We’re sitting down to an Indian buffet, tucked away on a side street in Chester, England, when the manager comes over to us. He’s got a sheepish look on his face and I already know what he’s going to ask. “So your accent,” he begins. “Are you from… the USA?” Dan and I make eye contact and I smile, before nodding, and clarifying “Michigan.” I’ve only been back in the U.K. for a week, so the questions like this don’t bother me yet.
Back when I lived in southwest England, the constant questioning of my not-quite-British not-quite-American accent used to grind on me. My own voice felt like a barrier to any kind of claim I had on the U.K. as my home. I was constantly asked to declare my other-ness.
But now that I’m back for vacation, I take the questions a different way. It’s nice to be different. My American-ness is an opportunity for connection. The Bangladeshi manager tells me about his trips to the USA, his daughter’s medical degree in Miami. He speaks about being an immigrant, about integration, about nationality. I think he thinks I’m an immigrant, too.
Later, there’s a drama in the restaurant. The man sitting across from us, who’s ordered three brandies, a beer, and a set menu meal, reveals to the manager that he has no money to pay. The police are called, rights are read, there’s yelling and a baby at another table begins to cry. After the shuffle, the manager returns to our table. “I’m sorry you had to see that.” He says, and I wonder why he is speaking softly and directly to me instead of anyone else in the restaurant. “But you see, I had to call the police because if I did not he would go to every restaurant on our street and do the same. And the truth is, it’s about race. They only do this to us because they do not think we are British like them.” He looks to Dan, my white English boyfriend, then, apologetically. “I’m sorry but it’s true. And I’ve been here 30 years.”
All this past week, a question has been making a home in the back of my mind. The question that everyone asks me when I reveal I used to live in the U.K.: Will I ever move back?
And my answer, if that’s what you came here for, is probably anticlimactic. I don’t know.
There’s so much I love about the U.K.. The ivy covered buildings, sound of seagulls, literary history, coastal walks with Dan, old familiarity of Tesco aisles, jutter of trains, slang that I slip back into so easily, a perpetual sense of cultural hyper awareness, sheep grazing on rolling hills, dry humour, even and maybe especially drizzly days and rain patter on roofs. But as we drive north from Poole through to the Lake District, I gaze out the car windows at small towns. The houses stacked one on top of the other, postage stamp yards. This island is both crammed and stretching. I will always feel car sick on the left side of the road. And I’ll always feel different here. My skin is white and freckled and unlike the restaurant manager, I’ve got the privilege of an exterior and even a passport that let me blend in here. But as soon as I open my mouth I’m different. And I haven’t figured out whether I like that or not.
I can see myself living in the U.K. again, but I can’t see the specifics. I can’t see the region or the city or the career or the daily routine or even the year. Then again, I can’t envision my future in Michigan or anywhere else, either. I’m moving along in a thick fog, the future invisible beyond what’s right in front of me, but I know when it burns off the view will be spectacular.
One thing I know is that the U.K. will always feel like home to me, maybe more so because it is constantly asking me to proclaim my belonging. Maybe because it is a place I choose, not one that chose me.
So to answer your question, I certainly have unfinished business here – but I couldn’t give you a timeline or even an assurance that I will ever move back to the U.K.. And I’m okay with that, for now.
*This post is part of my ‘Repat Diaries’ series, in which I share thoughts on moving back to my home country after having lived abroad. You can read the first post in the series here:
Any topic requests for this series? Just comment below and let me know.