December 14th, 2005

me: ooh!

On being an expatriate.

I've been in London for more than a year, and I think it's finally sinking in for me that even if I spend twenty more here, I'll always be an outsider. I'm beginning to understand why some long-term UK residents originally from the States learn to fake English accents.

At my teacher's request, I arranged for my Tai Chi class to have our end-of-term dinner at my favorite Jamaican restaurant in London. I booked the table and paid the deposit, for which I was later refunded. I'm the only American in the class. Why do I mention this last little fact? Because throughout the dinner, a number of scathing remarks about Americans, the American government and American culture were made, not directly to me, but around me. "That's very American" was used as an epithet. Again, not to me, about something else: the additional service charge on the bill, which was 15% rather than the usual 12%. The English are famous for taking the piss with deadpan faces, especially out of the unwitting, naïve, sincere Americans. After fourteen months here, I think I can usually tell the difference between those occasions and the times when they really mean it. To varying degrees – perhaps the comment about the bill wasn't the best example of a completely serious comment – these people meant what they were saying.

I'm not really an Anglophile. I enjoy living in London, but living here was never an ultimate design of mine and I don't gush over every facet of the city I find intriguing. I find Americans who take their anglophilia to the point where they think English culture is superior to theirs as repellent as the English people who think themselves superior to all Americans. I consider myself a patriot, although a quiet one. I'm not a flag-waver and I don't consider myself a nationalist. I consider occasionally (or in my case, frequently) disagreeing with the actions taken by the federal government and the positions of the majority of the population to be a necessary part of patriotism.

I don't favor glib answers to difficult questions, but the second I open my mouth, my accent marks me as a biased advocate of the American point of view. I can engage individuals in discussions and perhaps, with time, convince them that my country is not completely populated with egregious idiots, but not everyone at once. I know that none of the vitriol is directed at me personally. In fact, it's as if they've forgotten I'm there, or at least that I'm American. In a way I suppose this is an unconscious compliment. And yet it hurts to think that if I speak up to refute an assumption, no matter what I say, I will look like an overzealous, defensive ass. In the face of superior numbers and adversity, what can I do except listen, smile, and ask if anyone would like more rum?


I had my first experience with the NHS today. I guess I'd already had one, because you must interview with a nurse or GP when you sign up to use the system. This was my first experience actually using their services for a medical examination, though. It's every woman's favorite: the smear test.

She had to take down my history. This included the mention of the termination, which I normally find discomfiting. She looked me searchingly in the eyes while I told her the facts (17 years old, 11 weeks pregnant) and then she asked "And are there any outstanding issues? Nothing affecting your mental health?"

"Not…any…more?" I stammered.

"Good, I'm glad to hear that," she asserted, nodding and smiling.

"No one's ever asked me that before," I added, when the shock subsided.

She looked faintly horrified. We moved on to the next set of questions regarding whether or not sex was fun and comfortable for me. She was glad to hear my answers to those questions as well. She pointed at the plain bed on which my hoo-ha inspection was to take place and I'll do you all the favor of drawing the curtain on the actual examination.

Of course, afterwards she went off on a rant about the evils of privatized medicine, using as an example the way American gynecologists fleece their patients by having them do smear tests yearly or biannually when once every three years is considered sufficient for those with no history of abnormal smears.

Still, I'll take empathy and openness about sex and abortion over a fancy table with stirrups any day of the week, thanks.


On my way back from the inspection, I was kerb-crawled by a man in a white Mercedes.

"Hey gorgeous, where you going?" he asked.

It was all I could do not to answer, "Home, to wash all the gunk off my cootch."