On becoming (naturalised, half) British

I am undertaking ‘a journey to citizenship’ and happily (thankfully) I just passed the test and can apply for citizenship soon.
Fortunately I can be a US/UK citizen; the UK isn’t particularly concerned with dual citizenships and the US wants to keep us:

In order to lose U.S. citizenship, the law requires that the person must apply for foreign citizenship voluntarily, by free choice, and with the intention to give up U.S. citizenship.

Broadly meaning that unless you actually denounce your U.S. citizenship, or become a citizen of certain (mostly communist) countries – having dual citizenship is ok as was decided by the US Supreme Court in 1952 (Kawakita vs. the US)

My mother, like I assume many Americans, didn’t know this- she sent me an email:

Are you applying for British Citizenship? I am surprised but understand if that is what you want to do.

As if I was telling her I was joining a fascist regime.

I reassured her that if I had to choose I wouldn’t do it – I would stay American. Why?
Because I am from “GREATEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD”!

Ok, I am actually kidding about that (yes, really) but this sure is what you learn growing up in the US- We are great Great GREAT and everyone wants to be like us. As embarrassing as it sounds now, I definitely grew up believing this. If the US is good at nothing else it is damn good at indoctrination. Its like Disney, its easy to make fun of Disney when you are old and wizened but as a child it was magical – the wonderful world of Disney with singing birds and dreams that came true.

I wouldn’t say I am particularly patriotic but I am rather attached to my country – its a visceral thing – and I am proud of the idea and indeed ideals of the USA (even though I think we don’t often live up them) – the Constitution is an amazing document. I am also pretty attached to the UK and in particularly to England – I have lived here for a while and plan to stay. I wouldn’t describe myself as an Anglophile, I don’t have a particular love of all things English but I am fond of England and there is alot I like about it.
For example:

1 – Tolerance – England is an incredibly tolerant society
2 – Gentleness – the Police here are amazingly gentle; the Doctors and Nurses at A&E’s here are wonderful – and they have a certain gentleness about them in a way that just doesn’t happen in the US from either public service (in my experience)
3 – the availability of books – books galore, cheap books, good books… everywhere everywhere –
4 – Newspapers – Newspapers in this country are great, relatively
5 – the BBC – which has REAL documentaries – REAL
6 – Cheap food, in grocery stores here you can get decent veg for a decent price even in places like Tesco’s
7 – Trains
8 – you can have a pint in the pub and read a book and people leave you alone.
9 – Manners and moderation – if you don’t appreciate the scrum queue at a pub, go to the US in a crowded college bar on a weekend

The Quiet Pint

There are so many more things I could list. But what I find curious, from an outsider’s point of view, is that most of the English people I know are quite shy about telling me what is good about England – in fact many of them have nothing good to say at all, its like a negative patriotism and wonder why on earth I would want to move here
My butcher summed it up the best:

“You paid over a £1000 to live HERE?!?!?!”

And I am aware that to any point on my list a negative example can be provided- like ‘Yes but the bloody trains are never on time’ and ‘we aren’t that tolerant, look at the BNP’.

Why does patriotism have to be a bad thing? Just like you can be a patriotic American and not be Sarah Palin, can you not be a patriotic English man or woman and not be a member of the BNP? I think you can. There ARE some exceptional things about England and I think alot to be proud of if you are English. And it doesn’t mean you have to turn into someone who is worried about
“the immigration invasion of our country’ or ‘the threat to our security posed by Islamism”

You really don’t. Being an American, which is hardly the nationality du jour if you live just about anywhere in the rest of the world , I am attached to the idea of ‘take back the patriotism’. Why not? It seems reasonable to me that you can love your country and hate some of the things it does.

I am really excited to (hopefully) be becoming a UK citizen, though I doubt I will ever refer to myself as British (though it might be fun for the irony as I have a definite Southern US accent), or go out waving a flag at the upcoming Royal wedding – I am very proud of becoming a part of this country, a country which, in my opinion, has alot to be proud of.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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44 Responses to On becoming (naturalised, half) British

  1. rpg says:

    I say, that all seems a bit keen, dontcherknow?

