Having lived in America for 7 months now, I have a totally new, and – bear with me – almost life-changing outlook on life. Like my ancestors before me, a wandering desert tribe of Jews, moving fluidly from Eastern Europe to the East End of London (my Dad’s side), and from Germany to South Africa to South England (my Mum’s side), I am a true immigrant. I have taken that metaphorical and literal leap across the pond, settling into a new country and making a new life for myself, Graham and Pepe.
So what does it mean to be an immigrant in America today? A female, English immigrant?
Mid-Trump and post-Brexit, most of the Americans I have met here share a common sympathy about the way the political tides undulate. I am not shamed to admit that I used to be in a politi-coma, that I was apathetic, uninspired and bored by wider social, political and economic issues. But not today.
As soon as I open my mouth here, there are looks of interest and surprise – a different accent! An ENGLISH accent! Cool. I am on the right side of history right now. My skin is the right colour. I am English. And yet, I’m still a stranger in a strange land. Identity is a peculiar thing; it takes a while to ‘belong’ anywhere.
One of the weirdest things for me here is that it’s not unusual or forbidden to reference the fact that you’re Jewish or Irish or Italian. Everyone in New York and New Jersey has a heritage that they’re staunchly proud of. I’ve had strangers talking to me about Ireland, assuming that with the proximity to England that I somehow am closer to Irish history and culture (I’m not). One of the most empowering things that I’ve experienced here is that I’m no longer afraid to tell people I’m Jewish. Because yes, I was afraid before. Not for fear of anti-Semitism, but because frankly, it was just easier not to mention points of difference. Here, Hannukah is celebrated almost on a par with Christmas. Back home, it’s just unheard of.
People are friendlier and prouder. You can get someone’s life story in a nail salon. Everyone is fascinated that I moved from England to New Jersey (“Why?”, they say). The truth is, that the grass is always greener. England seems so rich with history and culture compared with America’s moderately recent landscape and narrative. But for me, ‘the American Dream’ surpasses all I had back home: the land, the space, the accessibility of everything on your doorstep. Need a shop specifically dedicated to vitamins or parties or Christmas trees or even Botox? You’ll find twenty in New Jersey. It’s open. It’s all embracing. The Statue of Liberty has been welcoming immigrants for over 100 years in all their beautiful, colourful diversity.
People come to the East Coast and they don’t want to leave.
Geographically, it makes perfect sense that, in general, Americans are less well-travelled than Brits. You have everything you need right here. Americans holiday in America because of its diverse landscape and because they don’t want to leave. Brits holiday elsewhere because of the weather and because they want to get away. In the UK, you can get everywhere – not necessarily more easily (a 12-hour flight is still a 12-hour flight wherever you go) – but you feel like you’re at an epi-centre, a midpoint, a small island from which you can easily escape.
And then there’s the language. There must a million words and phrases that I check myself first before switching. This must be what it’s like to learn a new language. I pronounce the ‘t’ in my name and nobody understands me, and so I’ve started softening my consonants. I now know how to talk to fit in. This is immersion. This is integration.
I feel passionate about change here. I said I would throw myself into each and every new opportunity available to me, and so far I have. I’m going to be blogging about these and more, while of course offering up my standard lifestyle reviews of restaurants, films, books etc.
While I don’t feel 100% settled yet, I am really starting to feel like I belong. Thank you so much to our adopted ‘family’ out here – our amazing friends (old and new) really are all we have in the absence of blood relatives.
Being an English girl in America is a new start for me (and who ever really gets to say that?) so I’m going to finish with one of my new favourite quotes that’s been circling around my head for a while now: START.
“Start now. Start where you are. Start with fear. Start with pain. Start with doubt. Start with hands shaking. Start with voice trembling but start. Start and don’t stop. Start where you are, with what you have. Just start.”