In which I go native

We scientists are an itinerant bunch, wafting from job to job, city to city and – frequently – country to country, in search of that elusive permanent position. Because of that, our sense of ‘home’ – a place where we feel rooted – can be even harder to grasp.

I will never forget the first time I touched down in the UK in 1994, on an ultimately ill-fated romantic mission. My first port of entry was Glasgow Airport and, after waiting for a bus on the wrong side of the road, I eventually worked out how to get to Edinburgh. The sensation of being in Scotland was simultaneously foreign and yet intensely familiar, as if it were a place I’d known from long ago. This rightness was so strong that I felt a sharp pang when I landed back home in Seattle: the babble of my native tongue was somehow disconcerting. I wrote in my journal, I know I’ll find a way to return.

I left the US in 1997 for a post-doctoral position in London and never looked back. Aside from my four years in Amsterdam, London has been my home ever since, so much so that when I was homesick in the Netherlands, it was London that I missed, not America.

There are two sorts of long-term ex-pats: those that seem to retain a bubble of their birth place about them, and those that essentially go native. Unlike some of my compatriots in London, I didn’t fight the change in accent: the volume diminished, I rediscovered my t’s and my a’s started to lengthen. In scientific talks, I found myself saying “beeta” and “zed”. British words began creeping into my everyday language, and more problematic American constructions (such as khaki pants – ask your nearest Brit why this doesn’t work) slipped away. Collective nouns became plural. I began putting the word ‘do’ after conditional expressions, saying “as if” instead of “like”, and “quarter past two” instead of “quarter after”. At conferences, Americans regularly mistook me for a foreigner. (In fact, at the American Society for Cell Biology meeting last year, I felt like a total alien.)

Although I finally gained permanent resident status, I still felt it wasn’t enough. I hated not being able to vote, even in my local borough, especially after becoming politically active, and I was sick to death of languishing in the long ‘other’ line in British and European airports. And the current government’s stance on non-EU immigrants made me uneasy; strictly speaking I was safe with my “indefinite leave” status, but who knew where possible future xenophobia might one day lead? In short, the word “indefinite” did not feel quite definite enough.

So this year, I set off on my journey to citizenship. For me, after filling out all the forms, paying my £750 to the Home Office and waiting a few nail-biting weeks (would they reject me for having ‘fessed up to that fender bender when I was 17?), that journey ended in Peckham. On the way to its Town Hall this morning, the signs seemed auspicious.


I even wondered if there might have been an easier, and cheaper, way to become naturalized over-the-counter:


Southwark Council do a lovely ceremony (note the plural collective noun – sort of sexy once you get used to it, isn’t it?).


The deputy major had a purple robe, a reassuring amount of bling and a golden mace that could probably fell an antelope with one swing, and the room was full of about sixty people from all over the world, dressed in their finest.


Two local musicians played Irish jigs, reels and airs for us, in celebration of St Pat’s tomorrow. Ironically, Irish music always makes me feel homesick, in a good way – not because I have more than your average mongrel American’s amount of Irish blood, but because everywhere I’ve lived on this planet, I’ve always found a proxy home in Irish pubs, which specialize in taking in strays and consoling them with their music, sad and joyful all at the same time, in a way that makes being far from home seem bearable. I was genuinely moved by how welcoming the officials made us feel – even the Queen, surveying us all from within her gilt portrait frame, seemed to have a cheeky glint in her eye.

Then it was my turn at last.


Afterward, lesson one: we all queued (politely) to get our photo snapped next to her.


I thought becoming a citizen was just a way to make my life more convenient. But I was not prepared for the deeper impact. Now, back at home in the flat that I own, safe with my family in a neighborhood I have grown to love, I feel a sense of home that I haven’t experienced for as long as I can remember. Maybe laying down roots will become problematic when I start looking for the next lab job, but I don’t care: I feel as if I’ve finally got my priorities straight.

[all photos by Richard P. Grant]

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Nostalgia, The profession of science. Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to In which I go native

  1. Congratulations! Isn’t it a great feeling? I hope you’re celebrating appropriately.

    Your story is almost the same as mine, but in the opposite direction!

  2. When I lived in the US I always felt the irony of paying taxes and not having the vote, particularly when visiting Bunker Hill.

    Glad you feel so comfortable over here….. I’d never spotted the difference in conjugation following collective nouns, you learn something every day.

  3. Pete B says:

    Well, welcome aboard!
    I must say though, there’s one very (US) American trait you still have that’s a dead giveaway – you speak approvingly of Britain. Native Brits, from the Prime Minister down (but excluding her gracious Maj) take every opportunity to slag the country off.
    Please stay – I’m sure you’re a great asset to us.


  4. Thanks Cath and Anthene! I feel absurdly happy right now.

  5. Thanks, Pete! Don’t worry, there are a lot of things here that irritate me. But it would be churlish to dwell on them on my big day. 🙂

  6. KristiV says:

    Congratulations, Jenny!

