The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

“My country, ’tis of thee” applies to my expat mum but not to me

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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14 responses to ““My country, ’tis of thee” applies to my expat mum but not to me

  1. Spectrummy Mummy September 23, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    Great post! As an expat, I have to agree that I cling onto an idealized version of my home country that perhaps isn’t quite the truth any more. And yes, I definitely adopted the Easter egg hunt tradition for my kids. Most other holidays are a mix of our two cultures, and we like to add something from each of the countries we’ve lived too. I’ll be interested to see which ones the kids will eventually discard or take on as their own traditions.

  2. Spinster September 23, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Nice. 🙂

  3. Kaley September 23, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    I really enjoyed your post. I expect to have bicultural kids, and it will be interesting how they see the homeland in which we don’t live.

  4. Kate Allison September 24, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    Hi Lawrence – great post, and thanks so much for doing this. The part that stood out most, for me, was “when you spend very little time in a place…you begin to feel connected to an idealised version of it.” How right you are. Having lived in the US for 15 years, I still miss England, but I miss thatched cottages and cream teas – not the reality of riots and so on. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed April’s royal wedding far more than I expected I would – it’s part of that idealised world, an anachronism.

  5. ML Awanohara September 24, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    Lawrence — I’m biased as I know you and your mum so well and also worked with you on this post. But I’d like to thank you once more for writing something so honest. I think you’ve shown us how hard it is for parents to transmit two cultures. And maybe it’s easier for kids if they don’t try to?

    I also have one follow-up question. Having lived in Britain for a long time myself, I tend to think that Brits have a “love-hate” relationship with the U.S. I sense some of that in your description of your fellow students at Warwick — they can’t wait to eviscerate America’s claims to greatness, while embracing Barack Obama because he embodies the hopeful spirit at the heart of the American experiment with democracy. (Where else but the U.S. could a candidate like him make a bid for the highest office?)

    Do you think that’s a fair assessment? And if so, how are Brits feeling about President Obama at this point? As they are as disillusioned with him as many Americans say they are? Genuinely curious…

  6. Lawrence September 25, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Hi all, and thanks for your kind comments — it was a pleasure to write, though I emphasize that I can’t speak for all ex-pat offspring! Quite an existential discussion, this identity stuff.

    ML — I wasn’t sure whether you wanted me to get into politics (and I’m no expert either) but I think attitudes in the UK, and particularly with young people, are still that Obama is a man with solid ideals whose vision for welfare reform has been horribly undermined by the demands of the economy and that malicious bunch of right wing demagogues (though possibly I’m just bitter they’ve named themselves after a riot against the British).

    It’s bizarre to us that America’s politicians are squabbling over minute raises in income tax needed to save the nation from bankruptcy when taxes over here are up to triple yours (and that’s with the traditionally right wing party in power). But then, we’ve had a much stronger welfare culture for a long time.

    I think we accept that Obama was never going to be able to carry out his agenda. I wrote a poem about him when he was inaugurated, which I’ll share with you: (the bits in capitals are supposed to be performed with a movie trailer voice)

    IN A WORLD WHERE DARKNESS AND TERROR REIGN SUPREME
    Every night, every waking minute of the day you see him pinned to the screen
    Mass-printed onto our eyelids with the caption ‘America’s New Dream’
    And that delicious dose of debonair that still makes young girls scream

    A HERO WILL RISE – And we see him like something from a comic book
    THE DARK KNIGHT – And we know everything we need to from just a single look
    He’s so cute, I bet he can do anything!
    Did you hear that speech? It reminded me of that bit from Return of the King!

    He’s just ONE MAN WITH ONE DESIRE
    A liberal with views we can all admire
    His voice makes you shiver like an angelic choir
    His economic plan has more action than Man on Fire

    A Messiah – he’ll stop everything that’s made our world so dire
    Guantanamo Bay, the KKK, all the plagues on the USA that they’ve suddenly decided aren’t ok
    Stop the polar ice caps melting without even getting his fingers wet
    Magically bring peace to the Middle East and demolish the nuclear threat
    ONE ULTIMATE WEAPON: INTERNATIONAL DIALOGUE.

