My British rebirth

April 5, 2017

I was reborn last week on the other side of the Atlantic.

 

I've traveled before, even to London, but I have never lived outside of America. And I have moved before, even across the country, but never this far and this suddenly. I feel almost as though the yesterdays only go back to this past Wednesday, when I stepped off the plane – short on sleep, unclear on the hour – and found this new world a blooming, buzzing confusion demanding to be understood. If I were a bit younger, we would call this experience a birth.

 

Despite claims to the contrary, the U.K. is a deeply similar country to the U.S. We share a language and culture; we share a tradition of individualist values and enlightenment principles; and both of us take a rather pragmatic approach to life. I feel very welcome here – more even than I did in America – perhaps because this country chose me as much as I chose it.

 

Yet, the superficial differences matter a lot. When I cross the street, I fervently glance back and forth in both directions because I am never confident I can predict the direction of the traffic correctly. When I speak, I am torn between using my foreign American words ("guy" as an informal general term for a male person) versus inauthentic British ones ("chap"), pronounced inevitably in my uncouth Wisconsin accent. When I write an email, do I use the British convention ("Tuesday 4th") or the American one ("Tuesday the 4th")? Is an undenominated weight in pounds or kilograms – and how can I check? – and is 16º C warm enough that I don't need a coat? Never since I was a child has it been such a struggle to do such simple, everyday things.

 

I love America, or at least what it stands for, but I have always felt like something of a stranger there. Perhaps this is why I have so much empathy for immigrants: Not only do I like them, but I've long felt like one. A gay, nerdy oddball in the rural midwest; a country boy in Chicago; a (relatively) poor kid at Yale. Every person is unique and uniqueness is alienating; everyone must experience this to a greater or lesser extent. But I think I am more the odd duck than most. While no doubt I will continue to experience this here in the U.K., it is freeing to have a fresh start in a place with so much shared culture yet so little shared experience.  In such a place, the price of being an oddball goes down.

 

It's a classic dialectic. I feel constantly unsure of what I am doing. Yet in some ways I feel more at home here in London than in my own country. It's difficult to understand, and I suppose this is why so much has been written about authenticity and identity and alienation and all that. What I do know is this: I'll be truly a Briton once I can call a guy, without hesitation, a "chap."

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University of Bath School of Management

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© 2018 by Sam Johnson