Fall 2001
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TCU Magazine Feature

My London

A photo essay
By Jennifer Klein '01

Sign of the times. "Don't Be Afraid" stickers are mysteriously plastered on posts all over London, Klein said. This one was captured on Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, around the corner from Klein's workplace and seemed all too appropriate in Brixton, dubbed "the most dangerous

I was born a Stupid American. The clinical term is American ethnocentrism, and in small-town Texas where I grew up, it's called "patriotism," where children hear about how those "damn foreigners" should be like us or go home (dadburnit!). Borders should be barriers. Diversity is disruptive. Protesting is pointless. The ways of the world can be judged as right or wrong based on the southern etiquette book of Emily Post.

I learned to believe that America holds a global monopoly on wealth, freedom, and knowledge -- so, naturally, other cultures should be more like us. Needless to say, it was a rather large step for a hick girl from Henrietta to go first to TCU in "the big city" of Fort Worth and then to proclaim, "I'm going to study abroad in London."

Now, after two semesters at the TCU London Centre, the second as the TCU Programme Assistant, I realize that London's many clichE tourist sites reflect about as much of the diverse culture of the city as "Walker Texas Ranger" reflected the culture of Texas. Attempting to see London through the eyes of a Londoner gave me the freedom to see the city, the world, and even my own country through new eyes -- through the viewpoint of Jennifer Klein, an American, but not an ethnocentric one.

On the block. Brixton butcher shops reflect the varying cultures of the district, from pigs heads and goat meat to the partially beheaded chickens hanging from the ceilings. Above, a view of Electric Lane, from the window of Klein's internship in London, a photography center overlooking the market.

Some may look at my photo essay and ask, "Where's Big Ben?" They will think of how much more civilized we are in America (Protests? Butcher shops? Savages!). The patriotic will burst into "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know" -- I'll have iced tea and Horned Frog football.

The world, however, does not know this song. And it does not accept or appreciate our ethnocentrism. TCU has dedicated the University to educating leaders in a global community -- one that might replace the Horned Frog as mascot with a girl with pink spiked hair.

As "leaders in a global community," we must understand the world beyond the barriers of Berry and Cantey streets.

Welcome to my London. Race Riots. Extensive drug traffic. A pipe bomb. Violence. Brixton, to say the least, is not the top tourist site in Rick Steve's Guide to London.

I interned for four months in Brixton at Photofusion, a South London photography center overlooking Brixton's immigrant market. Commuting in and out of the so-called "most dangerous square mile in London," I held my breath every day as the butcher's shops assaulted me with reeking animal carcasses and dead fish.

"Joss-stick Incense Man" Patrick Hinds is a Brixton icon as he peddles his wares in front of the Underground station.

Fits of violent laughter attacked me from the market fruit stalls as Jamaican men sang Shania Twain and American gospel with heavy accents and Caribbean drums. And colours, diversity and a way of life completely different than anything I had ever seen slapped me in the face.

Day by day, working in Brixton for me turned into being Miss America stuck in the interview round -- Why do Americans put turkey on sandwiches? Why do you let people have guns when they just keep shooting each other? Jenne-fa! Did you hear what YOUR stupid president just did?"

Embarrassed by our diplomatic failures, I sat at my desk trying to think of an explanation: How could I prove that Americans are not gun-slinging capitalists trying to take over the world while destroying it (and each other) at the same time? Brixton raped my comfort zone, but, at the same time, rewarded me with the ultimate cultural classroom.

McMayday. Every year on May1, thousands of protestors from throughout the globe descend on London to protest against capitalism. McDonald's, Starbucks, and other American corporations were among those accused of exploiting laborers and shutting down small local businesses. Protestors like these blocked the outside of the McDonald's near Kings Cross train station and spoke to reporters, onlookers and curious American photographers about the injustices committed by "McBusiness."

I was given a chance to understand firsthand the complexity of being a leader in the global community -- a leader who must be able to drink tea hot and iced and eat both Mexican and vegan, while always speaking the language of patience and cross-cultural understanding.

