John Amaechi and I.
I'm Brandon a Philadelphia native, and Haverford College Junior '14, and I'm interning with an organization in Manchester, UK called RECLAIM for the summer.
The title of this blog simply arose out of the redundant question that I was asked by everyone (and I do mean everyone) when I told them about my plans for the summer: "Who's going with you? Friends? a Program? Family?" to which I quickly and kindly replied: no, no and no it's me, myself and Manchester. Not to imply that I'm lonely, but really to emphasize the fact that I'm embarking on this journey alone to learn about myself, and the different ways others live. By the end of this trip, I hope to have developed and matured more intellectually, physically (because of all the walking), spiritually, and mentally.
Last week I had the pleasure of attending a pre-game conference hosted by an organization called S.T.R.I.V.E. which stands for Successful Triumphs Recognized (through) Inspirational Voiced Experiences and while I was there Sam Perkins, retired basketball player, gave a speech along with John Amaechi, the first British NBA player and first NBA player to come out as gay. Both of them delivered inspirational speeches to help incite the youth that were present. However, Sam Perkins must have forgotten that he wasn’t in America because he asked all the “juniors and seniors” to raise their hands and nobody raised their hands because the British system doesn’t use the terms “junior” and “senior.” Instead, he probably should’ve said “Year tens” or “year elevens” and I’m sure dozens of hands would’ve shot up with pride immediately. Still, he gave out good advice where advised everyone to set short-term and long-term goals just as he did even when he was in the NBA because he knew he couldn’t play basketball all his life. Next came John Amachei who talked about his personal experiences and how he rose to become the first British player to make it to the NBA. If he give his story a title the headline would read: “Tall fat kid discovers basketball talent, moves to America and enters the NBA.” Along with his personal story and path to the NBA, he discussed America from the perspective of someone from Manchester. He talked about the three-hundred letters he wrote to American high schools with good basketball teams hoping they would allow him to come over to play on their team. Of the three-hundred letters he received three replies back and accepted the only actual offer in Ohio. His experience echoed some of my thoughts and experiences about coming to England was that he found America to be drastically different from his home, England just as I’ve found England to be vastly different from America. He admitted that he thought America would be similar since everyone speaks English, but the cultures are so different. He added, that America is massive there are so many different cultures there along with an array of accents, that shift from state to state as does the culture. He also stated that being in America was the first time he heard someone on a news station making racist comments without the station apologizing for airing them, which implies a lot about our right to the freedom of speech. Several of the things John said about America are things that I felt about England, I definitely thought that things wouldn’t be as different as they are from America. Just as he thought about the commonality of speaking English would influence the American culture, I thought the same thing about the culture in England. But, I shockingly surprised and wrong.
In between the conference and the game, while at subway eating foot-longs I was able to talk to some of the young people, who we were taking to the Women’s game and the America fascination began again. First they told me, I looked like Eddie Murphy from Dr. Dolittle, which I told them I’ll accept because of the glasses and the fact that Murphy played an intelligent and successful Vet in that movie. Although I’ve been told that I look like Wiz Khalifa and Ludacris during this trip and those are two I won’t accept under any circumstances, I just don’t think I look like either of them. After that we talked about President Obama and his influence and one young person expressed the amount of gratitude he has for President Obama because he’s a person of color and how he’s impressed that someone of color was able to lead. In England, the Royal Family is completely white and this won’t change unless someone marries a person of color, which probably will never happen. It never occurred to me the kind of impact President Obama could have for people abroad, especially young people. Then we talked about Thanksgiving holidays and macaroni and cheese. One of the volunteers asked me: “What’s so special about macaroni and cheese?” She admitted that she just boils the noodles and makes a cheese sauce and bakes in the oven. I told her that a lot more goes in the preparation for Thanksgiving and everyone has their own special recipe. Somehow after talking about macaroni we started talking about weight gain and stumbled on the topic of super-sizes because all the young people wanted to move to America if for nothing else but the super size meals. I burst their American dream bubble when I told them that supersize didn’t exist anymore because of all the negative publicity they received and lawsuits McDonald’s received from people who blamed them for their unhealthy conditions.
