Photo by Beverly and Pack
Ten years ago, I stepped off a plane at LAX and began a new life in America. I was definitely English at that point. A few months back, an NPR interviewer confronted me with a question – "Should we describe you as a British or American researcher?". I'd never had to answer that before, so it took me a moment to think, but only one answer felt right – "I'm American". How did I know?
The first change came in the way I talk. I'm terrible at accents, so I still sound funny, but my phrasing changed radically. It was a natural process, people only expect to hear certain responses and so I ended up being trained to avoid puzzled looks. I knew I'd crossed a threshold when my parents started mocking me. "How are you Peter?" – "I'm good" – "We know you are! Teheheheehehe". The correct British response is "I'm well", "Ok", or a grunt/mumble.
Enjoying Fake Pubs
I still miss mum's roast dinners, Indian restaurants and chip butties, but the stereotype of terrible British food is generally true. We're known for our drinking though, so most cities have a few theme pubs. There's apparently a legal requirement that they feature a traditional phone booth outside (though usually without the improvised restroom quality that would really mark them as authentic). When I first arrived I hated these places. I had a horror of being an 'ex-pat' who sat around watching soccer and reading The Sun, never truly engaging with the culture of the place I lived. They always seemed like shabby emotional props, over the top stage sets with enormous portraits of Churchill and the Queen, so many clichés it felt like walking into an Austin Powers movie.
After a few years though, something happened. The terrible taste no longer seemed important, I loosened up and began to look forward to my occasional visits to American pubs. I had developed a new sense – the ability to detect and appreciate quaintness. Growing up in the English countryside I was surrounded by so much of it that I had no awareness, in the same way that I guess fish don't think about the water they swim in. My normal was now strip malls, sushi and bars, so anything British felt foreign and interesting, and the authenticity no longer felt so important.
A Fascination with the Old Country
As that change progressed, I realized my reading habits were skewing towards British history and literature. I'd always been a voracious reader with traditional classics in the mix, but I felt a need to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the British past, both non-fiction and culture. The typical American obsession with ancestry always looked ridiculous from the other side of the Atlantic, but now I understood. It's not a rejection of the US national identity, it's an integral part of it. Because there's people from such a wide range of different backgrounds having to live together, history and ancestry provide a safe way to talk about our differences. It's non-threatening because the stories all end up with us here in America. Talking so much about the variations implicitly acknowledges how much we have in common.
Atrophied Irony and Sarcasm
I inherited an ability to come up with a cutting remark for any occasion from my mum, and I still find her a riot. It served me well in the UK, but I rapidly discovered that it generated confused and concerned looks over here. It dawned on me that sarcasm relies on a deep shared understanding between the speaker and listeners, or it won't be clear that you actually meant the opposite of what you just said. There just isn't enough agreement about what's normal here to deploy sarcasm for anything but the simplest situations. You can find Americans who will believe almost anything, and be willing to say it! I also realized I was hiding behind my negativity. I was afraid of stating what I really believed and desired explicitly for fear of rejection or mockery, so being ironic gave me plausible deniability. I'd still hope that people would agree, but was protected if they didn't.
This timidity had to go. You can't persuade people to help you get interesting things done unless you clearly show you believe in them yourself. My big secret was that I've always been painfully earnest, and moving to the US gave me the chance to come out of that closet. I get to talk about the crazy things I dream of building without immediately hearing a million reasons why they're bound to fail. I still love a sprinkling of snark, but as a little spice, not the main dish. One of the hardest things about going back to Britain is biting my tongue so I don't sound arrogant, because I'm not hedging what I'm saying enough.
This is the last piece of the puzzle. I have my green card, and I'm just over a year away from qualifying to become a naturalized citizen. I'm going to apply as soon as I can, even though there's almost no practical difference between my status with a passport and being a permanent resident. America has given me the chance to live some amazing dreams, make wonderful friends, to create things and have experiences that would have been denied to me in the UK. It feels like home. I want to make that official.