Must be an American

Sitting in JFK a few hours from boarding a plane to move to England. The last few days as I've packed up all my belongings, I couldn't stop a flood of emotions and thoughts about my American identity and who I'll be (and how I'll be seen) when I'm no longer living in America.

I visited England for the first time in December of 1992. I have a vivid memory of attending a holiday service in a beautiful old church in Cambridge. A woman was walking around near the worship area with a video camera. (In 1992 those were bulky and conspicuous) A lady sitting in front of me said in a disdainful tone, “she must be an American.” I immediately slid down in the pew, lowered my head and made sure to not speak so my accent wouldn't betray me. 

I’m not sure what message was delivered from the pulpit that day. But the message my 18-year-old self received then was that being an American was something to be embarrassed about…that my people were unrefined and out of place in such a dignified setting. Who knows if the woman in the church with the camera was American. And certainly that judge-y woman was not the best representative of the English... But I did carry that insecurity about how people (especially maybe educated, fancy people) see Americans. 

Fast forward 25 years, and I now find myself moving to England and married to a British citizen. The same one I visited 25 years ago. But that’s a different story. This is the story of me leaving my homeland. And my feelings about it. 

I know sometimes Americans are a seen as a joke. I remember backpacking through Europe and meeting Americans who had put Canadian Flags on their bags so people would like them more... And truthfully, I’m not always proud of American policies and practices. And some of our history is indefensible. Sadly, I’m certain future politicians will make mistakes as well. But my story is distinctly an American one. Good, bad and ugly. I am who I am today because of my American upbringing and lifestyle. 

I am the granddaughter of Appalachian people from West Virginia and Kentucky who moved to Ohio for industrial jobs. My grandparents married in their teens. As a child, I watched my paternal grandfather struggle with his own racism when my father married an African-American woman. I watched my maternal grandmother dance to Rocky Top on top of the bar in the bowling alley lounge. I grew up in a rental community in Ohio’s most dangerous city. I played t-ball. I went to vacation bible school and church camp every summer. I was a girl scout. As a teen, my social life revolved around Youth Group and Marching Band. I took family vacations in cars to the Smokey Mountains and DisneyWorld. 

I was the first in my family to graduate from college. My dad retired from the Air Force. My first husband was a Marine. I taught high school near Yorktown, Virginia. I taught English to international students in LA. I opened my own business in Alabama. I was a PTA President and a Business Coach of the Year. I shuttled kids to play dates and after school activities. I started a somewhat self indulgent blog… 

I love country music. And Bon Jovi and Madonna. My favorite holidays are the 4th of July and Halloween. I believe you can make your dreams come true. I was taught to stand up for what you believe in and to fight injustice anywhere. And like my American idol, Dolly Parton, I know it’s okay to have a big, flashy personality if you have a big heart and generous spirit to go with it. 

So after reflection, my 43-year-old self has internalized a new message. I'm not leaving my identity behind at all. I'm taking my Appalachian ancestors and their dreams with me. I'm representing my people and forging a new future for myself. I'm engaging with the world the way I was brought up to- with curiosity and hope. And if I overhear someone in a my new hometown of Manchester referring to me with a, “she must be an American”, I am going to hold my head up high and say proudly, “she is…” 

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