Later we arrived at the USA versus GB Women’s Basketball game, where the Men’s USA and GB teams both arrived as well to show their support. Immediately upon the USA’s Men’s arrival all the attention shifted to them. No one really paid attention to the women’s game, everything was focused on how to get an autograph from LeBron or Kobe. No one really knew any of the names of the women on the court not even Team GB, most likely because basketball is a very margalizned sport in Great Britain hence the lack of attendance to the women’s and men’s game. All they talk about is Football, Football, and more Football. John Amaechi mentioned this before, and he admitted that there isn’t really a British system that paves the way for youth to engage in other sports besides Football. In other words, football dominates in every sense of the word. Although the women’s USA team dominated the entire exhibition game verus Team GB and it was obvious who was going to win within the first five minutes of the game. The USA team outran, outscored, and overall outplayed the GB team. It just wasn’t fair at some points in the game. And although I didn’t personally attend the men’s game the next day one of the young people in my organization was kindly called a d*ckhead by the infamous Kobe Bryant. The sad or funny part is that he didn’t care that Kobe called him a d*ckhead because he was apparently wiping up a massive load of sweat too slowly, but that he embraced the story because it was Kobe Bryant. Not being a fan of Kobe at all, I now have another reason to dislike to him.
After the game, I decided to take a shortcut home on a nature trail that I always see people use everyday, but never thought to take it until that day. While, I was on the trail I turned my music off because it was dark and I wanted to make sure I could hear everything going on around me. This turned out to be a smart move as soon I heard something creeping up behind me I turned around to see a small animal scattering away just as I turned my head. Then I turned back around to see a bigger version of whatever it was above the hill lurking about and looking directly at me. Before, I could grasp my breathe I turned around and ran. After that encounter I nearly ran all the way home because the only option for the animals I could think of were wolves. And after watching too much True Blood I settled on wolves. So I ran home thinking there were wolves in my neighbourhood. Later I found out that they were foxes, which brought some relief but not enough for me to take the nature trail shortcut again. Everyone in my office assured me that foxes won’t hurt me because they’re scared of me, but I told them: “I don’t know what they’re going to do if we meet again, but I know what I’m going to do every time… run. And if we both wind up running as long as it’s in opposite directions then it’s perfect.”
And the next day on the bus going home from work a young lad threw an apple at a perfect angle at the bus I was on that went through the window and smashed into several pieces hitting some of the passengers. I must admit it was thrown at the perfect angle to hit loads of people, but I was grateful that the apple didn’t hit me though.
But so far, with only one week to go in England I can say that I’ve matured a lot and learned a lot about myself as well as England. I’ve really enjoyed my time here (despite the random foxes, and apples being thrown) and the experiences here that have allowed me to come into my independence.
My John Amaechi Autograph.
The USA Men’s Basketball Team.
My ticket to the USA vs. GB women’s game.
A donation rally for Reclaim, hosted by Coca-Cola.
Being in Great Britain for a while now has really made me re-evaluate my experiences growing up in America and think about how different my life would’ve been if I actually grew up in Manchester. One starking difference is the currency and I don’t just mention the different between pounds and dollars. There are a vast amount of coins that are completely different from American coins. For instance, they have a coin for 20 pence, 2 pence, and 50 pence. Pence would be equivalent to cents, and although we have some of the previously listed coins they’re not all common. Here all of the coins are common. Even more surprising is that they don’t have any bills until £5. So the pound coin is every young person’s bread, butter and then some. I can remember my Dad giving me dollar bills almost everyday so that I could go to the store and buy all the store I’m sure my Mum would complain about me eating. Now I imagine if my Dad would’ve been flicking me a pound coin instead of handling me the dollar bill I used to love fondly and stretch until there was absolutely nothing left. I’m obssessed with pound coins, I don’t know what it is about them, but they’re so much better than bills. Maybe it’s because they’re foreign to me or they’re gold and vaguely remind me of the currency in Harry Potter, but either way they’re just so much better than any dollar bill I’ve ever encountered.
The longer I stay here, the more I hope my immune system gets a grip on the British germs. Since my arrival, I’ve been sick twice. The first time it was the flu, which left me in bed for about a week, and now I have a cold, which I owe to my host family and my team members at work since most of them are sick as well.
The weather doesn’t help with my sickness either, it’s still hot, cold, and everything in between. Literally, I’ve gotten a dose of every season since I’ve been here. There are the autumn days that are reminiscent of the first days of school in September that are always bitter-sweet since the summer is ending, but school is beginning. The days where the summer heat is blowing away with the breeze and the leaves are rattling and seemingly begging to be swept away by the cool breeze. Then there are the spring days, where it’s warm nice enough to avoid a heavy jacket, but still not quite full-fledged summer. Winter days are present as well. The days when it’s cold, brisk, and windy, which in the UK is sometimes coupled with rain to make everything worse. And finally summer days, which there are all too few of them here. The days where it’s humid enough to complain about being sticky and uncomfortable and the dire need for a shower, the typical Philadelphia summer days.
