How I figured out I’m American (with some help from Rachel Maddow)

(Illustration by Tess Martin)
(Illustration by Tess Martin)

I grew up in Europe. The first time I lived in the United States (that I can remember) was when I was 18 years old and I moved from Amsterdam to attend Boston University.

I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock I experienced. So much so I decided to quit after just one year and start my bachelor’s over in the U.K.

After living for two years in Amsterdam and going to bars freely I didn’t know how to socialize with American 18 year olds.

I couldn’t relate to almost any of the students on my floor, and I was too young to go to bars with the older international students. I just didn’t feel like I belonged.

My four years in the U.K. were great fun. I was the foreigner again. I was the odd one out. I was the one to whom all the America questions were directed. This was during the Bush administration too, so most of the time I would just commiserate, saying, “Yeah, I know, it’s crazy, I’m so glad I’m not living there.”

There’s something counter-intuitively attractive about being a foreigner. It’s the whole arc of adaptation. It’s a challenge.

You arrive, and you don’t know anything. Sometimes you don’t even know the language, and that’s harder. You have to learn how the public transport system works. You have to figure out how to open a bank account. You discover popular supermarket items you didn’t know existed.  You are continuously stumped by hard things that should be easy. You have to learn how they do it.

Succeeding at life as a foreigner is so empowering. Suddenly if you successfully and swiftly fill out a customs form at the local post office you feel like you can conquer the world. This is a feeling I have sought with various degrees of success over the years in Italy, Denmark, The Netherlands, the U.K., India, Japan, Ghana, and yes, the USA.

The author buddies up to a lion at the Berlin Zoo at age 5. Sedating animals for photo ops was common in Europe and Russia in the '80s. (Photo courtesy Tess Martin)
The author buddies up to a lion at the Berlin Zoo at age five. Sedating animals for photo ops was common in Europe and Russia in the ’80s. (Photo courtesy Tess Martin)

Even though I grew up in Europe, my parents’ woeful American citizenship meant I was never able to acquire any type of European passport. So when my student visa ran out in the U.K. I moved to the United States, because that’s the only country where I was legally allowed to live.

I could have moved anywhere in the country, I suppose, but I had a sister in Seattle and she said it was cool. It’s funny how things work out. My sister happened to live in the best city in the country! OK, clearly, I’m biased, but I really did fall in love with Seattle and still feel like it’s the best match for me in the U.S.

But when I first arrived, I went through the same journey as when I moved to the U.K. I didn’t know how anything worked. But this time, no one could tell from the outside that I was a foreigner.  I was a hidden immigrant. Some of my coworkers went for years without realizing I didn’t grow up in the U.S., and some friends still forget, usually until a pop culture reference from the ’80s comes up and I have to remind them I never watched that TV show, because I was in Italy then.

I learned a lot in my five years in Seattle: I learned how the bus system worked, how to open a bank account, how to send letters abroad at the post office, and how to put the month first when writing dates. I also learned where the nearest, cheapest and best Mexican food places were, how to pay U.S. taxes, how to get books from the library and how to practice Spanish with my non-English speaking Guatemalan neighbors. I also learned how deep the issue of race permeates almost every inter-racial interaction in the U.S. Seriously, America, you have deep and complicated race problems.

Over five years in Seattle I started following politics even more than I had been. My parents always watched the news and read the paper, and I’m sure that rubbed off on me.

Even in Europe I always followed American news. But once I moved to Seattle, current events became more important. I vividly remember telling my friends in 2008 that if Obama lost I would move to Vancouver, BC. (not that I actually had a Canadian work permit or anything).

The news was so important that my routine became watching the previous evening’s Daily Show episode over breakfast in the morning, and trying to get home by 6PM to watch Rachel Maddow. And I would often listen to KUOW all day in my studio (yes, I’m a liberal, deal with it).

After five years I felt I needed to move back to Europe for a little bit. Part of the reason was a master’s course I wanted to pursue. But I also felt I needed the experience of being a foreigner again — this time, as an adult.

I wanted to make it on my own.

How I describe Seattle to people in Europe. (Illustration by Tess Martin)
(Illustration by Tess Martin)

So now I’m back in The Netherlands and it’s been as challenging as I remember. The language is an issue — yes, most people speak English, but if you don’t learn Dutch you never really integrate. I’m in the south of the country, not in Amsterdam, and let me tell you, there is a difference.

But after seven months here I’ve managed to glean some of that nice empowering feeling that comes with adapting a functional life as a foreigner. I have some local friends, I have enough of the language that I can get by (though not as much as I’d like), I’ve finally deciphered the labyrinthian train ticket purchase/discount system, and I’ve gotten used to biking everywhere.

But I still watch either the Daily Show or Rachel Maddow every day, listen to KUOW and scan the headlines at the New York Times.

I haven’t gotten too interested in Dutch politics. But man, do I get angry about American politics, even from way over here in Holland. Lack of gun control, anyone? Abortion clinics being shut down? Massive gender pay gap?

Looking back, I always did get more passionate about U.S. politics than local politics — even when I’d never really lived stateside. During the Bush years there was especially a lot to be angry at.

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that even if I didn’t feel especially American at the time, that label was always used to describe me. Even if I didn’t think I was American, others would. I cared about U.S. politics because that is what I was being associated with. I often bristled at the association: “I’m not really American, I’ve never lived there!” I’d say.

This time around being a foreigner, as an adult, The association bothers me a lot less.

Now when people ask me where I’m from, I find myself saying “I’m from Seattle” and it doesn’t feel like a lie. I catch myself describing Seattle as the best city in the U.S. and extolling its virtues. And I’ve realized that my addiction to U.S. news, even if it makes me angry, means that I care.

And yes, it makes me feel American.

2 Comments

  1. Great piece, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that Mt Rainier is “Extinct”. There is still activity going on in that mountain. It is classified as “Dormant”. It is still expected to erupt again in the future.

  2. Very good, no , Excellent piece of information . I share the same things you’ve described and I just love Rachel’s show , simply put, she is brilliant.
    I will follow your progress.

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2 Comments

  1. Great piece, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that Mt Rainier is “Extinct”. There is still activity going on in that mountain. It is classified as “Dormant”. It is still expected to erupt again in the future.

  2. Very good, no , Excellent piece of information . I share the same things you’ve described and I just love Rachel’s show , simply put, she is brilliant.
    I will follow your progress.

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