by Amanda Bigler
Five minutes after flying into Chicago O’Hare airport, I briefly watched Fox News on the television. Having spent the past three months in the region of Lorraine in France, and having resided in the United Kingdom since 2012, I had forgotten (or perhaps shut out) how blunt American media and politics have become. Donald Trump’s face popped up in between segments on Muslim fear. Car and food commercials chattered in between talking heads and propaganda. The shunning of Syrian refugees and scrutiny of President Obama’s religion were broken up by Taco Bell Crunchwrap! Live Mas! and Ford F-150, Built Ford Tough! At that point in time, I could understand the perceptions that other countries have of Americans: perpetual capitalism and consumption sprinkled with bias. I felt an embarrassment about my nationality that lurks beneath the surface every day, influenced by my encounters in both France and England.
The East Midlands is a rural region in England, which causes foreigners to stand out more than they would in, say, London. When walking through the crowded market square, I would often put a lilt into my words to mimic the local accents. If I didn’t cover up my hard Kansas accent, I would always be asked the inevitable question “Where are you from?” When answering “Kansas,” half of the time the inquisitor would reply “like Texas?” and I would not correct them. In the States, Kansas and Texas are two highly different entities (never confuse Kansas City and Texas barbecue). The Breadbasket of America is quite different from the state where “everything’s bigger, y’all,” but in the United Kingdom, I don’t have to be nit-picky; they both consist of fields, cattle, rural pride, and cowboy hats.
The question that always surprised me, however, and one that I was asked multiple times, was “Are you Canadian?” At first I believed it was because my speech had been affected by living in England for some months, but one day a stranger let slip the true reason. After replying that I was, in fact, American, he explained, “Oh, okay. I just didn’t want to insult you if you were Canadian.” The opinion of my Americanness and that it could possibly be insulting to someone else, in essence, insulted me.
Two months after this incident, I was detained at Heathrow Airport and eventually deported. I had a valid entry visa and was continuing my Masters degree at Loughborough University, but I had not purchased a return ticket, and it didn’t help that my jet-lag made my answers slightly unintelligible over the eleven-hour interrogation and overnight detainment. I was surprised that the loudest thought in my head was But I’m American. I’m not from some third world country. I have money. I’m spending money here. The entitlement I felt echoes the media mentality I had lambasted in Chicago.
Sitting in the overnight detention barracks, I was surrounded by women of various ethnic origins. Though through appearances I believed I could assimilate easier into British culture (being a native English-speaking white girl), I understood then that my subconscious entitlement no longer existed. This revelation made me ashamed of my own notions and lost in my sense of identity.
I have since moved to Metz, France, with my French fiancé as I finish my Ph.D. remotely. France is a country I had fallen in love with as a teenager, and I was anxious to return. Leaving the rain and the mushy peas of England, a part of me was relieved to experience change. I soon realized the devices I had been relying on in England to blend in could not be used in France. I cannot alter my accent, as the pronunciation of certain words still escape me. I cannot hear the difference, for example, between “rougir” (blush) and “rugir” (roar). I sometimes have a difficult time expressing myself, and I fear that my personality is lost in translation.
Unlike the Brits, the French people I have encountered have been direct when pointing out my American accent. When I studied in Paris in 2007, I was spit on for having George Bush as a president. This time around, I am often asked questions about politics, though so far sans bodily fluids (“Donald Trump, really? It isn’t a joke to you?”). I am also asked about implied American issues with French cuisine (“Can you eat paté? Snails? Foie gras?” etc.) I reply with a smile, as I had in England, because I believe these perceptions are ingrained in each person’s mind, just as my own American stereotypes presented themselves at Heathrow.
It is quite difficult to be a non-European Union citizen residing in both the United Kingdom and France. There is a constant stream of never-ending documentation that distances me from the citizens. In England, I obtained three separate visas, one of which was cancelled when I was deported. I finally received my residence permit, but each time I return to the country it is with trepidation and a pit in my stomach. My name has now been flagged and I am always rigorously questioned at the border, even with my permit and visa in hand. Over the past four years there has been an increase in the practice of detaining law-abiding immigrants to boost immigration restriction statistics. Similarly in France, I am required to obtain a full medical physical, radiological scan, and bloodwork to reside as a “visiteur de long sejour” (long-stay visitor). Even the title of my visa in question seems alienating. I am PACSed with my partner, and therefore am given the right to remain in France. The word “visiteur” has a short-lived connotation, and reminds me that I do not belong.
Coming back to the ever-looming question “Where are you from?” I do not know how to reply. I have not lived in America for nearly four years now, and even when I did, I felt that I did not truly fit in. I am technically a resident of the United Kingdom, yet I feel uncomfortable entering the country. I reside in France, but am considered a visitor.
What I do know is that through these experiences my personal identity has been muddled and, perhaps, expanded. The negative and often trying experiences have, in their own way, solidified my connection with each country. Though I might not belong in any of the three countries, they are all a part of me. Assimilation or, in the case of the United States, acceptance must be worth the struggle, or I would not have the passion to continue to do so. When I am in England, I find myself missing the wide open Kansas skies that stretch for miles and the bittersweet smell of French boulangeries in the morning. In France, I wish I could have a chat with the bright-eyed Loughborough market vendor or hop into a car with the windows down driving for hours on K-10.
The next time I am in America, I will turn off the media diatribe. The American perception of America should be cultivated through oneself, as the authority lies within each American to determine his or her own culture. As for myself, I will lie in a field of wheat listening to the crickets chirp, feeling the roll of thick, warm wind on my face, and dream about cheerful strangers that call me “duck” and the peacefully lazy current of la Moselle.
Amanda Bigler grew up in Altamont, Kansas. She studied literature with a creative writing emphasis from the University of Kansas and completed her MA in Literature at Loughborough University (U.K.) in 2013. She is finishing her doctorate at Loughborough University in the Department of English and Drama. Represented by Ravenswood Publishing, she had her first novel, The Takers, published in 2015. She currently resides in France with her partner.
Photo credit: Blue gold-printed cover of a US passport. P
hotography. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 10 Mar 2016. http://quest.eb.com/search/118_846071/1/118_846071/cite