    You can taste the excitement:
    I hear he’s decided cut prejudice 40% by next week!
    I hear he beat the crap out of the Russian President by turning the other cheek!

    ONE DESIRE – He’s the answer to 200 years of American Dreamin’
    A Black president with more smooth talk than Morgan Freeman
    Don’t doubt it or you’ll just be a cynic
    Positive thinking is what we need, you’ve got to be in it to win it
    Surely we can’t do all of this with just ONE MAN? – Oh wait, my mistake, YES WE CAN!
    COMING 2009

    • ML Awanohara September 25, 2011 at 4:09 pm

      @Lawrence

      LOL

      Now you see why I think you are The Displaced Nation’s answer to Alastair Cooke. Why don’t you send us a Letter from England every month, and pretty soon we’ll have the world’s troubles sorted. At the very least, we’ll have a good wheeze at everyone else’s expense.🙂

  7. Lawrence September 25, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    I’d also add that as long as Sarah Palin is kept out of the White House, we’ll pretty much accept anyone in there.

  8. linda@adventuresinexpatland.com September 26, 2011 at 2:22 am

    Lawrence, this was an incredibly well written, eloquent piece that captures a host of feelings about your and your mother’s cultural identities. Such insight! It’s all so more complicated that any of us imagine (even for those of us who know the complexities involved). As an American expat living in Europe, I’m intrigued on a daily basis as to how people perceive other cultures/nationalities, and the reasons. Yet for all the negativities that people may spew, their actions often bely a different take. The same holds true for me as well. Identity goes deeper than one supposes, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your take on it. Well done!

  9. Saigonstay September 27, 2011 at 5:25 am

    Like this for many reasons, but especially it gives very nice point of view. Thanks for sharing such interesting cultural experiences.

  10. expatlogue September 28, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    A hugely insightful and informative piece Lawrence, I enjoyed reading it. It’s true, absence from ones homeland does result in an idealised view of it and a greater effort to cling to ones perceived cultural identity. At the same time, a lot of countries have a love/hate relationship with America – many seek to emulate but are quick to excoriate. It’s like the most popular child in class, whose friend everyone would secretly like to be, but whom everyone delights in seeing brought down a peg or two. A psychologist would have a field day!

  11. Lawrence September 29, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    Thanks again! One thing that I didn’t touch that heavily upon was the way that bicultural people with a second language to learn become a lot more passionate about their heritage, because it provides them with something concrete, something which differentiates them from other people and also guides their learning and immersion in the culture. I was talking about this with my half French friend the other day, and we came to the conclusion that she is a lot more ‘French’ than I am ‘American’ because of the time she’s spent learning her father’s language.

  12. Katie October 8, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Very interesting. I also have a US mother and a UK father and live in the UK but I see it quite differently! It just shows that we can’t generalise, I guess.
    My mom (never my mum!) was very aggressive in making sure that we had an “American upbringing”, though – perhaps that’s where the difference lies.
    I’d be interested to learn if your siblings felt differently. My brother was always the more American of the two of us, though I’d actually lived there, but as we get older we seem to be switching.
    Do you forever find that you’re always learning that something you always thought was English actually turns out to be American? Maw-fia instead of Mah-fia, Sy-multaneous instead of Sim-ultaneous.

  13. Lawrence October 9, 2011 at 6:26 am

    Hey Katie – so what exactly did she do to make sure your upbringing was “American”? When I contrast my upbringing with my cousin’s (she lives in Maryland) I find that the values pressed upon us were very similar. In fact, I think growing up American seems to have more to do with the products, tv shows, politics and also a certain hard-to-pin-down American ‘demeanour’ that you’re surrounded by if you live there – things that aren’t impossible to export and pass down to your kids in another country, but aren’t easy to either.
    I think my brothers are in the same boat as me – they love the visits, and there are certain tangible privileges, like going to the US embassy to get our American passports, that mark us out from our friends… but in our lifestyles and mannerisms we’re very much the product of our immediate surroundings.

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