I have introduced myself to people as half-English and half-American ever since I was old enough to respond to the question, “where are you from?”. It is almost always the first thing I say when asked to tell somebody about myself. I never reflected too deeply on what being half-English and half-American actually meant. It has just been the simplest, shortest way of alluding to certain personal circumstances, like having an American father and an English mother; as well as experiences, like moving between England and the States growing up, that have contributed to who I am.
Since leaving the US at the age of thirteen around a decade ago, my permanent home has been in the UK, with a couple of exchange programs abroad as a student. Since I left the States I have returned to visit only once, in the spring of 2014. It was not a conscious decision not to visit more often, or not to move back when I was old enough to decide for myself. Life just worked out that way. When I was a teenager, my parents were not strongly motivated to fly us kids back and forth to see our state-side relatives – with money certainly being one factor. I might have chosen to return to the States for university, but a quick look at the tuition fees at an average US state college, compared to the fees I would pay in the UK, changed my mind very quickly – I couldn’t afford college in the US. By the time I finished my Bachelor’s in the UK, it just made sense to look for my first job in London, where employers would understand my educational background, and where I could be near my immediate family.
Despite all this time in the UK, and my lack of strongly-maintained social ties to the US, I continued to call myself half-English and half-American. Not everybody has agreed with that definition. An acquaintance (who was neither English nor American) once smirked and said, “yes, but you’re not really American.” Thankfully, most people I speak to aren’t so presumptuous. Many are curious, though, and I am often asked whether I feel like I am “more English” or “more American”.
It is true that I didn’t experience high school or college in the US. I haven’t been to keg parties, Cancun spring breaks and I haven’t tailgated at football games. My Midwestern accent has slowly softened into an indistinguishable one which has flatteringly been called “mid-Atlantic” by one friend and by another (less flattering) friend as “Lloyd Grossman-esque”. I don’t make a huge effort with American holidays. I haven’t registered to vote in either of the last two presidential elections, and there are certain political debates in the States which alienate me.
All of these things are true, but I still consider myself to be an American as well as being English. England may currently feel more like ‘home’ as a result of spending most of my teens here, and because my immediate family is still here, and yet: I vividly remember my American childhood, my father is an American, and half of my family and heritage are American. I am proud of America’s founding principles and the values of the people I grew up around. Any children that I bear will have a right to American citizenship. At any point I could move back to the States, spend the rest of my life there, and I’m sure within a few years the US would feel more like ‘home’ than the UK. My extended time away hasn’t changed or diminished any of those things.
So, am I more or less American or English – and where does the dial rest? For most of my life, this wasn’t a question I felt I needed to answer for myself (as for the acquaintances or friends who asked, I would just reel off one of many non-committal stock answers to move the conversation along). I was content, I suppose, to define myself using this ‘half-and-half’ label for the rest of my life. It’s true that it doesn’t really reveal much, but does anyone ever manage to adequately describe who they are and where they are from, during small talk, interviews or introductions, on any more than a superficial basis?
It was with this relaxed belief that I was free to define myself any way I chose, that I began to discover in 2013-14 certain realities about my US citizenship which have fundamentally changed my carefree attitude towards my national identity and citizenship(s). Where pondering what “half-English, half-American” means would have once been nothing other than an exercise in navel-gazing, it is now something I regrettably must do.
By explaining how I happened to be born a dual citizen, and settled outside of the US due to family decisions during my childhood, I have presented one example of a typical expat – typical in the sense that I live outside of the US because life just worked out that way. I don’t recognize the typical media characterization of overseas citizens as wealthy elites who have made their money and left the country just to avoid paying back into the system. It doesn’t describe me, my family, or any other American I know or have met in Europe or elsewhere. Yet, that is regrettably the brush with which the media and US politicians tar the entire population of seven million-plus citizens residing overseas on a regular basis.
In my next post, I describe how I came to discover why my US citizenship carried significant burdens and risks for someone living overseas long-term.