10 April 2011

You're not very fat, for an American

It's a blessing and a curse, being an expatriated American who's lived in London for almost 21 years.

A blessing because it's an instant icebreaker in any situation. My accent is weird. Not weird in the same way that my fellow New Englander Lloyd Grossman's accent is weird – that strange, pretentious, grating midatlantic drawl. Just weird in that it can't be placed. I've had all sorts of guesses about where I'm from, ranging from the understandable (Ireland, Canada, the generic "North of England" – presumably the latter due to my flattened vowels), through to the bizarre (South African, Dutch). It seems to me that accents are very important in the UK – an instant way of classifying someone – and so my own accent immediately triggers a line of questioning.

And so the conversation opens – usually in a predictable way. Why did you come here? Do you ever want to go back? Why are you here when you could be in America? (This is normally accompanied by a mournful gesture to the weather, or the delays listed on the board at a station platform.) I have the story down pat and can rattle it out on demand. I don't mind. It's an instant icebreaker, like I say. It's led to some great chats and good friendships and working relationships.

But here comes the curse part. People make an awful lot of assumptions about Americans. I've been asked some real jaw-droppers over the years. "You're Irish-American? Did you donate to Noraid?" (I'm not Irish-American in the "my great-great-great-cousin thrice removed was in Dublin once" way of presidential candidates; my grandparents are Irish and I have an Irish passport.) "Have you ever used a gun?" (The only guns I've ever seen have been in the holsters of the police.) "Americans don't speak proper English." (I've been an editor for around 18 years and I'm a word nerd – say this to me and you'll get a history of the language, including a potted history of lexicography, Webster and Johnson.) "You're not very fat, for an American." (Erm. Thanks?) "Yes, Trish, you're American, but you're not really a proper American." (This is meant as a compliment, and in this intention becomes an insult.)

Americans are fat. Americans are stupid. Americans all wear baseball caps. Americans are religious nuts. Americans are trigger-happy. Americans are bullies. Americans are loud. Americans are brash. I've heard 'em all. And I'll have a response to pull from the dogeared file in my brain labelled Yank-Bashing Response Templates.

Here's the thing though. I'm no rosy-spectacled patriot. I choose to live outside of the US. Part of the reason is the way my country has turned, particularly post-9/11, into a more insecure, paranoid and reactionary place (at least, so it seems to me). In part, it's also because living abroad for my adult life opened my eyes and horizons. I feel more like a foreigner in Boston than I do in London. I use English slang and Anglicised spelling. I can no longer complain or have someone bump into me without saying "sorry".  I sometimes pretend to be English when I'm visiting the US to avoid having to explain why I talk funny even though I was born in Massachusetts.

When I'm asked what my nationality is, I really don't know how to respond. I have an American passport, but I haven't lived there since 1990. I have an Irish passport, but I've never lived there at all. Half of my life has been spent in the UK, where I live, work, play, and even vote.

What am I, then? I've no idea, frankly. I own a baseball cap, but I don't wear it. Make of that what you will.


  1. Great first one Trish - more please! I have no singuklar national identity either. Born German with a Polish father, I've lived mostly in GB - but don't feel English...I sort of settle for having a 'european weltanschauung'. Natuionalism is anathema to me. Americans are so regularaly tarred with the same brush though, this needed saying - excellent stuff!

  2. I was born in London, then moved to Ibiza when I was eight, came back to the UK when I was 18 and have somehow wound up in Brighton. Again, a conversation starter: "Wow, you lived in Ibiza? Amazing!" No. It's boring as hell in the winter and a human frying pan in the summer. Only so much clubs and beaches can do for you over a decade.

    In Spain I'm pale, reserved and polite because I'm British. In Britain I'm outspoken with crazy hair because I'm Spanish. I consider myself without nationality and it's a blessing in disguise, I think.

  3. You don't wear your baseball cap? You've got more hair than me, then ;-)

    Keep on blogging, Trish. You're more than welcome, and I'm very relieved that you don't sound like Loyd Grossman.

  4. I'm an American pseudo-expatriate living back and forth between New York and London. I have a Polish passport (Polish father) and am quite fond of the place, having first arrived in 2007. As always, I find myself in odd situations that require a level of understanding of British-ness as a prerequisite to good conversation, but find that once this hurdle is overcome, people here are generally receptive and friendly. I'm glad I have the chance to live here, aren't you?

  5. Thank you everyone for your comments. I feel like a proper blogger now. ;-)

    @Christopher: Yes, absolutely. I feel very happy and privileged to be able to live here (inability to deal with an inch of snow aside), and in fairness, most of the comments I get are in jest. I like being able to view the world through American nature and British nurture.

