A few months ago, M. told me, “You’re looking very”—and here you have to imagine a short pause— “American today.”
When I stopped laughing, I asked what American looked like, and you can insert another, somewhat longer pause before you go on, because he had to think about it. Or else he was looking for a gentle way to say it.
“You walk as if the sun always shines on you and you own the world,” he said. Not unkindly, I should add, although from someone else it might have sounded like a complaint.
The sun wasn’t shining on me that day. I’ll skip the details, because they’ll take me off in a whole ‘nother direction, but I’d been shaken by some bad news a few hours earlier, and I was still feeling it.
What does it mean to be so American that I look like I own the world, even (or particularly) when I’m don’t feel that way? Well, what does it mean to belong to any nationality?
The question’s been rattling around in my head lately, at least in part because of the anti-immigrant sentiment that seeps into so much of British politics these days. And into American politics, while we’re at it. You could probably drop any other more or less solvent nation into that sentence, because trouble drives people to immigrate, and the world’s a troubled place these days.
Part of the anti-immigrant feeling is about jobs: If immigrants come over here (wherever here is), they’ll work for less and wages will drop. There’s some logic to this, although what’s really undermining wages is that jobs, and whole industries, have moved overseas, where wages are ruinously cheaper. On top of that, unions don’t have the clout they once did (those two aren’t unrelated), and they were a major force driving wages up.
But another, more emotional, strand of complaint is that immigrants don’t blend in. Basically, the problem with immigrants is that we’re foreigners, and couldn’t we please stop that? Stop talking our languages in public. Stop eating funny foods. Stop dressing differently. Stop running around with different-color skin. Stop cheering for foreign sports teams or holding to foreign religions or using all those alphabets that no decent person knows how to read. I mean, who knows what we’re writing in them?
But once you grow up in a culture, you don’t get to leave it behind—not entirely, even if you want to. No matter how much you work at blending into another one, you carry some part of the original. I walk, apparently, like an American, and I know I sound like one. I even eat like one. The American way of eating involves juggling the fork from the left hand, where we hold it if we need to cut something with knife and fork, to the right hand, which we use to bring the food to the mouth. The British way leaves the fork where it started, in the left hand. This is great, because it lets you use the knife to push food onto your fork—and it’s perfectly good manners when you do. That solves a problem built into the American approach: How do you get the last bits of non-spearable food onto the fork without sneaking a finger onto the plate and hoping no one’s looking? Although it doesn’t solve another problem, which is how to keep the food on your fork, because the British hold the damned thing with the back—the hump—facing up, so that you can’t use the fork’s valley to cradle your food. I haven’t a clue why they do this, but it may explain why mashed potatoes are so popular: you can use them as mortar to hold the rest of your food on your fork.
So I’m a partial fan of the British method, and periodically I try to eat that way—usually with the curved part of the fork facing up, but never mind, I’m compromising here and I want some credit, damn it. All you anti-immigrant campaigners, are you listening? I’m making an effort.
What happens, though? The minute my mind wanders—and it doesn’t take long—my fork’s magically moved itself back to my right hand and I’m eating like an American again. And the sun shines on me.
At this point, while the sun’s shining on me alone, I have to interrupt myself, because I read this post to my writers group and they told me that holding the fork with the hump facing up is posh, presumably because it makes you eat more slowly. Holding it valley-side up is working class. Who’d have thunk? I swear, you have to be born here to figure this stuff out. On the evidence of that alone, though, I ask you: Who should be running the country?
Because of my (sometimes absurd) efforts to publicize both my book and this blog, I’ve written a lot of bios lately (I will post just about anywhere, about almost anything, as long as I get a bio and a link), and I keep describing myself as an American living in Cornwall. That reflects the reality of who I am culturally, but it ignores the fact that I’m a British citizen as well as an American one.
For me, becoming a British citizen was about security, not love or allegiance or culture. I do love the country, but I’m not romantic about citizenship. I wanted to be a citizen because it’s harder to get rid of a citizen than a resident alien. Since the U.K. government had already changed the rules once before Wild Thing and I got the right to stay in the country for the long term,and since we just about got kicked out of the country because of it, we were touchy on the subject. It may be crass, but we wanted the safety that comes with citizenship. We’re grateful for it, but it hasn’t, and can’t, change who we are.
So when I hear someone say that the problem with immigrants is that we don’t acculturate, I can only suggest moving abroad and seeing what happens.
A final note: Before my writers group before we fell down the conversational rabbit hole of what it means to have a constitution that isn’t a written document, I learned something else about forks and nationality: More and more of the British are acting like Americans and shuffling their forks from hand to hand as they eat.
And we’re not even the immigrant group anyone’s upset about.
If you want to blame someone, you can blame movies or television, because there aren’t enough Americans here to have that big an impact.
How do foreigners change a culture? Sometimes it’s from a distance.