On Becoming British

Two Passports“So which country is better?” The US Homeland Security Agent glances between me and my passport photo. I try to detect a smile. No luck.

I tell him what I now tell everyone — that no place is perfect, that living in the UK really suits us for now, and that each country could learn a lot from the other. He returns my blue American passport, and lets me back in to the country where I was born.

Today a second, burgundy-coloured passport arrived, embossed with the Royal Coat of Arms. It is the culmination of four years culture shock, driving lessons, memorisation tests, long nervous waits in the UK Home Office, and a small mound of both paperwork and money.

I have finally become British.

Not English, mind you. I was raised in the Sonoran desert. Culturally speaking, I am probably more Mexican than English. I am a citizen of the United Kingdom. I intend to remain a citizen of the United States as well. I have family in both countries, have now lived for a while in both lands, and so both places are, in their own way, home.

When I tell people in the UK that I have naturalised, they look at me almost as quizzically as when I first told them that I had moved from sunny California to rainy England. I suspect Adam might have had a similar reception fresh from the Garden of Eden. “You left where?”

The elements that many British people are convinced constitute paradise — warm weather, sporty culture, and affordable goods — are not driving factors for me. The elements of living in England that are less prominent in Southern California — including a widespread respect for the arts, and easy access to travel in Europe — are.

I like it here, and so would like to vote in national elections, and otherwise participate fully as a citizen, rather than just as a permitted outsider. So I have become British.

After the swearing-in ceremony, we did the only sensible thing. We celebrated with a drop of tea. Feel free to raise a cup in your own homeland, wherever that may be, to celebrate with me.

Cheers.


What American Independence Day Means to Me

FireworksIn my latest entry for The Huffington Post, I take a look at the American tradition of celebrating our independence from Britain on the Fourth of July. As you can imagine, though I do miss the hot dogs and sparklers, living in Britain now causes me to question much of what I once took for granted as unquestionably true.

Beyond the way one might root for a local sporting team, why might this particular national celebration still matter? I took a look around me for suitable metaphors to characterise the promise of the American spirit, and found one in the very place that I have spent most of my technology career: the start-up company.

Happy (Almost) Fourth of July to my fellow countrymen.


The Power and Peril of Written Words

America, A Prophecy by William BlakeI believe that it is important to intelligently question the modern relevance of our ancestors’ words. It is as important to literature as it is to government. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution was enacted on December 15th, 1791, exactly 221 years ago today.

I currently live in England — a country with no written constitution. Upon discovering this, the American comedian Jon Stewart laughed out loud, insinuating that the British were “too polite” to set their thoughts on government down in a single document. In reality, countless legal documents, and their interpretation, make up the “unwritten constitution” — allowing it to be continually debated, updated, and adapted to the practicalities of modern times by parliament.

After a hard-won Revolutionary War against a British government that restricted freedom of speech and assembly, only permitted firearms to be purchased through them in limited quantities, and also forced Colonists to quarter soldiers without warning, it makes sense that the First, Second, and Third Amendments to the US Constitution were soon passed. The First one has proved vital to a healthy democracy; the Third one seems pretty irrelevant these days.

However, as soon as you suggest that the Second Amendment, and its subsequent interpretation allowing citizens to own firearms for self-defence independent of a militia, might not be well-suited to the Twenty-First Century, you will probably be called “unpatriotic” or even “un-American.” Continue reading…


National Insurance, National Mythology

I recently received my UK National Insurance number. American friends warned me before I left what this would mean: high taxes, long waits, and terrible hospitals. Apart from the ongoing aluminum versus alumninium tiff, views on healthcare are one of the most divisive issues in the special relationship. Joking aside, I believe this difference actually reflects the much deeper matter of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

So much of a people’s character seems to involve a glorification and reenactment of formative national events: America’s finest hour was in fighting for its freedom in the late eighteenth century; Britain’s finest hour was in enduring against tyranny in the mid-twentieth century. Since those times, Americans continue to fight under the belief that they are doing so for freedom, and the British continue to endure hardship under the belief that it is toward a noble end. In times of financial difficulty, the American military budget remains sacrosanct. In Britain, it is the National Health Service that is unassailable.

Without monarchs or fascists threatening American freedoms, much of U.S. foreign policy since the Second World War has been governed by a terror of communism. The Red Menace became an emblem of assault on all that was American, conveniently giving us another opportunity to “fight for our freedom” in places like Korea and Vietnam. Substitute “terrorist” for “communist,” and the Middle East for the Pacific Rim, to bring this reenactment of our national story into modern times.
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Adieu, America

“You don’t have to dislike a place to leave it.”

 — my wife

American soldiers on D-Day

Last weekend, we drove down to Seal Beach to say farewell to my wife’s aunt. Her parting gifts to me were a bottle of champagne, two sleeping pills for the flight, and a small pin with an American flag on it. She met her American husband in England not long before he shipped off for the D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy.

I imagine it is always poignant to leave one’s home country. I liken my evolving relationship to my homeland to how I imagine a mother might regard her teenage son. I admire his idealism and energy, robustness and strength, the sense of freedom and possibility. I also notice with chagrin his sense of entitlement and invulnerability. I likewise find it hard to believe reports that he has become a bit of a schoolyard bully, taking advantage of others at times, and behaving recklessly in the hubris of youth.

I love my country, and will miss it. But I am glad for the opportunity to live in the Old World as well. More than politics, it is the people I will miss, and of course the vast open spaces, encompassing nearly every biome on Earth. I will be glad, though, for a more immediate sense of connection with the continuity of human history. London itself has been continuously inhabited for more than two millennia, emerging and reemerging, phoenix-like, from each collapse.

And so I say, “so long” for now to the beautiful and complicated place where I grew to become a man. I am not leaving my homeland due to political or religious persecution, or even necessarily to seek greater economic opportunity in another land. I am going because it is time to go have this adventure. And wherever I go, I will be an American.


Final Reading in America (For Now)

“The distant reality every day questions me / like an unknown traveler who wakes me up in the middle of the journey / saying ‘Is this the right bus?’, / and I answer ‘Yes’, but I mean ‘I don’t know.'”

-Nikola Madzirov, “I Don’t Know”

Bergamot Station at night / Photo: Marvin Rand

It was with great excitement that I drove down to Frank Pictures Gallery in Bergamont Station to read poems alongside Tim Green, Nikola Madzirov, and Ilya Kaminsky last night. It is always a privilege to read alongside first-rate poets, but last night was something truly special. It was one of the final readings in the “Third Area” series to be held in this gallery, and my final reading in America before Val and I move to London.

But more than this, the lineup was particularly special to me. I was slated to read with Tim Green at the Carnegie Art Museum last year, but it ended up being too close to the due date of his new baby daughter. He read poems from American Fractal as well as some new work. Tim has been a great supporter of my own work, giving it exposure through Rattle, and is himself a fine poet — sonorous and absorbed when he reads, self-deprecating and down-to-earth in between.

Then I was introduced to the work of Macedonian poet Nikola Madzirov, available now in English thanks to BOA editions and the Lannan Translations Selection Series. His poems took my breath away. In them, I found many of the elements of what I admire most about other Slavic-language poets, especially those far to the north in Poland — sensitive, clever observations, at times whimsical, but always with a deep undercurrent of existential longing.
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