I’ve been in London for five years now and I don’t think my accent is particularly English but I also don’t think it’s overly American. My British friends don’t think I can pull off an RP accent, but I know I can. One day I’ll prove it to them but for now I’m happy for them to not believe me. The way I say my sentences, particularly with the inflection on clauses, is English, and in the quiet hours of the morning when I’ve had too much to drink I hear myself slipping in and out of something resembling a transatlantic drawl.
I don’t really know if I consider myself just ‘American’ anymore.
When I go to the shops and I buy something, people are either very enthusiastic to tell me I’m American or to snip that I’m a Yank. It used to be worse and I’d get angry reactions from people, but now it’s died down and I don’t really care anymore. People are idiots all over the world, which is something I’ve come to realise.
I’m known to everyone here as ‘that American girl’, or ‘my American friend’. Everyone wants to assert my national identity as an explanation for everything from my outgoingness (which has softened a lot since I moved here) to my emotionality (also softened, more internalized, less ‘out there’). I find myself hating being dragged into any conversation about how America is different from England; it’s always the minutiae (spelling of words, names of things, how often people go to the pub) instead of the real shit (political manipulations, spin doctors, involvement in foreign affairs).
The truth of the matter is I feel more home in London than I did anywhere in America, and the constant reminder that I am somehow foreign or different makes me feel like I don’t deserve to have this feeling.
I’m scared to move back to America for graduate school; more scared than I was to move to England for university. I guess this can be partly chalked up to the fact that with age comes wisdom and with wisdom comes caution; at 18 I genuinely believed I could do fucking anything because why not. I wonder how well I will get along with people in California because I find myself getting along with people less and less. The way college holds your hand in America is completely foreign to me now; the UK’s educational system is a kind of baptism by fire with small classes and delayed deadlines so all of the work is at your own pace. If you fuck up, there are no retakes, but if you put in effort, your relationship with the department will be incredibly close. I don’t want to expect to be coddled, and I don’t want to have to be friends with everyone because that’s not who I am now.
I’ve lived on my own since I was 18. I didn’t live in a dorm. I didn’t have a parent who could come down for a weekend and help with house stuff or buy me things. I used to come back to America for winter breaks and listen to people talking about their collegiate experiences and wondering why they seemed so immature. It took me a really long time to realise that the way you’re prepared to be an adult in America is in stages: first, isolated with your peers in an academic setting, then slowly integrating yourself into the ‘adult’ world with internships and programmes, before finally being thrust out of the comfortable net of university into working. I don’t know if this is a virtue of living in a city for my undergraduate degree, or if it’s England, but I tend to think of most American people my age as in an extended adolescence. I find myself harboring resentment and bitterness towards these people, which is unfair.
I hear American accents on the street in London and instead of filling to the the cockles of my heart with joy and pride in my countrymen, I shrink. My walking companions usually look at me, expecting either a mock reaction, a snigger towards these people I have distanced myself from, or a sympathetic shrug towards their mispronunciations of landmarks or streets. I hear how loud they are, my fellow Americans. The first time I returned to America after a long stay in England, I stepped off the plane and felt like someone had an invisible remote and was turning up the volume. I sat in restaurants wondering: why are people screaming at each other? Is that how I speak? Do I bray?
I get angry at expat Americans who make no effort to assimilate into their new culture. I see photos on Facebook of study abroad students, gap year travellers, posing alongside groups of other Americans. I judge people who stay for an extended period of time in a place and don’t know the country’s TV shows, comedians, musicians. I cringe when I am expected to meet up with strangers, friends of friends, who come to London and want to go for a drink in Piccadilly. I didn’t move here to meet the people I would have met if I had stayed in DC, but I am not allowed to say this because Americans are supposed to be nice to everyone. ‘You always need more friends,’ people will tell me. Maybe it’s the London in me, but I disagree.
