Confessions of an Unexceptional Brit Trying to Make It in Exceptional America
Talking to Americans, here in America, always goes one of two ways.
There are the basic words lost in translation, like saying "water" three times in succession – wah-tear – before deferring to a drawl: waa-derr. That happens at least once a week.
And then there are those rarer but still frequent discussions during which a British person is thought to be somehow exotic and extraordinary, however uncomfortable it makes me feel: Harry Potter, the Queen, "Barclays Premier League" (which we just call football) – whenever I open my mouth, every word is already painted in gold.
To land officially in the US as a foreigner, you must be some level of exceptional. The gatekeepers require it.
I went full Howard Hughes when applying for journalism school in the States two years ago, forgetting what human contact felt like and obsessively editing the punctuation in my application from afar. It paid off: I was awarded a fellowship. Now, I'm applying for the strangest of visas, the one meant for "extraordinary aliens" who "must demonstrate extraordinary ability by sustained national or international acclaim".
Yes, American transplants have to prove themselves to make it in New York City, but they don't have to brag to the government in order to stay.
Brits aren't exactly the most forthcoming set when it comes to broadcasting our achievements. The anxiety of feeling quite unexceptional doesn't hit you until you're in the full flow of American life, wherein anything – waking up in the morning, or choosing to buy a sandwich instead of a salad for lunch because you only live once – is something to be celebrated.
I was born and raised in Swindon, officially the most average town in the UK, a microcosm of a country for reasons including, but not limited to, earnings, life expectancy and ethnicity. If you need any other evidence of just how much I shudder at having to tell US immigration services that I am amazing, there it is. The people – my people – are united in their exceptional un-exceptionalism, in the manner of Scranton, Pennsylvania, the equally uninspiring setting for the American version of The Office.
To find myself in the middle of America's immigration crisis, and at the mercy of extremely stringent immigration laws – I can't leave the country to visit my family, as there's a strong chance I won’t be allowed back in, and the last time I was home "Ukip" was a dirty word – has been a complete shock.
My journey into the abyss of the US immigration system comes at a crucial time. While my fellow British visa-seeking friends and I aren't part of the estimated 11m undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of America, lawmakers are still talking about us as they dither over proposed immigration reform, which has all but died a slow and sad death in Washington. We are confronted with government websites doused in indecipherable immigration-ese; we have internalized the sagas of unlucky applicants; we face partially unknown futures until the visa is approved and in our hands. And under no circumstances do we jaywalk in a city where the No 1 form of transportation is crossing the road into oncoming traffic. Tickets have gone up by an enormous 800%in New York this year alone, and I am terrified that I might catch an officer having a bad day with a quota to fill.
What few minor victories there have been to the US system mainly benefit legal immigrants. Deportations of "alien minors" slowed down under the Dream Act, and Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative allowed many people who were brought to the US illegally as children to stay, as long as they fulfill certain criteria. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced new rules to retain highly-skilled workers, including allowing the spouses of H1B visa holders to work, a necessary and ridiculously long overdue step.
My family lived in suburban Chicago in the late 1990s, and while my father worked, and my sister and I went to school, for a while it was illegal for my mother to get a job. Alone in a new country for most of the day, it's only now that I feel her pangs for home, and how they must have echoed in our empty house.
The UK has exceptional qualities – the National Health Service, pubs, comedy panel shows – but being self-congratulatory is not an ingrained part of growing up in Britain; humility is. "American exceptionalism" is a stock phrase here, but British exceptionalism? We don't like the fuss; we're fine, thank you. In order to stay, I have to relinquish the cherished grumpy cynicism at the heart of British culture and accept that in America, it's OK to say you're extraordinary.