7 years ago today, I spent my last day in Los Angeles. Alone, I went to Venice Beach. I had lunch and walked along the boardwalk, reflecting on my 15 years there. I was born and lived the first 24 years of my life in Central New York, a very provincial region close to the Canadian border.
When I lived there, the area was largely inhabited by the descendants of Polish, Italian and Irish immigrants. The community celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, ate corned beef, lasagna and Golabki. The majority of my friends and co-workers were Catholic and Evangelical Christian and many of them hunted or fished for sport.
As I walked along the boardwalk, past all of the shops and performers, I became aware of just how much Southern California had changed me. Upon first arriving, in many ways, I felt like an immigrant. Despite being in the same nation, L.A. offered a far greater amount of diversity. Along with Irish and Italian traditions, I came to love the art, culture, music and cuisine of cultures I had heretofore not been exposed to. I experienced Chinese New Year, Dia de Muertos, ate Kimchi, sushi and mole pablano. I worked and hung out with Jews, Buddhists and Wiccans. There were very few hunters or fisherman but plenty of surfers and mountain bikers. It is one of her greatest assets that America is comprised of such diversity both culturally and geographically.
Yet, despite all being American, we are chronically obsessed with identifying our ancestry. Particularly on the East Coast, we often ask each other “What are you? Are you Irish, Italian, Latino or what?” I’ve never been certain of the purpose of this exercise other than to categorize people so that we might judge them based on our own pre-conceived notions of what it means to be a member of a particular group.
In 2011, I moved to London – ironically to get my Masters in Japanese Studies. In a few short months I will be applying for British citizenship. My new home has once again transformed me. Instead of basking in the sun, I take vitamins B12 and D to stave off the seemingly endless months of dreary weather. I can still get Japanese and Korean food, but instead of eating Mexican food (which I miss terribly), I eat Spanish tapas and Indian cuisine. I still go to great museums and probably enjoy an even greater degree of different types of music and art.
Living outside my homeland has changed my outlook as to what it means to be an immigrant, what it means to be American and most importantly, what it means to be human. Rather than being asked about my ethnicity, I am now seen by all British, regardless of their own ethnic heritage, as simply “American.” Because the UK has a long-standing tradition of judging people by the economic class they are born into, I am an enigma to many. Normally, it’s easy to judge a person’s education level based solely on how “posh” their accent is. With me, they hear only an American accent. What follows is usually a covert conversational operation peppered with questions designed to reveal my family’s socioeconomic and educational status.
I’ve never been certain of the purpose of this exercise other than to categorize people so that we might judge them based on our own pre-conceived notions of what it means to be a member of a particular group.
Interestingly, I have experienced this in my dealings with both the upper and lower classes, each deciding what kind of person I am based solely on what my parents did for a living and where I grew up. Both ends of the spectrum are equally guilty of their own forms of snobbery.
In the time that I have lived here, I have seen an increase in outward hostility and even violence towards immigrants. At the same time, I have watched in horror as the same dynamics play out in my home country. I don’t get it. Outside of Africa, there are very few humans on earth whose distant ancestors do not come from lands further afield.
As long as we have been to walk, people have sought out new places to explore (generally in search of new resources.) It is human nature to migrate and bring with them the art, music, language, cuisine and customs of their homelands. Thus, there is no such thing as “cultural purity.” Each only exists in relation to a moment in time. Over time, as different cultures come into contact with one another, each evolves into something new. As people move around, they make friends, fall in love and create new generations whose culture is built on everything that came before it. That pasta that Mrs. Vecchio used to make? It came from her grandmother in Italy. Going back many years further, we discover that pasta came from China in the 13thCentury. There are no absolutes ever. What we are left with instead, are commonalities.
Of the two countries I have called home, the common element seems to be the tendency to label and judge “the other” despite all we have in common. Whether the judgment is based on race, class or immigration status is irrelevant. We inevitably form ourselves into little groups and scream “intruder” at the first opportunity. Because this characteristic lies in direct conflict with our inclination to move around on earth in search of new horizons (and resources) the results are very often violence, oppression and war. Carl Jung would perhaps describe this dichotomy with the human psyche as a collectively unresolved “shadow-self.”
After seven years, I am now only a few months away from applying for permanent residence and then full citizenship. If both are accepted, I will be able to fully participate in many aspects of British society previously restricted from me, while still retaining all of my American rights. On paper, I will be both British andAmerican.
