the agonies of Hamlet, Coriolanus and Othello leave the better read of them intellectually stimulated but emotionally stone-cold.

Other nations may thrill to Henry V's call to arms at Agincourt or warm to Juliet's tearful pleas to her Romeo, but English audiences of all ages reach for the tissues on hearing how Jemima Puddleduck outwits the fox, adjusts her bonnet and escapes the cooking pot to live another sunny day.

Close on the heels of Beatrix Potter comes the sinister A.A. Milne, whose Winnie-The-Pooh - written by an adult for other adults but passed off as a children's book - is read by adults for the rest of their lives.

Paradise Lost, sadly deficient in the fauna department, stays firmly between its covers.

For the majority of English, watching television is their only real experience of a broader "culture".

English television, naturally, majors in sports coverage and titanic struggles occur between television companies to win exclusive rights to televise the most popular games. But even the English cannot quite live by sport alone. Pandering to the competitive nature of their audiences, broadcasters screen large numbers of quiz and games shows. In addition they produce a wealth of news and discussion programmes and the occasional original drama series. These are bulked out with a staggering number of imported and specially-created soap operas and mini-series, which are hugely popular. For the rest, it is old films of which the English never tire.

Programmes aimed at the more intellectual members of English society are screened late at night so as to cause the least inconvenience to the majority.

The Press
The average Frenchman travelling to work reads a novel, the English read newspapers. Their voracious appetite for printed news, gossip and scandal is unequalled and the English newspaper market has attracted entrepreneurs from all over the world who struggle to the death to obtain the proprietorship of one of the chunks of it.

Nobody really understands why. The press cannot hope to compete for immediacy of coverage with radio and television. Perhaps it is because the English prefer their news, like their climate - cold. Or perhaps it is because they secretly believe that anything viewed in retrospect is really more real.

The Arts
The English theatre today is mainly supported by block bookings for new productions of old musicals or for the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber spectacular. These the English will pay for. When Lloyd Webber meets Beatrix Potter, nobody will be able to get a seat.

With the cinema, things are a little more encouraging. Rumours of its total demise thirty years ago turned out to have been somewhat exaggerated, and even foreign films are seen by thousands in English cinemas every week. But then the English do love an "outing".

Dragging their children behind them they will visit museums and art galleries to rub shoulders with foreign visitors and buy souvenirs and reproductions of famous paintings.

When it comes to art appreciation, the English tend to be nervous, suspecting that they are not all that good at it. On the whole they tend towards the taste of Queen Victoria, showing a marked preference for large paintings of people and animals by artists like Landseer. If the picture tells a story, so much the better. If they cannot understand it, they tend to dismiss it.

Fundamentally, the English see themselves more in the role of patrons than of artists. For most of them culture is a luxury and too much luxury is a dangerous thing.

Tradition governs almost everything the English do. And when it comes to the systems by which the country is run, English traditions are at their most enduring.

Public Transport
It is a tradition that trains generally do not run on time unless the passenger is two minutes late. It is also a tradition that, although the price of railway travel is infinitely variable, concessionary rates are only available at times or days other than those on which one wishes to travel.

But with all its inadequacies, the English railway system is one facet of the English life that is imbued with more than its fair share of English sentiment. Anoraked train spotters, those archetypal eccentrics, still abound. Deep in the English psyche there is still a vague memory of a golden age of railway travel when E. Nesbit's Railway Children waved their petticoats at the train driver, thus averting disaster.

English urban buses travel in convoys so as to ensure that passengers wait as long as possible at the bus stops. Then, just before fighting breaks out among the waiting hordes, three or four buses sporting the same number will heave into view. It is always a feast or a famine.

Whatever transport you choose you will find that, in England, you are nearly always late. This is because, contrary to popular belief, the English are not punctual by nature. It is considered polite to arrive a few minutes after the time you were invited for. English transport will probably ensure that you do anyhow. It's all part of the system.

The Open Road
Cars are among the favourite status symbols of the English. Consequently there are far too many of them on English roads, as any driver will tell you.

Almost every English man and woman over the age of seventeen either owns or has access to a car and uses it often. This leads to enormous traffic and parking problems in towns and to terminal motorway congestion. But the English are undeterred even if they often spend whole Bank Holidays in their cars in traffic jams.

Observant foreigners are quick to spot that the English, unlike other people in the world, drive on the left - a habit they often find hard to kick when driving abroad. Driving on the left is traditional and therefore, to the English, indisputably right.

By and large, the English are well-behaved on the roads. They use their horns sparingly and give way to each other at crossroads.

Punctilious in their observation of traffic signs, they will wait for ever at traffic-light-controlled pedestrian crossings even if there are no pedestrians in sight. If there are any, they screech to a halt and wait patiently for them to cross the road. This comes as a surprise to foreigners who are used to crossing themselves on the pavement before running like hares across the highway.

A Good Education
For English children whose parents can afford it, school often means a public (which really means private) school and frequently means boarding. The English approve of boarding schools. They believe that children develop better away from home. Although there are some mixed public schools, many are single-sex establishments, where pupils have the opportunity of experiencing some aspects of the monastic or prison existence at an early stage in their lives.

The alternative is the State system with its free public (which really means public) day schools. But whether state or private, the emphasis is still on "a good education", for the feeling is that life and all its glories will thereafter be yours for the asking.

It all comes down to tradition, like so many things in the English way of life, and traditionally "you get what you pay for". The implication is clear. If you are not paying, you are not getting much.

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