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Stereotyping Stereotypes Or My Trip to Oxford, Involving Disastrous Train Rides, Tacky Suitcases...
“There’s a hole in the world like a big black pit and the vermin of the world inhabit it” and it goes by the name of not London, as Sweeney Todd thinks, but Oxford. I’m not being entirely fair, but it’s close enough to the truth. You see, I used to be obsessed with Oxford, so it’s quite natural that I would become a disillusioned ex-Anglophile after finding out the truth about that…place. I wanted to go to grad school there, to have a flat there when I grow up; I even affected an Oxford accent for a few weeks, albeit a very non-convincing one that annoyed everyone so much I had to drop it. My main aspiration was to become an archetypal, idiosyncratic Oxfordian like Charles Dodgson, except without the part about changing my gender or taking creepy photos of little girls.
I moved to Beijing in 6th grade because of my dad’s job and I wasn’t very happy about it, to put it mildly. In fact, my parents endured two days of self-imprisonment (mine) and door-slamming before finally dragging me kicking and screaming to the airport. Everything was horrible: the plane was too warm, the food was disgusting, the movies were cheesy and the flight attendants were rude. My new school was some place ingeniously called “The International School of Beijing” and it had been designed by a prison architect (and believe me, it showed). The only good thing about it was the lack of corny mission statements that forced the students to join in a so-called “family” with the faculty and with each other, like in so many other schools. After one year stuck with an American-loathing math teacher and a hypocritical “Humanities” teacher, I decided to retreat to the library, which, oddly, is larger than some of our own city libraries. In 7th grade my teachers were an improvement. I can honestly say that my 7th grade English teacher is my favorite teacher of all time. Then I joined a little something called Kid’s Lit Quiz, which sounds like exactly what it’s called, except with less of “lit” and more of “junk”. I think I read more books about angsty, annoying teenagers discovering secret powers in that year than in any other. One of the books that had won an award was one of the most clichéd fantasies I’ve ever read, featuring a handsome, half-elf jester who goes on a quest, a buffalo and a dwarf for no purpose other than comic effect, a nasty princess who repents her sins after spending time with the handsome, half-elf jester, and a bald villain (also for comic effect, because he had about as many villain-like qualities as his amount of hair). My team won the competition after drawing a tie and then answering the sudden death questions. And so the privilege of visiting Oxford without having a parent whine about travel expenses (because it’s in the name of education!) was handed over to our team of four along with a basket of more books mostly featuring angsty, annoying teenagers in a variety of clichéd situations. The only book that looked appealing was a steampunk taster novel for tweens called Larklight, but I’d already read it before and besides, the covers of Philip Reeve’s YA books are much edgier and better-looking.
I discovered that training for Kid’s Lit (Junk) Quiz isn’t the most pleasant way to spend a year. Every single Wednesday we had to go to the library and answer weird questions about poetry with buzzers, because apparently the Oxford quiz was more like a game show than a written free-for-all. And because it took place in Oxford, naturally, we needed uniforms, “just like the other teams”. All four of us emerged from the dressing room on that last Wednesday looking like refugees from some movie about emo-geek outcasts triumphing over the rest of the student population (though triumphing in what I don’t know and don’t intend to find out) which I, the dark cabaret lover, was not happy about. I felt like swinging a croquet mallet at every single P.E. teacher or cheerleader I walked past while marching to the tune of “I’m Not Okay”, strutting my blue-blazered, beige-white pantsed, and striped-tied self out, and screaming, “Geeks Unite!” Then that one fateful day arrived, and it turned out to be more of a fitful day than a fateful day, at least on the airplane.
Think of Heathrow Airport like an inverted pomegranate. That is, it’s sweet and shiny and tasty on the outside, and, quite frankly, inedible on the inside. Scrutinize the following sequence carefully as you observe the freaky workings of the human mind.
“Go to the next one,” she said. She was squat and dark-haired, and apparently some kind of usherette. She then put her hand in front of the rest of my family but mainly, my mom, who looked down at it like it was covered in bodily fluids instead of just rudeness.
I walked up to the next counter and placed my passport down with the zeal of someone putting her passport down. The man behind the counter had the sort of face with features that probably shifted around when no one else was looking, just out of spite and boredom. This face immediately underwent a transformation when he saw me. He went from slit-eyed boredom to slit-eyed concentration as soon as he saw me, as if contemplating whether he should end his conversation or deal with this spotty little teenager with pigtails (it was sarcastic fashion, okay?). He hadn’t even seen my passport yet and already he was looking as if he might puke.
“Whoyootravelingwith?” he muttered, as if it were a shameful secret instead of a question.
