I was ill-at-ease at the second annual British Ball, a black-tie event held on May 19 at the Strand Hotel.
By JARED DOWNING | FRONTIER
THE NEW event (which this year benefited Magic Bus Myanmar, which provides education and resources to impoverished young people) is already famous for being very fancy and very British—two qualities I lack utterly.
The organisers were the British Chamber of Commerce and the Yangon branch of Dulwich College, a 400-year-old boarding school. The refreshments included gin cocktails and Scotch eggs. There was a string quartet, chandeliers, a band flown in from the UK and a meal that implemented more than one fork. There were at least two men in kilts.
“But you’re simply describing an ordinary work day at a London office!” my British readers may be thinking.
But consider things from my perspective: a Mississippi native who couldn’t find his suit trousers and had to wear a pair two sizes too small, purchased from an export surplus store a few hours beforehand.
Fortunately I found another North American there, and to distract myself proposed a wager: Whoever could produce the most British person by the end of the evening would win a shepherd’s pie at the British embassy club.
The enterprise had two immediate obstacles: First, it proved difficult to approach British people. My impeccable ice-breaker joke (“I’m surprised they aren’t streaming the royal wedding at this shindig! Lol!”) that elicited chuckles and counter-banter from the Canadians, Australians and United Statesians was met with mere shrugs from the Brits.
Secondly, nobody could really agree on what being “British” actually meant. That caught me off guard because I had thought Winston Churchill and Gilbert and Sullivan had already nailed it down.
One man, a Manchester native, said being British meant skipping the royal wedding but staying up to catch the FA Cup final. But another, in a Union Jack pattern vest, said the royal wedding was the epitome of British history and culture.
One Welshman was so British that he made a point to write “British” on paperwork even when “Welsh” was an option. On the other hand, a kilted Scot had voted for Scottish independence in 2014 and said his favourite monarch was Mary.
(Rather frustratingly, all the women I met turned out to be Myanmar, American, Indian, French, Dutch or some other non-British nationality. I did meet one English-sounding lady who kept me from accidentally walking towards the women’s restroom, but I was too embarrassed to pursue my line of questioning.)
I never found that all-inclusive, Churchhill-esque definition. Aggressively dismissing the royal wedding entirely didn’t seem fundamentally British, but then again, somehow neither did wearing a Union Jack vest and gushing about Stonehenge.
In the end, I think the best account of British-ness came from a Cambridge alumnus who worked at the embassy. “Being British,” he said, “means secretly being excited about the royal wedding, but making fun of it later on Twitter.”
He wasn’t the one I chose as my most British person. That honour belongs to none other than Daryl Orchard, headmaster of Dulwich College Yangon, a bald, broad-chested man who, in a white dinner jacket and a perfect BBC accent, described himself as a Bond Villain.
“Someone give me a cat to stroke,” he said.