Finding a Real Home

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Oh, do I love the Welsh mountains in the sunshine. Standing at my front door and looking out at them is one of the most centering things I do on a regular basis. On a day like today, when the mountaintops look nearly golden in the sunshine, I can breathe out and just feel all the stress whooshing out of me.

I love Wales. And I liked Leeds, where Patrick and I lived for my first seven years in the UK. But after six and a half years of living in Wales, I have a really hard time imagining life without those mountains in my neighborhood anymore.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, for a variety of reasons.

I grew up with my family’s stories of immigration, because, like most Americans, almost all the different branches of my family immigrated within the past 250 years. (And many of them arrived in the 20th century, so their stories were vivid and fresh in our family memory.) My immigrant ancestors came to America either fleeing bad things or just looking for something better. All of them had to make hard choices and leave important things and people behind. I’m so grateful that they got to do that.

I’m also grateful that I didn’t have to make my move out of desperation or fear. I moved for love, after I first met Patrick (thinking, “Well, I’ll stay long enough to get a degree and then we’ll see what happens next”), and then we jointly decided to stay in the UK for a whole variety of reasons, all of them positive. That doesn’t mean they didn’t involve hard choices or sacrifice, though. It’s hard to be an immigrant, even when you do it in the smoothest and easiest way possible.

And it can be really hard to really, properly feel at home.

Whenever I meet new people in the country where I live, whether we meet at a toddler playgroup or in an office, the first thing about me that they notice is invariably my accent. I very rarely get bad reactions because of it (although I have gotten a few), but it’s still never a comfortable sensation for me. Human beings like to fit in, on the whole, unless we’re doing something on purpose to try to catch other people’s attention. Every summer when we come back to the UK after our annual visit to America, I find it a painful adjustment to suddenly NOT fit in vocally anymore – to be considered unusual just because of the way I speak. It makes me feel like an outsider in the place that I consider to be home.

I’ve lived in the UK for almost 14 years now – nearly all of my adult life. But I’m still seen as an American by a lot of people here. And of course I am! I’m a dual citizen, and I’m proud to be American, just like I’m proud to be British, too. I got my British citizenship in 2008, and it’s real and official and came with a big ceremony…but I’ve still gotten weird looks from some people when they found out that my first book won an award for Best Début Children’s Novel by a British Author, or that I won a bursary from Literature Wales a few years ago, as a British author who lives in Wales.

Because obviously I’m not really British, with that American accent…am I?

Ouch.

And of course I don’t live in America, so when people talk in America about American writers…well, I’m not really one of them either, right? And here’s the equally-painful truth: when I visit America nowadays, after living in the UK for so long, I feel pretty out of place there, on a cultural level. There are social attitudes and facts of life that my friends and my family take for granted…and that I would, too, if I’d lived there for the past 14 years…but as it is, I don’t.

And that feels like being an outsider, too.

Being an immigrant – even when you’re the privileged kind we call an ex-pat – can feel like living in a limbo world where you don’t quite fit in anywhere. Even when I’m working on my books, I run into this problem. My vocab at this point is so muddled that when I work on the British editions of my books, we have to edit out the Americanisms, and when I work on the US editions, we have to edit out the Anglicisms. It’s a deeply unsettling feeling, in general.

And right now, there is so much anti-immigrant sentiment being bandied around in both of my two countries, it makes me feel physically ill when I read it in the papers or hear it from people on the street.

Here’s the thing: none of that anti-immigrant sentiment is being aimed at me. When I wrote to my local MP to express my horror at the new UK laws that won’t let anyone immigrate to the UK from outside the EU unless they make at least £35,000 a year – a ridiculously high salary, one that most natural-born British citizens will never make! – he wrote back and told me, using these exact words: “I have no problem with Americans” – but he insisted that the new laws were still necessary because of those OTHERS, the awful ones who threaten “our culture” and make it necessary to make all immigration harder, to keep THEM out.

He might have been shocked to know how little relief or reassurance I felt, as an American immigrant reading his email.

But guess what? I might be a white American, the kind of immigrant he likes, but my family heritage is Eastern European and Jewish, too. In other words, my family members have been considered to be among those evil OTHERS by powerful people in the UK and the US more than once in the last century. And watching the international reaction to Syrian refugees right now – listening to so many people who want to shut out those desperate people based on their ethnicity and their religion – watching that as someone of Eastern European Jewish descent…! Well, it’s hard to even express just how horrifying and scary the whole thing feels.

And reading recent political quotes not just from Donald Trump but from various other politicians whipping up anti-immigrant frenzy for their own purposes…

I am an incredibly privileged immigrant. I’m white, I’m middle-class, I’m an American who has dual citizenship. You can’t even guess at any of my non-Anglo background by looking at me, with my light brown hair and blue eyes.

But I think that makes it even more important for me to speak out for the immigrants who aren’t as lucky when it comes to being accepted and fitting in.

My great-grandmother spoke Croatian and German, but she never did become fluent in English. Guess what? She was still a real American, just like her kids. And I’m still a real Brit, just like my kids…just as all three of us are real Americans, too.

…Just as all those “scary” immigrants can be real Brits and Americans, too, if they’re only allowed the chance. And one day, one of their descendants could be writing the next iteration of this essay, defending the next series of “scary” new immigrants.

So if you want to talk about how awful immigrants are, and how we should shut them out to “protect our culture”? Well, you’re talking about me, too, whether you think you are or not. We’re all worthwhile, important people who can contribute valuable things to any country that we live in.

And we all deserve to have a real home.

4 comments

  1. Powerfully said, Steph! You’re so right: we with privilege have a special responsibility to talk about power, equity and the prejudice inherent in our cultures.

    Also, I find myself wondering just how many useless and minute quibbles your MP is willing to make re: the people he “ha[s] no problem with”.

  2. Thank you for this post! I just read Kat, Incorrigible and wanted to find out more about the author (I loved the book btw!). While I haven’t made it to the UK yet, I love hearing about Americans who have moved there. I look forward to reading more of your blog 🙂

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