When I chose to serve in the Peace Corps, I had no fears or doubts about meeting Ukrainians, but I had plenty about meeting Americans. I spent the first 18 years of my life in New Jersey suburbs, I worked in local politics, I suffered through Thanksgivings, I occasionally stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. I have a passport emblazoned with an eagle holding arrows and olive branches, proclaiming proudly: e pluribus unum, out of many one. My ancestors have been in America so long that when people ask for my ethnicity, I have to uncomfortably shrug and identify as “white American” – the most generic, a-cultural, and obfuscating term, obscuring inevitable ancestors with more melanin. If I have a few drinks, I magically acquire a Jersey accent, tawking about dawgs swimming in the wudder.
But when I’m sober, I can often sound more like Jane Austen, smoothing vowels, ending questions with slightly ironic down-tones, even occasionally dropping “haitches.” I haven’t lived in the United States since I was 18. I did my full undergraduate and postgraduate education at Durham University. In the UK, everyone knows Durham: a poor post-mining county with a posh and ancient university in a castle. In America, conversations go like this: “I went to school in England, in Durham. No it’s not in London. It’s five hours from London. The closest major city is Newcastle. Newcastle, like coal mining? No, not Wales. It’s close to Scotland, by Edinburgh. Edinburgh. Eeden-burg.”
Americans can ask me: What was it like? How was it different? I haven’t the faintest idea how to answer. It was like moving to the moon.
Americans can say to me: My uncle’s from Manchester. I studied abroad in London for a semester. The accent is so hot! And I know they’re being characteristically American: friendly, open, attempting to connect and converse. And I’m too neurotically aware of the dynamic, and I retreat into being more British than I am, saying, Yes well, I see, well you know, oh how interesting. I laugh self-deprecatingly and don’t make eye contact, scanning the room for a socially acceptable exit.
They used to call people like me “Trans-Atlantic,” back when American elites educated young women at boarding schools in Sussex and Kent. The hint of an accent was an affectation, a point of pride, and a class marker: “I’m not an American Redneck; I recite Wordsworth and have the inflection of Queen Victoria.” And Americans still often associate England with aristocracy, Kate Middleton, Downton Abbey, Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Every time I hear a bit of Britishness in my voice I cringe and expect the Americans near me to loathe me for my pretension.
I carry around a complex formed by navigating contrasts. What’s polite, interesting, or cool in America is crass or bizarre in Durham. What’s polite, interesting, or cool in England is socially awkward or strange in New Jersey. When I visit my family and friends in America, I’m shocked by vast grocery store selections and obscure pop cultural information that everyone seems to know but me. I’m appalled by the crowd-sourcing of American healthcare costs; I catch myself thinking, “Where I come from, healthcare is free!” But of course, it isn’t, because I’m not from Northern England. I’m from New Jersey.
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Here’s what I lost: a firmness of nationality and identity I hadn’t known I possessed or valued, an acceptance of American errors as the norm, a place I felt I unquestionably belonged in, a peer group who understood where I was coming from and could relate to my laments and joys.
And here’s what I gained: a certain level of inhibition, an ability to code-switch, a tea addiction, a new way of seeing, a greater understanding of the world I had always lived in but seen so little of. Integrating into a foreign culture felt like learning to rotate my mind at a ninety-degree angle, twisting the perspective of a picture.
And here’s the thing: the Peace Corps Volunteers I have met have been (mostly) wonderful examples of the best of my native culture and country. I sound more American these days, the British bits only emerging when I meet new people or feel stressed. Coming to Ukraine has made me believe that I could go home again.
And now? The person I talk to most every day is my Ukrainian boyfriend, and I’m picking up his lack of articles and Slavic errors: “I very want sleep,” “It’s red house on right side street.” And he reflects me, talking about wudder and dawgs, and occasionally saying, “I’m not keen, it’s a bit shit” in his Best British Accent.