We take a break from road trips today with this guest post from Lawrence Hunt, a recent graduate of Warwick University (UK). Followers of The Displaced Nation may recall that we interviewed two cross-cultural married couples last summer. Hunt is the product of a cross-cultural union between an American mother and an English father. Let’s listen to what he has to say regarding the oft-perplexing matter of cultural identity. NOTE: This post has not been edited for British spelling or punctuation.
One of the things that expats like to tell themselves is that home is a state of mind.
But for me, the child of an English father and an American mother, home stands for a physical place: the one where I was born and grew up, England.
For years my mother has sipped her morning coffee from the same extravagantly large mug, Stars and Stripes boldly printed around the outside. She picked it up at an airport in Washington DC where we were visiting her sister. It’s curvaceous and welcoming, a daily caffeinated hit of homeland comfort. I’ve started drinking from it, too — but more as an ironic gesture.
Mum grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in class, but in ultra-PC Britain, patriotism has to be decidedly lower key. It seems commonplace to see flags hoisted outside American homes, but over here the very act of being seen with a St George’s flag in any context other than sporting events or royal weddings is infrequent enough to draw stares. People see you with it and instantly wonder what fanatical scheme for national purification you’re plotting behind closed doors.
Now, I don’t fault my mum for being proud of her cultural upbringing. I think in some ways her extended absence makes her all the more keen to assert her identity and share it with us.
She did some family history research recently that confirmed we’re the distant descendants of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic and longest surviving signatory of the Declaration of Independence. That’s my strongest claim to fame, and I’m holding onto it.
Chocolate — the way to an English child’s heart
That said, America has never played much of a role in our regular family rituals. For one thing, traditions like the Fourth of July and Labour Day just aren’t compatible with the British calendar.
I do remember Mum hosted a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner once with some other American expats when I was little. Without having the next day off to recuperate, however, everyone left early and I think she found the mountain of washing up too colossal to repeat the effort.
The one institution she has passed down to us (and this is something I cannot thank her enough for) was the American Easter basket hunt. The concept, as I explain it to my friends, is simple but ingenious – essentially, it’s what all kids in England do but with two key differences: 1) More chocolate, and 2) Baskets.
While other English kids were being handed single Cadbury creme eggs in flimsy cardboard boxes, my brothers and I were racing around the garden looking for mighty hoards of chocolate hidden among the shrubbery by a miraculously literate bunny that knew how to spell our names on post-it notes.
As American as everyone else in Britain?
Basket cases aside, it’s difficult to say exactly how ‘Americanized’ I am as a result of my mother, and how much of it is just living in a country where America’s influence pervades almost every cultural platform.
The most differentiating feature of mum’s background has always been her accent. I can do a pretty convincing American accent on a good day, and I used to mimic my mother so often when I was a child that I still lapse into it sometimes without realising.
But even my mother, having lived here for almost thirty years, isn’t really that American any more in her diction. I think the few Americanisms I sometimes find myself using, like ‘movie’ rather than ‘film’, or ‘take-out’ rather than ‘takeaway’, are more because I hear them in American movies and prefer them than because I’ve picked them up from her.
I certainly feel something for the States — a fondness and a familiarity, I suppose. I’ve been lucky enough to go with her on visits to her family almost every other year since I was a baby. Some of my favourite memories have come from spending summers at lake houses in North Carolina, climbing the mountains of West Virginia and walking down endless blocks of New York.
When I was seventeen I took a position teaching at a French camp in the woods in Minnesota, and made friends who I still keep in contact with.
America as distant entity
But America lives for me, as it does for many Brits, more in fiction than in reality. From the moment I read JD Salinger, I was hooked, and I’ve probably read more American writers than British ones: Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and Kerouac, right through to more recent contemporaries like Bret Easton Ellis, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen.
They all essentially seem to be commenting on the same thing: the tragic failure of American life to live up to its promises. Paradoxically though, in the richness of the characters and landscapes they describe, they evoke a utopia in my mind that’s been hard to shake.
In my final year at university I enrolled in a contemporary American Literature module — ‘States of Damage — US Writing and Culture in the Post 9/11 Context’. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It was a step-by-step dissection of everything wrong with free market America, from George Trow’s attack on media culture in ‘Within the Context of No Context’ to Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, an expose on America’s foreign policy over the past 40 years.
The critique seemed appallingly one-sided to me, and an hour a week for an entire year I felt compelled to fight America’s corner against the scathing intellects of my fellow students. Truth be told, I just like a good debate, and this was a difficult one. There’s a lot about American politics that we find objectionable in British culture — even though we’re implicated in most of the same hypocrisies ourselves.
To be fair, however, my fellow students showed a very different side on Obama’s inauguration night. The Students Union had been decked out in American flags and YESWECAN posters, and multitudes of students were queuing up to buy hotdogs and other American staples. I voted in that election, and it was a night when I felt nothing but pride to be half American.
My mum’s sweet land of liberty
I sometimes think it would be nice to use my dual citizenship and live on the other side of the Atlantic for a while, preferably near the coast. Mum believes that on the whole, Americans are more open, friendlier (at least on the outside) and more honest than British people. She’s even been known to point out these qualities in my brothers and me, when they appear, as our ‘American side’.
I’m sceptical that you can generalise about such vast groups of people in any meaningful way, especially as the world becomes increasingly mixed.
Ultimately, I think when you spend very little time in a place, and you miss it greatly, you begin to feel connected to a idealised version of it, one that’s perhaps better than the reality. When I ask about America, the memories my mother recalls from behind the vapours of her star-spangled mug are those of the pioneering Midwest. She tells me she always wanted to be one of the pioneers in Little House on the Prairie, struggling against the elements and striking out on her own.
That adventurousness is, ironically, probably part of what made her leave America for pastures new in the first place.
I can see the real things she’s had to give up in establishing her new life here — the family, the friends, the holiday traditions, a million different flavours and details that in some cases are only slightly different here from what she grew up with. Those are also the things I take for granted about my own life in Britain.
I was born here, and that counts for a great deal more than where my mother was born.
img: Lawrence Hunt with his mum’s stars-and-stripes mug, at home in Chorley Wood
STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, in which Matthew Cashmore, aka The London Biker, relays his personal “Zen” of this rather risky, albeit exhilarating, mode of travel.
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