What can I do to feel that the UK is my home country?
April 13, 2020 7:37 AM   Subscribe

In spite of living there more than half my life, I feel I can't call it my home and it seems to be down to the feeling that I don't deserve to. How can I change this?

I lived in the UK from age 18 until about a year ago (age 39) when I moved to the US. I went there for my undergraduate studies from a third country. I've been objectively successful -- Have an undergraduate and postgraduate degree from Cambridge, ran a lab in the university until a year ago, have graduated 8 Ph.D., 12 MPhil and taught over 100 undergraduate students. I have also brought more than $15M of funding to the country. I started a company that was successful and was acquired, and I have another company still going strong in the country. I've never been a burden on the state or the healthcare system.

Nevertheless, I feel embarrassed when questioned about where I come from, which I often am in the US. I never say the UK though I will mentioned I lived there for over half my life. This comes from a feeling that people will see right through me and assume I'm claiming the country to be my own when it obviously isn't as I'm not Caucasian. It gets even more complicated when people question why my accent is not typically British etc.

This feeling gets even worse around British people. I'll often meet someone and want to talk to them about the UK but avoid it while feeling a burning shame inside stemming from the fact that if I claim I am from there they will obviously know I'm an immigrant to the UK (and perhaps secretly be glad I'm no longer there!).

Rationally, I know people don't usually think that way but even if they do it's their problem. Rationally, I also feel I've contributed quite a lot to the country and I shouldn't be ashamed of calling it my own. Emotionally, I'm finding it incredibly hard to do so. Deep down I feel that perhaps I'll never belong but be tolerated so how dare I call it mine. This is a mindset for me to solve but everything I've done so far (talking to a therapist about it, reading about it, talking to close friends about it) has not helped. I guess I'm looking for ways to reframe the narrative and/or rethink things to try and get over this hump. Logically I know I've done enough that I can firmly say the UK is my home.
posted by gadha to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This comes from a feeling that people will see right through me and assume I'm claiming the country to be my own when it obviously isn't as I'm not Caucasian.

I wanted to address this as an Asian American who lives in the United States - it struck me because I regularly get the sort of "where are you from?" question (inevitably from white people) and what I've found is that sort of repeated questioning over time, especially if you aren't secure in your identity, can make a person feel like that they don't belong.

Fuck that. I was born and bred in this country, my parents are citizens and so am I, this place is my home. I also recognize that these days, globalization has made the question of "where are you from? where do you call home?" sort of meaningless (you're proof of this!) - Rather I identify strongly with the question of "where are you a local?" Taking pride and control of that narrative has shifted my perspective and has eliminated any figments of shame for me.

So I make it a point to shift the conversation to that. Whenever I get this question, I just rattle off the places I call home. "I grew up in State A, Region 1, went to university in State A, region 2, lived abroad in country B for X years, now and I live in State B."

95% of the time, White people who ask me this question aren't actually interested in where I'm actually from or where I call home - they see that I'm Asian and want to know what my ethnic background is. Sometimes I'll force the question - "do you want to know where I've lived or do want to know my ethnic background?" then address what they actually want to know.

Other people don't get to dictate where we feel like locals and call home. The xenophobia that permeates UK and US culture towards non-whites is HUGE and can drive these types of questions and also can make us internalize feeling as outsiders. Acknowledge it, then kick it on it's ass.
posted by Karaage at 8:28 AM on April 13, 2020 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I can't really tell whether your feeling is based on your own emotional connection to the UK (or lack thereof), or on a perception that there are gatekeepers for this sort of thing and that everyone, including yourself, is judging your qualifications to enter the club.

If it's the first case - about your own, personal connection to the UK, with everyone else's opinions being outside of the picture - then I think you don't need to force yourself to feel a predominant sense of belonging to any particular country. My answer to "where are you from?" is "I've lived in A and B", sometimes with more detail. You don't really have to belong to a country; they can belong to you. Nor do you need to feel like you have a single home country. I don't; if I said that I was only from country A or country B I would feel like I was denying the role of the other country in my life, as well as the role that being multinational - part insider, part outsider - has had in my life. I think it's fine to contain multitudes and actively let that be part of your identity, if that feels right to you. I think it's also fine if you, personally, don't really see yourself as being tied to any particular country and instead consider yourself more as cosmopolitan or as belonging to the global nation of part-insiders/part-outsiders. Or if you decide that the whole thing is about as meaningful as "Which team do you root for" and that you don't care about sports.

If it's the second case - the one defined by today's political, and racial, and xenophobic context - then yeah, please try to change that thinking. The idea that you need to be somehow deserving in order to claim a country as your own is very much not an objective or universally accepted one. (I think it's bullshit.) If you want to claim the UK as your one true home country, then assert it proudly because today's UK is also a country of immigrants, even if only half of the country is interested in admitting it, and the more people become aware of that the better.