“Er, my parents.” I said. No, of course not! I’m traveling with a pack of glamoured phookas. Yes, staring at me intently will definitely serve in getting my secret out.
“Look,” he sighed. Oh, what a grueling, useless addition to his already grueling, useless day. How cynical he must be, after years of sitting down and stamping official documents and not being able to do whatever he wants. Oh, the pain of only two-hours of porn per day and football and beer only at night! “Look, either I can’t hear you or you can’t hear me. Step closer.”
Up until that moment I was still under the (very stupid) impression that all British people were polite. Obviously, I couldn’t have been more wrong. My lips curled up into a sneer that Alan Rickman would have been jealous of. “My family!” I was loud enough to turn several heads.
“Then get to them!” He threw my passport at me. I didn’t think it would help to say that the usherette had done her job and ushered me to him.
I was fuming by the time we left Heathrow. The driver who had been asked to come and drive us to Holiday Inn didn’t help at all. “Oh,” he said, world-wearily. “Americans can’t drive! I’m not joking. See this mouth? I’m not laughing.” My parents laughed. I glared at him in the rear view mirror, but he just gave me a look that clearly said, Crazy teenager. What do you know about something as mature as driving? And you’re American, right? You’re all clearly biased about your own havoc-wreaking driving habits, you sad little buggers.
We spent two days touring the Bath countryside, which was mostly boring except for Stonehenge, which, compared (proportionally) to the photos, is puny. We then went to Edinburgh, where we went on Dead Poets walks with guides that dressed up as vampires and crypt-keepers. Our guide’s name was Hailey, and she seemed to have a bad habit of insulting all of us. It got bad enough that a twenty-something girl started crying when she jumped out at her. I bought a “Wee Witch” doll with psychedelically purple hair and dressed in tattered green fabric with a cheetah-fur pattern on it. She hangs on my window and glares at my neighbor when I’m too tired to do it myself. I ended my quality time with my family in London, which was much better than the previous places, mainly because it contained two things: theater and alternative clothing. We watched two shows at the London West End theaters—Les Miserables and Wicked—and visited Camden Town, home of alternative clothing—on my brother’s birthday.
I boarded the train that went from London to Oxford with hypothetical flies in my stomach. These flies backwards-metamorphosed into maggots as we neared Oxford Station. I clutched my turquoise faux-alligator skin suitcase in sweaty hands and sent frantic looks at my mom. She smiled back. No! I wanted to scream. Take me back to London! Listen to what Sweeney Todd said! There’s no place like London! It was the most uncomfortable two hours of my life. I got the distinct impression that everyone on the train had x-ray vision and were able to see my embarrassing uniform, which I had hidden under a voluminous black dress. We arrived at Charring Cross, where we’d been told to wait until the chaperones showed up. My team-mate Rachel was also there, waiting impatiently for them to show up. I had no idea why she was impatient; she had enough gadgetry to make a spy salivate. By 4:30 even my mother, the most patient woman on earth, started to fidget. By 5:30 Rachel’s dad had turned a scary shade of grayish purple, like a storm cloud about to burst. I didn’t want to be around when he did burst. Finally, at 6:00, he decided to whip out his (very expensive) phone and spend some long-distance dollars on calling someone just 15 minutes away. I felt just a little resentful of our librarian, who had abandoned us to visit her mother in Belgium. The two chaperones that she’d chosen were a bald dwarf—a 6th grade Science teacher—and a nasty princess—the blonde secretary from New Zealand. I would later find out that they were both very fond of drinking beer in the daytime and would often steal away to Oxford pubs, leaving us to the mercy of the, gulp, Oxford teams. It was clear that they couldn’t care less about us. In fact, it seemed that the bald dwarf had forgotten us from the funny expressions that Rachel’s dad’s face was making. I exchanged eye-rolls with my teammate. Rachel’s dad finally slammed shut his phone and informed us conspiratorially that we were to walk 15 minutes to Keble College, where we were staying. I was ecstatic to stay in a real, live Oxford university, but at that moment my ecstasy had oddly morphed into a kind of dull hatred. Keble College was 15 minutes away, but we had been forced to wait for 2 ½ hours because of the bald dwarf’s forgetfulness and his insisting that we wait for him. Rachel and I cheerfully devised ways of slaughtering him in the most painful, most enjoyable (for us) ways on the way there.
By the time we arrived, all of the food had already been eaten, except for two slimy quiches, which instantly turned to delicious pies when I witnessed the bald dwarf being verbally beaten up by our parents. Our other teammates—Kailene and Nicole—laughed at our murder tactics and offered us strawberries that they had thoughtfully hidden in napkins for us. We went to our dorms with sardonic smiles on our faces.
