Monday, July 18, 2005

What Am I?

As my family and I prepare for our annual trip to the U.S., I find myself thinking about what determines nationality.

My husband and I moved to London in late 1998 assuming it would be a three-year assignment. Now, two sons and nearly seven years later, we’re still here. Some people, both here and in the U.S., seem amazed that I still have my American accent, but an accent is a difficult thing to lose after 30 years. British acquaintances will describe me as “The American” when they can’t remember my name. I am American and I will always be American.

But my two sons are a different matter. They were both born in the United Kingdom. Neither has spent much time in the United States. They both hold U.S. passports, since they have American parents, but I don’t think I could call them American.

But I couldn’t call the boys British, either. They don’t have British passports. They don’t have any other relatives in this country, nor do we have any ancestors from here. They have American parents. However, this is the place that they were born. London is home, and America is a foreign country to them.

We do what we can to reinforce American traditions to our sons. We enthusiastically celebrate Thanksgiving. I make sure to tell them about Ground Hog Day. We talk about the importance of Memorial Day. We mark the Fourth of July, even though the explanation is a little bit tricky. (“This is the day that Americans celebrate the fact that they didn’t have to live under British rule anymore.” When I saw the quizzical expression on my five-year-old’s face, I added, “We live under British rule, but that’s by choice and we can leave at any time.”)

Living in Britain, it’s difficult not to get caught up in British sayings, traditions and ways of life. We eat “bangers” not “sausages.” We put “rubbish” in the “bin,” not “garbage” in the “trash.” We celebrate Guy Fawkes Day in November. We enjoy a nice roast for Sunday lunch, which takes up most of the afternoon. We had goose for Christmas this year, and then we opened up our Christmas crackers.

Soon after he started school this year, my 5-year-old son told me that I was misspelling my own name. “It should be M-U-M, not M-O-M,” he said. But I refuse. It’s fine if he wants to call me “Mum”, which he does when his British accent is particularly strong, but I just can’t bring myself to call myself “Mum.” I would feel like a fraud, and every American fibre of my being would revolt.

I’ve decided that my sons are neither American nor British. While there are some superficial differences between the two nationalities, American and British people have many of the same good qualities: Courage, tenacity, intelligence and honesty. I can only hope that as they grow from boys into men, they will draw on their experiences and history from both countries to represent the best of the U.S. and the U.K.


Anonymous said...

Lovely essay. Just call the boys adorable (transcends nationality).

--Aunt No

Elle said...

Yet again, I know the feeling. Are my children Dutch although they are born and bred in the UK?

Sam has shirts with the British flag (his choice) but cheers for Holland if they are playing any sport. They have a Dutch passport but English is clearly their preferred language.

Our children are cosmopolitan. I hope they stay that way.

Grey said...

I think it would be unfair for you kids that you decide what they are. The may think they're British with American parents or Americans with British accent, who knows. I'm just sure that you should let them decide for themselves.