Blending in is not something I had to do much of before I emigrated to America, I’d given it little previous thought and so my experience is perhaps best demonstrated simply through watching my son’s soccer games — and for formality sake, the word soccer is just an abbreviation of association football with the addition of a suffix, then to add insult to the word it finalises only as a jocular; like rugger might be to rugby, and anyway hasn’t football been football since the 1400’s? I digress, my point being I’m British and so my boy is no longer playing a football match, and now playing on a field not a pitch, wearing cleats not boots (which is odd because cleats are actually just the projections on the sole and do not represent the whole shoe), it’s a uniform, no longer a kit and should there be a 0–0 score it is zero zero instead of nil nil. After quite a lot of exuberant cheering on to a game that is the same but not, I began to dwindle, confused from the internal conversation about what the Brits or Americans might call whatever. Identity slides somewhat, blending in was never more important, even if it just meant being able to get through a school footie match without subtitles.
When I first thought about our move I hadn’t quite considered the sheer scale of our new country. Living in England I had always imagined the states as though they were counties, it made sense because people in English counties have unifying dialects, community, architecture, culture, history etc. Turns out I was being parochial because there are very little similarities between most states, it’s like moving to England and thinking you’re in the same ballpark as Greece. You’re just not. It’s very discombobulating. It started to unravel when when I soon realised there was little choice for a daily national newspaper, a disquiet descended. I felt very naive.
We ended up living in the state of California, a special place not to be taken for granted, the geology is staggering and living on the canyons in Los Angeles is breathtaking; a big beautiful blue sky, tremendous full moons, the pacific ocean and high coastal paths, surf and mountains and snow. All very winning. The residents are bright and savvy, it’s an aggressively liberal state so Californian’s are chill with just about anything, they’re outdoorsy and sporty and healthy and autonomous. I get it, if you are from the golden coast you’re CA for life. But I’m not. I’m British. It was always going to be tricky moving from a farmhouse in the English countryside to a bungalow in Los Angeles, I had willingly departed from my normal for trying to work out the equivalent translation of almost everything down to basic food items in the supermarket. I had underestimated the structural differences between American and British English and was underprepared. And while it’s enormous fun to adventure new land, there comes a time when you just want to belong, fit in, the thrill of living outside of one’s comfort zone eventually wears thin. I’d found myself hoping to not speak in fear of my accent being detected, to avoid revealing my foreign status for the sake of blending in. It’s interesting to now reflect; I hadn’t thought that our children would struggle to settle given how social they are, and on the most part they didn’t, but we used to be a big sporting family in England, following much sports between us, the sports pages of the daily paper were a vital read. When my son realised he didn’t know the rules of any American sports and knew no basketball or football players, he spent a lot of time learning teams and their players, just to have something to relate to in the playground. He was once fully immersed in sporting culture but now no longer with common ground, he couldn’t talk easily about sports to his new friends and found this disconcerting. People bond over stuff like that, it was like a slice of his language had been temporarily removed.
In those early days I thought I was annoyingly antithetical, but then I realised I was being small-minded and that in reality, on a day to day basis, the differences in cultures were not so enormous. It dawned on me that I had instead grown lonely. I had lost my sense of belonging. One can be lonely anywhere, cities are the easiest places because they enable anonymity. If you’re like me and enjoy spending a substantial amount of time of your own then you quickly fall into the trap of isolation. Olivia Laing’s ‘The Lonely City’ talks only of this and I relate to her notion that loneliness doesn’t require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship. Not unhappy, to be clear, my life has much happiness and laughter, my family are bonded and we share a great deal of time together, appreciative of our adventures. I know how lucky I am to be present in my life, I have known love and deep relationships with good people. Loneliness however has the ability to reach its apotheosis in a crowd and it hits hard in the moment when you realise that you are just not from around these parts.
Realising I was lonely was pivotal. Human Beings are a curious species, social animals, the need to belong is rooted in our evolutionary history, no longer existing as ancient tribes but still with the desire to belong in groups. Finding our place is vital and necessary, a basic need, not to alter identity or lose individualism, just to find belonging. So I attempted to blend in with my new fellows. A hilarious example was when I finally took to the outdoors, I have always been more of an outside rather than inside person and our dogs keep me out each day. I’m hearing all about the goings on of ‘hiking’ but quickly confuse it with walking. Walking is something I nail; out for a few hours, through the woods, over the fields, off to the pub. Very straightforward and not an activity to puff you out. As it turns out, that’s not hiking by any stretch. On our first outing, the children and I chose Runyon Canyon and we set off with our Vizsla for a nice afternoon of it; dressed in typical British summer attire, sundresses and linen shorts. Trying to hike a canyon in a Cath Kidston floral dress is tricky at 98ºF as they do not wick. The children could find nowhere to run or climb trees, dappled shade is not a thing on a canyon, the dog grew progressively mental because she could not be let off her lead in fear of her slobber ruining one of the fine and rather expensive looking expert hikers, and the picnic I packed deemed itself useless because a hike is actually a physical activity, not a leisurely way to spend an afternoon. Looking like throwbacks from 1950 we left the canyon as soon as we could and headed straight into the uncharted waters of Lululemon. A new minefield. Am I pastel? Dark colours? Vests, sleeves, caps, water bottles, full leg, three-quarter, can my legs handle shorts, short shorts? Within an hour we had spent a fortune on clothes that would now wick, and we began to look more like our compatriots, and with a hobby I never knew I wanted. Exhausted with revelation I slept well that night and from then would pull on active wear each morning, vans slip-ons and my hair tied back because I no longer dye it the mental shade of auburn. I pack away my Englishy dresses, buy more chucks and vans and acclimatise to taxing walking (hiking). I’m blending in. I find better ability to shortcut to American English and am whipping around the supermarket in way less than the original 3 hours, my conversations are more concise, narrowing down the waffle as I start to use less words. Small talk is being worked on, although this one is a struggle given my love for big talk.
While it’s taken time to be comfortable with having more than one reflection, I’ve come to understand I’m this but I’m also that, I am more this side when I’m here and that side when I’m there. I value my new friendships and am grateful they hang in there for me while I addle though this disorientation. And I’m reassured when I travel back to my homeland and am surrounded by familiar faces and feelings that nothing is actually lost, there is always a way back to our oldest friendships and that shape-shifting blesses us with wholesome new outlooks, suggesting that belonging really is tribal; it’s more about revealing and sharing ourselves with important people than anything to do with coordinates.
CS Lewis says it so well through the voice of Prince Caspian; ‘Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different?’. Deep down I know have drifted from my previous self but I’ve come to believe when faced with the challenges of remoteness one is exposed to understanding one’s true values and ambitions. Realising the importance of refocusing and digging deep gives an honest appreciation for the richness and purpose of building new existences, friendships and relationships. These feelings a reminder we simply live alongside other folk who, for whatever their reasons, are also trying to blend in and find belonging — we all share that same need.