  6. Wheeeeeeee, a new blog! *inhales the new blog smell*

    I get a similar 'interrogation' over here (the Netherlands). Why did I leave the UK, do I like it here, how different is Holland to the UK, do I ever get homesick, what do I miss etc. The conversation usually turns to tea (with MILK!) or breakfast ("Do you REALLY eat baked beans?")

    Then there's the kind-hearted Dutch colleagues dragging another Brit to my desk because we're both British, so we're bound to get on. Yeah... Or they'll say "I have a friend in England, his name's Martin. Do you know him?"

    There's also a less positive side of being English here. Being watched when you're out at the pub, to see how much you drink (and whatever the amount is, it's apparently fascinating). People asking if you're going to Spain for your holidays so you can get 'sunburnt, pissed, and laid' (as all English women do o_0).

    And there's the pressure to be constantly amusing, because of the great British sense of humour - fortunately that comes easy to me, as I am totally hilarious ;-)

    But Trish....if you don't wear your baseball cap, what do you do with it? *suspicious*

  7. Keep writing, Tricia! I think anyone who has moved to a different cultural setting can relate to this. I lived in New England for 26 years and have now been in Virginia for 12 years. I definitely don't identify myself as a Virginian, but when I'm in MA, I don't totally feel like a native, either. I remember Mom once saying that she never felt totally at home in Westborough, even though they lived there for about 25 years, and that was only about 40 minutes from West Roxbury! The question of "Where do you call home?" and identity is an interesting one.

  8. Ah, yes, the food thing. I do eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, yes.

    The baseball cap (Boston Red Sox, natch) hangs proudly on a coat rack and gathers good British dust. I wore it during my brief and spectacularly unsuccessful foray into the work softball league. Alas, being born in America did not endow me with the ability to connect ball to bat or glove.

  9. Hi Trish. Where are you from? Clearly you are from Twitter. I'm only half joking. My father's family are from County Sligo, my mother's from Denmark via Scotland, I grew up in the north east of England but most of my clients think otherwise because I lack the NE vowels/dialect; people will ascribe meaning to who you are based on their own limited and partial understanding of the world but who you are isn't where you've come from or the sound that comes out of your voice it's the community you inhabit, which means any national identity is always going to be a conflicted one, ameliorated by the variegated nature of any society. Your identity is narrower and wider than that, your community is in the cloud and this blog is another passport stamp in your journey though that expansive domain.

    At this point I wanted issue you with a formal twitter passport but google images is coming up short so have a twitter mug instead:


    ps Well done on the blog - I'm feeling less inclined to have a public voice at the moment but find it always admirable when people do open themselves up to the social world. If you want me I'll be in my cave.


  10. Hi Trish – very cool to have you in the blogosphere!

    We came to the UK (from Germany) a couple of years ago and know the calming effects of applying cultural stereotypes: We've been classified as Canadians, South Africans, Dutch & Americans so far (incl. the odd "oh you are not a proper German" comments. – What is that supposed to mean?).

    Anywhoo, my 50p on the issue: You don't need a passport to know who you are!

  11. Well I'm born and bred welsh...but never had the accent ( although it does come out if I'm pissed ) now living in south Africa for the past two months, working hard to keep the Englishness, half of them live it, the other half see it as permission to be racist to me.

  12. Yay Trish!

    I've always hoped you'd BE a writer. Start here and then move on to best-selling novels. I'm ready to read you!

  13. Living in Maine and being from Massachusetts is a little bit like this--I will never be a "Mainer." I will always be "from away." Or, to one who feels less inclined to be all folksy, a "Masshole."

  14. Haha! Yes, that's very true too. The further north in New England you go, the more "New England" it is.

  15. Aw, your first blog. It's always emotional *wipes away tear*. I can empathise as a Scot living in London. If I had a penny for every time I have been asked to say 'there's been a murder' I would have at least, oooh 20p. I also don't follow football but have had chapter and verse on how shit the Scottish football league is and how it could NEVER be integrated into the Premiership from men who seem to really care about that sort of thing(despite my repeated mumblings of 'I'm not really interested in football' throughout each tirade). I have never even seen never mind eaten a deep fried Mars bar but I do drink too much and swear with great aplomb.

  16. Hmm. Try being a born-and-bred Hungarian living in London and sporting an American accent. I've lost track of how many times I have been told that I am not, actually, Hungarian, because clearly I can't be. And anyway, I don't look like one. *ponders what a self-respecting Hungarian looks like*

  17. I don't know; they come over here, watch all our daytime TV...

  18. Welcome in!

    It's fairly bewildering how people expect to accurately sum up a group of 309 million people in a single stereotype. "Where are you from?" is an easy question, but depending on the phrasing I can see how it'd get a bit sticky for you from there onwards.

    Incidentally, I've been asked if I was American: