Becoming American

Sixteen years and a few days ago I immigrated to America. Being only twelve years old, I found this task relatively simple: I woke up one day and got on a plane. We watched Shrek and ate pistachios. In the life of a twelve-year-old, however, there are some unexpected difficulties in immigration.

One of the first things that we packed to move to America was our stuffed animals. We referred to stuffed animals by the term ‘teddy bears’, even though they were not all bears [I assume this is similar to the people that call all soda ‘coke’, even though it isn’t]. My mom gave me and my brother a box for all the teddy bears we wanted to immigrate with us, and all the ones that were to remain behind [and, I assume, be adopted by a loving family] were to go on the couch.

Biggest-little-brother and I were of one mind on the subject. We put all the teddy bears into the coming-to-America box except for one. It was a pink, care bear style bear with heart paw prints. My mother felt sorry for the care bear. All the teddy bears immigrated with us to the United States. They are now [as American bears] known as stuffed animals, or [I’m told] stuffies. Littlest-little-brother’s teddy bears were known as ‘loving buddies’ – but I’m not sure if that was because they were American bears, or just beloved.

The day we arrived in Boston Logan Airport [2 adults, 4 children, 3 carts of luggage, and a dog in a broken-wheeled box] we must have made a rag-tag parade of exhausted immigrants, winding our way through crowds of people. I recently saw a home video of my husband vacationing in Maine on the day I was arriving. I like to imagine that this was some sort of sign, and that we might have driven past each other on I-95.

Another aspect of moving to America was extreme self-consciousness about my accent. Many people I met loved my Irish accent, and would frequently comment on it and ask me about my heritage. Twelve-year-old me didn’t like this kind of attention as much as twenty-eight-year-old me does. As a result, I made every effort to hide my accent and take on American terminology and pronunciation.

About five years ago I travelled back to Northern Ireland for a short visit. While there, people asked me if I was American. While here, people ask me if I am from away. My lovely plan of assimilation has backfired and I seem to have ended up with some sort of hybrid accent that identifies me as an outsider wherever I go. This is the exact opposite of what twelve-year-old me had in mind.

There are no snakes in Ireland [St. Patrick chased them out, you know] – so when my brothers and I first discovered a family of garter snakes on the rocks in our yard, we were very concerned. We had never seen a snake in the wild before. We clarified more than once that these snakes were not dangerous. I still find snakes a sort of evil, fascinating, unusual animal, even though I know they are actually common here.

Other things that were of extreme interest to me when we moved to America included: peppermint stick ice-cream, pink lemonade, measuring cups, top-loading washing machines, cranberry-raspberry juice mixed with ginger-ale, loons, pecan pie, iced tea, and Fashion Bug.

Things that were of extreme distress to me when we moved to America included: Hershey’s chocolate, cool-whip, cinnamon in everything, that people called badminton ‘bad mitten’, humidity, mosquitoes, window-screens, slidey-door minivans, robins, and the word “aluminum.”

Despite my studious attempts to blend into American culture, I still can’t help but call trash cans ‘bins’, spell neighbor with a u, get confused about what we’re talking about when we’re talking about football, and I occasionally panic in case I might be driving on the wrong side of the road.

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Tourist-Town, USA

Stepping out my front door into Tourist-town, Maine is a dangerous mission.

The other day I walked into town to our local “we’ve got it all” store. I heard multiple foreign languages and nearly got run over by a driver with out-of-state license plates. Cars did not stop for me to cross at the cross walk. I bought my husband a sweater in a lovely dark blue color. It had the name of our town on it. Tomorrow I’m going to return it. He won’t wear it because it has the name of our town on it. It’s a tourist sweater. Town-named sweaters are for tourists.

A strange thing happens to Maine in mid-May. On Friday evenings Rt. 1 is jam-packed with cars coming into town. On Sunday night the same road is full of cars leaving to go back to reality.

One of the good things about living in a tourist town year round is that I get to know all of the special secrets. Like where to get the creamiest ice-cream, the coldest beer, and the best-value pair of shoes. I know that it is not smart to try to park in town the day the pirates invade [yes, you read that right – our town is invaded by pirates, complete with pirate ships and cannon fire, once a year] or the day of the pumpkin festival.

I also know that the less-expensive pizza place has the best pizza and if you buy enough pizza there during the world cup that by the time you reach the semi-final games the owner will know you by name, accept the 3 credit cards you bring for payment, and give you free baklava.

As much as we like to complain about tourists, as much as they clog up the roads and make waiting in line at the grocery store a tiresome chore, as much as they make it impossible to get the locally-made pastries for 50% off after 4:00pm, as much as they block our driveway for parades, as much as they drive slowly past any scenic hill, lake, cliff, or ocean-view, as much as they go down one-way roads the wrong way, as much as . . . well, you get the idea. As much as they make our lives a little more complicated, secretly, I love them.

I feel proud to live in a place that people consider their personal Promised Land. I like to see them flock around and get excited over lobster rolls and hearing loon-calls. I like that they want to come to my town and do watercolors across from my house. I like seeing them discover the best pie they’ve ever had at a place where I can eat three days a week and am guaranteed to run into someone I know. I like that they Instagram the view that I can see just a few steps from my door. Maine is a beautiful place and I like the reminder that the tourists bring that it is an idyllic place to live.

What I didn’t mention before about my husband’s sweater, the one that had the town name on the front, is that the other reason he thought it was tacky was because I got one too. Husbands and wives can’t go around wearing the same sweater, even I know that, I just got a bit excited in the store. Mine is dark green and has our town name right on the front. It might be a little bit cheesy, but I’m not returning mine.
Tourist-Town, Maine

Air Traffic Conundrums

This past week my husband and I went on an adventure. It was a super-fun trip involving baby-holding, wine-tasting, family-visiting, and seminary-graduating. However, in order to go on our adventure to Florida, first we had to go through the ordeal of a 3 hour long airplane journey.

