I came to live in New York in July 2005 on a work assignment. This is particularly noteworthy given pre-2002 I had no intention, whatsoever, of visiting America. I blame this on UK TV brainwashing that resulted in a myopic belief that America was just burgers and Disneyland – neither of which are particularly important to me. The last seven years have served as a lesson in understanding myself as an amalgamation of genes, hard-wired cultural biases and transformation through emigration. Our common language is a “faux amis”. An American or a Brit moving to China, India or somewhere equally different to their native home is primed to expect a culture shock and a necessary period of immersion. Moving between the UK and US, however, is laden with unexpected landmines. As humans there are many more ways in which we are the same the world over than different but it is naive to underestimate the importance of cultural nuances. They shape so much of what we expect from life, how we perceive each other and what we value most on a day-to-day basis.
The decision to immigrate was a spontaneous one precipitated by a drunken post-work conversation! It is the only hangover I truly don’t regret. I arrived on a British Airways flight – my first ever business class trip. Flat beds and champagne whilst airborne make an excellent combination. I even dressed up for the occasion in a brand-new Reiss suit and Swarovski jewelry! I repeatedly gave away my novice status by looking quizzical every time the stewards offered me something and whenever I had to tackle a new gadget! At least one pale male frequent-flyer type was bemused by my amateur maneouvres!
The heat was palpable on landing – humid with no breeze. Having entered the “land of extreme customer service”, I was unsurprised to see the “service pledge” hanging on the walls of JFK immigration. As the “face of America”, border-control staff pledged to greet every individual with courtesy and welcome them to the US. Imagine my disappointment at being dealt with by a miserable Italian-American. His welcome was limited to the muttering of “customs form, customs form” whilst slapping my passport on the counter and refusing to give further assistance. I deciding against reminding him of the pledge on the basis that I hadn’t yet had my passport stamped and that this country is armed!
The taxi ride from the airport was symbolic of what has become a daily struggle with comprehension. Both myself and the taxi driver repeated ourselves constantly to make head or tail of my instructions. Attempting Queen’s English didn’t do the trick either – I am aware that attempting to speak “proper” doesn’t mean I succeeded! Taxi journeys have been a bug-bear ever since. Whilst many things in New York work much more efficiently than their UK equivalents, the contrast between the London cabbie and the New York version favours Blighty. Mr London Cabbie dutifully takes “The Knowledge” test and can rarely be found ill-informed of the A-Z, whereas I suspect New York taxi driver undertakes “The Abyss” before getting his yellow charge. It’s as if they erase any prior knowledge of the streets of Manhattan in order to appear confused when the passenger tells you where they want to go. Ask them to go to Brooklyn and they’ll suddenly decide their shift has ended!
People often ask me, “Which do you prefer?”. My on-the-fence response is “Neither”. The perfect nation, for me, is a combination of the UK and the US. In my head, at least, that’s where I live.