Outdated? Or just American…

There’s something funny that happens when you are a student in one place and then a working person in another: the memories of time in school get mixed up with the memories of the place itself. Although this is clearly just how memory works — we remember things in the context in which they occurred — I think it’s central to some of the anxieties of expat life.

This summer my spouse and I shipped over all of our belongings from storage in the US to our new flat in Edinburgh. Among these items were several boxes of old papers and folders from my undergraduate and graduate work. Just this week I finally got around to sorting them into better-managed piles in my office. As I was doing so, I came across several spiral notebooks, as well as some three ring binders. The notebooks were three hole punched, so I decided to put them in the binders for storage. As I felt the click of the binder rings opening, I got a wave of nostalgia, and the feeling that I hadn’t felt that particular sensation in years. It was the sensation that the action itself was old-fashioned or outdated. But at the same time I had the conscious thought that three ring binders are just American, and not British, and that’s why I hadn’t seen or felt one in awhile. (The only hole punchers I’ve ever seen in the UK are two hole punchers. Three hole punchers are used with Letter-sized paper, and of course the UK uses A4 paper.) But then I wondered: do Americans still use three ring binders? Maybe everyone’s now living in a paperless society, and my feeling of nostalgia is indeed warranted! The point is, sitting here in my Edinburgh office, I can’t know the answer.

keep calm hole punch

The two hole puncher that I keep in my office, next a postcard.

This got me wondering if I’m actually going around getting the two (“outdated” and “American”) confused more often than I know. I started thinking about all the different sensations of a place that become embedded in our memories, like how when I think of being “back in college” I can almost feel the heat of Tucson on my skin. But while I might be nostalgic for the oven-baked feeling (especially given the weather we’ve had this summer in the UK), that quality of Tucson weather is not going to change: Tucson is and will continue to be hot in the summer. With micro-aspects of human culture, like three ring binders, it’s a different scenario. While I’m in the UK I can’t know what little, seemingly insignificant objects are still being used in the US, and which ones are going out of use. If those little objects never existed in the UK in the first place, then when I see them again and get a wave of nostalgia I have no way of knowing if other Americans would agree with that feeling or if it’s my own expat nostalgia to bear. Of course, this is surely more likely to happen with physical objects and tactile sensations than it is with those things that are easily accessed via the internet, like music and news. Luckily for me, it’s probably less likely to happen with forms of language use… Or so I hope!


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11 Responses to Outdated? Or just American…

  1. erica says:

    time and space are really pretty inseparable, aren’t they? interesting point…

  2. Jennifer says:

    I still use them on occasion! 🙂 And there are still racks and racks in Office Max…

  3. Laura says:

    Something happened to me all the time in the Netherlands that I think I would call the opposite of this. We would walk around town and marvel at the crazy outfits that those “wacky Europeans” were wearing, and then when we’d go back to the states, we’d realize – it’s not that they’re European, it’s that we’re old. That’s just what the kids were wearing, and we were out of touch. Oops.

    • vocalised says:

      Yes! I’m happy you posted this. Jefferson and I were talking about something similar yesterday with regards to British music that makes it big in the US without us realizing it.

  4. Anna says:

    My students still have binders, and some of their classes even require them! But I know what you mean about the nostalgia. I have all these neatly organized binders from each class going back to high school. Looking at them makes me wonder if I always knew I’d be a teacher. In college I do remember thinking “I better organize this really well in case I have to teach it someday!” And now that I’m teaching in Asian Studies, all those classes on things like East Asian history and Muslim philosophy are actually coming in handy. But the binders I unpack from old classes seem outdated also, I think, because they’re from other times and places in my life, so even though I’m back in the US now your point still applies.

  5. Anna says:

    I also just found two three-hole punchers that I kept inside my binders in grad school!

  6. knile says:

    This came up for me, of all places, at a McDonald’s in the Netherlands. My friends and I were gazing at a menu, and a German-living-in-NL asked me how the menus differed across the countries. I had to admit that, for many items, I wasn’t sure if they were European-only options or if they had come out in the past few years while I’ve been out of the US!

  7. Christina says:

    Quite often, I come across behaviours or ways of doing things in Edinburgh which at first I take to be Scottish/British. In fact, I even told my German students the other week that the majority of kids usually walked to primary school without their parents in Germany, and that smoking was more publicly accepted there than it is here. And then, when I speak to my sister in Germany, I realise that it’s not actually things being different here, but them having changed in Germany, too, since I have left. (I do think my employers should pay for me to go to Germany for a week or two so I can re-immerse myself in the culture and be a better teacher who doesn’t tell the students nonsense about smoking being cool among German teenagers like it used to be “back in the day”. ;-))

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