    /replaces monocle.

  2. Heather says:

    I know sort of how you feel – and I got the same comment from my mom (and still do get some snideness from her brother) when I said I was applying for French dual citizenship.

    I say “sort of” because while I am not embarrassed to be American – and I defend certain things about the United States when I encounter prejudice and rank generalizations – I am still ill at ease with the concept of “being proud” of something to which we were born by chance. I do think each nation has identity and culture and accomplishments of which to be proud that could perhaps have only come to pass in that particular set of historical and geographical circumstances. So I never quite know what to say.

    Anyhow, welcome to Europe. Ask your typical Englishman if they feel proud to be European. 🙂

  3. The thing that made me think hardest about what being English meant to me was the latter days of Blair, what with things like the Iraq War and the proposals to have extended detention without trial. I seem to remember I wrote my (Labour) MP a long email, telling him I wouldn’t be voting for any party that could chuck away eight hundred years worth of hard-won liberties just like that.

    In the end, for me I think it comes down to a certain tolerance, a belief in the rights of citizens and in democracy, in the belief that no-one should be deprived of things like medical and social care because they couldn’t afford it. And, finally, in the ability (nationally and individually) to make fun of oneself and not take ourself / ourselves too seriously.

    I also used to think it was a broad belief in the UK (outside the Tory right) that inequality was a problem that needed addressing. Of course, over the last fifteen years we have had Govts here (of both political stripes) that seemed to feel inequality was a jolly good thing and we should have more of it.

    Re. Heather’s comment on the Brits and being European, I think the educated middle class in Britain do feel quite European. Certainly the people I hang out with feel that, language aside, we have far more in common with Western Europe and Scandinavia than with the US. But whether that feeling runs far beyond those socioeconomic sectors of the UK who are actually likely to speak at least one European language, I don’t know.

    • Thanks Austin,
      this is really interesting – I really like you say a ‘certain tolerance’ because that is precisely what I love about Britain is its tolerance …

      I can relate as well – I used to write my senator back home (while I was already in the UK) religiously asking 1 – how is guantanamo bay in any way within the human rights agenda set out by the UN 2 – why is the Patriot act in any way constitutional (whose tennants are pre-Magna Carta): Mostly I got form letters about the US being attacked by terrorists then he stopped replying….

      thanks for your comment

    • cromercrox says:

      Oh tosh, Austin. I feel much more at home in the US than I do in Europe. And I’m ‘educated’ and ‘middle-class’. Just not your educated and middle class.

  4. Jenny says:

    My application is in with the Home Office as we speak, and they’ve withdrawn the (non-refundable) £780, so fingers crossed I don’t get rejected at the final hour because of that minor fender-bender I ‘fessed up to when I was 17.

    By the way, there are a number of countries where the citizens assume that their country is the best in the world – I ran across that (entirely natural, in my view) attitude in the Netherlands quite a bit. The fact that some Brits don’t seem to feel that way about their own country is as sweet as it may be unusual.

    • I am sure your app will be fine but my fingers are crossed on your behalf.
      and I think there is nothing that would call into question you as a ‘person of good character’ – I love that question.

      Yes there are China is a good example – many people I knew in China were incredibly proud of China – for good reason, they have been writing stuff down while we Westerners were still largely an oral society….

  5. cromercrox says:

    Here’s a tale which I think illustrates the quality of Englishness perfectly.

    By the mid-seventeenth century, Jews had been excluded from England for almost four centuries (since the Expulsion of 1290). In 1655 a Dutch Jew called Manasseh Ben Israel asked the English Government if Jews might come to England to live and trade. He met Oliver Cromwell, who said he’d have to have a think about it. This equivocal attitude surprised Ben Israel, whose community had been accustomed to receiving one of two replies from various countries, either (a) no, or (b), yes, but only subject to a long list of very precise laws, regulations and proscriptions on where Jews might live, what they might do (and not do) and so on.

