On Being an Immigrant

Posted: February 26, 2011 in Immigration

Since I’ve moved to the UK I’ve  had the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be an immigrant. The resulting cognitive dissonance that occurs and the the feeling of the pressure of assimilation has been quite fascinating. While I know this experience is only a fraction of what immigrants must experience upon coming to the US when they don’t speak the language and feel forced to immigrate based on their circumstances back home, nevertheless, I would say the experience qualifies as “immigration light”.

One of the things I struggled with initially was what pronunciation I should use to say various things. Should I say tomato the the way the British do? Should I pronounce Basil as Basel? If I don’t adopt the British pronunciation, am I coming off as a snobbish American? In the end, I realized I had more of an American identity than I had ever previously realized. Thus, for the time being, I am going to hold on to my American accent and American pronunciations because they are too much a part of who and what I am to depart with them.

The other fascinating aspect of being an immigrant is the realization that I’m recognized as an outsider as soon as I open my mouth. Although I am now a UK resident, I am more likely seen as a tourist in my own town, an odd experience indeed! The other odd thing I’ve come across is that when folks here venture a guess as to where I’m from, they are much more likely to guess that I am Canadian as opposed to American. I found this a bit odd, and eventually found out the reason is because Canadians get offended if you ask them if they are American whereas Americans don’t really seem to care much (and frankly, I don’t). This led to an interesting exchange my significant other (SO) had at a local store the other day:

Sales clerk after SO asked him a question: “I’m not going ask if you are Canadian or American”

SO, with a smile on his/her face: “Go ahead and give it shot”

The Clerk thinks for a moment, then responds somewhat hesitantly, “American?”

SO, still smiling, “Yep! A lot of folks here don’t want to guess I’m American because apparently Canadians get offended when it is suggested they are American”

The clerk responds jovially, “Yea, Canadians do get a bit annoyed at that”

SO teases, “Yea, I guess they are just jealous”

In response to this the clerk became annoyed and was clearly not taking the statement as the joke it was intended to be “Well, you are the biggest most powerful country in the world”

SO, now mortified by what s/he realized was a bit of a faux pas: “Well, what are you going to do…” and quickly left the store.

The moral of the story? Well apparently we have to walk on eggshells so as not to come off as arrogant. What we both thought of as a benign joke quickly became a point of offense for the Brits (and perhaps Canadians too?). While here my SO and I are very careful not to come off as arrogant and attempt to deflect any conversation in which we are asked to compare the US to the UK and when pushed always try and discuss ways in which we think things in the UK are better. We are aware of the stereotype of American arrogance and are keen to not come off that way. Perhaps there is a bit of arrogance in our interaction outlined above…or perhaps the Brits and Canadians are a little hypersensitive. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between…

  1. Bashir says:

    I’ve never been to the UK, though I’ve had plenty of experience with Canadians. Americans tend to be arrogant in comparison. I don’t mean that as an insult, American culture is just like that, kind of competitive and such. I personally like it, though obviously I’m biased.

  2. funkdoctorx says:

    Yea, to be frank I’ve noticed a little bit of arrogance that I didn’t realize was there welling up in me at times since I’ve moved to the UK. I’m torn as to whether or not this is a good thing as it has taken me a bit by surprise. At the very least I know I need to be careful because I don’t want to come off as arrogant to my UK and European colleagues.

  3. Hi! Just found your blog via Twitter. I’m a British immigrant to Vancouver, Canada – I moved here 9 years ago for a 2 year postdoctoral stint, collected a Canadian husband and citizenship, and never got around to leaving.

    I can definitely relate to the feeling of “immigration light”, even though the UK is culturally closer to Canada than it is to the UK. Oh, and teasing and sarcasm can be dangerous with strangers, especially when stereotypes are the subject of the joke. I’ll demonstrate this further with the following:

    The only thing that annoys Canadians more than being mistaken for Americans, is when Americans travelling overseas put a Canadian flag on their luggage in order to avoid being subjected to anti-US stereotyping, but then give Canadians a bad name 🙂

    Welcome to the blogosphere!

    • funkdoctorx says:

      Hi Cath, thanks for the comment and the welcome!

      We are indeed learning that our sarcasm here is not taken as anticipated, and we will definitely have to be more careful with strangers, as you suggest. I can understand where Canadians are coming from, to an extent, not wanting to be confused as Americans as I would say Canadians in general are much friendlier than Americans (and perhaps not as obnoxious when they travel?)

      As for the similarity in culture between UK and Canada, I never realized this until I went to Canada on vacation recently a noticed all these things referring to the queen. I suppose the loyalists leaving to Canada during the revolutionary war have really had an effect on how Canada views itself with respect to the UK.

  4. Oops, I meant that the UK is culturally closer to Canada than it is to the US

  5. […] they start sending me checks based on my final salary and how long I made contributions. Easy as insulting a Brit with sarcasm. It’s a no […]

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