I sit down at parties, and some drunk man sits next to me. He asks a question, I respond. ‘Oh, you’re American,’ he says as his nose crinkles. ‘The thing about America is…’
I let him go on for 15, 20 minutes, an uninterrupted stream of stereotypes and vastly exaggerated statistics. Americans are 50% obese. (Reality: 37.5% of American adults are obese) Only 10% of Americans have a passport. (Reality: 35- 42%, depending on your sources) One in five Americans can’t find the US on a map (Reality: 94% of Americans can do it) He talks of how endemic racism is in America, how Republican, how debt-ridden. I hold my tongue to respond that I’ve seen some of the worst antisemitism and anti-Indian sentiment I’ve ever seen in London, how the Tories are sweeping through Parliament, how the UK contributed significantly to the banking crisis. I wait until he runs out of steam, and ask the question I already know the answer to.
‘Have you ever been to America?’
He takes a side look at me, then turns away and swigs from his beer.
I’ve applied for three visas since 2008- a Tier 4 Student Visa, a Tier 1 Post-Study Work Visa, and a K1 American Visa for my partner, Chris. The second, the PSW visa, is the one that currently allows me to live and work in the UK. It is a category that no longer exists, and that I was the last month of applicants to receive. Since the Tories took power in England, and since Theresa May became Home Secretary, immigration law has tightened into a vice for foreign-born students. Now, if you attend a British university, you are not allowed to stay after graduation unless you marry someone or get sponsored by an employer. Recruitment isn’t like it is in America for new graduates- British employers are more reticent to hire employees that might cost a lot of money, time, and effort to sponsor. Furthermore, the rigorous new process for interviewing accepted incoming foreign students means that less and less student visas are issued. It’s ironic, because foreign students pay up to three times the home rate for university. In a country where the economy is precariously perched on a double-dip recession, where university fees have trebled since 2011, it is a move that barely cloaks the grip of far right parties like UKIP in anti-immigrant dialogues and policies.
Whenever I start to talk about the new laws that prohibit me from staying in England past this November, people get uncomfortable. Once again, I am not British- it is not my country to comment on. You’re fine, you’ll be fine, you have a job, you could have stayed here if you wanted to. And anyway, isn’t America even harder to get into?
People insist that I must be excited to be moving to LA. Particularly, Englishly, about the weather. I tell them how I sunburn very easily; that things haven’t sunk in yet; that I will miss London tremendously. Nah, they shrug, and slap me on the back. It will be a thing of the past.
I think about each place I’ve lived (even briefly) since moving to London. Lisson Grove; Holloway; Hoxton; Dalston; Highgate; London Fields. Two places in zone 1; three places in zone 2; one place in zone 3. The boroughs of Westminster, Islington, Hackney, and Haringey. Three N postcodes, two E postcodes, one NW postcode. Two houses and four flats.
The house in Lisson Grove was the most fun. The house in Holloway is the most painful to think about. The worst year of my life; also, the year I decided to stop living the way I had been. It took the flat in Hoxton to actually put that into practice. It took the flat in Dalston to become better with this identity. The flats Highgate-London Fields to work on being me again.
Accidental trips through the parts of London I used to live in remind me of my first year ‘Writing London’ professor, who insisted that London was a palimpsest. I confront who I used to be each unexpected turn onto a familiar corner, each begrudging visit West or North. I feel like Holden Caulfield encountering the glass cases in the Natural History Museum, and I have new sympathy for the character I have hated since growing out of adolescence. It’s painful to realise you’ve changed. It is painful not to belong to an identity anymore. Nostagia is a compound from two Greek words: νόστος(nóstos), meaning ‘homecoming’, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning ‘pain, ache’.
I wrote my dissertation on Ulysses: particularly, how violence forced Leopold Bloom, the main character, to accept being a Jewish (and therefore Outsider) identity instead of a fluid, multifacted whole. To never be able to come home again; to wander aimlessly into the night. A dot, an ellipsis, a negative space.
Bloom believes a nation to be simply ‘the same people living in the same place.’ When this comment is met with derision, he amends it to include: ‘and people living in different places.’ This is an idea of nationhood I identify with; a duality and flexibility I hope others could see in me, but can’t.
When I come home to America, my nationality won’t be a question anymore. For everyone else, I will be home. For me, a part of my who I am will be shaped by this island; a part that will beat quietly, unacknowledged, beneath the rest of what you see.