And because the UK is a country of immigrants, that also means that all the various people in the UK who came to the country themselves or are children of immigrants will see you as no less belonging than they are. If you think that being accepted by them counts less than being accepted by someone very white and hyphenated, that's certainly something to work on.

If you're just worried about people's puzzled expressions on hearing "I'm British" said with a non-British accent, then give them a bit more context. They're not judging or evaluating (unless they're assholes), they're just suffering from the human condition where our brains store a simplified model of the world and only add detail when it comes up. You come up, so they're updating their model. That's a good thing. It can be exhausting or annoying sometimes to need to be the source of their education, but life is always going to be exhausting and annoying in one way or another, and you can choose to just leave people puzzled and let that be their problem.

Finally (finally), there are a lot of people in your emotional shoes, whatever they are. Maybe finding a counselor with a similar background, who is personally familiar with the feelings you describe, would give you an effective place to work this out.
posted by trig at 9:18 AM on April 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Nevertheless, I feel embarrassed when questioned about where I come from, which I often am in the US. I never say the UK though I will mentioned I lived there for over half my life.

I would be surprised if you said you were from the U.K. if you weren’t born there. I lived in California for 41 years starting when I was seven and I’ll still tell you that I’m from Ohio but lived most of my life in California.

That said, I have until recently felt California (and the United States) was my home and I am currently struggling with how to transfer that feeling here to the Yucatán in Mexico. No one will ever mistake me for a Mexican, citizenship or no. No matter how good I get with Spanish there will always be a huge cultural gap. You know those "You’re a child of the eighties if you remember this! [list of fads]" memes? I will never connect with those because I wasn’t growing up here in the eighties.

Fortunately Mexican culture (like most cultures) offers me a compromise position: I can live here, be part of the community, make this my home all while filling the cultural role of outsider. As long as I live here I doubt I will ever tell anyone that I’m from Mexico, but I will tell them that’s where I make my home.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:20 AM on April 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I lived in the UK from age 18 until about a year ago (age 39) when I moved to the US.

Yeah, this is odd, to me. You were already an adult when you got to the UK. It's not where you 'are from' in any sense of people asking the question, and I'm not even sure it's where you most identify with, based on your question.

Logically I know I've done enough that I can firmly say the UK is my home.

Feeling 'home' is not about logic, or value to the country or any of your parameters listed here. If you don't *Feel* home in the UK then you can't force it. You may like the place, have greatly enjoyed your time there and clearly felt a very functional part of society there, or even felt at your best as a person while there, but... if it doesn't feel like home, it isn't.

Your formative years, and the culture you are raised in and become a 'person' (because childhood and becoming as close to an adult as any of us get at 18) is fundamental to who you are. It sets the lens at which you look at things and affects how you view life (in my opinion/experience). And this happened outside the UK. You may have had a second coming of age and clearly feel you blossomed as a person (from reading your description of what you did) and became the person you feel you truly are in your time in the UK, but.... it was your second stage of life. It's not where you are from. I find it puzzling and confusing you'd not say you are 'from' a country that you lived in for your first 18 years.

I get the feeling this is more about some aspect of shame, or feeling of being judged/more judged, for being from the country (or countries) you were in from birth to 18. It seems to me you are more wanting to reject that country as your 'home country' and substitute another to avoid any of this judgement or associations or whatever you feel is negative about it, deep down, but feel false or conflicted about doing that. It's more about calling that country 'Not Home' than calling the UK home. Maybe *that* is what you should be unpacking with your therapist.

What about saying - "I was born in/originally from (3rd country) but I grew up in the UK". It's still a stretch of what happened, but it gets across what you want. You want to identify with the UK as a primary point of contact/reference for people and this gets the focus across you want. Or just say "I grew up in the UK" of "I moved here from the UK" and if they ask more say "My family is from (3rd country) but I grew up in the UK" if they want more detail. You don't need to give people a full run down, just don't be false and you don't need to give all the details.

"This feeling gets even worse around British people. I'll often meet someone and want to talk to them about the UK but avoid it while feeling a burning shame inside stemming from the fact that if I claim I am from there they will obviously know I'm an immigrant to the UK (and perhaps secretly be glad I'm no longer there!). "

There is a small proportion of people in the UK that would feel like that. These people are racists. They are not worth talking to, so who gives a fuck what they think? But why are you painting the entire population with that brush? And, also, why assume the worst part of any culture like that reflects on YOU. If it starts to look like they are of that mindset just walk away, don't judge yourself on the interaction, judge them. ESPECIALLY if you are meeting these people outside the UK! They tend to forget they are also immigrants when they do that, because they're dicks.
posted by Brockles at 9:50 AM on April 13, 2020 [7 favorites]

In spite of living there more than half my life, I feel I can't call it my home and it seems to be down to the feeling that I don't deserve to.

