Monthly Archives: June 2013

On being British and American

Big Ben

I have no idea how old Big Ben is, only that it’s very old.

In only a handful of years I will have lived longer in the UK than I did in the United States, where I was born. It has created something of a split personality disorder.

I’m always thinking of the place where I’m not. When I’m in the UK, I think wistfully of California, the sunshine and the endless summers.  But when I am in California for long stretches – the longest being a whole year – I tend to reflect on what I’ve left behind in London, my home for the last 17 and a half years.

When I think about my cultural identity, it’s hard to feel like I’m one thing or another. I am torn about who I am. In the UK I feel singled out as American for very obvious reasons such as my accent. But in the United States, it’s pretty obvious I’ve spent a substantial amount of time somewhere else. Being in England for so long has rubbed off in some imprecise way.

But how British am I truly? I have a British passport and I am a citizen of this country, but this is nothing more than the government’s recognition of how long I’ve lived here. It doesn’t make me feel any more English.

Thom Brooks, another American living in the UK, recently complained about the government’s citizenship test, introduced several years ago for immigrants who would like to become British citizens. He argued that it was like a ‘bad pub quiz’ with irrelevant questions about the age of Big Ben and when the country’s first curry house was established.

I didn’t have to take this test back when I got my passport. All I had to do was fill in some paperwork, sign some forms and give the government some money. Then there was a bizarre ceremony in Islington, a borough of London, with its mayor. The only thing I can remember about her speech to us was that there were lots of restaurants in the area, an indication of its diversity. With that over, the officials played ‘God Save the Queen’ on a tape player and we all filed out for a tea party with cucumber sandwiches.

The other day I decided to take a sample citizenship test, which has supposedly been revamped this year to focus more on history and achievements than on random trivia questions.

I’m not sure how representative the questions are of the entire test, but I scored ten out of ten. At the end of the online quiz I was told I was ‘terrifically British’.

Frankly, the questions were ridiculously easy and multiple choice. Had they not been, I don’t think I would have done as well.

The first question was this: Which landmark is a prehistoric monument which still stands in the English county of Wiltshire? The possible answers were Stonehenge, Hadrian’s Wall, Offa’s Dyke and Fountains Abbey. Given that I’d never even heard of the latter two, I eliminated them right off the bat, a tactic I learned in high school. I decided that Stonehenge might be in Wiltshire (although I can’t identify Wiltshire on a map). Turns out I was right.

The next question asked about some admiral or other. Since the only admiral I can name is Nelson, I went for that one – and I got it right.

At the end of this I felt no more British. I undoubtedly know more trivia about England than the average American. I can tell you the average temperature in February and what time of year it’s likely you won’t need to pack a jacket for a visit (the answer is never). But passing a citizenship test (you need a 75% or above) doesn’t guarantee that you will feel part of the country you are joining.

I think citizenship tests are pretty pointless. The only thing it really measures is someone’s preparation or educational background. Nothing else. Ten years after I became British in the government’s eyes, I still feel like a bit of an outsider. Ironically, I now feel that way when I go to the United States too, so I seem to exist in some kind of limbo.

I wonder sometimes how many other immigrants feel the same.


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Betrayed by a six-year-old


The happy traitor

My six-year-old may not be able to tell you that 3 x 9 is 27, but her ability to grasp complex social interaction is pretty astonishing. Let’s say this: she can read me like an open book.

She recently had a day off school, and I decided that was reason enough for us to go shopping. My pretext whenever I go shopping these days is that I’m doing it for the kids. It’s a good excuse until I find myself ignoring the kiddie section and spending twice as long in the women’s clothes.

When I told the Chatterbox of the plan, she looked at me sceptically: ‘What would Daddy say about going shopping? I don’t think he’d like it.’

I’m taken aback by her powers of reasoning. She’s clearly grasped some essential truth about our marriage and also subtly hit upon the eternal power struggle between men and women.

At this point I am facing a quintessential parenting dilemma. Do I tell her that it’s true that Daddy might not like our afternoon activity, but that I’ll later fess up to it like a responsible adult and be accountable for my actions? Or do I make her complicit in my actions and basically ask her to lie?

I choose the latter. With a sly smile I say: ‘Well, we don’t have to tell him.’

With this tiny little sentence I know I have violated some sacred law in the Parenting Handbook. While this book doesn’t really exist, I think every parent carries a copy around in their head somewhere and refers to it sporadically.

Of course I’m betrayed a few hours later when the English Husband gets home. The actions of Judas, who betrayed Jesus with a single kiss, don’t look so bad when compared to the manipulations of a six-year-old.

