“Have you met the queen?” My response to this question, which I receive remarkably often, depends on my mood. Sometimes I calmly explain that no, not every British person has met the queen. Sometimes I lie and say I’ve been to several tea parties at Buckingham Palace (you have to try their crumpets — simply to die for). On particularly cranky days I respond sarcastically, with some variation on “Wow, you’re the only person who’s ever asked me that!” As anyone who has ever been stereotyped — that is to say, every one of us — knows, it gets old.
My accent, the most evident feature of my Britishness, has defined much of my experience during the past five years. Since moving from London to the United States, in every interaction, endeavor and friendship, I automatically represent the British perspective, whether I like it or not. I face a variety of assumptions about my intelligence and my teeth every time I absentmindedly mumble “aluminium.” I’ve found myself aware of my British identity in a way that I took for granted before I ever left England, sometimes as a source of pride, sometimes as a cause of genuine discomfort.
But as my brain has adapted to its American surroundings, my London accent has subtly eroded. My pronunciation is no longer as sharp. I unwittingly use American slang and speak in a louder tone. Even my personality has morphed. I’ve become more friendly, outgoing and self-promoting where I once was reserved, excessively humble and even pessimistic. The ultimate blow came this past summer, when a coworker at my internship mentioned that she “just assumed I was American” because of my accent and character transformation. It took all my strength not to curl up in a ball and sob with indignation. Her words were a jab that I felt viscerally for the rest of the day, because my Britishness was the stake I drove into the ground when I moved to the United States. It became something solid I could clutch onto as I proceeded through waves of new experiences and people that threatened to throw me off course.
To be accused of no longer being British feels like someone yanking a rug from beneath my feet. My British accent, more than just a quaint proclivity for saying “trousers” instead of “pants,” represents for me a large portion of my identity: the tastes, the TV shows, the music, the comedy, the landscapes, the communities and the attitudes that shaped me. Being British is fundamental to the way I put language together. It’s a subconscious framework for the way I organize and express my thoughts. Being British allows me to subconsciously peg myself to a geographic location — that little crowded island the size of Michigan — and firmly feel grounded in a culture no matter where I am. Being British provides a sense of comfort and belonging, a viewpoint for arguments, a perspective in cultural affairs and an excuse for humor or sharing knowledge.
That said, I can’t deny that what I have lost in terms of Britishness, I’ve gained in terms of being American. I‘ve found a new sense of belonging in everything from my friends who hail from many states, to the TV references I now get, to the ease with which I dole out opinions about Obamacare. Figuring out who to root for in the Olympics is now a real challenge.
As I change and adapt, is it good or bad that my accent and sense of nationality become diluted? Am I growing and expanding, becoming more interesting and worldly — more “diverse” as a person — or am I losing something basic and essential to who I am? How much of anyone’s identity should be cultural and place-specific?
Identity is a strange concept, with an infinite number of facets: where we were born, how we speak, what we major in and what eating club sweatshirt we wear. Some factors we can control, like our behavior and decisions, and some we cannot, like the family and culture we are born into. But we each have the freedom to emphasize the facets that mean the most to us — to treat our identity as dynamic, not static. At Princeton, we all face clashes between our old selves, the countries or cultures we’ve brought with us, and the selves we are still forging. The more we embrace that awkward in-between phase, the better.
In the end it doesn’t matter in any real sense whether I’m British, American or a transatlantic crossbreed. More important are the values I try to keep at my core and seek in others, like empathy and honesty, kindness and bravery — traits that transcend nationality. Of course, I will never escape pangs of righteous indignation when someone claims that my London accent has been polluted. I may no longer fit into either England or America perfectly, but perhaps that better reflects the kind of person I am: someone more content to stand on the outside peering in, but ready to add colour to the conversation — with or without the “u.”
Lauren Davis is a philosophy major from London, England. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.