I cannot address the racist part of the UK and the US apart from acknowledging its powerful and toxic existence and damaging impact on you and others of color. I am an older white lady who is a dual US-Swedish citizen. I never wanted to call Sweden home until, eventually, I did. (There are racists here too, alas.) Do you actually want to call the UK home? Do you feel at home there? Do you like it?

By any conventional measure you are a successful and accomplished person. You lived in the UK and contributed to that country in a variety of significant ways between the ages of 18 and 39. But now you live in the US. Which country do you want to call home?

If you want to call the UK home because you plan to move back there, then that will probably have to wait until you get back. If you don't want to move back there, then why would you want to consider it your home? That is up to you, but it seems like a stretch to make it feel like home when you don't live there. Also, it appears that you are investing a whole lot of importance in the opinions of other people, which is an excellent way to feel shitty nearly all the time regardless of how you live or what you do.

In addition to the racism that you get to deal with, which I cannot address from my own experience, it sounds like you may also be dealing with a kind of displacement. Have you read Pico Iyer? Iyer was born in England of Indian parents, raised in the US, and eventually moved to Japan. He has called himself a "nowherian" and has written a lot about the struggle to find a place that feels like home. I enjoyed his book The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home, a collection of essays from 2001.

I attempted to raise my kid to feel at home in both Sweden in the US; sometimes it feels as though what I really did was ensure that my kid would feel like an outsider in both places. Wherever you end up more permanently, I hope you are able to create a sense of home for yourself by discovering the things that make you feel at home. It is not about deserving that feeling, it is about claiming it in whatever way works best for you.
posted by Bella Donna at 10:12 AM on April 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Like Bella Donna, I've had multiple homes abut am white and in a position of privilege that means my experience is probably not quite like yours. I know that the book Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race is a good read on insidious cultural racial bias that exists in the UK and if you've not read it, might at least offer some affirmation that the 'othering' that falls short of out-and-out obvious bigotry is real, shared, and it's not just a personal failing of yours if you can't ignore it with a "Meh, they're just racists!" shrug.

That element aside, I do share with you that I'm someone who's lived in a lot of different places, and while that's a wonderful thing, one of the prices is that sometimes you lose the ability to give a quick, simple answer to the question 'Where are you from?'. I was born and raised in England and live now in Scotland, which is generally not a huge thing, but I've been in Scotland 12 years and I always have a moment of frisson when someone asks where I'm from. Like... this is my home, but when someone asks where I'm from, it points out fairly forcefully that they hear me as being Not Scottish.

At the same time, I've lived in a whole load of other weird places along the way, and whenever someone from the Falkland Islands asks me when I'm "Coming home" ie. back to the Falklands, where I lived for a grand total of 3.5 years, I get a real warm feeling inside, because it means they consider me to be one of theirs.

So. I think it's OK to feel, for yourself, like you have a whole host of different 'homes', each of which means something different to you.

For the conversational thing, you just have to come up with a quick line that you're reasonably comfortable with and which will fill that gap in the conversation and enables you to move on. For me it's usually "Originally from [place of birth] but I'm from [current city] now".
posted by penguin pie at 10:38 AM on April 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

Underneath all this, we also have the fact that “the UK” is a fake made up thing which more or less exists administratively although who knows for how much longer, but that no one is really “from”, no matter how long they’ve lived in whichever part of it.

When asked, which is less often because white privilege, I say I’m from Coventry.

Seems like you could fairly say that you lived in Cambridge for x years?
posted by rd45 at 11:51 AM on April 13, 2020

I am a Caucasian man who was born and raised in the US, but moved to London about a third of my life ago. I was already old enough that I wouldn't adopt any particular accent except as affectation, but I naturalised and built my family here with my also-American (though not Caucasian) partner.

I always insist that I am British as well as American. I'm not English, but I am a Londoner. I do this partly because I also insist on the Americanness of every immigrant to the US. As others have pointed out here, anyone who would try to take any identity away from you is what we call a bigot.

I also see the "hyphenation" of all the people I know who have moved from one country to another not as "splitting" but as adding. An Asian-American isn't "half" one or the other, but a summation of both in whatever way their life played out. I am American, and British, and yeah I'm white. I wouldn't try to chop up a pie chart to work out how much of each was which, because asking someone non-white to do this would make my teeth grind.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:50 PM on April 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

It's enraging that someone as accomplished as you has to deal with this!

As you know, to be British you just need to pop out at the right time/place from the right parents, or fulfill 10 bullet points and read a flimsy 50 page booklet, that's it.

> I'm claiming the country to be my own when it obviously isn't as I'm not Caucasian.