In the future, when people ask, “What are you?” or “What does your family do?” rather than indulge the shadow, I will answer simply, “Me? Oh, I’m human. Been that way forever.”
The 5th anniversary of my moving to London from Los Angeles has passed. Even now, people ask me to compare living in the US to living in Great Britain. A few things are superior over here, such as sensible gun laws, the NHS (although this is deteriorating), good public transportation, great beer and a simplified tax system. Actors and musicians are top notch and of course, there’s the rich history every Brit boasts of proudly. But after 5 years, I can say with absolutely no regret whatsoever that this place needs work in some very basic areas. The UK would be served well by moving into the 21st century in the following 10 ways:
Get some decent clothes dryers. Laundry takes 8-12 hours per week. I’m not kidding. In winter it’s longer. It’s tortuous, slow and everything has to be a.) hung up or left to b.) left spinning in a “water extractor” dryer for many hours at great cost to the electric bill. If it saves money and time, surely it’s worth drilling that small vent hole and installing a proper tumble dryer, right?
Put screens on the windows. The UK has flies, mosquitoes, wasps and the biggest house spiders I have ever seen. Seriously. The spiders are as big as a post-it note. Not to mention mice, rats and wandering cats (one of whom let himself in through my bathroom window repeatedly and turned out to be a real sweetie.) But not one window has a screen on it anywhere in the UK. The technology is not new. Having screens makes having the windows open during the 4 days of summer much more pleasurable and a lot less like camping out.
Make it illegal for companies to require women to wear high heels to work. To be fair, not all companies have this incredibly sexist policy, but many do. Parliament will be debating this issue following a petition that signed by over 150K people asking the Government to force companies to make their dress codes equitable.
Eliminate recruitment agencies. For those unfamiliar, these are companies who work for other companies looking to hire people. Their employees are mostly very young and work on commission, which they receive when they make a successful match. They take valuable resources from the hiring firms, who are either too stupid or too lazy or too cheap to build up their own internal HR and recruitment departments. They have no interest in matching the right people with the right company because they work on commission. They care about nothing other than their sales record and monthly bonus. They frequently block good people with experience from communicating directly with potential employers, ignore career changers or anything that their “keyword” software doesn’t flag. In general, they are a nasty bunch of self-serving kids with little respect for their clients. I am hopeful that businesses will soon realize what a waste of time and money these jokers are and stop using them.
Learn some damn manners (applicable in London only). Simple phrases include: Please, Thank You, Bless you (for sneezes), excuse me and I’m sorry. Cover your mouth when sneezing and/or coughing.
Improve your dentistry. You knew it was coming, right? Well, far be it from me to break a well-worn stereotype. The less said about brown teeth the better.
Get over your classism. Bono once said that the difference between America and the UK was that Americans look at a big house on a hill and say, “I aspire to have that.” In the UK they say, “I’m going to get that son of bitch.” Truer words were never spoken. Example: Just because a person eats at a gastropub and drinks craft beer does not mean they are “posh” or “stuck up.” It means they have better developed taste buds and yes, probably a bit more money. Is it a bad thing to work hard and spend your earnings on healthier, tastier victuals? For a large segment of the UK population, it is. Conversely, a person who wears a leather jacket is not necessarily a criminal waiting to rob you blind and every shopper with a backpack in a department store is not shoplifting.
Get some therapy. Alcoholism is rampant among all age groups and binge drinking is a huge problem among under 25’s. Recently, the London sewer water tested for high levels of cocaine. This, to me, is evidence that everyone is miserable and repressed. So society has set up “pub and club culture” as a way to self-medicate and allow for “social lubrication” (apparently it’s terrifying speaking to other human beings while sober) on a grand scale.
Legislate renters’ rights and real estate rules. Currently, any one can sell or rent a house in any condition to anyone else and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do to protect themselves. Agents have no governing body or required license and landlords are not required to keep up with maintenance.
Stop funding the Royal family. In an era of austerity when libraries are being closed by the dozens, stop wasting tax money paying for an already rich family’s palaces, cars and boats. It’s freaking ridiculous. They supposedly hold no political power, so why not let them survive on their own millions for a while?
Of course, none of these are likely to change any time soon, unfortunately. What they need is a good old American-style social revolution. But the Brits have a habit of losing revolutionary wars. Ooooh. What a burn!