Friday, May 20, 2016

I think I passed the "feel like a foreigner everywhere" test

6:23 a.m. at King's College Hospital, south London. An early Monday morning. I've been up about 14 hours at this point, having come straight from work. I walk into the dim blood test waiting room. A man of 80 is standing there already. He says to me, before I can press the button for a number, that the machine is not yet working.
"That figures," I say. "Well, it's early. Maybe it'll start working around 7?"
"Could do," he replies. "Where are you from?"
"Boston, sir."
"Ah, so you're a Yank," he exclaims, pronouncing the last word as if it tasted of chocolate cake. I have the perhaps too-proud pleasure of informing him that, yes, that's true, but that I'm a British citizen and passport holder.
He tells me about himself. He's a Korean War veteran who also spent time in jail for stealing cars during his youth. He also reminisces about his time in Arizona where he went because property during the '50s was cheap and it was open to Green Card holders. He never got his American citizenship, however, so he eventually moved back to London.
"An' when I got back," he says, giving me a steely, but sincere look, "it was like starting over. Hard to describe. I felt a piece of me missing, knowing I left it 'ere, but I couldn't find it."
I'd be lying if I said I could not relate.
Actress Kate Beckinsale recently commented on the ex-pat phenomenon. She said, "I remember someone saying to me that if you've lived for five years away from where you came from you're never completely at home anywhere and I do feel a bit like that. I'm very familiar now with Los Angeles and America but I still feel one hundred percent a foreigner here, and then I go back to London and I don't feel completely un-foreign there."
It's the same for me, but in reverse. I haven't been to Boston since 2011, though even then, I had to get accustomed to a different pay system for the public transportation system. A lot has changed in the years since, and I know I'll be slow to re-acquaint myself with it all.
When I go back, after years away, the uncomfortable truth is this: I'm a tourist in my own city.
As great as it is to have been blessed with another citizenship, to have a different country enshrine me as one of its own, what I cannot escape is my upbringing. I wasn't born here nor did I grow up and get schooled here. That's an experience I will never know. Therefore, like Beckensale, I cannot claim to feel totally British, even though the law states that I am.
Yet there exists a very good chance that if I'm in a sports bar in the North End, sipping an espresso at South Station or hanging out anywhere on my old stomping ground, people will ask me, as the 80-year-old, former Jack the Lad did, where I'm from. And it will sting.
Will I ever attain a sense of belonging? Or will this state of limbo in my mind last the rest of my life? I'm not afraid of it. But it would be nice to know all the same.

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