Dear England: As an American, I have often wondered if there’s anything more awkward and oxymoronic than celebrating July 4th on your shores. I would have guessed “no” when my family first moved to London for my husband’s job last year. Maybe I told too many people we came from Philadelphia. Maybe it was the bristling I felt when the English, upon hearing my accent, politely inquired if I was Canadian. Either way, I started to sense a grudge about the whole 1776 thing. You, England, may be all “special relationship” and “allies” and “our cousins across the pond” to an American living in the US, but Americans on English turf have been known to experience otherwise.
You’ve taken the piss out of me, England, and for that, I thank you.
Your phrase to describe the act of light mockery, for making fun of someone, has proven apt for this American family, because you took a lot of piss out of us when we first arrived. Like when we tried to get a bank account (impossible without a home address), or when we tried to rent a house (impossible without a bank account). You took even more piss out of us when we attempted to enroll our children at the local school (possible only by deciphering a secret algorithm that combines exact distance in meters between the school gate and your front door, the predicted winner of the British Bake-Off, and whether Aries is in Jupiter).
Piss-taking came to its zenith, though, when it was time to replace my American cell phone plan with a British mobile plan. I stood on “queue” for an hour and filled out reams of paperwork. I endured the inexplicable wait (apparently a global phenomenon) while the phone store computer took forever doing mysterious things. I had a long heart-to-heart with the sales clerk about his failed marriage, his iTune playlists and why he would rather live in the US than the UK. (He’d been to Florida and Vegas – I’d want to live in the US too if my concept of America was sunshine, neon lights and naked people).
Just when we were both feeling that collective uplift of the spirits that prefaces the end of a long, arduous and successful sales exchange, he glanced at the computer screen and frowned.
“Er, how long have you been here?” he asked.
“Hmm, maybe, going on two hours? Should I run and pick up some sandwiches? Ha.”
He was not laughing. “No, I mean in the country,” he said. I guess I’d failed to mention that it was less than a month. “That’s not enough time to build up your credit in the UK,” he said.
I was taken aback. ME??? Hadn’t we just been over the fact that I was AMERICAN?
“Exactly, love,” he said with a stern, unblinking look. “You’re not British. You need to be verified. Come back in three months. Six to be on the safe side.” He motioned to the next customer. He was finished with me.
England, your post-colonial piss-taking was really starting to get on my nerves. But suddenly it dawned on me. My American-ness didn’t grant me some kind of special dispensation from the rules. Just because we’d expatriated to you, a country of which America itself had been an outpost only a few hundred years ago, I was still, more or less, an immigrant.
This realization hadn’t occurred to me sooner because “American immigrant” just sounds odd. Isn’t it usually the other way around? The huddled masses yearn to come to us. Plus, it seems like a gross overstatement – someone who arrives on a British Airways flight in business class, rather than as a stowaway in a shipping container, can’t possibly lay claim to the title of immigrant. Whatever I was, England, I didn’t have a natural right to be here, and was not automatically entitled to the same privileges as your native citizens.
It was a humbling, but necessary, lesson. Being American gave us the main gift: the freedom to expatriate, to live in a land beyond US borders, to experience a different life out of sheer curiosity rather than desperation.
With that came a huge corollary gift: the perspective of being “other” while trying to carve out a place in a new society. We Americans still believe, despite our many political imperfections, that everyone wants to be like us, with our model of democracy so true that our friends have borrowed from it and our enemies have tried to destroy it. But England, you have taught us that American privilege isn’t to be taken for granted, and it doesn’t always travel with you. You’ve compelled us to mold ourselves to the contours of the culture we live in, to be respectful of the way things are done here. And, in the end, enduring a few bureaucratic hardships is a bargain compared to the risks many take in search of a different life.
So, England, on this July 4th, there will be a grateful recognition of the gifts I was given when I was born in America: my freedom, of course, but also my youthful sense of “can-do” optimistic certainty — pretty hefty armor against even the most royal piss-taking. And a heartfelt thanks to you, England, for what you’ve taught us by hosting us for the past 12 months. To celebrate my independence, I’ll be waving my Stars and Stripes in one hand, and raising a pint to you with the other.