Politics

“Why I love being an American in London, except on election day”

An American who moved to London for love a long time ago explains why, even though she loves her adopted home, when a US Presidential election rolls around she longs be in the US among fellow Americans. 

The notion of the American Dream – the land of opportunity, where lots of hard work and perseverance reaps rewards, no matter where you started out from – lives deep in my bones.

I’m a first-generation American. My mother emigrated to the US from Ukraine in the 1970s, where she worked as a doctor and raised me as a single mother. I’m also a native New Yorker, Manhattan born and bred. 

For the past 12 years, I’ve been a Londoner, and I love my adopted city and country very much… except when election season rolls around. Nothing makes me feel more disconnected from loved ones in the USA quite like the election does: every time I see another American post a cute ‘I Voted’ sticker on their social media feed, there’s a wistful pang in my stomach.

When I read posts online describing the emotional experience of strangers coming together at the polling booths, waiting in (socially distanced) lines, to cast those early votes in the name of democracy, I have tears in my eyes – especially when I hear about nonagenarians braving inclement weather and the pandemic to do it. I lap up the stories of communities across the nation coming together in solidarity and strength.  

Growing up, I never considered myself particularly political; only as an adult do I now appreciate the privilege of being able to vote and to have your voice heard. I used to escape my reality with literature – reading about sodden English moors, sumptuous French châteaux, okiyas in Japan – rather than deep-diving into current affairs. 

My mother was the opposite: she’d read The New York Times from cover to cover daily, never missed the news on TV, and took massive pride in her fought-for status as an American citizen with the right to vote. As someone who’d left behind an oppressive Soviet regime, she understood all too well that the personal is political – and vice versa. 

She regularly voted for Republican candidates (for many who grew up in the USSR, even a hint of socialism feels worryingly close to communism). I remember as a child watching everything from presidential debates to Supreme Court hearings with her. She’d point at the TV and explain how charisma, delivery and body language could be just as powerful as the messaging candidates were trying to get across. 

American in London Jen Barton

When election day came around every four years on that first Tuesday in November, we’d walk hand in hand together, her head held even higher than usual as she strode purposefully down the pavement to fulfil her civic duty. We’d queue up at the local school-turned-polling-centre so she could cast her ballot, me waiting outside, watching the rush of determined faces, for once not minding that they had to wait in line – New Yorkers really, really hate waiting in line. Most were even happy to make chit chat with strangers (another thing New Yorkers don’t particularly enjoy). We often think of elections as dividing lines, pitting people against one another, but my election day memories are ones of harmony: slow-moving, choreographed performances of humans craving change, quietly demanding their voices be heard. 

Since I’ve been able to vote myself, I’ve barely lived in the US. I initially moved to the UK as a 20-year-old undergraduate in 2002. My Americanness instantly made me a mini-celeb in my university’s college, swiftly earning me the moniker ‘American Jen’, which I quickly learned wasn’t really a compliment.

I’d arrived on UK soil at a tricky time for Americans abroad: Bush Jr. was unpopular in England with the Iraq War looming, and Americans were viewed with mistrust and generally looked down upon. This isn’t conjecture; I was regularly told by “friends” how much they dislike Americans. Some joked I should just pretend to be Canadian.

“But I’m not even American-American,” I’d proclaim. “I’m a New Yorker!” 

In the build-up to the 2008 general election, I was back living in the US. There was excitement generated by the Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama campaigns and for the first time in my life, I was drunk with excitement about politics  and the promise of a new beginning, of living through history in action.

I moved to London in 2008 (to try things out with my boyfriend, Will, whom I’d met at university), and have cast each subsequent election vote from my local post office here. It’s getting harder and harder to be away from the US this time of year, especially with so much at stake in this election.  Especially now I’m a mother to four daughters.

I submitted my absentee voter form with an unusually panicked fervour this year, and super early, too. When that failed to produce a ballot, I started frantically corresponding with the Board of Elections in NYC. When it finally arrived, I treated this absentee ballot with as much delicacy as one of my newborns, gently carrying and caressing it.

I’m under no illusion that my vote will be the significant one that turns a red state blue; reassuringly, I always know which way New York will vote (it’s been going Dem since Reagan ‘84). That’s not the point: I want my voice to be heard, more than ever this year, loudly shouting for myself and the American citizens who can’t vote yet, like my children.

As an American living abroad, people regularly come up to me and try to suss me out: am I part of the problem or desperately hoping for a solution? When they ask me why my homeland is such an angry mess, I usually respond with something like: “Why do you think I’m living over here? I can never go back!” but I hope that I can, at least for a visit again, one day soon. And that when my family is there, I can show them a glimpse of the ‘American Dream’ I grew up believing in – and want to again.

How it feels to be an American in London right now 

Jen in her stars and stripes leggings

As a working mother of four kids under 10, I can pretend I’ll stay up late to watch the election results on Tuesday, but more realistically I’ll be asleep by 9pm… and up at 5am the next morning. I will be involving the kids with a night of presidential-themed reading material, picture books like Grace for President, which teaches kids about the electoral process through a school election (and asks why we still haven’t had a female in the highest office).

When your status is one of ’outsider’, people sometimes treat you as a symbol or proxy of an entire, complex nation. It’s a tough burden to bear, and makes me feel I want to be a better version of myself, so that I don’t accidentally tarnish the reputation of one nation in the eyes of another.

It’s why I’ve been reluctant to wear my beloved pair of American flag leggings, with stars on one leg and stripes down the other, these past four years… lest people think I’m a fan of he who shall not be named.

Really hoping I can dig them out and wear them again – with pride – this week. 

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