Sunday, November 27, 2011

Being Different

Our friend The American Resident has a new gig as a columnist for the Expat Focus web site. She is currently talking about being the only American in the village, and it got us thinking….


The problem with being an American in Britain these days is that you can’t swing a bowler hat without hitting one.  We are pretty much everywhere.  And that’s just Americans; throw in residents from the sub-continent, various other former dominions and much of the former Soviet Union and you’ll find—especially in the cities and larger towns—that almost everyone appears to be from somewhere else.  (But that’s okay—take a trip to southern Spain and you’ll find towns filled with British expats.)

Being a foreigner does not hold the allure it used to, but if you’re going to be a foreigner here—in most cases—being an American is the way to go.  I’m not sure why, but my being from America is more remarked upon than, say, the young woman at the coffee shop being from Latvia, is.  Perhaps it’s because of our “special” relationship (I’m not taking the piss here, there really is a strong and unique bond between Yanks and Brits) or the fact that my being from somewhere else isn’t immediately obvious.  It generally takes a few minute of conversation before someone I am meeting for the first time will enquire as to where I am originally from.

So being an American, even in an area where I know there are other Americans lurking about, still sets me apart, and I like that.  For one, it’s about the only thing that does set me apart—side from being a colonial, I can’t claim many other interesting selling points.  Plus, it’s something I’m good at; I don’t really need to put a lot of thought into how to go about being a Yank, it sort of comes natural.

In fact, the only drawback of being special due to my national status is the fact that I am always special.  If I were there world’s foremost authority on dung beetles and their socio-economic role in Africa, I could just not mention (probably a wise move) it and there would be no sidetracking of the conversation, unless someone at the pub recognized me from Mastermind.  But when someone cottons on to my American accent, there is no hiding the fact, and I have to stop the discussion, do the “elevator pitch” version of my story, and then get back to the subject at hand, unless those present decide they’d rather talk about America.

So, on average, it’s good to be an American in Britain, even if you’re not the only one in the village.


On the other hand….I sometimes get a bit tired of being “You know….that British woman”. I wouldn’t say I’m the only Brit in Chicago, there are literally thousands of us, but I’m usually the only Brit in my circles.
I’ll admit, I can exaggerate my British-ness with the best of ‘em. A Margaret Thatcher-ish approach does wonders when I’m trying to return something or ask for something out of the ordinary and, as Stephen Fry pointed out a few years ago*, a British accent adds a certain gravitas and credibility on occasion. Heck, just being British has even resulted in a few TV appearances for me over the years.

But sometimes I just want to fit in and be anonymous. (God, listen to me, I sound like one of those diva celebs.) One of the great things about landing at Heathrow every summer is the fact that no one turns to look at me when I talk. I am just one of many and no one’s really interested in where I’m from. From time to time that’s just bliss!

*I shouldn't be saying this - high treason, really - but I sometimes wonder if Americans aren't fooled by our accent into detecting brilliance that may not really be there. (Stephen Fry)


  1. And then you repatriate and suddenly nobody wants to know where you're from or where you've been and you become an invisible immigrant, a stranger in what is supposed to be your own land. We expats are never happy! :)

  2. I found being a Dutch woman in America gave me an added advantage as the Dutch had a good reputation and I was considered exotic enough to be interesting (blond hair, blue eyes, the stereo type). Luckily, my English was very good, so I made a good conversationalist. I was always aware of my special status. Now, back in the Netherlands, I'm just one of the many other blond haired, blue eyed people and not so special anymore. It does hurt :o)

  3. I think it must be good to be in a country where you are totally accepted. The English & Americans seem to mingle very well so I can't see any problems, really.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  4. "I sometimes wonder if Americans aren't fooled by our accent into detecting brilliance that may not really be there. (Stephen Fry)" Yes, they do and that comes from ignorance (with all due respect.)

    Sometimes I want to pull out the violin and cry "boo-hoo!" for some of the whinging I read from expats. (Present company not accepted.) Try living in England with four TV stations, not many more radio stations, no internet, no 24hr convenience stores and other than McDonald's and Pizza Hut, zero American restaurants or stores. I was the only American in my social circle and expat groups were unheard of in the English countryside. (England, 1988 - 1991) Trust me, things could be a lot worse. I would trade places with you now in an instant!

  5. I must admit that the Internet has made things a lot easier, as well as cheaper phone calls. When I first came to the States in 1990 there was none of that so I relied heavily on good old-fashioned letters, which dwindled after a while.

  6. Maggie: Yes, the idea of standing out here because I am an American is a lot better than standing out as an American in, say, Beirut.


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