I Almost Lost Who I Was

Our identity can be more arbitrary than I’d imagined.

“Where are you from?” It’s a question I get asked a lot, especially when I say anything in my mostly British accent, which is tinged with a Scottish lilt and touched with a dash of Northern Californian twang. Most people guess South Africa or Australia at first, but they’re wrong.

On Halloween 1996 I moved to the U.S. from London, for what I thought was a temporary stay. Two decades later, having been a resident alien spouse for many years, I am now a “real” person and hold dual citizenships in the U.S. and the U.K. It gets more complex though. I grew up in Scotland, the child of English parents, so most Americans call me Scottish. I usually correct them, saying that Scotland is part of the U.K.—to which they reply, “Oh right, so you’re English.” No. I grew up in Scotland, with U.K. nationality, which makes me British; but now I’m American too. It’s at this point that we usually move on to something else.

The process of emigrating to the U.S. forced me to consider what it means to have a national identity and to wonder where in the world I really feel at home. Scotland? Palo Alto? Somewhere halfway across the Atlantic Ocean? I have settled into my American life, but have always felt most at home in Edinburgh. London, the city where I spent every childhood vacation, runs a close second. I got used to calling myself an American Brit who comes from Scotland, and despite the complexity, I have always reveled just slightly in the uniqueness it bestows upon me and the rich experience that it represents.

In 2014 however, all that got shaken up when my national identity was placed in the hands of the Scottish electorate. The Scottish people took a vote on whether to stay as part of the U.K. or break away and form an independent state. Scotland has a torrid and precarious relationship with big sister England, as you will know if you’ve watched Mel Gibson screaming “Freedom!” in Braveheart or if you’ve delved into the political maneuverings of King Henry VIII. The suspicion, and at times hatred, runs deep (often along protestant and catholic divides), and the resentment level is high. It was no surprise that politicians had placed a referendum for independence before the people once again, but two things were different this time. Firstly, there seemed to be a fair chance it would succeed, and secondly, I had no voice—I could only sit and watch the vote from 5000 miles away, waiting to see if my original and core nationality would change overnight from British to Scottish.

It’s a disconcerting and disorienting experience to realize that one’s nationality is in the hands of others. “I’m British, well American, but really British” had become so much part of how I described myself, so much part of how I understood my idiosyncrasies, so much part of how I signaled that I don’t really fully belong there, or here, so much part of how I explained myself and my history in one sentence . . . and now it was all up for grabs. My national identity, something I had considered sacrosanct all my life, was potentially changing overnight—and we British just don’t change!

As the child of staunchly English parents I grew up spending time in London and coming to love the very English parts of our lives: the royal family, afternoon tea at Harrods, cricket games on Saturday afternoons, the history of such places as Stonehenge (near where my grandfather was born), and the stories of London during World War II that my grandmother told me. That part of my life defined my history, and now as an expatriate I wondered, if the Scottish people chose independence, where would I belong now?

Over the past several decades, I’ve watched as Europe has split into ever-smaller nation states. Multiple ethnicities and cultural groups have longed to recover some sense of identity and national heritage after centuries of oppression from power-hungry rulers and politicians who have co-opted swathes of land to their own ends. Until 2014 it was always someone else’s country and identity that was changing . . . now it was my own. What is it, I wondered, that is so important to us about defining our identity in relation to a certain nation? And why was I so de-stabilized by the thought of my own nationality changing as the result of a vote?

I watched the results come in on September 18, 2014. The vote unsurprisingly was divided along religious and economic lines, but eventually came in as a “No” to independence. I sat in the warm California sunshine and breathed deeply. I was still a Scots-born American Brit. I didn’t have to assume a new national identity, re-apply for my passport, or wonder if I would now have a different nationality than my parents. However I did discover in myself a deeper attachment than I realized to my national identities, both my original British and my new American one. Now, when I’m asked to explain my strange accent, I do so with a greater sense of gratitude for my mixed-up heritage.

Evidently where we are from matters, even as nationality and home are more fragile qualities than they first appear. Where are you from?

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