Tuesday, September 23, 2014
"You Live in London? Why?"
When I went through customs and immigration at JFK airport last week, the US immigration officer took a look at my declaration form and groaned with mock disbelief: "You live in the UK? Why? Why?" He shook his head with a wry smile. "You know, the only reason why someone would live there is because of work or for love. So which is it? Work or love?" he asked.
"Both, actually," I answered. "I don't know," I said. "I might head back here one day."
"But then you gotta bring him over!" the official said with a sigh. I'm not sure if the sigh meant that he was foreseeing the complications that international borders and green card applications would bring, or if he was sighing because he disliked the thought of an "alien" (which is how they refer to non-U.S. citizens in the States) being granted permission to stay in the U.S.
Either way, that's typically the reaction I get from people in the U.S. when they find out where I live - regardless of whether they're from New York City or Tacoma, Washington. It's usually shock, then disbelief, then this expression crosses over their faces ... like they feel sorry for me.
"It's real ... different out there, huh?"
"How's that working out for you?"
"Wow. London. Why did you pick there? Is the food nasty? I heard the food is real nasty."
I might as well have said that I lived in Timbuktu. Or Syria. Or in outer Mongolia.
Then, the inevitable: the most pressing question they ask is, "So when are you coming back?" It is difficult for them to comprehend that, given the choice, I chose to live in the U.K.
On the eve of her move back to the States, blogger Robin, of Second Floor Flat, recently wrote a post about her fear of "losing her cool" when she leaves the big city of London behind. Living in London as an American expat has, to an extent, contributed to the definition of who she is and has made her interesting to others.
But the people - my parents' friends, high-school friends I haven't seen for years, the sales assistant who asks for my zip code at Victoria's Secret when I just want to pay for my damn underwear and looks up briefly when I say, "I don't have one; I live abroad" - their reactions are not of interest, they are of pity.
Of course, this is not the reaction I get all the time. Just most of the time. Like, 90% of the time. The other 10% of the time, I'll get, "Oh my gosh, that is so cool. You are so lucky."
I'm not hurt by the negative reactions; I, for the most part, find them amusing. A little irritating (the food thing gets so old, so quickly), but mostly amusing. Yet after these interactions, I can't help but ask myself, "Why?"
Not, "why am I living in London?" I know why I'm living in London: because it's an amazing city with fabulous opportunities; because I have culture on my doorstep and new restaurants to discover every day; because I can be in Paris in two hours and eating steak-frites for dinner or fly to Madrid for the weekend; because I can have lunch at the British Museum and browse the collection for free; because strangers don't approach me in grocery stores and ask me, "What are you? Are you Korean? Are you Japanese? Are you Chinese?"; because no one stares when I speak in a different language or shouts at me, "Speak English, your in America!" when I do (yes, I imagine that every single person who ever utters those words uses 'your' rather than 'you're'); because I'm a shopaholic and my fashion influences here are largely Scandinavian and French; because I play with a symphony orchestra whose concert venue is a 5-minute walk from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament; because all of these reasons and more.
So, I'm pretty damn sure I know why I live in London.
But I just don't get the pity. I ask myself, "Why is this the first reaction?" Is it because they hate big cities? Is it because they think their city is the best? Is it because they've never been abroad, let alone outside their state border, and therefore believe what they hear on the news or TV or read about in books, blogs, and opinion pieces in magazines?
Help me out here.