I am British now.
That is to say there was a point very recently where I wasn’t British at all.
Last year I went through the process of ‘Naturalisation’, which is a passive aggressive way of saying, ‘You want to be British?! Oh, we’ll make you British alright, but first fill out these forms… and these forms… these, too… and give us a large sum of money! Oh yeah, and now say that you love the UK to this picture of the Queen!’
Note: Most of that actually happens… more or less.
I don’t feel any different. I don’t get any more excited about the Queen than I did before. My body failed to start producing an affinity toward clotted cream, but that might have more to do with the fact that I’m lactose intolerant.
Regardless, I am now 100% Imported British Beef.
I thought about this when I was reading Bill Bryson’s most recent adventures around Britain in his book, ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’. In the introduction, he discusses his strife trying to navigate the incredibly frustrating and bureaucratic world of immigrating to the UK.
He mentions the odd questions the ‘Life in the UK’ test, a passing score is required from all potential Brits, and the condition that all test centers are in, which is normally dingy, spare and with the faint smell of mold.
‘Oh Bill. You got them there HA!HA!’ I thought. I read on and as always I enjoyed reading another expat’s take on a country they found, in equal parts, amazing and baffling.
Flash forward a few months to a strange happening…
It was over my Saturday morning coffee and porridge, with cinnamon AND maple syrup (because I like to let my hair down on Saturdays) that I turned the NYTimes Book Review podcast on and I heard a strange voice…
It was British and it was American. The oscillation of the voice between long vowels, dropped ‘R’s and proper pronunciation to sharp and excited mid-western tones reflected the speaker’s unconscious existence in the middle of the Atlantic.
I turned the programme off as fast as possible and read the description, ‘Bill Bryson discusses his latest book and the 20 years since the publication of ‘Notes from a Small Island’.’
It was as if the hand of a spectre reached through my Jambox and grabbed me and wailed, ‘These words will be yours one day!’
There are very few things as jarring as hearing the sound of your own voice.
No! I don’t sound like that!
The reversal of voyeur to subject evokes this same response in all of us and on this day, no I did not sound like Bill Bryson, but all I could think was, ‘No! I won’t sound like that!’
And I might not. There are plenty of expatriates that move from one location to the next and retain their accent and colloquialisms.
My wife’s aunt and uncle who have lived in Seattle for over 40 years are a case both for the assimilation to the local accent and remaining separate from it. Both from villages on the border of England and Wales, her aunt sounds as if she has never left the island, while her husband has often been mistaken for an American both in the US and in the UK.
When I do visit my family and friends in the US, I’m hyper conscious of my voice and how I phrase things.
The up-speak at the end of a phrase which Brits use as a subtle cue to signify a question was the first assimilation I used in order to communicate with my wife when we first started dating.
When I asked her out for the first time, which was to a screening of the first ‘Iron Man’, it was met with a slightly blank stare because, I like to think, it wasn’t phrased properly.
I’m not sure what predisposes someone to lose or keep their accent, but I wonder what will happen to me over the years while I reside in the UK. At the same time, I wonder if my wife’s Queen’s English accent will slightly change if we were ever to move back to the land of my birth.
I don’t know why I found the accent of Mr Bryson so unsettling. That’s not to say his voice isn’t nice to listen to. If he ever finds this little corner of the internet, I’d like him to know that he has a very nice voice.
For me, it feels like I am always struggling between trying to create and maintain my own identity in the UK and retain the one I had previously developed for myself in the US.
Does the way I sound have an effect on any of this? Before I heard Bill Bryson I had no idea how he sounded and in my head he had a hearty Midwestern accent and a deep laugh that I imagined bellowing out every time he found another thing from Yorkshire amusing, because there are a lot of amusing things about Yorkshire.
Maybe the concern I feel with identity and home and roots comes from the fact that I spent 20 years living in the US before I first stepped foot on British soil and at the present moment have lived on said soil for around seven. In reality, I was probably conscious of the concept of ‘living in America’ for about eleven or twelve, thirteen at the most. Prior to that, my greater-picture thinking about my place on this planet was dwarfed by my concern with playing ice hockey and the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
At 28, I am now approaching a point in my life where I will have existed in the UK as a functioning member of society, or some semblance of that, for almost as long as I haven’t.
Does this make me more of a British citizen, than an American one? Is my voice box compensating for the fact that I only reside in the US of A for a few weeks a year?
My worries with losing my voice open the flood gates to a great concern over my right to enjoy and consume American culture.
Do I have the same right to artisan doughnuts and Bud’ Heavy as someone living in Brooklyn or Ohio? Will people hear me and think ‘Imposter!’ only to return to the UK, where I also call home, amd be thought of as a fraud and a thief of all things Anglo….
To Be Continued.