The wisest words that anyone said to me last year regarding moving to California came not from a close friend, but from Danny O’Brien, someone I can describe as a casual acquaintance at most.
That’s not to denigrate the advice which everyone else gave me – I had tons of useful hints and ideas, particularly from folks like Candace, who lived in the Bay Area for several years. But a single point that Danny made really lodged in my brain, and has probably been the single biggest thought that I’ve returned to since I arrived here in January. It’s advice which any expat, moving anywhere, should probably take to heart.
I ran into Danny completely by chance at a “Hacker Dim Sum” lunch at Yank Sing in San Francisco, in the middle of a two-week trip to the corporate mother-ship in Sunnyvale. The company had made a tentative offer of a job in California just two days earlier, and I was still trying to wrap my head around the idea.
I’ll have to paraphrase his words – it was fifteen months ago. But approximately, this was his advice:
You’ve got two choices if you move out to California. You can become one of those slightly strange expat Brits who complains about the sun and whines about how they can’t get Baked Beans or Marmite. Or, you can go native and live as a Californian.
Over the past year, I’ve met just a handful of British people who live in California and have unfortunately become weird caricatures of colonial expats. There are several key indicators – they dress overly formally (moreso than they would in England, I suspect) and they have the most bizarre, stereotypical “Hollywood version of British” accents I’ve ever heard. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to learn that they drink Gin and Tonic on the verandah of an evening and polish their elephant guns whilst the sun goes down.
I have made a solemn vow never to become one of those people.
I like to think that, like Danny, I’ve done a reasonable job of “going native”. For one thing, I’ve learned to speak so that people can understand me – I ask for “toe-may-doe” on my sandwiches now.
Just this morning I absolutely reveled in the fact that I could drive off for something to eat in a t-shirt and shorts with the roof of the Jeep down. In late October! The excitement of that will probably die down in a year or two, but… hell yes! I love California!
I eat more Mexican and Sushi, and whilst I look forward to a good curry when next in London, I don’t mourn its relative scarcity over here. Friends occasionally bring me Baked Beans, Colman’s Mustard, Marmite or Bourneville chocolate when they visit, and I’m highly grateful – they’re little pieces of home that I grew up with and am still deeply fond of. But I don’t get into a depressive funk if I can’t have them.
Perhaps the key place where I’ve become more “native” and less expat is politics. Really, I shouldn’t care a jot about US politics – I can’t vote, so my direct participation in the process is almost non-existent. But the people and issues affect the place I currently call home, so whereas the ins and outs of Harriet Miers’ Supreme Court nomination are barely a blip (if that) in the news at home, I follow the extensive US coverage avidly. Because these things matter. They’re ebbs and flows in the continual shaping of a nation where – who knows – I may want to make my home for years.
And the weird thing? None of this makes me feel any less proud of being British. I still get a little thrill when people tell me they love my accent (particularly the attractive women, but that’s obvious, isn’t it?) And I still write in British English unless, very occasionally, I subconsciously start switching the odd -ise for an -ize when writing to an exclusively American audience. And yes, I still care about the (currently lamentable) political situation back home.
I guess, although my official papers don’t reflect it yet, I’m a little bit Californian and a little bit American in addition to being British these days. No one of them cancels out the other – I just have to pledge my private alliegence to three flags instead of one…