Everyone nowadays knows that flying anywhere is a big event. You shop around for a few days to find the best airline and price.  You choose your seats carefully. You pack frugally [for me that meant only bring 5 pairs of shoes]. You have to make sure your papers are in order and that the milk in your fridge won’t sour.

You also have to be sure that your bag weighs less than 40lbs. Unless you get confused and think that it has to weigh less than 35lbs [like we did]. I put all my shoes in my carry-on and there were several pairs of jeans in Tim’s lap-top bag. In order to double-check your bag’s weight you have to go to your parents’ house and weigh yourself [a daunting task] and then yourself carrying the bag [I think I broke the bathroom scales doing this]. Then you have to do math. Then you have to hope that you don’t have to pay the over-weight charge of $50 [which is more than it would cost to add a whole other bag].

The security check-point at the airport is getting sorta over-blogged so I won’t say much about that. Only this: I had to submit to having my hair patted down. I have big hair. I guess they thought I was hiding something in it. I wish they’d just let me be frizzy in peace.

Then, once you actually get on the plane, you sometimes have to sit in the middle of a row. Like me. I sat by Tim [which was totally fine] and a weird older lady who would say incomprehensible things to me. I’d nod and smile and hope that I hadn’t just agreed to something insane. We saw that same lady again on our return flight. She looked at us like we must be stalkers or something.

Sometimes, like on our return trip, you are stuck sitting in front of an incorrigible toddler who thinks if he screams [not cries, but screams with no tears] that he’ll get to get out of his toddler-chair. This boy also assumed that if he kicked the seat in front of him [where a large older lady sat next to me] that he will be entertaining. The old lady was not amused and turned around to tell the poor, embarrassed parents exactly what she thought of their child’s behavior. I stared at my knees awkwardly and tried not to cringe with each continuing scream and her continuing tut-tutting.

Did I mention that you have to pay for water? And that a plastic cup of soda costs $3? And that airplanes are either boiling hot or freezing cold?

Thankfully our trip was awesome enough to make up for the pains of flying there. Three hour flights are better than 2 days of driving, although, after hearing that kids screaming, I’m not so sure.

Here and There

Right before Christmas I went with my mom to Northern Ireland, where we used to live, to pick up my grandmother to bring her to stay with us for the holidays. A trip to Europe is exciting, no matter the reasons, and this one came with some interesting revelations.

I had not been back to Ireland for almost 9 years – I was only 14 the last time I was there – so there were a lot of things that I had forgotten that I needed to get used to. For example, in N.I. they drive on the other side of the road. Every time we ventured out in the car (even though I wasn’t driving) felt like a near-death-experience. On the first day there I think I gripped the seat cushion tightly for the entire car journey.

In N.I. anytime you go to someone’s house (no matter the time of day or length-of-stay) you get a cup of tea. A cup of tea with milk and sugar. Alongside this cup of tea are biscuits (meaning: cookies), cakes, buns (meaning: cupcakes), pastries, and other deliciousnesses. Seriously, no joke, when you wake up in the morning you have a cup of tea, then, before you go out, you have another cup of tea, then, when you arrive at your destination, you have another cup of tea, then, when you’ve been visiting/shopping/travelling for a while, you have another cup of tea, then, when you arrive, you have another cup of tea, then . . . well, you get the picture. I drank a lot of tea.

Another interesting thing that I discovered about N.I. is that everyone talks in hushed tones when out and about. Continually in coffee-shops, stores, or on buses, I would say something or (horror of horrors) laugh out-loud and then be subjected to the icy glares of the locals who had overheard me, classified me as an American, and judged me for my raucous laughter.

Something that I realized while in N.I. is that my accent really doesn’t fit in anywhere. I don’t have a ‘Norn Iron” accent (although when I stepped off a bus one day and said to my aunt, “och and thar’s yer wee huse nae” I would’ve begged to differ) and I don’t have an American accent (although all of my relatives thought I did, many of my American friends would say that I don’t). I guess I don’t really fit in anywhere anymore. I’m not “from” N.I. any more than I’m “from” America. For awhile during my trip I was very conscious about how I sounded – careful about how I phrased things, deliberately altering my intonation to make myself sound less American. Sometimes my mind got confused – words that I’ve been altering for years to make them sound more American got mangled in my mind on the way out because I didn’t know how to pronounce them anymore. In the end I just gave up and said words any-which-way and hoped that the person on the receiving end of my conversation understood me.

That all being said, don’t go away with the impression that I didn’t enjoy my time in N.I. – I had a wonderful time visiting with family, shopping, eating real fish and chips and chocolate, seeing proper sheep with black faces, and using two-pound coins. It was amazing. I refuse to wait another 9 years before I got back. In fact, I refuse to wait 2 years before I go back.

I suppose the part about my trip to N.I. that confused me was that I didn’t really fit in there. In much the same way that I am a foreigner in America I am a foreigner in Northern Ireland. I have a foot in both camps, I suppose, and a foot in neither. Does that make me a more astute observer of culture? Probably not – I don’t know. But it wasn’t until I went there and came back that I really felt that this world is not my home – that, as a Christian, I couldn’t, shouldn’t, really fit in anywhere exactly. I think it was once I made this connection that I stopped worrying about it – stopped trying to change my accent, stopped trying to muffle my laughter on buses, stopped pretending that I knew how to use the weird computer-chip credit card machines. And once I stopped, it was much better. It’s nice to know where my home is, and it’s nice to know that I’ll feel at home there, once I arrive. In the meantime, I think I am going to cultivate an increased use of the word “wee” into my vocabulary. It really is an excellent wee word.