    I was on NIH money for the three years I lived in the UK, so I paid US taxes. There was some debate among my two British flatmates as to whether I should pay poll taxes, but in the end they to decided to keep the American lodger a secret, so they wouldn’t have to pay taxes on my rent. Or something like that – I didn’t press the issue.

  7. Congratz, innit? And a bling-tastic welcome to the delights of UK, like, Citizen-ness, Jenny.

    I’ve tried to talk The Boss into it occasionally, but she seems to think that being a legalised Brit is less desirable than remaining a citizen of Dem Vaterland.

  8. chall says:

    Congratulations! (And now the whole EU welcomes you as well! As a fellow EU citizen, welcome 🙂 ) The ceremony looks very nice and something I think everyone would cherish. I mean, being a true part (or what ever one might call it) of a new country should be a big thing in one’s heart, imho. And the photo with the (photo of the) Queen, very much one of those things.

    I’ve thought a lot about this since I never thought I’d stay this long in the US…. and getting my green card was one of those intense feelings of “at least they can’t throw me out as easily as one my visiting visa”. I’m not feeling like a true American just yet, although I have to admit feeling more like an American than I would’ve thought before… As for citizenship – I guess it will depend if I stay another couple of years before I am eligable to apply. Right now though, I wouldn’t say no to being able to vote and be a “real” part of the society where I’ve lived that last half decade in.

  9. Grant says:

    Lovely post, Jennifer – but then almost all of your’s are.

  10. Welcome! I find it inexplicably moving that people want to join this curious country. I had a US postdoc who did the same.

    When I was working in the USA I too was frustrated at not being able to vote. In 1972 I said at a party “surely you can’t elect Nixon” and was met with indignation that a foreigner should express an opinion. Asked why. I said “he’s obviously a crook” -causing more outrage. I often wish I could have met the same people again in 1974.

  11. cromercrox says:

    Ah, bless. Brings a tear to the eye.

  12. I think in a shared house, the council tax is per household, not per housemate. There’s a discount applied if you live alone, but your presence didn’t alter that since there were already two of them – although they could have asked you to chip in.

    Rather annoyingly, even though I earn most of my money in the UK, I still have to fill out the US 1040 each year, and the 2555 foreign income exclusion form. I don’t earn enough to have to pay any tax, but it’s a pain to prove it.

  13. Ah, she’d have to give up her other passport? Fortunately I didn’t, so I’m a dual citizen now. I”m going to be the speediest traveler in the West!

  14. How long do you have to live there before they let you apply, and are there big hurdles? Here, if you’ve done your 5 years and remained economically active and haven’t got into trouble, it seems pretty straightforward.

  15. stephenemoss says:

    It’s oddly uplifting that someone would want to not just live here but take on nationality too, particularly when you think how much we Brits whinge about the place. Well, we certainly need your American up-and-at-em bravura – I’m not sure whether any of us native natives would have got scienceisvital off the ground.

  16. Tom says:

    Yay. Welcome aboard!

  17. Mike says:

    Congrats, Jenny. May you bask long in the glow of belonging, and fish & chips (with curry sauce).

    Hmmm, I have a largely unused vote lying around the UK somewhere. Perhaps we could come to some agreement if you promise to use it sensibly…

    In other breaking news, Southwark council apparently haven’t realised that (R.o.) Ireland hasn’t been part of the UK for over 60 years. Unless they were playing specifically Northern Irish jigs, which I’m pretty sure are similarly jaunty. All of which reminds me of an old Viz joke:

    Q: Have you ever seen Come Dancing?
    A: No, but I’ve seen some seamen jig.

  18. Prateek Buch says:

    welcome, and thank you for a moving blogpost!

  19. Rob says:

    Welcome, fellow citizen!
    Also; hur hur, you said “pants”.

  20. Sarah says:

    Jolly good old bean! There aren’t many journeys in life that end happily in Peckham.

  21. Svetlana Pertsovich says:

    There is no difference between USA and UK.
    The same system.

  22. @Mike They explained that the (R.o.) Irish music was chosen because they always try to include an element of relevant culture in each ceremony, even if it isn’t British. In this case, there was a story behind it. The musicians were a young brother and sister team who live and teach music in the borough. Their parents, before they knew one another, immigrated from Ireland back in the big wave of Irish immigrants and settled in Southwark. Eventually they met in the borough. So it was symbolic of immigrants coming to the UK and making a happy home there. Personally, I thought it was a lovely thought.

    @Sarah I don’t think Peckham is as bad as everyone thinks, but I’m glad I live in Rotherhithe. 🙂

  23. Mike says:

    Ahhh, nice background story.

