Around a year ago, an old college friend came to Bristol to visit while they were spending a year studying at Oxford.
In the 7+ years since I’ve moved to the UK, this is the fourth friend, not including family, from the US that has seen my life in the UK and two of those four were visiting during my wedding, so they didn’t really get an accurate picture of what my life would become.
This is not meant to be a complaint. It’s a simple fact that it costs a lot to fly out to the UK and while I do live close to London, it’s far enough away where travelling to Bristol from London would require a significant portion of a typical vacation.
As my friend from college has already traveled extensively and been living in the UK for about 4 months, she had adjusted somewhat to life in the UK and the concept of living in a new culture wasn’t a total shock. With this in mind, I didn’t feel the need to show her ‘the English things’ or explain a lot of the overarching differences between the US and the UK.
Because of this, I thought she might understand my life here more than most, simply from living in the UK for more than a few weeks and knowing me prior to my move to the UK
This started turning the wheels in my head.
There was a point early on in my time living in the UK where I felt a stark divide between my life in the UK and my life prior to moving from the US.
As I thought more and more about the end of my time in the US and the start of my time in the UK, I emphasized how my location and how it relates to my identity.
Would I have had these thoughts on identity if took a job on the West Coast and moved to California after college instead of moving across the Atlantic Ocean?
How much does location and cultural difference between you and your surroundings play into a sense of identity, or lack there of?
It’s the question I struggle with and revisit often.
Perhaps, the disconnect is as simple and superficial as having no frame of reference for anything culturally prior to 2008 and, to some extent, my connection to anything after this date is tenuous at best.
The longer I live here, the closer connected and assimilated to the culture I become, but I also grow farther and father apart from it. I’ll return to this contradiction in a second.
When you immerse yourself into a new culture, you learn and understand that culture’s idiosyncratic nuances, but I feel like you can’t really adopt them.
For example, Brits love curry and I’m not a huge fan of Indian food.
I don’t hate it. I don’t even dislike it. In fact, I spent the summer of 2007 living in India, coincidentally my college friend was also there, and my college roommate’s Indian parents always sent him back to our dorm with a treasure trove of Indian treats. It just never crosses my mind to seek it out.
The point is that I understand this cultural aspect of British life and I can partake in eating curried whatever, but it is a ritual that is separate to me.
Sometimes I miss my US friends, but the main thing is that I miss the ability to connect with people that knew me, or understand the culture I experienced, prior to 2008 and, at the same time understand the culture I’ve been experiencing since then.
This is paradoxical and the only person who can really understand this is me.
‘Know thy self’
When my friend was visiting, we talked a lot about the UK and US from the perspective of us as Americans, one of whom who has lived in the UK for 7 years and the other for about 6 months.
In some ways, I felt really bad the amount we talked about my perception of this reality and identity because it felt like I released a valve in my head and this poor friend who came to hang out with me for a couple of days was fielding me essentially saying, ‘Please tell me that I’m not going crazy!’
The two most interesting realizations that came of our discussion were when I pointed out the double standard of how negatively she felt when her Chilean fiance vented about annoyances with living in the US, but how they are united in say things about the UK.
I also came to understand a lot about myself during the years between when I first came back from the UK in 2008 and when I moved back to marry my wife in 2010.
In my last year of college, and the year or so after, my anger, especially towards the university, stemmed from the fact that I missed a life I had created for myself in the UK. It was very difficult and rewarding to create that life from scratch, which is why it felt to painful to leave it, even if only temporarily.
Many months later, when I started writing this, I came to the conclusion that this cultural divide I constantly think about exists primarily in my mind, a remnant of the chips on my shoulders from college.
In this instance, it’s a mistake to categorize and breakdown a life as a ‘before and after’ and for me it was with my move to the UK.
By reducing it down to such a binary distinction I had to discount one set of experiences to think about the others; thus resulting in my feeling of incompleteness.
Since realizing this, the gap I felt between myself and….myself has mended in some ways and by looking at my existence between the UK and the US as more of a fluid relationship I am able to use the paradox of the expanding and contracting transatlantic dots as a way to understand which elements of cultural experience and surroundings are most important to who we are.