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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