I was born in Scotch Plains, New Jersey in 1982 and was moved to the UK in 1988 when my father’s direct marketing company closed and our vacation home in Bath, England was the only home we could live in without the threat of it being taken away from us by the banks (from what I understand).
My father got a job at Ogilvy & Mather London and my brother and I went to a local Church of England school. My mother, having never been a stay-at-home mom (she used to work at my father’s business), took up the opportunity to be a dinner lady at our school: she’d make sure the kids did “more eating and less talking” and would help set up the gymnasium with all the tables before lunch, usher the children in class by class, then help with the cleaning afterwards. The dinner ladies had their own table in the gymnasium where they’d eat their lunch. One lady commented to my mother (and the rest of the table) that she found the way my mother cut her meat, put the knife down, picked up her fork in her right hand and then ate the pieces was vulgar. I soon found myself figuring out how to eat peas with a fork upside-down in my left hand and a knife in my right.
Bath is a beautiful city and from the perspective of New Jerseyans, the architecture is something never-before seen and quite breathtaking. We were celebrities, in a way, as the new Americans in town, or at least the only ones at the school. My peers would ask questions about the beaches, Disneyland, Miami and California. This was the time when LA Gear shoes were popular, huge t-shirts with ‘CocaCola’ and ‘7up’ logos were the fashion, and Bart Simpson was the coolest kid in the world. I’d tell them what I knew, which wasn’t much, as I didn’t recall spending time in either of those states, let alone Disneyland and we didn’t have satellite television so we’d never seen The Simpsons.
As the years went by, the questions thinned and my new teachers went from asking where in America I was from, to “I detect an accent, are you Canadian?”, to not noticing I was American at all. I was pretty much Anglicised. It had been fun being the American kid in the class, but as kids grew older they picked up on the kind of generalizations that prompted me to write this in the first place:
“Americans are fat”
I had no idea where these ideas came from. I was an American, and I’ve always been quite skinny, and clever for that matter. I had a disconnection with America-proper, to an extent, and an even greater disconnect with what television and newspapers had to say about my country. The only reaction I had at that point was to be embarrassed and to try to be as British as possible on the outside. It felt pretty natural and was easy to do, except sometimes a rush of national pride would hit me. I remember playing at a friend’s house in 1993 during Bill Clinton’s inauguration. My friend’s father asked me, as an American, if I thought he’d be a good president. I had no idea at 11 years old, but said yes. In hindsight I find it odd that my parents didn’t insist on me watching the inauguration in the first place, but now I am the only member of my family in the USA. My father and brother are UK nationals and my mother, who I’d argue is the ‘most American’ of us all says ‘Bath’ and ‘France’ with a soft A.
I haven’t mentioned that there was another American family in our circle at that time. They arrived from Texas about a year after we got there. They switched schools a few times: starting at the one we were at then moved elsewhere but eventually we all ended up at the same secondary school. Our parents stuck together from early on, though, so often we’d spend entire weekends at one-another’s homes when the others’ parents needed space. I remember there being a lot of divorce back then. It was really exciting having them around. One was my age, another my brother’s age (2 years +) and another two years older than that. They had experience being real Americans. They had baseball cards, baseball gloves, Nike Air Jordan shoes, football jerseys and military haircuts. If I stuck with them, maybe I could be American again, and I was for a while.
Our last names were close enough alphabetically that we always had seats close together in classes and prep (prep = doing your homework at school until 8pm). There was another American kid from Atlanta in our class. We really had a posse going, but eventually high school took its toll and I ended up in a different social circle. People got bullied and then the bullied oddly bullied back later on, but through all of it I was still allowed to borrow my classmate’s rollerblades whenever I wanted. 13 year-old politics are pretty weird.
In the mid-to-late 90s, the older two of the three other Americans, and the kid from Atlanta all moved back to the USA for various reasons and I subconsciously resumed being British through the end of secondary school and my gap year until two things happened: the first election I was eligible to vote in (against George W Bush) and September 11th, 2001. The first was a short lived affair – nothing more exciting than filling in some forms, mailing them to the USA and knowing I was doing the right thing. The second was nothing short of confusing as I had anger for both what had happened and also the way the president I didn’t vote in was handling it.
A few years later when I was studying in London there were huge anti-war marches. George W Bush’s second election was under way. I was close friends with a Norwegian-American. His father was in the US Navy so he had lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and some other places in the USA. He went to high school in Norway but had a more-American accent than I did. We spent hours in pubs talking about Bush – all the while trying to be careful not to be overheard by American tourists (our college was very close to the British Museum) as we didn’t want to engage in conversation with ‘the wrong side’, not on our turf.
A strong visual memory I have from this time is walking up Kingsway in Holborn, London in the middle of the street. The road was completely empty on my side of the central barrier, as tens of thousands of people were walking in the opposite direction on the other side of the road, taking part in an organized anti-war march. It was an odd feeling: I was on their side but I was nervous to join these recurring marches. What if they found out I was American? What would they say to me? Would I be responsible for all of this? This visual image of a single American walking, alone, on the other side of the street might seem dramatic. The reality of it is that I had to get to college up the street to print something and that was the quickest route.
At that time, and for the years up until President Obama started his campaign, stereotyping, generalization and cheap-shots were at an all-time high. I recall reacting to a complaint of the use of ‘Americanisation’ on a neighborhood internet forum. It was something about language and I intelligently responded calmly noting that language is always in a state of change and English is a perfect example of it (Latin – German – French influence). “You’re practically English anyway, so what do you care?” was the response. I cared because Americans were being blamed on the ‘dumbing down’ (or more correctly, ‘change’) of the English language, when they were no more to blame than mobile telephone manufacturers and the education system.
Then just yesterday, I read a post on Twitter that read “Frankly, if they burn a Qur’an, I will wage a personal war on them. And I’m not even Muslim. Americans need educating. Obama, do something!”. I was outraged and went on the defense: “just remember ‘they’ are not ‘all Americans’ and not all Americans need educating” and “it’s generalizing like that, that got those Americans to behave how they are behaving”.
This blog post is, in a way, an apology for perhaps over-reacting to a less-than-140-character message. But I’ve disguised it as an explanation for my defensive (or possibly passive aggressive) attitude: the back-and-forth between American and British I’ve gone through, and why it was inevitable I’d relocate to the USA and marry an American.
I love my country (but I probably love my new state more) and now I’m not in the UK I suppose I feel I can react more openly and honestly to such generic criticism without the fear of “if you don’t like it, you can always go back to America” as an answer. Because I do like it. The UK is a great union of countries full of great tradition, art, beer, cheese and people. But to generalize: I can’t believe I managed to stay in a country full of people who hate people from my country for 22 years.