    Meanwhile, Cromwell convened what is now called the Whitehall Conference of 1655 to discuss Ben Israel’s petition. At the conference were the notables of the day, including prominent business leaders and churchmen. The business leaders all said ‘no’, because they feared the competition. The religious leaders all said ‘yes’ because the coming of Jews would hasten the Second Coming. (Why? At that time there was a millenarian craze which said that the Second Coming would only happen once the Jews had dispersed to the ends of the earth). The result of the Whitehall Conference – deadlock, and a headache for Cromwell, who, being a no-nonsense kind of guy, couldn’t see what the fuss was about. They were only talking about a few Dutch Jewish traders, not some vast migration.

    When Ben Israel asked Cromwell what the result of the conference had been, Cromwell’s answer was that – well, nobody could decide, but if the Jews came into England and behaved themselves, he was sure that nobody would notice.

    350 years later the Jews are still in England – not subject to a written set of laws, regulations and proscriptions, but as a result of that uniquely English characteristic of pragmatism in the face of indecision and muddle.

  6. rpg says:

    @Jenny “The fact that some Brits don’t seem to feel that way about their own country is as sweet as it may be unusual.”

    I wonder how much of that is due to ‘Britishness’, and how much due to being told it’s not on to be proud of our country. It’s reasonably difficult for citizens of a post-Imperial nation to feel good when people won’t let them forget the last couple of hundred years, despite the good that came of it.

    Actually, it seems peculiarly English rather than British: the Scots and the Welsh (and the Norn Irish) appear to have no such inhibitions.

    And while I’m rambling, I do feel more kinship with the US than with the rest of Yurp. Maybe it’s because of the near-constant state of hostility that has defined Europe for a thousand years (despite the Brits taking people and language and making them their own) and that the US feels like our moody teenage daughter in the anguish of growing up.

    • I think there is a good argument that the US is a product of the English Enlightenment – starting with thinkers like David Hume; our Consititution is a product of the age of Enlightenment –

      Patriotism is in some ways more easily defined in America (and France) because we have a definite beginning to our country and a whole set of myths around that ‘throwing off the oppressor’ and well having a revolution really helps to define a place. Similar to France, they have Bastille Day we have Independence Day, there is a very clear idea of what this means. As a side note, I think one of the weird things about being an American is that if you don’t buy into these cultural things that sends you a bit adrift in your own world where you feel like you ‘should’ fit in. the English don’t really have anything similar because for the most part, it gently evolved into a democracy with no huge revolution or clear demarkation point.

      thanks to all for your comments

    • Stephen says:

      Hmmm, Richard’s comment “It’s reasonably difficult for citizens of a post-Imperial nation to feel good when people won’t let them forget the last couple of hundred years, despite the good that came of it.” struck a chord.

      For one it’s a bit of revisionist, self-serving tosh! 😉 But I know him well enough to understand that his grasp of history is way more sophisticated than that. The interesting point is why people today feel such a connection to roots that stretch hundreds of years into the past. This clinging to history has often been a curse – as I know from growing up in Northern Ireland (see here).

      I think a lot of the problem stems from an ignorance of history. As Richard notes elsewhere, many brits (and americans) are derived from all over the place. If that was more widely appreciated, there’d be a bit less of the dark side of nationalist flag waving.

      • rpg says:

        I have an answer to this comment, but it’s too long to fit in this box. Sounds like a few pints are in order.

        • I used to have a recurring discussion in the States with sundry Irish-Americans (and Scottish-Americans) about this question of “ancestry” and “roots”. I was usually arguing that within Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) your identity as English/ Scottish/ Welsh was nowadays almost entirely a question of where you grew up and what your accent was – not really anything to do with your name or your parents’ birthplace. Thus my most Scottish friend was named “Smith” and had an English dad, but as he grew up in Prestwick and had a Scottish accent he identified (and was identified as) Scottish, and got married in the inevitable kilt. Just as I would be irrevocably English, despite having a mother raised as a Catholic and both of whose parents were born and lived their early life in Northern Ireland. Anyway, I found the American (and also Australian) determination to assume ancestral identities very odd.

