“I resent your use of the collective pronoun, miss,” said the precocious lass, her hand raised high as Hermione.
At first I was quite impressed with her vocabulary and accurate application of grammatical terminology. But my pride as both teacher and person was short lived once her meaning sank in. She didn’t like that I said “we.”
We (the class) had been chatting amiably about the World Cup versus the Tour de France. I (me) expressed mild frustration that sports shops were still festooned with World Cup football paraphernalia even though we (and by “we” I meant England) were out of the competition. They (the shops), I argued, should be stocking cycling accessories since we (Britain) actually have a fighting chance of winning the Tour de France. Where upon my student exploded in a tirade of grammatical indignation.
‘You’re not we!’ she protested. ‘It drives me crazy when you say that. You aren’t English, you know!’
I didn’t get mad or tell her off. Maybe I should have. What she said didn’t make me angry exactly. She had a valid point. But I can’t say her valid point didn’t sting.
‘You’re right,’ I said, my voice uncharacteristically soft. ‘I probably don’t have the right to “we”. Trouble is,’ I explained to my student, ‘I’m not sure who my “we” is anymore.’
She snorted at me a bit and rolled her eyes which did make me angry though I didn’t press it. I was thrown too off-guard to be thinking like a teacher. As far as she was concerned my “we” is totally obvious. I’m American. I sound American. I act American (whatever that means). America is my “we” not Britain.
Except I don’t feel American. I haven’t lived there for 15 years. In fact, I’ve been a resident of Britain for longer than my student has thank you very much, missy. Not that time spent matters because I don’t feel British either.
So, who is my we?
Geographically speaking, we is Britain. I’m here in Yorkshire. I have no plans to live anywhere else. If World War III breaks out, I’m on this side of the Atlantic. Eventually I would be buried with the English dead. You think they’d check my passport first? Would alien invaders eject me over a cornfield just to maintain accurate categorisation? Probably not.
Politically speaking, my we is probably American. I’m not a British citizen. I can’t vote in this country. This does not stop me being subject to British laws and policies—a fact that is brought sharply into focus today as I join my union in a nationwide strike over salaries, pensions and working conditions.
Financially, my we is British. I work for North Yorkshire County Council. I pay taxes to the crown. I have no American bank account or income at all.
Historically, my we is American. When someone mentions “The Civil War” in passing, I automatically think Yankees and Confederates not Roundheads and Royalists. Although even this is starting to change. Both concepts camp side by side in my head until I sort through the context. But I cannot share memories of Margaret Thatcher’s pit closures and I did not grow up with grandparents who could show me their ration cards or tell me where they were when Elizabeth was crowned. My grandparents remember The Great Depression. My dad remembers when his Missouri school was de-segregated. I remember where I was when The Challenger exploded. When Clinton was elected I appreciated what it meant. I knew exactly why America freaked out so badly on the 11th of September. Because we, unlike the British, can count with one hand the number of foreign attacks on American soil—with two fingers really.
Socially and culturally are a bit tricky. My vocabulary is mostly British. My accent is odd. Very few people identify me as American straightaway these days. But I speak more loudly and with more expression. Ain’t nothing stiff bout my upper lip (this is totally a true stereotype by the way; the English have a very limited variety of facial expressions compared to Americans). I code switch quite a bit, making myself sound more Yankee or more Yorkshire depending on circumstance or simply for effect. My friends on this side of the Atlantic are all British. The only Americans I’ve met recently have been part of the local military base and (with a few exceptions) I had nothing in common with them except being American and even they didn’t believe me when I told them I was a born Yankee.
Basically, I have no idea who my we is. America has changed so much in the past fifteen years. When I go “home” I feel like a tourist. But I’m not a we here either.
Do I really need a we though? I mean, really. Maybe I just need to be content with I. Can I be a solitary me?
As an only child this is probably easier for me than most people but I think I’m a pack animal. All humans are. We gravitate to the tribal. I had hoped that Tribe Yorkshire might pull me into its fleecy embrace and mostly it has. But I’ll never be a true member of the tribe and I don’t think I want to be. I cherish my otherness. It’s one of the reasons why New York City didn’t suit me. Too many tribes—so many that if you try and carve yourself some individuality, you’ll find someone else got there first and made a support group for it. I thought I would like that. I thought I was tired of feeling like an outsider and that if I could just find the right tribe, I would be happy. I would belong.
But New York City taught me how wrong I was. I wasn’t happy but I learned something. NYC taught me I like being the odd gal out.
As a kid, I used to play D&D in the back room of a comic shop with a tribe of wild boys who let me in their clubhouse. They mistrusted me at first, but soon accepted me as one of their own. I joined a Methodist Church for a while in high school so I could sing in their choir. They baptised me and everything. In college, I was briefly adopted by a pack of lesbians. They didn’t really know what to make of me, but they let me come to their Coffee Houses on a regular basis. None of these tribes lasted. I was a girl and as puberty came along that became more of an issue. I wasn’t sure about the whole God thing, so church didn’t work out. I wasn’t a lesbian and, even though they were kind and welcoming, it felt wrong for me to be part of their world. If I had been them, I would have resented my use of “we”. I had no right to a lesbian we for complicated political and emotional reasons.
I don’t have a right to a Yorkshire we either really. But it’s hard to retrain your brain overnight. Wes come automatically and I think my student is just going to have to be patient with me while I sort out which collective pronouns I can claim.