And as the Olympics draw closer to begin and more athletes arrive, the city only becomes more chaotic. There have been several anti-terror busts in London and London itself has been shut down three times due to overcrowding. But there have also been a few false busts that have resulted in express ways and popular roads being shut down for nothing more than cigarette smoke from a parked car.
I’ve also been doing a lot more work outside of the Reclaim office including workshops with the young people, attending conferences and events with the young people, and designing a organization magazine with some of the young people. I was also about to tour one of the schools that most of the youth that we work with attend, which is a public school. It was nothing short of eye-opening experience. The first thing I noticed immediately was the amount of resources they have readily available to them. Everything from media labs, multiple gyms, swimming pools, an art and design wing, a business section, drama studio, dance studio, music wing, social care department, and a hair and beauty wing. And these are resources that are common for Secondary schools here. And these subjects are weaved into the curriculum which makes their curriculum targeted towards more practical subjects and not just abstract subjects that often bore most students. I wish Philadelphia schools were able to incorporate the aforementioned subjects similarly. I know there’s always the option of vocational schools, but they are infamous for training you for the practical subjects but aren’t so great at preparing students for college amongst other things, which is most important.
Then I noticed the level of respect that each student had for the teacher when talking to them. All of the students responded “yes miss” or “no sir” depending on the teacher and seemed very obedient. As one of the rules of all schools, boys and girls are forbade from holding hands and if caught in the act of holding hands each party is sentenced to isolation-a tiny room with dividers to separate students from each other- or detention accordingly. Thinking back, no such rule existed in my High School where there was much more than hand holding happening in the hallways on the regular basis. And if a teacher or authority figure had called for them to stop, I’m sure they would have just not with a very willing “yes miss” or “yes sir” tone.
Age is the biggest difference between American and UK secondary schools. Students graduate at 16 here, so that changes the college admissions process drastically. Normally, a student is expected to enroll in a college for two years and complete the UK equivalent of SATs/ACTs named GSCEs and then apply to university after figuring out what subjects they would like to delve into more deeply. Acceptance in university is primiarly based on how one’s teacher predicts one will do once they arrive at university. For instance, to be considered for Oxford and Cambridge one has to complete the highest level of GSCEs “A levels” and also receive a teacher predication that has nothing less than four A’s. And if a teacher gives a predication that a student doesn’t accomplish then the teacher is reprimanded for not endowing that student will the skills to reach his or her full potential. However, this is only for public school teachers, the private school teachers are never judged on how correctly they predict their student’s grades. As a result, public school teachers are frightened to take chances with predictions so they underestimate student’s abilities to protect their records and overall their jobs. Private school teachers never have their fear or worry, which is how so many account for the same families sending their children to Oxford and Cambridge, since they have the wealth to send their children to private schools. Also, if a teacher’s prediction is incorrect the university can choose to let a student go, as in they will be asked to leave permanently. On the other hand, there are those who have no interest in college or university that simply file a request for seeking employment and receive a stipend of about £80 every week to support them until they find a job, which hardly ever happens.
I’ve also still been going out and finding out about the cultural life in the UK. I went to a beer festival and it was fun not so much focused on the drinking as everyone would probably assume, it’s really about casually drinking and hanging out simultaneously as exhibited by the game centurion. Centurion is a 100 minute game where one must take a total of a 100 shots. I watched a few people play and the results were funny, but not so much for those who participated. Ironically, the beer festival was held in a church, which I’ve learned is common for beer festivals. I have to say it made me really uncomfortable to see mountain high cans of beer stacked up in a church, but when in Rome… And I recently had my first chippy (fish and chips), which was exciting, tasty, and unhealthy all wrapped in one yellow plastic container. The art of a fish and chips isn’t just the battered fried fish and French fries, but the additional curry sauce, gravy, mushy peas, and vinegar that is heavily doused on the fish (which I skipped out on) that accompany it. After five weeks here and experenicing everything from fish and chips to a beer festival, I need more British experiences, please.
During my time here I’ve encountered several people all of whom have asked me the question: “Where are you from?” To which I quickly, politely, and easily respond ”America.” Afterwards they typically say, “No, I mean where are you originally from?” I guess I can’t originally be from America. I respond to that question sardonically, but still easily, “A plantation in the South.” These questions, however, brought up some deep rooted ancestry issues since I don’t know which part of the continent of Africa my ancestors descended. The furtherest I can trace my lineage back is still in America just in the South. However, in the UK most of the black population are recent immigrants, first generation, or second generation so the memories and culture from their homeland is still with them. This shifts the emphasis away from being “Black” to being “Ghanian” or “Nigerian” and each specific ethnic group has their own stigmas and stereotypes that inhibit the groups from interacting, and also supporting their establishments. The Black population is also noticeably smaller than in America. Whereas Blacks represent about 12 percent of the American population, they only represent about 5 percent of the population in the UK. So it’s much easier for them to be marginalized since they don’t make-up a big percentage of the population.