          • it does to me too Austin – a not so distant ancestor of mine was from Inverness – but if that makes me Scottish than there is a Santa Claus – I have no connection with Scotland and would just describe myself as an American – as we all are – it always annoys me when one of my fellow country men thinks they are Scottish – they aren’t they grew up watching the same stupid TV that I did ….
            sorry that was a bit ranty…

  7. vrk says:

    Curiously, a similar embarassment about being Finnish is common in many parts of Finland (though obviously not in the circles of True Finns, the local equivalent of BNP). It may be easier to understand, though. Finland has never been an important cultural hub, had no slave trade (some people are actually sad that we don’t have colonies!), and has contributed little to science outside North Europe and the occasional successes in agricultural chemistry. The language is unique in Europe, which creates an effect that may be universal to all minority languages: if a foreigner tries to speak Finnish to the natives, the natives will reply back in English.

    I wouldn’t say the English are non-patriotic, though. There’s an increasing drive from certain quarters to normalise (what used to be considered) hate speech against immigration, and you need to look no further than the government’s recent caps on immigration of skilled labour (e.g. scientists) to find evidence that although people may not talk about it, they do care about maintaining a national identity. Isn’t that an integral part of patriotism?

    • Bob O'H says:

      I don’t think the Finns are embarrassed about being Finnish – they’re just embarrassed about saying anything positive about themselves.

      My impression, when I lived in Helsinki, was that Finns were very patriotic, but it was a stay-at-home sort of patriotism, rather than the sort of love of your country that makes you stomp all over the world teaching foreigners pesäpallo.

  8. rpg says:

    I don’t think that the immigration policy has anything to do with maintaining a national identity, but is rather an economic policy (net immigration of nearly 200,000 annually is unsustainable).

    You have only to look at the continued waves of immigration since… well, forever, to realize that if there is such a thing as a national identity for Britons it’s that we’re bastards (in the genetic sense). Most people don’t care where you’re from; if you’re up for a pint, some chips and poking fun at the French, you’re in.

  9. nico says:

    Funny what you say about the indoctrination that is prevalent in the US. I found it very entertaining when I lived there (Pullman, WA), especially since I am from THE best country in the world, France, in which such indocrination would never take place. *sarcasm*

    I agree with you that one of the best bits of the UK is its tolerance, and even if some people are trying to change that I think Henry’s historical example shows it is something that runs deep here, although the Irish might disaprove calling Cromwell tolerant… And I’m not keen at all on the monarchy, at least the English style doesn’t agree with me at all (way too high profile for my taste).

    I would say those values (for want of a better word) that Austin mentioned are pretty much a product of the Enlightenment, so they are British but also European. Those distinctions are becoming ever more artificial anyway: none of the French I know in the UK have French partners, few of the French I know in France are in a relationship with a French partner, and likewise very few of the Brits I know are in a relationship with Brits. Bring on the bastardization!

    And Richard, don’t diss the French, you never know what might make its way in your next baguette…

  10. rpg says:

    Can’t be doing with that foreign muck, Nico.

  11. Insightful perspectives – and ones that probably need to be aired more often than they are to counterbalance that English predilection for grumbling 🙂

    Interestingly, having moved to the US from the UK 11 years ago (and facing the opposite choice to you – whether to take the plunge of full citizenship here), one of the more prevalent arguments I’ve heard from ex pats for not moving back to the UK is this contrast between the positive/self empowerment attitude found in the States, and more of a negative/someone else’s fault that is sometimes found in the UK.

    Yet my sense is that this is usually a bit of verdigris on a far more complex national character, that does value tolerance and fairness. In the same way, I also suspect that the English dislike of overt patriotism masks a deep pride in the country and its society – albeit one that is tempered by centuries of seeing the harm that narrow minded patriotism can lead to.

  12. rpg says:

    “English predilection for grumbling”

    and yet… we have a reputation for not standing up for ourselves. “Mustn’t grumble”–especially when it comes to customer service, &c.

    (Having been called a ‘whingeing Pom’ simply for daring to exist, I have to say that I’ve never come across anybody more whiny than Australians.)

    • My husband does tell me when I complain too much to stop being ‘so English’ (he is British or more precisely English). He also really misses the US (where he lived for about 8 years) in part for the reasons that Andrew mentioned.

