I grew up in the Midwest of America somewhere between a cornfield and a cow, though my true up-bringing was far from rural. Being the child of a professor and librarian, university campuses featured somewhere to the left of the cow. Like my parents I developed interests in theatre, writing, reading, card games and sarcasm. Like many young college students I developed interests in political rabble-rousing, smugness and experimentation. I completed my University Education in Nebraska before attempting the leap all drama students must someday take.
I moved to New York City in August of 1998 full of …not exactly dreams, but certainly visions of making some kind of mark in the world. The biggest mark I made was a wine stain on my friend’s sofa in Brooklyn where I lived for two months while I was supposed to be looking for a place to live. I temped on Wall Street, which might have been a huge waste of time if my supervisor actually cared what I was doing. (Those of you who have done time “between jobs” understand the I-need-a-warm-body-to-fill-this-desk-space-and–brains-are-optional work I am talking about.) I used my working hours to find a boyfriend in that international nouveau singles bar known as the internet. The chronicles of my whirlwind romance with my stormy-eyed Englishman shall remain private. The short version is that before I took time to think about it logically, I boxed myself up and sent myself over-land delivery to Yorkshire.
Old Yorkshire felt like less of a culture shock than New York. Perhaps nothing can seem alien once you have witnessed performance art in the East Village involving a raw egg, a bag of frozen stir fry vegetables and a dread-locked man’s talented sphincter. Perhaps the north of England, with its many farms and working class history felt more familiar to this Midwesterner than Manhattan. Americans who have visited England will recognise there are few major differences between US and them—just lots and lots of little ones. These tiny discrepancies in culture, so curiously amusing to me at first, multiplied and divided exponentially the more time I spent in this foreign environment. I had to adopt a new vocabulary, take Driver’s Ed all over again, find my way around a completely different education system, and I still don’t understand how the government works.
What do you mean you don’t elect the Prime Minister? You really don’t have a constitution of any kind? How do you know your rights? Because that’s how it’s always been! Is that really the basis for your government?
The pressure of having to adapt, the constant feeling of social clumsiness and isolation came to head one afternoon as I attempted to pump gas—sorry, petrol—and could not get the nozzle to work. I was convinced this was one of those now seeming immense cultural differences no one had told me about because any idiot knows you have to stand on your head and sing Jerusalem to get the gas—sorry, petrol—to pump and I do not know the words to Jerusalem. If I ask everyone will look at me with that pitying expression I have come to hate so much and be tutting in their head and whispering “Colonial” under their breath then I will have to kill them and start an international incident just because I could not pump gas. Oh, I am sorry—it’s bloody petrol! I forgot because I am a stupid American. WHY don’t YOU Take your petrol and shove it where the sun don’t shine, you limey wankers!
The British government has since removed me from their list of “Worrying Individuals” after I agreed to join the teaching profession. Working with teenagers has not only helped me feel less stupid and useless by comparison, but actively participating in the professional life of British society has soothed my feelings of cultural alienation. As a bonus, I am always abreast of the latest rude slangs and silly fashions.
I have lived in Yorkshire for twelve years now. While my cultural faux pas have lessened over the years, I am always conscience of my status as an outsider. I still have my accent though my vocabulary straddles the Atlantic uncomfortably. I live in Yorkshire, but I feel more American than ever.