The dorms were disappointing, to put it mildly. They looked more like pseudo-hip cells than dorms with dirty neon-orange lounges, fluorescent lights that bore an eerie resemblance to bleached, glow-in-the-dark body parts, floor-length windows with alternating spots of grime and clear glass, and someone had drawn bawdy pictures on the welcoming letter. Like Heathrow, the college looked much nicer from the outside. While I was brushing my teeth and dripping toothpaste onto the already toothpaste-stained carpet I discovered a secret door that led to a tunnel that led to something that wasn’t Narnia but was much cooler: my teammate Kailene’s room. We planned a sleepover that night—all four of us—and I decided to sleep in the tunnel.
Our happiness was shortlived because, lo and behold, the magical tunnel turned out to be a fire escape. It was this naughty fire escape that got all of us into trouble, and, consequently, onto the KLQ Oxford director’s blacklist. To protect her privacy (not that it needs much protecting), let us call her the Self-important Spinster with the Foppish Son, or SSPS for short. SSPS was, above all things, a witch in grandma’s armor. All of us hated her to the point that I made a short video listing all of her imagined-but-highly-probable bad habits, which sadly got lost somewhere in hyperspace. SSPS turned tomato-red when she heard from the pompous Oxford maids that I had (gasp!) slept in the fire escape and that our rooms were dismal. True, our clothes were a bit messy and maybe our dirty laundry weren’t exactly hidden, but honestly, I wouldn’t describe them as dismal. She informed us that if we ever did that again, we would be kicked out of Oxford University forever and that things simply weren’t done this way at Oxford. SSPS then ordered us to clean up our rooms and give the maids an apology. I came up with one of my most devious plans.
The next day, all of the KLQ teams went to Oxford Castle. The adjoining gift shop was selling all sorts of oddities, including a delightful little something called Herb Drops. Among these were different flavors—pomegranate, lemon, peach, orange, lime, lavender, “hangover drops”, and garlic. As much as I wanted to by the hangover drops, I was afraid that people would find them and think I was a teenage alcoholic. So I bought pomegranate (which was delightful), peach (I didn’t like them, but Kailene did), and garlic (which sounded so amusing I couldn’t help but buy them). We returned to our dorms. I heard from Kailene who had been told by her newfound London friend that their rooms were just as messy, but because we were the only Americans, they decided to pick on us. With this knowledge in mind, I scrawled the most sarcastic apology ever on a pad of notepaper and included one of the boxes of Herb Drops—the garlic one, the label of which I replaced with the peach one. Oddly enough, they were gone by the next morning.
The Big Event was on Thursday, and we strutted our outcast-selves out on the sidewalks of Oxford as if we were emo-geek supermodels. We arrived at The Oxford Playhouse two minutes early and sat down just in time to see the lights dim. All the other teams were wearing uniforms, though none were as silly as ours, which weren’t real anyway. We settled down to watch the video that we’d made to introduce ourselves, and I squirmed at my comment that disparaged Chick Lit; it just sounded so ignorant and pseudo-intellectual. Then the Big Even began. We sat there, our palms sweating furiously and zits forming spontaneously on our foreheads. We each kept a hand over the buzzers. The questions themselves were easy enough. It was the waiting that addled our brains. One of the oddest things was that the audience seemed to support us the most. They actually groaned when we lost a point due to some technical error. All four of us were of Asian descent, and it seemed that the audiences of Oxford had been plagued with Asian-girl syndrome. We were representing “China”, and so it seemed as if we really were Chinese people come to participate in an all-English-speaking competition. I squirm to think that if I had shouted out that I was American, they most likely would have stuck up their noses and supported the New Zealand team instead. This happened again at the formal dinner. A bunch of British authors were there, Celia Rees (author of Witch Child, Sovay, Pirates!, and Sorceress) included, and they all wanted to talk to the “Chinese girls”. I watched as each of their faces fell when they realized that we weren’t, in fact, English learners and that none of us were really that fluent in Chinese. It happened a third time when I was giving a speech about my favorite book at the time, which was Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. The audience cheered loudly, but only because I—the Chinese girl—seemed so fluent in English. Once again I was gripped with the distinct impression that they would’ve booed loudly if I started speaking with a stereotypical “hick” accent.
In retrospect, Oxford was neither as good as I thought it would be or as bad as I thought it was after the trip was over. I’ve never been more conscious of both my American heritage and my Chinese ancestry, but I’ve never stereotyped people based on their city more, either. In a way, Oxford taught me a lesson about stereotypes. They can give you power or they can make you feel like an insignificant piece of rubbish, but either way, they’re unnecessary and idiotic things that we should all avoid. To the stereotyped people of Oxford and the rest of the world: let us fight fire with fire and stereotype these stereotypes.