My earliest memory is of some kid stealing my red toy airplane on the streets of Amsterdam. Around us, the weekend marketplace bustled across cobbled streets. I didn’t have enough words, either in Dutch or English. Nobody knew what I was trying to say.
My mother comes from Rochester, New York by way of Boston. My father comes from the Netherlands by way of Indonesia. I come from god-knows-where.
Oxford is a city on a technicality; a medium-sized town with a population of 150,000 sitting where the River Isis and the Cherwell slip into the Thames. In the 1600s, it was the capital of England for a while, when King Charles I was expelled from London by Oliver Cromwell’s forces. The city supported Cromwell; the University supported the King. Town vs gown. It wasn’t much different when I grew up there.
I lived in Britain for, more or less, 30 years. We moved there when I was three years old, and then I finally moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2011. Although I had a British accent, a National Insurance number and indefinite leave to remain, I was never a British citizen. Despite all appearances, I never felt British. Secretly, somewhere just underneath my skin, behind my accent and my clothes, I was something else.
Even before Bush, America had a bad rap in England. Americans were known for telling their life stories on buses when they should have been avoiding eye contact; they were brash and wasteful and fat, and everybody knew it. They were audacious and visibly ambitious in a way that wasn’t considered acceptable. They were loud. Worse than that, they had a reputation for being obliviously unethical; people who were isolated enough to live opulent lives at the expense of people far away (something that, obviously, a British person would never do). “Americans,” people would say, right to my face, rolling their eyes.
To be fair, I was under cover. They couldn’t have known.
It got worse once I’d outed myself to people. “You could get a British passport if you wanted,” they helpfully suggested, as if this was something that would obviously change my life for the better; like it would be an upgrade. “But you’re not really an American. Not really.” This was both true and not true.
“Go back to where you came from, you fucking Yank,” people would, from time to time, yell at my mother.
Having a small child is a great way to make friends: after years in the adult friendship desert, you can bond over parenthood with other first-time adventurers. Being new to the country, and living in a city with such a constant international ebb and flow of academics and scholars, my parents naturally gravitated to other immigrants. My friends were, more often than not, like me, with one parent from one country and the other parent from another.
School, therefore, was a culture shock. Suddenly I was surrounded by people whose cultural touchstones were English; who ate food I had never heard of; who seemed to supernaturally understand norms that were far out of my reach. Through no fault of my own, I was a weird kid.
As a five year old coming into primary school, I had been flung from a safe environment where I was loved and prized to one where I was, at best, an oddity. Some teachers were cool with the multiculturalism in their classroom; others were not.
Beatings in British state schools were outlawed in 1986, when I was seven years old — so they were just fine when I started to attend. My very first teacher, Mrs. Jenks, saw fit to spank children who didn’t obey her instructions, even if this was an honest misunderstanding. One morning, I found myself running around the classroom to evade the teacher as she chased me, yelling, because I wouldn’t stay still and be hit. I just didn’t understand what she meant.
When I was seven, we took a year out to live in Vienna, where the teachers would make an example of me for not being able to speak German. (I became near-fluent, and have fond memories of making friends, and going sledding up on the Schneeberg.) We returned to Oxford after a year, and I went back to the same school. Another teacher, who had been a fighter pilot in World War II, used to make an example of me in class, paying particular attention to my last name. Werdmüller. Was that a German name? What kind of eight year old says Schnitzel is his favorite food?
I learned to be quiet, and very, very polite.
Despite all this, Oxford was the perfect place to grow up. It was safe, beautiful, and the universities meant there was a constant international influence. The friendships I built there are enduring and deep, and I hope to keep them until the day I die.
Still, even among my close friends, there were flashes of non-acceptance. An American cousin came to visit me, for example, and I got some of my friends together to try and show her a good time. But at least one friend, upon hearing her accent, refused to even speak to her. He grumbled at me that he didn’t get along with Americans. Similarly, apparently unaware of my Dutch or Swiss heritages, other friends complained that Europeans were “weird”.
