By London bureau chief
NBC News
updated 11/11/2005 9:46:18 AM ET 2005-11-11T14:46:18
COMMENTARY

My British-born son Mike took a test the other day, which he passed with flying colors.

The colors, it so happens, were the Stars and Stripes, and the test, citizenship.

Now he has full rights to the best — and, some critics would argue, the worst — of both worlds. He is now a citizen of the United States of America by choice, and of the United Kingdom by birth.

The verbal test he took was the final step in the long road to citizenship — and one the British have recently decided to emulate.

According to the U.S. Immigration Service Web site, aspiring Americans “need to learn about the history of the United States and how its government works. Knowing about your new country is a very important part of being a good citizen.”

As we Brits like to say: "Hear, hear!"

Ignoring how we put the Great in Britain
But unlike our American cousins, who load their test with questions about the events, institutions and measures that shaped the world’s biggest superpower, the British authorities have chosen to ignore how we got to put the Great in Britain.

Not for us questions about how King Harold came to get an arrow in his eye in 1066 (courtesy of those sneaky French archers) nor why King Alfred the Great burned the cakes 200 years earlier (great king, as the name says, but lousy cook).

Nor do they seem much bothered about the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution or Female Emancipation.

Applicants for U.S. citizenship get tested on historical subjects such as who saved the Pilgrim Fathers when they first set up camp in the U.S.A.?  (Everyone knows that, right?)

And who were the bad guys in the Revolutionary War? (the Brits of course — the French were on your side. Go figure).

Over here we’ve gone for more practical questions, such as: What domestic voltage do we use?  Now that’s smart — we don’t want our new citizens blowing themselves up when they go to plug in the toaster.

Mind-taxing 'Life in the U.K.' exam
Anyone who now wants to become a Brit needs to pass a “Life in the U.K.” exam — 24 multiple-choice questions, some of which would frankly tax some of the smartest brains. 

Try these:

  • Sample 1: What and when are the national days of the four countries of the U.K.?
  • Sample 2: Where are Geordie, Cockney and Scouse dialects spoken?
  • Sample 3: What is proportional representation and where is it used?
  • Sample 4:  What are quangos?  (If you answered fruit, go sit in the corner. They are, of course, quasi autonomous non-government organizations.)

The government minister responsible for immigration defends the exam and the decision not to include British history.

“This is not a test of someone’s ability to be British,” said Tony McNulty, “nor a test of their Britishness.”

Just as well. The minister claims he scored 19 correct answers out of 20.  I doubt many of us could score as high.  Which is disturbing news for the many thousands expected to apply for citizenship this year (110,000 were approved last year).

McNulty said the test is to measure applicants’ “preparedness to become citizens.”

I applaud that notion whole-heartedly — but can’t help feeling there are some other useful pointers to help us prepare.

So as someone who straddles our two continents, let me offer a few answers to questions about local customs and food that perplex newcomers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Tips for bridging the Atlantic
Learn these and you won’t go far wrong when you arrive in the USA:

  • A short stack of pancakes is so called because it is only a couple of inches short of the Empire State Building.
  • Sandwiches come with mayo, are even bigger than short stacks, and one could feed a normal English family of four for a week.
  • Home fries are something you never eat at home.
  • An English muffin isn’t.
  • Beer is served ice-cold so that it tastes of something: ice.
  • Root beer is for gargling with. Dentists love it.
  • Pumpkin pie is a delicious national dish, even if it does taste to Brits like cold mashed potato.
  • Americans may have landed on the moon but they still can’t make cheese that doesn’t bounce.
  • If you make a joke, they say “that’s funny” instead of laughing.
  • You can’t drive from the U.K. to the U.S.A. (this one dedicated to the high school student who truly did ask us the question).
  • Americans generally don’t like the French.

For those heading this way:

  • Britain still believes it rules the world. (Just kidding — we all know McDonald’s does).
  • Don’t be fooled by the cute accent. Not all Brits are smart, sophisticated and modest (present company excepted).
  • Avoid emulating our stiff upper lip. It makes it hell to eat pizza.
  • The Scots and Welsh don’t come from England, which makes them proud and happy, and the English relieved.
  • British beer is served warm and tastes like soap.
  • Sandwiches are made with butter — and not much of anything else. If they were living creatures, they’d starve.
  • Crumpets are what English muffins would like to be.
  • “Speed humps” are signs warning drivers to slow down, not some quaint British mating ritual.
  • The Brits generally don’t like the French — but they do make great cheese.

Learn these and you will quickly get the hang of how to live as a citizen of either of our two countries.

British humor knows no boundaries
My son Mike, for his part, is well on his way. He likes short stacks and tea, drinks beer whether it’s warm or cold and cracks up whenever he hears the words “speed humps.” 

He wears a baseball cap — but never back-to-front. He knows where to draw the line.

One thing that his new citizenship hasn’t yet changed is his sense of humor. It is peculiarly English, deadpan, straight-faced. The joke lies in its impact, not its content.

Mike enjoyed telling me how, after passing his citizenship test, he walked back into the waiting room to be confronted by a sea of anxious applicant faces.

“How was it?” he was asked.

“Pretty good,” he said. “I just wasn’t expecting them to ask me to name all 50 states.”

He had the good grace to add, “Just kidding,” before heading out to celebrate with his first beer as an American.

So cheers, Mike. Mind the ice.

Chris Hampson is the NBC News London bureau chief.

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