Escaping America

It’s harder than you might think


A colleague and I recently took a group of Drexel students to London as a supplement to our fall courses. We marched in the rain from the British Museum to Westminster Abbey, climbed to the top of Saint Paul’s, and visited the Royal College of Surgeons and the Old Bailey. We even enjoyed an expensive tea at Harrods.

Yet strangely, even as we traipsed past sites that our students recognized from having read Dickens (the course I had taught), we noticed one salient difference: almost no one who served us was British, or at least sounded British. Their accents were Eastern European, Middle Eastern, or South American. We expected the tonalities of Downton Abbey; we got the broken English of our Russian grandfather and Columbian grandmother.

This stands to reason. The British Empire, as I reminded my students, had been vast. It makes sense that people from the distant lands that had been part of it or had done business with it would choose to seek their fortunes in the center of power. Still, the sheer number of immigrants in London is less reminiscent of empire than of the United States.

American culture was itself everywhere in evidence in London, where we saw people wearing the same clothes we see at home and eating the same food. One of my students raised the question of whether the world is becoming more globalized or whether it is simply becoming more Americanized—or whether the rest of the world is simply catching up with what America has been about for a long time. This strikes me as both a good and a bad thing. America as melting pot (or salad bowl, if you prefer the more contemporary metaphor) means more tolerance but also more cultural homogenization—and potentially more strife, when that homogenization doesn’t happen. We see evidence of all three effects in our country, and have begun to see the same mixed results throughout the world. Hopefully, Britain, under whose imperialistic sway the American colonies once served, may now be able to offer us lessons as to how to improve our multicultural experiment.

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Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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