I Was a Teenage Expat

I Loved America, Until I Had to Live There

England: the land of teatime, Harry Potter, and an archaic politeness more suited to novels than everyday life, all topped off with charming accents. My American family moved from the U.S. to the suburbs of London when I was 4, and my childhood fit that stereotype perfectly.

Bishopsgate School, my “primary” (read: elementary) school in Virginia Water, England required us to wear uniforms that included bowler hats and pinafores. While Bishopsgate was a private school and exceptionally posh, almost all schools in England require a uniform consisting of a blazer, white button-downs, ties, and trousers or skirts depending on your gender.

My school took an annual trip to France and one to Wales to celebrate the graduating boys and girls moving to their secondary schools. We cheered “Hip hip hooray!” to the visiting sports teams—girls’ netball, field hockey, and rounders, and boys’ rugby, football, and cricket—regardless of who won the match. And of course, we had a school-wide daily teatime at 4:30 where everyone drank a cup of milk and ate sandwiches. (My confusion between the chocolate and marmite spreads during one particular teatime has led to a hatred of marmite that even an intense nostalgia and fondness for all things English cannot budge.) Some of my classmates even lived in tiny dormitories in the Victorian building above the dining hall, sharing a common room with old DVDs and squishy beanbags. We had school-wide exams every year beginning in second grade, in addition to standardized tests, and we practiced French from kindergarten on up. We played sports for an hour a day and took P.E. classes three times a week. My all-girls middle school had a similar feel, except we traded in our bowler hats for navy and yellow ties and smart blue blazers, and school ended at 3:30 instead of 5:30. And it had all the propriety you’d expect from a British educational institution: After an accidental six-month stint where I dyed my hair bright red (the dye was meant for a day-long charity event), the school banned unnatural hair colors.

But as charming as all this was, and as much as I loved my school, my neighborhood, and my friends in England—as well as my family’s English dog, a chocolate Labrador with the most country, corn-fed, American name: Sally—I yearned for the America that my dad waxed poetic about. England was clearly my home and my base, but for my most of my childhood, I identified as “the American” at my school. And “American” and America for me were embodied by the oasis of Saint Louis. It was the city where my parents were from, where our extended families lived, and where we spent every summer with friendly, kind Americans. I spent all year in England boasting about St. Louis’ superiority obnoxiously to anyone who would listen.

I loved spending most of my summer holidays in St. Louis, wandering around the zoo, basking in the sun, eating too much frozen custard (my combo of chocolate custard and Reese’s Cups remains perfect), and playing Crash Bandicoot on the old PlayStation at my grandparents’ basement with my cousins. Our family stayed with my grandparents, who spoiled my brothers and me rotten: giving us new videos to watch, organizing family get-togethers, getting our favorite American fast food, and letting us sleep in. Is it any wonder that I loved the entire United States as a result?

But that was all before my grandma died of cancer, when I was 12. We had been tremendously close; she wrote me letters covered in festive stickers during the school year and took me to cooking classes during the summers. At the end of every summer, she would cry, and make me cry, until we drove down the street on our way to the airport. But after she died, I stopped crying as my parents packed up our rental car.

Which is why England was more home than ever when the unthinkable happened: A day after my 14th birthday, my parents announced they had decided to move back to St. Louis.

My mom had been offered a promotion, my dad wanted my brothers and me to experience an American education, and my parents missed being close to their families. For them, the timing was perfect. Plus, I would be going into high school, so the transition would be smoother. We flew back in mid-July and moved in with my grandpa. I had no friends in St. Louis, and school didn’t start for another month: I was bored out of my skull. Instead of relishing the total freedom and doting family members of earlier summers, I stayed in bed all day watching Friends DVDs before sneaking out at 1 a.m. when everyone had gone to bed to eat chocolate bars and smoke the butts of my grandpa’s Marlboro Reds. It was the biggest rebellion I could think of.

I was apprehensive about school. My only impressions of American high school were from movies like Mean Girls and overhearing conversations between my parents and my older cousins. And the American education system seemed iffy. My brother had gone to school with my cousin for a day and got asked questions like, “Are there trees in England?”; the immediate follow-up question was, “Are there squirrels?”

But my new school, though less exotic than its British counterparts, which were full of international students, had its positives. Whitfield didn’t require a uniform, and while there was no teatime, it possessed a snack area where you could buy doughnuts and coffee in the morning. And have I mentioned it was co-ed? It also had its very own dog, a morbidly obese golden retriever named Rascal, which amazed me. There were surprises, too. There was no homeroom, and people threw their books and bags carelessly in the hallways between classes instead of using lockers. The school also shared in the cliquishness of a small city where everyone had grown up and then settled down together. I felt left out. And while I felt confident in my studies for the most part—I had spent my whole life taking versions of Western Civ, and this was the first time anyone in my class had studied it—I was hopelessly behind on U.S. history.

I began to yearn for England, just as I had for St. Louis. I felt defiantly English in the American Midwest. Language was the toughest thing to get around, even though I was moving from one English-speaking country to the next. “Rucksacks” were now “backpacks,” “subjects” were now “classes,” and I gave several classmates heart attacks asking about our next “test,” thinking “tests” and “quizzes” were interchangeable terms. I asked people “Pardon?” instead of “What?” when I couldn’t understand them, like a hard-of-hearing old woman instead of a normal 14-year-old high school student.

My mom agreed to take me back to England at the end of the school year. I was thrilled. I didn’t sleep during the flight; my thoughts were racing. I visited my old classmates on their last day of school. Few people recognized me at first. When they did, they screamed, “Oh my god, you sound so American!” While I enjoyed being back, it felt soul-crushing to become an American in England all over again. I expected life to shift back to how it was when I lived there, but instead I had become another visitor. I didn’t have the heart to go back again until after my senior year of high school, three years later.

I’m now 21, which means I’ve spent more than half my life in America. But I still compulsively, and insufferably, feel the need to identify myself as English to people I meet, and my accent switches between English and American.

Sometimes, I worry that both nations are so similar that I am making a big deal out of nothing when I grapple with their reconciliation. Our language and cultures are so intertwined, after all. And still, every time I visit the one and return to the other, I feel like I’m traveling between two worlds. The good news is that it increasingly feels like traveling between two homes as well.

Emily Lombardo, Zócalo’s editorial assistant and a student at Occidental College, is spending this semester in Japan.
Primary Editor: Andrés Martinez. Secondary Editor: Sarah Rothbard.
*Photo courtesy of Will Taylor.
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