An expat Thanksgiving

Every year around Thanksgiving I feel really homesick.  I nostalgically remember a beautifully set Thanksgiving table laden with the holiday meal – a carefully carved turkey surrounded by all the traditional trimmings -- tart cranberries, unnaturally sweet marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes and thick gravy served from a gleaming silver boat.  I remember how all my favorite sitcoms would feature special Thanksgiving-themed episodes – like on The Cosby Show when all the Huxtables would come together for a big dinner (and yes, that memory is now tainted).  I even fondly remember the day of mall mania that followed, when shopping was suddenly escalated to contact sport status. 

Of course no one in England gets Thanksgiving or, as my American friend’s British husband calls it, ‘Christmas…without presents.’  So every year when the fourth Thursday in November rolls around, I watch from a distance as my newsfeed is populated by family pics and posts on being Thankful. It’s a day that forces me to consider my expat status with some reluctance, and to think about what I’m missing by living an ocean away from ‘home.’  I mean the whole story of Thanksgiving is about the Pilgrims leaving England -- what made me think it was such a good idea to come back again?

I don’t make a secret out of the fact that I miss America; it is a country of extremes, where everything is supersized and even the most mundane of accomplishments are considered ‘awesome’.  In contrast, the UK is far more subtle and subdued – it is a nation fond of understatement.  When I first arrived I found this challenging – it seemed odd that people weren’t super excited to meet me – especially considering that I came from what they must consider to be an exotic and foreign land – America!  In an effort to win them over, one night I went out to a bar with my new British colleagues, and - one or two drinks in - people became surprisingly friendly.  I remember leaving the bar feeling so proud of myself – I had finally cracked those cold Brits.  I was excited to head in to work the next day to see my newfound British friends only to be acknowledged coolly, as if our shared drunken night had never happened. Sigh...

Over my eight years here I have acclimated (make that acclimatised) to British culture and British people; I no longer question why there are separate hot and cold taps on sinks, or why Friends is still considered reflective of American culture 15 years after it went off the air.  One of the most interesting things that has happened is that I have developed the ability to see myself – and Americans in general – through the lens of the British eye: I often feel like I am living in a cubist painting viewing the world through multiple perspectives at the same time.  It can be exhausting to be so self-aware -- I have to decide whether to mute my American accent to give clients the confidence that I know the UK market, or dial it up to convince my American friends that I haven’t defected and gone all ‘Downton Abbey’ on them.  I have to consider whether to use an S or a Z in an email and whether it’s appropriate to compliment someone on their pants (Americans, yes; Brits, definitely not).

I also think I have become more empathetic.  At times it’s hard to be an outsider – to not get the jokes and the cultural references – and while I hardly qualify for minority status, it has helped me to better understand what it might be like to de different from what is deemed as mainstream.  On the negative side, I’m probably doubly judging people, measuring them against two sets of cultural norms – they’re either far too overtly awesome for refined British tastes or not awesome enough by enthusiastic American standards.

While I’m not ready to trade pumpkin pie for shepherd’s pie, this Thanksgiving I am grateful for my American friends who have not let distance dilute the strength of our friendship and for my British friends who have accepted my American ways and shocking pronunciations (yes, I now know it’s not called Lie-chester).  This year, I tip my hat to the Pilgrims -- the original expats -- and I will be Thankful for the opportunity to experience the world through the multi-faceted perspective of an expat.

Avra Lorrimer

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search