‘Daddy, guess what we did today?’ the Chatterbox teases gleefully. She doesn’t even wait for him to guess before adding: ‘We went shopping!’

I’m pretty sure she knows she’s landed me in trouble, but she seems inordinately happy with herself. If this is what she can do now, imagine the teenage years… I fear no bribery will be enough.

One day, I realize, the Chatterbox will exploit the insightful knowledge of her mother and use it against me. That day hasn’t yet come, but I sense it’s fast approaching.

She already calls me grumpy when I ask her to clean up her room and mocks me when I get stern. I feel childish that I let these things get to me, but, dammit, they do. Which is why I resort to self-medication (i.e. a glass of wine) in the evenings after a long day.

More worryingly, she has learned things about me that I didn’t think she could possibly know. The other day she was walking through the park with the English Husband and spotted a sign in the park that said alcohol was not allowed. (Her reading, unlike her math, has come on in leaps and bounds.)

She turned to the English Husband and said innocently, ‘Mommy wouldn’t like that.’ (She was, of course, referring to the ‘no alcohol’ rule.)

Perhaps I should take that as a cue that I need to drink less wine.


Filed under motherhood

An accidental life

Accidental Tourist

A book about negotiating your way through life. It’s not so much about a man than it is about humanity.

When you first become a mother, it’s pretty easy to forget about yourself. This baby comes into the world and suddenly the focus is no longer on you.

I can no longer remember what used to preoccupy my thoughts in my twenties. Once you have children, it’s almost impossible to recall the life you used to lead. All I know is that I must have had a lot more time on my hands and better clothes.

By September, both my children will be at school, and I can feel the pendulum swinging a bit more towards me again. And suddenly I find myself thinking a lot about my career, that crucial money-making thing which has pretty much stalled since having my first child.

I’ve come out of the baby years feeling like I have given up a huge part of myself. I knew having kids would entail a lot of sacrifice. I’ve even heard it said that it kills your ambition. But until you experience it yourself, it’s very hard to know what kind of impact it will have on your life.

It’s no exaggeration to say that it feels like my career has pretty much ossified. I’ve put a lot of my energy somewhere else and it has taken a toll on whatever ambitions I had for my professional life.

Before I had the Chatterbox I was already thinking of moving on from my job and doing something new; I was relatively young and anything still seemed possible. Seven years later I am still doing the same job. It has also gone from being a full-time contract to something I only do on a freelance basis. Technically, I am making less money than I was seven years ago and I have no benefits or stability.

If I’m looking for an excuse for my failure to find something else, plenty abound. I made less money than my husband, so I was the one to go part time. The job gave me flexibility, which I knew I wouldn’t find somewhere else.

I hear it from other mothers too. They were working, but gave up and now can’t find any part-time work to fit around their children. They were in high-powered positions, but could no longer do the hours. They were no longer interested in their jobs and couldn’t justify the time away from their child. The childcare costs were prohibitive and didn’t seem worth the sacrifice.

But then you have people like Sheryl Sandberg, who just published Lean In. The COO Facebook has not only managed to combine motherhood with a high-flying, lucrative career, but she has also miraculously found the time to write a book about women and leadership. I’ve no idea how she does it.

Maybe if I read the book I’d have a clue about what it takes to live like Sheryl and emulate her success. But I suspect I’d never have the motivation to be like Sheryl. She probably gets up at 4am and checks her emails before she goes to sleep; she undoubtedly can afford the very best childcare, with nannies who make meals, pick up the kids from school and bathe them.

I’d rather take my inspiration from The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. While this might sound like a weird choice, it’s not. I completely related to the protagonist, Macon Leary, who robotically coasted through life, making the minimal amount of effort and refusing to adapt his curious, but deeply engrained, habits.

But then his life slowly starts to unravel and he is forced to re-evaluate the path he has chosen. At the end of the novel he begins to wonder if it’s too late to start again: ‘He reflected that he had not taken steps very often in his life, come to think of it. Really never. His marriage, his two jobs … all seemed to have simply befallen him. He couldn’t think of a major act he had managed of his accord. Was it too late now to begin? Was there any way he could learn to do things differently?’

So that’s what I have to ask myself – Is it too late to start again, to make the effort to forge my own path and not let things just happen, to feel accidental? Because I’ve often felt that I didn’t so much make my own destiny but let it just happen to me. I became complacent, a bystander in my own life.

Motherhood is an excuse for a stalled career, but for how long? Maybe I should spend less time making excuses for myself and more time seeking solutions. I hold myself back, more than anyone else holds me back.

I’d highly recommend The Accidental Tourist if you haven’t read it already. I know it was written many years ago, but there’s something of Macon in all of us.

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