My American friends ask whether I’ve started to feel English after twenty-two years of living in London.

Not a bit, I tell them.

I love London, I love living in England, I’m proud to own a British passport, but I couldn’t feel English even if I wanted to — it’s not allowed, any more than pretending to be French after living 22 years in France would be allowed. In France, you’d be considered as inexcusably foreign as the day you arrived. It’s pretty much the same in London.

This is not due to a lack of acceptance. No one in London ever asks when I’m moving back to America — it’s merely a case of Us and Them.

The funny thing about America is that everyone is Them. With the exception of Native Americans, everyone is a more or less recent (historically speaking) immigrant.  My family came to America from Eastern Europe about 130 years ago to escape pogroms against the Jews — and the Ashkenazy Jewish identity persists through the generations. So, I’m an American who’s lived in Europe for two decades with roots in Lithuania and Latvia. Wherever I go, I’m Them.

There’s a great poster advertising something or other in London at the moment.  It says “You are not stuck in traffic.  You are traffic.”

Same goes for immigration.  We’re all Them.

The only difference is how long each of us has been pretending to be Us.

 

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15 thoughts on “We are them.

  1. Hannah 5 years ago

    I’m English, living in America, and my (American) husband’s grandfather was an Armenian refugee who fled here after the massacre – a fact that my father-in-law seems to have completely, and conveniently, forgotten when it comes to his right-wing rants about immigrants / asylum seekers etc etc (I’m somehow excluded from his idea of what an immigrant is)… every now and again I like to gently remind him that he’s the son of a refugee.

    1. Meg Rosoff 5 years ago

      Well, exactly. Where would any of us be if our ancestors hadn’t been welcomed?

  2. bookwitch 5 years ago

    At least you don’t have the language issue. People assume that not only does citizenship rub off automatically, but you sort of just soak up the new language, which of course you are using 24/7, because you have now become a Them. How my children were supposed to have become so fluent in my language if I spoke to them at all times in the other language is something I’ve still not grasped.

    1. Meg Rosoff 5 years ago

      And if you fail to promote fluency in both languages, you’re definitely assumed to have failed. (Unless of course it’s one of those slightly second-rate third world language, in which case it doesn’t really count.)

  3. Kate 5 years ago

    Now, I’m English – by upbringing and at last by passport; American by birth; Italian by heritage. And that’s just one side. As a result, I’ve never been really able to understand people with almost tribal allegiances to one place. And where I went to school, almost everyone picked up the phone to call their mothers and spoke another language. I thought this was normal till I left home!
    I was talking to my children’s (Sicilian) hairdresser just today about this – he was born here but still regards himself as Sicilian so we speculated how many generations it takes to change how you see yourself. His theory was whether you spoke the language; mine was that it came down to what language you cooked in. (I cook Italian via my English mother who lived in NY … )
    Oh, and while we were out we picked up some holiday reading. A shiny new book in Waterstones called ‘There is no dog …’ August 4th has come early!

  4. Kirsten Baron 5 years ago

    Interesting. I’ve lived in England for 27 years now, raised two children with the above-mentioned obligatory bilingualism which they gleefully abandoned in their teens, and I still don’t have a British passport (I’d love one, but it costs too much to apply – and as an EU citizen I don’t need it). But I feel Mostly English. Most days. Some people still notice that I have a foreign accent, but hardly ever manage to place it, others just assume I’m one of them. Or one of us? You’ve got me confused now.

    Oh, and my copy of ‘There Is No Dog’ arrived today!!! Have read the first few chapters & loving them: might you be channeling a bit of the spirit of Douglas Adams?

    1. Meg Rosoff 5 years ago

      Where did you come from, Kirsten? And yes, a bit of Douglas Adams channelling, although not consciously. I adored Hitchhiker’s Guide back in about 1982 (would that be right?) when I lived in NYC and it came on the radio at about 11pm. It reminded me of London and made me terribly homesick…..for the place that wasn’t, of course, my home.

    2. Kirsten Baron 5 years ago

      Germany, unfortunately. I don’t go there much these days.

      I’ve always been homesick for England, even before I moved here.

  5. bookwitch 5 years ago

    Kirsten I had have just paid £86 for a piece of paper from the Home Office to ‘prove’ I have not gone and become British, purely so I could renew my passport. Swedish police demand this ‘proof’. And they have now told me I need to renew the ‘proof’ every five years, for every passport, and If I’m to avoid expired passports I will most likely have to renew every four years to be on the safe side.
    I’m thinking of talking to ‘my’ MP about discrimination.

    1. katherine langrish 5 years ago

      Fantastic post, Meg – as an ex-ex-pat in both France and the US, I agree totally. Identity (percieved and self-percieved) is a weird and fluid thing.

  6. Antony John 5 years ago

    As an English guy who has called the USA home for 17 years (and who still has a strong British accent), I’m somewhat bemused at how I’m given a free pass when folks around me discuss immigrants’ role in the decline of America. I can only assume that England is somehow less foreign than other countries.

  7. Meg Rosoff 5 years ago

    Skin: white. Language: English.

  8. Kirsten Baron 5 years ago

    Antony, you’re a foreigner, not an immigrant… Funny little difference.

  9. sophia 5 years ago

    My family is English, Scottish and Irish for as far back as I know. But twice in my life I’ve lived in Hong Kong and, outside the main district, I was often the only white face in a crowd. I’ve always felt it should be part of our education. It’s good to be Them. It helps make you who you are.

  10. nicola baird 5 years ago

    Rather late reply, but as a British person (possibly English) I get England. But here in Solomon Islands – a place I know well and have lived for two years (years ago) and speak one of the languages fluently – I find every minute I’m in the country I understand less about what is going on. And boy is it going on – jealousies, domestic violence, black magic, cultural expectations, weather, plus all the happy stuff of being with friends and family. It’s reverse knowledge acquisition and, frankly, rather unsettling never knowing enough to become a Them.

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