On July the fourth, I had one of my most overwhelming and interesting work days since my arrival. Unexpectedly, one of the young people that my organization works with came into the office angry and threatening which resulted in us closing the office early and also postponing my surprise independence party until the next day. Afterwards, the team and I all went out for drinks to salvage the long and tough day but also to celebrate America’s independence from Great Britain- which explains why GB observe or celebrate the day it lost it’s most famous colony. Although I did see quite a few people walking around in American flag clothing- everything from tights, to trainers or sneakers. During our stint at the bar we bonded over everything from Love is Blind by Eve to relationships and prison laws. After arriving at the bar, Kemi and Tasha, two of the team members proceeded to pay homage to my Philly roots by shouting every lyric to Love is Blind. They then followed up it up with the unoriginal, but classic theme song to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and finally finished with Long Walk by Jill Scott. I was surprised they knew Jill Scott was from Philly, I thought she would be one of the more low-key artists internationally, although I was thankful they didn’t perform her more explicit record crown royal. Next they all wanted to recite the pledge of allegiance, which I realize I only can recite it completely if and when I have my hand over my heart so I only remembered about half of it. So half-forgotten the pledge I decided to play a joke on everyone, I recited some rubbish from the three stooges “for one nation, one for all and all for one. God Bless America.” And everyone recited it proudly as if they were dignified and true Americans completely oblivious to the fact that they recited my own rendition of the pledge. Later, we enjoyed some laughs just yelling at a random lady to get a pooper scooper for her dog that was decorating the park unkindly. She was fuming with anger since everyone then stared at her and her dog from that point on, but it was all in good fun. I met my first proper londoner, who told me all I needed to know London, which kind of reminds of me of New York with the insane amount of people in one place. New York is one place that I always have to mention when talking about America, and I’ve learned that people only understand where places are when I tell them how far away from New York or California they are. When I explain where Philly is, I always have to say it’s two hours from New York or no one would understand where it is.
The next day, the fourth of July celebration continued with my party that was blessed with vocals from Whitney Houston in her prime singing the Star Spangled Banner along with a cheesecake designed as the American flag. There were various balloons, all red, white and blue that adorned the room. Along with some poppers, which everyone quickly popped to really get the party started. And then the common conversation topics that always arise when we’re all together began which include: university fees, the KKK and the illuminati. Just recently England’s new government instated tuition and fees for university, so it’s no longer free. College education now at the most costs about £9,000 or about $14,000So when I told them the price of my university in pounds: £37,000 ($58,000) one of the team members choked on her drink, and everyone just gasped and stared at me for about ten minutes uninterrupted. Then the questions came pouring out of everyone all at once. How do you pay that? Are you serious? What? Are you mad? This is why America has no social mobility everyone exclaimed collectively and matter of factly. And I just responded to each question as quickly as I could. But my answers weren’t sufficient for them, thirty-seven grand was too much to pay for an education and I agree. Next, came the KKK, one of the young people that works in the office said, “I would like to go to America, but don’t you all have the KKK?” And at that very moment, I was shocked not because the young person mentioned the KKK, but because it then became obvious to me that the KKK was made in America and is solely an American concept. But I replied “yes, we do and unfortunately they have civil liberties and rights that have to be upheld and maintained just like everybody else.” I’m positive my answer did nothing to assuage any fears and only increased them if anything. Lastly came the illuminati, which I haven’t stopped hearing about since I’ve arrived. Since the Illuminati was made in America and all I’m guessing it’s fitting. But, everyone is obsessed with the Illuminati, I personally don’t care about if it’s a group full of powerful people that are pulling the strings of our lives behind some magical veil. Yet that doesn’t stop everyone from spilling out their righteous rumors about them: “I’ve heard you have to have $250 million to join them or a friendship discount, which is how Rihanna got inducted.” “I’ve heard that America is funded by the Illuminati look at the back of your money it has the Illuminati calling card.” There everyone rattled off about five different rumors about the mysterious American Illuminati and I listened intently and laughed at every one of them. My favorite one was that Blue Ivy is aptly named since she’s the Illuminati’s Very Youngest. So far I’ve realized that anything that was made in America is extremely popular here, if people say YOLO a lot in America they say it ten times as much in the UK and there are enough Lil’ Wayne and Nicki Minaj decorated hats for everyone.
I do, love Manchester so far.
Hopefully I’ll get one of these shirts by the end of this trip.