Why I became American
February 26, 2015 • 5 minute read
America receives a great deal of judgment and criticism from all corners for its policies, politics, and more. But judging is just that, it does not mean understanding. If there’s one area where I can claim a modicum of expertise, it is in understanding America. In striving to do so, I have grown to love the country and call it home.
I moved from England to a small American town when I was 15. A big city girl who wore Doc Martin shoes and all-black clothing, thrown into the world of proms, cheerleaders and 15-year old drivers, my life resembled a Kevin Bacon movie without the dancing montage.
Being a teenager and not too fond of sticking out like a sore thumb, I made it my mission to become American. When I was 18 and at university, my family moved back to England. But I had fallen in love with this country, and as hard as it was to be far from my family, I wanted to stay. Why?
The recent merger of Infinite PR with UK based Spada has bought this question to my mind as I work with my new English colleagues.
Insofar as it is possible to describe America and my reasons for staying in a short blog post, I will try.
“In America you always get the sense that if you fail, you can just pack up your things and go somewhere else and try again. But in England, its so geographically small that if somebody succeeds here, it reduces your chances of succeeding.” – John Cleese.
Opportunity in America is taken for granted as a fact of life; it just is and (whether rightly or wrongly) nobody doubts its existence.
This feeling is less prevalent in Europe, for many reasons. In the novels by Charles Dickens, characters face impossible odds in their quest to better their social positions. Indeed, exploring social mobility in England (or the lack thereof) was an obsession of Victorian writers, and paralleled what was happening at the time – the county bled citizens who could no longer make their way at home. While the introduction of social programs relieved pressure, the insurmountability of the class system, coupled with land and resource constraints, was stamped into the collective British psyche.
While America experienced its own struggles and class warfare, here there has always been room to breathe. From the availability of land to the affordability of housing and basic essentials, life here is so much less expensive and therefore for many, easier. And belief in social mobility is absolute (again, rightly or wrongly). So while you do encounter grumpy US waiters and civil servants, etc., the sense of opportunity that pervades here keeps people afloat and generally speaking, optimistic.
“America is an outstandingly dangerous place. Consider this: every year in New Hampshire a dozen or more people are killed crashing their cars into moose. Now correct me if I am wrong, but this is not something that is likely to happen to you on the way home from Sainsbury’s.”– Bill Bryson, I’m A Stranger Here Myself.
Something I have always admired about Americans is their sense of adventure, desire to travel and a yearning to know other cultures. Perhaps it is because America is, comparatively speaking, without deep roots and people need roots.
In Europe, roots are everywhere – your home may be from the 1600s, your family is never more than a few hours away. America is so large and its population so mobile that Americans have to constantly plant and re-plant their own roots, build their own communities. This gives Americans an adaptability/amenability to new experiences and people.
‘Can Do’ Attitude
“Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.” – Jesse Jackson.
One of the criticisms leveled often against America is the failure of the country’s social conscience (welfare, etc.) But the converse of this is that the individual conscience is more powerful here than anywhere else on earth. You tell an American something needs to be done and by God, they get it done.
This attitude not only drives entrepreneurship and economic growth, it also drives social welfare. Studies show that the US is the most advanced country in philanthropy and the average number of hours given for volunteering, adding up to $175 billion worth of services, an important benefit to society as a whole for which no one has to pay.
“Even after 18 years, I never really knew where I stood with the English. Why did they keep apologizing? (Were they truly sorry?) Why were they so unenthusiastic about enthusiasm? … Why did rain surprise them?” – Sarah Lyall, The Anglo Files.
As a student of English literature I tend to get unreasonably excited about literary devices, double-entrendres and what have you. Nevertheless, I have long appreciated the simplicity with which Americans tackle writing and communicating.
Conversation here is not as much of a swordplay as in England – less laced with innuendo and double meanings. Not that I haven’t known my share of Americans with oodles of wit and sarcasm. But Americans tend to take you at your word, I think out of a genuine desire to connect. Because while the mental gymnastics of reading between the lines keeps one on one’s toes, perhaps sometimes it can get in the way of what’s most important.
America has felt like my home for many years, yet it still took me a long time to get my citizenship. Despite that fact that I am raising a family in this country, there are times when I still feel English and a bit out of place.
But it helps that in the North Carolina community where we live there are all sorts of transplants just like us. Germans, South Africans, people from New York, Colorado, people who were raised in the mountains or at the beach, all who, for various reasons, have ended up in Raleigh – and this is a microcosm of America as a whole.
This is a country of misfits who are always striving for ways to feel at home. It is this journey that makes Americans so, well… American. And while this journey is not always easy, I couldn’t imagine my life any other way.