Still, although they were othering, these incidents were few and far between in my close friends. I had a close-knit group that accepted diversity of backgrounds and thought. “You eat foreign food every single day!” exclaimed one friend, whose family had fled the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and settled in Wales.
More than any other part of my background, my hidden Americanism was omnipresent. I visited New England most years of my life, and my mother, after all, had an American accent. So it was surprising to move here as an adult and discover I wasn’t American at all.
My Oma — my father’s mother — had helped my dad and his family survive a Japanese internment camp in Indonesia. He was a toddler. She secretly gathered snails and cooked them for protein; my Tante (my father’s sister, just twelve years old) would climb through a grate and swim through the sewers to forage for food. Had the Japanese guards seen any of this, the consequences would have been severe for all of them. My dad survived, and I’m sitting here writing this, because of very brave actions borne from necessity.
After the war, they moved to Sebastopol, where they ran a couple of gas stations (getting into trouble from the locals because they dared to serve black people). My dad joined the army and was able to go to university. And my Oma became a Californian. So it was a no-brainer when my parents moved back to the US to look after her in her final years.
It wasn’t a question. It was an of course.
When my own mother began to need to carry oxygen tanks because her lungs were scarring over from an incurable condition, it was also a no-brainer. Of course I was going to move. And I did.
At first, it was almost a relief. The social cues I had spent a lifetime trying to decipher were no longer present; the intentions behind peoples’ actions were more obvious to me. I could relax.
Slowly, though, the differences began to become clear. After a lifetime of being quiet and polite, I had to find the gumption to speak up more clearly; the demeanor that had been socially acceptable in the UK was rude here. It was important to know what you wanted and to say it clearly — and, crucially, be vocally grateful.
My core assumptions began to be tested. American immigration is largely focused on assimilation, which I fundamentally don’t agree with. The idea that everyone is an American and should therefore adopt American culture is oppressive to me; I think the world is most interesting when they bring themselves and allow for a true mix. New York is an amazing city not because the people there are homogenous; it’s amazing because the opposite remains true. Yet in many parts of the US, homogeneity is expected.
“Socialism” is a bad word, for historical propaganda reasons, and things I think should be a baseline for a civilized society — healthcare for all, a working welfare system — are tainted with that idea. There is a persistent lie that if you try hard enough, you can be anything, regardless of your background or means; the logical conclusion is that, if you’re homeless or you’ve fallen into bad times, it must be partially your fault. I find this abhorrent. And, like many of my friends back in the UK, I have no problem describing myself as a socialist.
Finally, the idea that children should be brought up into a religion by default is strange to me. Although Britain has a state religion, Christianity was not a major part of daily life. My school was part-run by the Church of England, but it was never forced on us, and we learned about all religions equally. My background is both Jewish and Christian, but I’m an atheist. And if my future children want to join a religion, they can do so when they’re old enough to make that decision for themselves.
I don’t get cultural references; I don’t get excited by the same things. I’m not interested in following a team or declaring allegiance to a tribe.
I don’t feel American. I don’t feel British, or Dutch, or Swiss, or Indonesian, or any of those things. I just feel like me.
“Sometimes I think you don’t want to belong,” a girlfriend said to me, once. But it’s not that I don’t want to belong. It’s that I can’t.
My journey has been to own my otherness, and to accept that people who are steeped in just one culture or background have no way of understanding mine, just as I have no way of understanding theirs. There is no correct background, and there is no correct culture. Nobody should be made to feel like they are less of a person for not having a particular touchstone, or not being able to articulate themselves in a particular way. Nobody should be made to feel ashamed for who they are.
True empathy comes from respect, and an understanding that we can’t ever truly understand. Our tribes are an imperfect way of ascribing meaning to what it feels like to be human. We’re all different; we’re all other and we all belong.
Deep down, we all just feel like us. It’s beautiful, and it’s human. And it’s okay.