Friday, May 7, 2010

Living In Not America: Episode 1

I've been an immigrant for over ten years now, long enough that it can be hard to remember details of my former life. After ten years, a lot of the details I do remember just aren't relevant anymore. After all, that was back in the 20th century!

I can't say that I have any great pearls of wisdom to pass along to new immigrants. I can't see this ever turning into Living Abroad For Dummies, but I do like the sound of my own voice, and this is a subject I know. I imagine I'll be coming back to this from time to time with another peek into the life of an alien.

Today, I'll start with the big picture: identity. When I moved overseas, I became the American. Everything else, personality, taste, appearance, that all took a back seat. I wasn't the clever one, the funny one, the one with glasses. My single, defining feature became my nationality.

That was a bit of a Twilight Zone moment for me. On the left-hand side of the Atlantic, “American” is one of those big tent words, so inclusive that it becomes meaningless. As often as not, when people over there talk about Americans, they mean Everyone. Don't believe me? Try this one some time. The next time you hear a senator talking about “Americans”, try substituting “everyone.” Or better still, “people.”

“Americans don't want a tax hike.” “Americans love their iPhones.” “Americans want better health care.”

Completely meaningless. Empty fluff.

When I moved, American became an identifiable group, a group that does not currently surround me. American is no longer inclusive. American is Other. I am Other.  The word suddenly took on a meaning, a real meaning, and I was completely unprepared. It blew my mind. If I'm being honest, it still does.

So now, ten years in, I'm the American. As people have gotten to know me, I've gained a few adjectives along the way. I get to be the clever one again, or the funny one, or the devastatingly handsome one (eh, it was worth a shot), but those tags will always trail behind. First and foremost, I'll always be the American one.