In the Kitchen-Cultural Clashes in Britain
copyright Amy Yi-Mei Chen, 2008
Our kitchen was a battleground for all things British and American. It was
where the eight of us converged every day: four Brits, four Americans, some hung
over, and all hungry.
At first we tripped over each other, literally. Too many people, not enough
space. Our two tiny fridges and freezers couldn’t handle all of our groceries at
once. Eventually we learned to cook in shifts and alternate shopping days. Things
continued to get easier as we Americans began to adopt British habits. We started
drinking tea in copious amounts, fascinated by the swirls we could make on the
surface by adding milk. It never took long to boil the kettle, but it was always a
challenge to remember who took what kind of milk (0.1 percent skimmed, 1.7
percent semi-skimmed or 3.6 percent whole), not to mention who liked sugar and
how much. Even more confusing was when “tea” became more than just the
beverage but also what the Brits called dinner.
Just when buying non-refrigerated eggs became almost normal for us
Americans, we were confronted with the wrath of our British flat-mates for our
failure to purchase free-range products. “Think of the chickens in the cages,” they
told us in their Leeds or Durham accents. (Not to be confused, they always
insisted, with accents from any other regions.) The guilt, we decided, wasn’t worth
the 50 pence we might have saved otherwise.
The cultural differences that surfaced in our kitchen didn’t all revolve
around food. Over tea, I once questioned a British flat-mate as to why Brits
pronounced the letter “Z” as “zede.” “Because we invented the language!” she
haughtily replied. “It’s you who says it wrong.” We Americans were confronted
with similar outrage when questioning our British roommates as to why French
fries were called “chips” and potato chips “crisps.” As the year progressed, I found
it was often better to quietly accept such differences.
Whether gossiping, arguing or just shooting the breeze, life essentially
revolved around our kitchen, complete with its stacks of dirty dishes and arrays of
empty wine bottles. As with all communal living situations, we endured our share
of conflicts and accidents, which often resulted in broken cups or shattered rice
cooker lids. But hey, it could have been worse. At least we had our own