It feels like this is the core of it, but it's so under emphasized in your question that I wonder if it has been a blind spot in your search. Maybe investigating deeper your feelings about race might be the new angle of attack you were asking for?
posted by haemanu at 3:51 PM on April 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

As a fellow not-white person with a complicated answer to the “where are you from” question, I feel you. This stuff sucks. I tend to agree with Brockles: I think the problem lies with your country of birth. You seem to not want to tell people this part of your life story, for which you may have perfectly valid reasons. BUT because your accent isn’t “typical” and because you’re not white, when you say you’re from the UK, you instantly feel like a fraud. Because they can reasonably guess you’re leaving out part of the story. By not mentioning your country of birth, you’re basically unintentionally calling attention to it. Perhaps something like “born in X, but UK is home” would solve this for you?
posted by yawper at 4:59 PM on April 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Respectfully, white people answering this question may be missing a large part of why the race dimension makes this question so thorny to answer in the US. And conversely, I, as a first-generation American of Indian descent, may be missing UK-specific nuance!

For the majority of white Americans, being "British" means being Caucasian and speaking RP or Cockney. Specifically Englishness, and largely London-centric Englishness; Wales, Scotland, and N Ireland are afterthoughts, if thought of at all. In the US, there's little to no recognition of the variety of cultures that make up the UK. So that's likely where the people questioning you are coming from, mentally. They see someone who is not white and doesn't sound like the Queen or Michael Caine, and their brains simply do not compute.

OP, is the country of your birth/childhood one of the former colonies of the British empire? If so (and maybe even if not), there can be a lot of internalized racism around ethnicity, which is completely irrational but emotions and biases aren't rational, you know? Maybe you're already working with your therapist on this, but learning about colorism and examining my own preference for British over Indian media really made a difference for me. And I'm second gen!

Like trig, I'm unsure whether this question is coming from a place of personal emotional connection with the UK or not. Emotional connection doesn't really have to do with how long you've lived in a place, but I do wonder how much the gatekeeper phenomenon is playing into your hesitation to label yourself as British. It's a little like your listing your extremely impressive CV in this question. The UK definitely benefited from your presence, no question, but the way you've framed it in this question sounds a little like a green card application. (Sorry, US-centrism again.) Which is a pretty sterile way to describe attachment to your home country. If you hadn't done all those impressive things, you'd still be in your rights to call yourself British. If you wanted.
posted by basalganglia at 6:27 PM on April 13, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I have three main ways of dealing with others' perceptions: explain, default to script, push back. I'm sharing just in case my perspective is useful to you.

Background: I'm a white, naturalised Brit from a former colony who's spent most of their adult life either in London or in some way professionally or personally entangled with the UK. Coming from a former colony, a big chunk of my education, cultural and formal, was "British". My partner of nine years is a white Brit. Our home is in London but that's more of a base nowadays because we have a nomadic lifestyle. In my "home country" I'm told I'm too "English" (yes, this is problematic in itself), and when I meet Brits I'm often excluded from conversations about "home" or not considered to have the capacity to weigh in on matters British. I also experience casual racism about my accent and I've experienced hostility by people in a way that exacerbated my feelings of non-belonging. I don't feel like I belong or I'm fully accepted in either of my home countries, my first or second, and I don't think that feeling will ever go away. I'm mostly okay with this at this stage because it's given me an outside perspective that I'm grateful for. So inwardly, I've come to embrace all the cultures I hail from (there's several but that's another story). It's relating to others that gets a bit tricky sometimes.

When I have the emotional bandwidth, I explain. Take a comment by a friend, with no hint of malice in their tone, that Britain's not really my home. I explained to them that it is and it isn't, that I've spent most of my adult life in the UK, that I'm a naturalised Brit, that I have professional and personal ties with the country, and an emotional concern for the UK. So that I do consider the UK my home as well.

It also helps to have a script when asked that dreaded question and its variants: where are you from? I was born and raised in ____ but I've lived in the UK for most of my adult life. / I don't consider ____ my home any more as I left half a lifetime ago./ I'm culturally confused. / Oh, I just have one of those regional [British] accents. Notice, that my responses might come across as contradictory. Yes, I'm a bundle of contradictions and I embrace all of my different selves. It's complicated.

Sometimes, I push back. How I do this ranges from the death-stare serious to the jokey aside. I might fall back to my script for this. So there you have my arsenal: explain, default to script, push back. Please feel free to reach out if it helps to speak more about this. I'm sending you good thoughts.
posted by mkdirusername at 11:44 AM on April 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Heritage is one answer, but another is where you became an adult and passed the tests that show you to be an adult (earning qualifications, creating businesses). A third is whatever gets the result you want from the person who asks you or builds the relationships you want. I say that because you can play whichever role you choose.
My joking answer about colonial British ways is "I owe you no explanation." :-D
posted by k3ninho at 12:16 PM on April 14, 2020

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