I never considered myself an American. My birth certificate clearly identifies me as one, even if my accent doesn’t these days. But I never identified as American. Americans wave flags. I burned one at my seventeenth birthday party. Americans cheer their favourite football teams. I invented rude alternatives to our high school chants (not difficult when your mascot is a Trojan) and ran in terror from the cultish fans mobbing the holy ground of Nebraska Cornhusker Stadium. Americans actively attend church. I actually joined a church in high school, largely as an act of rebellion against my agnostic parents and an excuse to join another choir.
American? No. I was never an American.
Never an American until I moved out of America. The moment I landed in Britain, “American” became the most important part of my identity—indeed the only identity I possessed. To many people it still is. To my husband’s family I was “the American internet girlfriend”. Now I am “My brother/son/cousin’s American wife”. To my students I am “Mrs Elmer, she’s American.” My close friends almost invariably introduce me to others as “This is Kate, she’s American.”
Fair enough. I am an Other here, after-all. But when I first moved to the UK I got so fed up with the repetitive, half-hour conversations concerning my Otherness I conducted shopping exchanges in mute silence. This got easier as my accent mellowed a bit. Natives never mistake me for British, but I get Irish occasionally and Canadian often. Brits do not seem to find the Irish or Canadians particularly interesting, so they are welcome to mis-categorise me all they like.
But the obligatory “You’re American? I’ve been to Florida” dialogue is not as difficult to deal with as “The Questions” or “The Look”.
“The Questions” usually only happen the first time I meet someone new or if something dramatic is going on in America. They go something like this:
“Where did you live in the States?”
“Why are you here?”
“When did you move here?”
“How do you like our weather?” (The British way of gauging my national preference: Britain or America.)
“Who’s this insert current controversial American person?”
“What do you think of insert current American political issue?”
The last two questions are naturally the trickiest and the most irritating. I cannot blame the askers. They are taking advantage of an opportunity to get a native perspective on topics which often dominate global politics. On the one hand I am eager to share my views and shatter some of the preconceptions Brits have about Americans. On the other hand, being held to account for a country I have never truly claimed as my own leaves me feeling conflicted.
I don’t know why America voted George W Bush into office twice, but I can guess.
Yes, I know more people died from the years of terrorist violence with Northern Ireland than on that one day in September but we don’t have that kind of history on American soil.
No, I have never owned a gun but I can talk you through the Second Amendment of our Constitution.
And then there is “The Look”. “The Look” happens anytime an eruption of volcanic Yankee stupidity shoots toxic lava across the headlines. Sometimes “The Look” is nothing more than a sub-conscious, side-long glace my direction. Sometimes it is a challenging moment of lingering eye-contact. “The Look” means: “What do you have to say for yourself, Yankee?” I have spent many long evenings with “The Look” trying to explain Sarah Palin, resistance to socialised medicine and always, always gun control.
I spent more time talking and thinking about America in my first year living in Britain than I had in twenty-eight years living in America. The nation I tried so hard to ignore or reject became the only thing anyone ever wanted to talk about with me. Britain forced me to become American—a reluctant political spokesperson/historian/cultural expert.
Eventually I decided I was ready for it. Years of defending, explaining and justifying my country finally triggered my defensive weaponry. It brought out the patriot in me.
My country is just as old as yours, it just took you guys ages to find it.
No…of course we don’t do sarcasm—just ask Woody Allen, Groucho Marx and Mark Twain.
That’s right we like our guns. They came in pretty handy when we kicked your asses out of our colonies!
America is my country, dammit. If anyone is going to criticise it, it’s going to be me. I am Kate the Yankee in Yorkshire. Bring it freaking on, Limey Dudes!
Then two years ago a mutual friend introduced me to Kelly, a military wife from the nearby Army Base with a rich Southern accent my homesick ears could not get enough of. Kelly invited me to a night of card games and rootbeer with other American women from the base. It was nice to hear a noisy roomful of hard consonants and taste familiar foods. I was admiring an enormous tray of Mexican Seven-Layer Dip when one of the base ladies struck up polite conversation with me.
I grinned stupidly, enjoying the sound of her voice. She indicated the tray of melted cheese and beans: “You won’t have had this before. It’s Mexican Dip with…”
My smile fell. Not have had this before? Is the kidding? I’ve made this before. I practically freaking invented it!
“I’ve had it before,” I assured her.
“Oh, really? When did you visit America?” Oh my god! This woman thought I was British.
“Umm… I am American.”
“You are?” Of course I am, you moron! Can’t you tell?
“Born in Iowa,” I giggled politely. But I could tell she didn’t believe me.
“You don’t sound American,” she persisted.
Kelly intervened. “She’s American,” insisted my friend. “Even if she doesn’t always sound like it.”
I scooped up some Mexican Seven-Layer Dip and hid in a corner to process what had just happened. She didn’t recognise me. She refused to claim me as a fellow American. How ridiculous! I shook off my feelings of rejection and struck up a conversation with the nearest military wife.
“Hi, I’m Katie Jo,” she greeted cheerfully. “I’m from Idaho. You won’t have heard of that.”
Oh, shit! Not again! Seriously? I spent my entire life eating your bloody potatoes, woman! Of course I’ve heard of Idaho.
And that is how my night went. Over and over again I had to prove my American-ness to other Americans. I am an outsider here and now, apparently, I am an outsider to my own people.
A few weeks later, I experienced another culture shock. My sister-law’s father-in-law (keep up, people) started in on “The Questions”. Being a political man disinterested in small talk, he skipped straight to the last two.
“Where did this Michelle Bachmann come from?”
“What do Americans think of Barak Obama? Will he get re-elected?”
“Errr…not really sure. I’ll ask some of my American friends.”
Whereupon my sister-in-law’s father-in-law gave me a long, hard “Look”. Only “The Look” was not “What do you have to say for yourself, Yankee?” The Look was “Who the hell are you, then Yankee?”
Good question, father-in-law-law. America has changed dramatically since I immigrated in 1999. I hardly know the place. Conversations with my American friends and family involve a lot of: Sorry, never heard of that show/band/actor/film. Who are you talking about? What’s that?
Orphaned Woman found in Yorkshire! Used but still in Working Order. Please claim or she will be consigned to The Lost Patriots Department.
I am sure every ex-pat experiences this moment. The moment when you realise you have been too long away from home to call it that anymore. The question is what do you call yourself? I haven’t got an answer. I’m not Yankee enough for the Americans and I am far too Yankee for the Brits. For now, I suppose my identity remains in limbo: a Yankee in Yorkshire.