      America is an immigrant country (which we seem to have forgotten) which may precisely be why its so patriotic (in many senses) … and America has done some awful things for ‘patriotism’ – the Patriot Act for instance which I won’t get diverted by it makes me frightfully angry. But America means something entirely different to me than the news in different countries would lead you to believe.

      I also should point out I do come from the South and we are a proud bunch o’ fools (for what I am not always entirely sure) – no where else in America do you hear them saying the equivalent of ‘American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God.’ so I think we feel like a minority; as John Keegan (war historian) so aptly put it – I think the South is different because it is the one place in America which has suffered a huge defeat (I paraphrase) not sure I agree entirely but it is a point…

    • Heh. I used to enjoy reciprocally winding up the Aussies, mainly because I heard the joke about:

      “How d’yer tell when a planeload of Poms has landed at Sydney airport?”

      – so many times that it got a bit boring. (Ans: “You can still hear the whining when they turn off the engines”. Ho ho).

      PS At the risk of starting a political argument, interested to see that the two British OT bloggers of probably the most right-of-centre political persuasion, Henry and Richard, are the ones who say they feel most at home in the US. BTW, a link of interest in this context might be this one.

      • rpg says:

        Whee. I didn’t say I felt ‘most at home’ anywhere. I said I felt more kinship with them. I have no desire to live in the US at all.

        It’s probably something to do with a common (for the most part) language, the basis of common law (rather than Napoleonic Code), and an almost fanatical devotion to anti-Popery.

        That’s an interesting post by Martin, thanks Austin. Shame that the comments make my eyes bleed, but that’s the Grauniad commentariat for you.

        • Ah. Sorry Richard – missed that distinction. Apologies for being lazy.

          Obviously living in the US is easy for Brits given the shared language, and there is a lot of shared culture for the same (linguistic) reasons, plus some shared (though sometimes rather antagonistic) history.

          I have lived in the US twice, once as a kid (end of the 60s, including a full school year – we had Green Cards and came close to staying for good) and once as a mid-30s adult (Sabbatical year). As a kid, and on visits back in my early 20s, I always felt very much at home in the States – was set to do a postdoc in Boston before I got offered the Manchester job. However, going back to the States as an adult in the late 90s I found myself feeling much more European than before. Not quite able to pinpoint why.

          Talking of indoctrination, I was telling Sylvia the other day that, as kids in late-60s America, my little brother and I had to face the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in class. However, as Brits we were allowed not to put our hands on our heart. Presumably that was to indicate that it was a bit less binding!!

          PS I can still sing all the words to the Star Spangled banner, BTW. At least as well as Cristina Aguilera, anyway…

          • cromercrox says:

            Thanks for MJ Robbins’ article, Austin, I can now say that I now belong to at least six minorities disenfranchised by the metropolitan chatterati: (1) men (2) Jew (3) middle-class (4) conservative (5) er… (6) that’s it. But srsly, I did identiofy stongly with the person identifying themselves as ‘socially liberal but fiscally conservative’. That’s me to a T.

  13. ricardipus says:

    Hm. All this reminds me that one day, I should renew my British passport. I fall in that class of people who are British citizens, despite not having been born there (both parents were, in my case, although I believe that even a single grandparent would have done – although the rules have changed since).

    I’m not entirely sure what that passport will do for me, other than put me out about $350 since it’s now so long-expired that I have to go through the whole rigamarole, notarized copies of long form birth certificates of both parents, and so forth. If I intended to move to the UK it would probably help, and if I wanted to work there it certainly would (although it doesn’t make me a resident, of course). Whether or not I can vote is an unexplored mystery, but I don’t really have any reason to so I’m not that bothered. I suppose it would let me sneak through the faster line-ups at the airport though.

    Nevertheless, something about the UK always feels “home-y” to me, in some strange and ill-defined way (and yes, I did live in Wales for a year, believe it or not). The kids have relatives they should visit, so one day I suppose we’ll all make our way over.

    As a slightly related aside, it’s just been revealed that the Canadian government is reducing the number of immigrant visas this year by 5%. At the same time that they’re telling us we have a shortage of highly-skilled labour. Turkeys.