And I discovered that Brixton is a dangerous place -- but only for those who can see the blood-spattered butchers and Portuguese bakers, the African yams and incense stick makers, and somehow still believe that the eleventh Commandment is "Thou shall wear Abercrombie."

I'm an idealist realist. I can see reality. Britain is not perfect, but America isn't either. McDonald's is probably never going to transform into "McVegan." The thousands of protestors who descend on London every year for Mayday probably will not overthrow capitalism.

In America, the arts and charitable organizations will never be as worthy of government money as the military. Our modern world will not allow itself to "be saved" by the power of Jesus Christ or by "Christian Atheism."

America will never be non-violent, gun-free, and completely safe for our children. Those who protest these obvious statements of reality are freaks and fanatics, fighting against the unchangeable and hoping for the impossible. But, in the voices of the freaks and fanatics of London, I can still hear hope. Idealists of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our grievances, and we have a world to win!

I hope that one day America will cast off its obsession with the right to kill. After living in one of the world's largest cosmopolitan cities and never being afraid to walk alone at night, I see the "right to bear arms" as a right to violate my safety and freedom to adventure.

Before I went to London, I heard girls claim that they felt safer in London than they ever felt in Fort Worth. Now, I understand. I miss the freedom of gun control. I hope that one day Americans will fly to foreign countries and not see McDonald's and Starbucks on every corner -- that in Britain, they will experience the little sandwich shops, eat prawn and dill, and drink Twinnings tea rather than frappucinos.

I want American big business to go home to America rather than drowning small foreign businesses in Big Mac grease and Grande Lattes. I hope that one day I won't sound like an aristocrat when I say that I enjoy art and theatre -- that American museums of art will be free to the public and that theatre will be priced reasonably, so the masses can learn to appreciate it. I hope that TCU students will realize that while they protest the lack of food variety in the Main, some TCU staff workers around them work full time and still only earn a wage hovering around the poverty level.

Cheeky. Hoping for a good shot of Scottish footballers in kilts, Klein said she peered around a corner of a train platform outside London to receive a flash that "definitely didn't fire from my camera."

There are people around the world who can only dream of chicken strips and hamburgers. The TCU Cloning Project must cease if we hope to educate leaders to address the diverse issues facing our community, country and world. I realize I'm idealistic, but after seeing the London protests, thousands of idealistic people marching around the city empowered by a common vision, I cannot stifle my own voice now that I'm in the States.

Helen Keller once said, "I am only one, but still, I am one. And while I cannot do everything, still I can do something." I will protest. I will hope. I will be the realist idealist. Protestors are not necessarily freak and fanatics; they are the idealistic few who have a voice unafraid of conflict and empowered by hope for a better world.

In my London, I can enjoy a meal without having a clue what I'm eating. Harry Potter is perfectly acceptable reading material for adults on the subway ride to work. And "real men" can be "dead sexy" in skirts (or at least in Scottish kilts). But my experiences abroad did not teach me to forget or regret my American heritage.

My criticism of "the American way" should not reflect that I am ashamed of being from one of the most powerful nations in the world; I could have easily written a column about the many issues in British culture. I know now that there truly is "no place like home" where people are friendly and helpful, where life is convenient, and where I can get all the Tex-Mex and iced tea I want.

But, being away from Texas gave me a chance to be a voyeur on our own idiosyncracies. London taught me the meaning of being an American citizen. But, as a woman who discovered strength and independence in London, I also am a citizen of the world.I refuse to be a traitor to either heritage.

Maybe this makes me unpatriotic -- a "damn foreigner" in my own country. Personally I would like to believe it makes me diplomatic, compassionate . . . and maybe even one of TCU's "leaders in the global community."

Christian Atheism vs. the Blood of Christ. Sunday afternoons at Hyde Park's "Speaker's Corner" are the perfect expression of London protest. Topics range from religion to Isreali conflicts, capitalism, the British and American government, homosexuality and even, the humor of farting. Any person can walk off the street, step up on a podium, and speak like these two men who stood facing each other.

Jennifer Klein, in the self-portrait below, is currently working at an international nonprofit in Fort Worth. She is planning to teach English as a second language in Japan as well as pursue a graduate degree in international diplomacy.