A Briton In Exile

tale of exile by iguana mente

I've always felt ambivalent about living in the U.S. Why on earth would a non-American leftist choose to live in the "Great Satan?" If you're born American that's unfortunate and you have little choice, but to come of your own volition seems perverse. It wasn't as if I could claim to be fleeing desperate economic conditions or political repression (at least not in the Third World sense). I came just because I had nothing better to do, so I feel unworthy of the term "immigrant."

It happened six years ago when a woman I'd met in Europe the previous summer and corresponded with suggested I come live with her in New York. i jumped at the chance, not only because I was infatuated with her, but because it sounded like an exciting and irresponsibly impulsive thing to do. I gave little thought to how long I would stay, consumed by the idea that for the first time I had a chance to do something larger than life. This was a new frontier--New York, the quintessential urban experience, and beyond that the vast expanse of America. I read Kerouac's On the Road as preparation.

It was with little regret that I gave up my Brighten bedsit with burns in the carpet and gaps in the window sashes through which the wind whistled, and my place among the ranks of the unemployed. Leaving family and friends was harder. In return I shared my American girlfriend's small one bedroom apartment in a dilapidated building that perpetually smelled of garbage and took a menial clerical job in an office where they were prepared to overlook my lack of working papers. Thatcher's Britain for Reagan's America. It was at best a sideways move.

My first sense of unease with my adopted country came in 1986 with the centennial celebrations of the Statue of Liberty which occurred shortly after my arrival. While the few Americans I knew --friends of my girlfriend--saw it as noth- ing more than good clean fun, I couldn't help but view it as an orgy of Nationalism, militarism, and self-congratulatory back-slapping--the like of which hadn't been seen since the Nuremburg rallies. Since I had yet to develop my own circle of friends, I didn't realize I was not alone with these opinions. I was unaware of the alternative "celebrations" and protests that were taking place. While my girlfriend shared some of my distaste, she thought I was taking things too far and being an incorrigible party-pooper. I was a minority of one. Had I come to America just to participate in a jingofest!

Feeling as I did, I was at a loss when asked - and I was asked frequently - the inevitable question, "So how do you like America!" I liked it, sure I did. Didn't I! After all, broke as I was, I could still afford the airfare back to England. If I was straight with myself, I would say that it was without doubt an interesting experience, but I couldn't in all honesty say I really liked it. I liked Americans and things American, but it was a long time before I felt comfortable with confessing to liking America, before its good points (more subtle than its bad ones) became known to me, and, more importantly, before I realized that my forrdness for and appreciation of it could be on my own terms: extremely qualified and very equivocal.

Whatever my initial reservations, it was exciting. For the first few months even my job--ferreting around in filing cabinets and repetitive data entry--seemed exotic. My coworkers had strange accents and an exuberance you scarcely find in England. While my new life in the New World was in many ways similar to my old life in the old one, the props were decidedly different. My senses were reawakened and I felt compelled to carry a notebook in which I would scribble my observations. Going to the store, riding the subway, walking down the street, everything was an adventure.

The fly in the ointment was, of course, money, or the lack of it. I had arrived with only $200 and the job barely paid the rent. My girlfriend was a student and worked in a bar at night. The solution to our economic woes seemed to be a green card, opening up (what seemed from the outside looking in) a world of opportunity thus far denied me. To this end we were married on the back lawn of a rather bemused-looking justice of the peace somewhere in upstate New York. An old school friend who was with us played chauffeur and drove us to Niagara Falls for the "honeymoon."

I felt total indifference to Marriage. naively failed to see why it should change things. It was a practical solution to a logistical problem. It was "real" in the sense that we had every intention of continuing to live together (till difference, if not death, do us part), but "arranged" in the sense that marriage would--at the ages of 22 and 24-never have crossed our minds had the green card not been an issue.

In the end, the labels of "husband" and "wife," and the changed expectations of others, who now saw us as a "responsible married couple" rather than happy-go-lucky single people, contributed to its demise two years later. By that time I'd built some kind of self-perpetuating life in the U.S. I also met my present partner, Frances (another American), so despite plans to return to England I remained in New York another two years.

In the spring of 1990, Fran and I left New York to travel throughout Central and South America. This was to be the final act of my American odyssey, after which we would "retire" to a more sedate and simple way of life in semi-rural England. We returned ten months later to New York enriched by the experience, but not knowing where to go or what to do next. The plausibility of a return to the old world quickly evaporated. When it came time to return I got cold feet. I realized it was not England I missed, but the idea of England. A combination of being away too long and watching too much Masterpiece Theatre, I'd created a myth of England that it could never live up to in reality.

Every year I would go to England sometimes for a month, usually just for a eek. I always had a great time and was sad to leave. But I knew that were I to move back, the euphoria could never be sustained. It's one thing to visit for a week and spend it drinking with old friends, another entirely to live there and have to worry about the mundanities of everyday life, like getting a job, a place to live, etc. In the end we decided against England--or at least deferred it for the time being--and came to San Francisco instead. Another new life, reassuringly like the old one with a similar cast of characters, but sufficiently different to feel challenging.

I used to feel that I had two lives, one in England, one in the States. The first could never be taken away from me--my birth-right, if you like. The second existed as long as I lived in America. At first I was anxious not to lose touch with England, to keep this first life very much alive. I read the Guardian Weekly, wrote to friends regularly, even listened to the BBC World Service. But in the last two years I've let things slip. England seems more and more like a distant memory, a foreign country to me. I have only a vague idea of what's going on there and have become painfully aware that I cannot expect the same level of intimacy from friends who, once an integral part of my life, I now see only once a year, and from whom I am a world apart. Parallel lives cannot be sustained indefinitely, ultimately I have to choose between one and the other.

I can always go back, there'll always be enough to build on. But were I to go back, I don't think I'd feel like that option were reversed. By staying here, not only do I preserve the idea of England which I have become so attached to and avoid the inevitable shattering of illusions, but I also keep my options open. Today America is no longer a travel adventure, just everyday life, the "general drama of pain." I am as assimilated as I'II ever be, speak fluent American and though I retain an accent, people rarely ask me any more how I like America, since I no longer look like a tourist. What keeps me here is what keeps anyone anywhere: inertia, the idea that it's harder to leave, for whatever reasons, than to stay. When I visit England I still call it "home," but I have come to terms with the fact that this is probably more out of nostalgia than anything else.

--Iguana Mente