    • Oh crap!

      I wonder if I can renew my UK passport in time for our trip home… otherwise I’ll have to travel to my home country on my Canadian passport, which would feel very weird. The renewal is complicated by needing to change my name at the same time.

      Thanks for the reminder!

  14. chall says:

    I recognize that sentiment; it seems like my Southern neighbours and friends here in the South (of the US) are American, although they are spcifically from the South and therefore not \as those liberals on the corners\… 😉

    I don’t know, maybe it’s one of those things we people do? Needing to look for similarities, or thing to hold us together, or find differences with others whom we don’t like (or think we don’t like?)

    As for the immigrant thing, isn’t it that America was founded on immigrants but now, now it’s more of less based on birth-right (at least for another couple of years since that seems to be up for \debate\) and you should have at least been born here?

  15. chall says:

    (not sure why my comment didn’t end up where i wanted it to be – as a reply for Girl, interrupting mentioneing the South. Ah well)

    I think that my mother wouldn’t phrase it as nicely as yours if I were to apply for an American citizenship 🙂 to me it feels slightly odd thinking that I might end up with two cizitenships since I view my nationality with pride (or at least historically I was sort of proud.. last couple of years, it’s harder). Although, I irks me that I am not allowed to vote at all in the regional politics/referendums – or enter into descision making like that – while I’m not naturalised here.

    In Sweden we save the right to vote for Parliament for citizens, but municipally you are allowed to vote and care about your county… One of those points to me that would make it easier for me to accept that dual passports. Then I could assimilate a bit more too ^^

    Good luck with the applications and the beuarucracy!!

  16. cromercrox says:

    This post is great because it allows the refreshing perspective of seeing ouselves as others see us – very much as Bill Bryson’s book ‘Notes from a Small Island’ did. If you don’t know this book, it’s an affectionate study of Britain by an anglophile American. He finds it wonderful that there exists a country in which persist such oddities as Marmite and Gardeners’ Question Time.

    • Thank you very much
      he did forget I’m sorry I haven’t a clue and Bovril (way superior to Marmite)
      I think Bill is a much bigger anglophile (and writer) than myself.

      I liked your comment to Austin – it reminded me of a Violent Femmes song…

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  18. Congratulations on getting so close to dual citizenship! (And good luck to Jenny, too!)

    I felt the same way when I decided to apply for Canadian citizenship; I wouldn’t have done it if I’d had to give up my British citizenship at the same time.

    I felt completely at home the first time I set foot in Canada, after spending four weeks in the US. (I was sold as soon as I saw my first red postbox after weeks of blue ones!) On my next trip I saw much more of the country, and I was hit by an incredibly strong gut feeling that this was where I wanted to be, and moved here as soon as was reasonable.

    As I said in the linked post,

    “As much as I love my home nation, Canada just feels more… open, I guess. There’s much less of a class structure, people don’t judge you based on your accent the same way they do in the UK, and everything’s just so new… it feels like the possibilities are endless. And there’s so much space!”.

    So I guess I agree with the feeling that Brits are too negative! I often meet British tourists in Vancouver and Whistler, and they often tell me things like “oh you’re lucky to have got out when you did, the country’s gone to the dogs, it’s all downhill from here”. The first few times I heard this, I was a bit freaked out, and on my next trip home I was relieved to find things pretty much exactly the same as when I left! I’ve changed, though – I find the UK very cramped and claustrophobic now.

    US-style patriotism, on the other hand, is too rah-rah-in-your-face for my taste. I stayed with my cousin in Ohio for three months once, and had a great time and met some lovely people, but I never even began to feel at home there. It feels like a very foreign place, and my Canadian born and bred husband agrees!

    As in so many other things, Canada provides a fairly happy medium between the UK and the US… which may well be why I felt so at home here so soon! I’m just glad that I’m privileged enough to have the freedom of movement to make my home away from home!

  19. Steve Caplan says:

    I may have missed the boat, but I’ve got triple Canada-US-Israel citizenship. Some people collect stamps or coins; I collect passports…

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