  24. KristiV says:

    I can’t say that I ever understood all the subtleties of the poll tax while I was in the UK, but I remember that, at the time, the amount differed wildly between different boroughs. We were in Wandsworth, and the poll tax there was significantly different from that in neighboring Lambeth. Don’t know whether that has changed.

  25. The tax doesn’t vary by borough so much as by the price of your house. So if you live in a tiny, cheap flat in an expensive borough, you’ll pay less than someone in a luxury flat in a poor borough. In theory, because something of the neighborhood does rub off a little on prices.

    p.s. It’s not actually called the “poll tax” – that’s something else from the Thatcher era.

  26. Nico says:

    So you are a free citizen that voluntarily became a subject of Ms Windsor? Does 1776 mean nothing to you? 😉

    Seriously, congrats on clearing all the hurdles (and contributing £750 to the exchequer, we need all we can get our hands on for the Olympics!) and joining the great European family.

    Like you I am quite cross at paying tax but having little representation, although as an EU passport holder I can vote for local and European elections at least. I understand that like Austin’s significant other I would have to surrender my other passport if I acquired a British one, and I like the word “République” embossed on it too much to do that.

  27. KristiV says:

    I was in the UK at the end of the Thatcher era. 😉

    Sounds more like property taxes here in the US, though in many cities, the basic rate varies depending on the school district. For example, there are several independent school districts for the San Antonio metropolitan area, and the one which includes my neighborhood has the highest rate (better schools, on the whole). But of course the price of the house is the primary factor in determining property taxes.

  28. daniel says:


  29. Ah, sorry, I thought you were referring to the Council Tax. Never mind!

  30. forsyth says:

    You can be even speedier, since you can now register for IRIS.

  31. rpg says:

    I’ve seen IRIS in operation, and it seemed terribly slow.

  32. forsyth says:

    I suppose it sometimes could be, especially if you’re behind one of those people who also seems never to have seen a cashpoint before. Unlike the UK/EEA section, however, there typically isn’t even a queue, it takes about 5 seconds, and you don’t need to find your passport, let alone actually speak to someone at 6 in the morning. I certainly missed it when it was switched off at Heathrow T3 on Sunday!

  33. rpg says:

    When I last came through T3 there were two working machines, and about 10 people in the queue. I was in the ordinary UK/EU queue, fifty-odd people, and we fair zipped through. The IRIS lot were still coming through–they seemed to have a lot of difficulty getting the doors to open and close and to get to the right distance from the scanner.

  34. IRIS reg is next on my list after getting the passport in the first place.

  35. Yes, rather oddly, many of the EU states are still debating whether you can have their passport AND another one. All a bit weird, given the endless pontificating about EU unity and “freedom of movement of EU citizens”.

    One of the seriously stupid consequences is, as Nico alludes, that as an EU citizen living and working in the UK you cannot vote in the general election, even though you pay tax here and may have done for many years. Even sillier, passport holders of COMMONWEALTH countries CAN vote in the general elections here in the UK, even if they have only been here a matter of weeks.

    Go figure, as they say.

  36. MGG says:

    “I feel a sense of home”…Wonderful! Congrats for finding “home”!
    Great post as always…
    And thank you for linking it to my little story.

  37. rpg says:

    Great to see you here, MGG! That was a lovely story.

  38. MGG says:

    *flushed* Thank you..

  39. ricardipus says:

    How did I miss *this*? Congratulations.

    And let me tell you, from experience, the savings in airport queue times makes it worthwhile on its own. The rest is just gravy. 😉

    On a more serious note, your very nice description of feeling at “home” in the UK resonates with me… every time I visit (sadly, not much in the last 10 years or so) I get some kind of strange nostalgic pang, usually triggered by the first sight of the coastline and patchwork farms, seen out the airplane window. Cultural memory or whatever, it’s a powerful feeling. And I always seem to breathe more easily on damp, “English weather” days here. I blame Darwin, and generations of ancestors.

  40. Frank says:

    Congrats and welcome from me too. I do appreciate the import of the change and ceremony. I attended one a year ago.

    Do you feel now like you belong to England, UK, or Europe? Or all three?

  41. Ricardipus, I agree about the cultural memory – it’s very mysterious, but also very real, at least to me.

    Thanks, Frank – I do indeed feel welcome in all three camps.

  42. Many congratulations, always think it’s pretty amazing (not surprising, just amazing) when someone does this. I feel a bit bad about the £750 though – perhaps we could have a whip-round?

  43. Svetlana Pertsovich says:

    Hmm…. I wouldn’t say that it is a change of citizenship. Rather it is merely a change of residence/domicile. No, I don’t want to criticize. Not at all. And, certainly, I congratulate, Jenny.

    But these countries is so alike…Moreover, even Europe has a strong resemblance to UK. So, replacement of European citizenship by British one is not dramatic event.

    But, for example, if I (Russian) receive UK citizenship, it would be real change of citizenship.

Comments are closed.