Two Sundays ago, a great meeting took place. It was an exchange of cultures, a marketplace of ideas and a high act of international diplomacy: Together, American and British students watched the Superbowl. Food was served, beers were opened, and representatives of two great peoples united in merriment to observe this all-American event. Many of my British friends didn’t know the rules of football, which resulted in failed rugby analogies and lots of saying, “No … no, nope, not like that.” Unfortunately, I think I learned more about rugby than they did about football. We might have been speaking another language. Then the game started.
As with many other things about my nationality as an American, I became more self-conscious about the Superbowl while watching it with foreigners. Because it’s so ingrained in American culture, I soon felt responsible for the Superbowl as one of the few Yankees in the room. All the media coverage, the game, the commercials and the halftime show turned into a microcosm of Americana.
The game itself was straightforward enough — some of the Brits follow American football in their free time — but as soon as the stadium lights dimmed and Katy Perry emerged straddling an animatronic tiger, the culture gap vanished. This was the great equalizer. Everyone, no matter their country of origin, no matter their ideology, was equally flummoxed by the parade of fire, palm trees, Lenny Kravitz and sharks that marched across the screen. If ever there was a visual assault on the senses, this was it. My British friends glanced at me as if this was some special American symbolism I would understand. Not so much.
Since coming to Oxford, I’ve had plenty of conversations about American culture and American stereotypes — everything from America as the “land of Sarah Palin” to the man in the phone store who asked me, “So, do you live in L.A. and get into gun fights with Kanye West?” As exaggerated as they’ve been, the British people I’ve talked to have always been genuinely interested in the differences between us, showing “robust good cheer,” as College President Taylor Reveley calls it. But the fact that we are from different countries is only a small part of what we talk about. Comparing words or customs gets old very quickly. Because we are all in universities and around the same age, we have far more things in common than not. Cultural barriers are not as big as we think they are, at least not in the long term. And if cultural understanding requires extreme examples to reveal the more nuanced reality, the Americans of Hertford College have only the spectacle of the NFL — and Katy Perry — to thank for a successful exchange of values and ideas between us and our British friends.