Updated: Feb 28
I had listened to Sting’s song Englishman in New York plenty before I moved to Ireland, but through that magical power of a paradigm shift after a major life event, I have heard it completely differently this spring. I hear it as I never could have before: as the words of a fellow expat looking for meaning and belonging.
Right away, Sting mirrors my own experiences. I don’t drink coffee, I take tea my dear. There is something so inescapable of one’s own tastes in food. As my grandpa told me, people like the food they are familiar with, and everyone here has some food they grew up with that will always feel like home. Sometimes, we all struggle with missing the food that tastes like home, and it can be hard to embrace the culinary customs of a new place.
You can hear it in my accent when I talk, I’m an Englishman in New York. I never noticed that I was completely surrounded with accents that sound like mine until I wasn’t. Conversely, the first thing that I noticed (and felt completely foreign to me) stepping off the plane from Dublin in New York was hearing an American accent over the airport PA system. During the entire month I spent at home for the winter vacation, I repeatedly marvelled at hearing accents that sound like mine all the time. Accents are so crucial here to knowing where someone is from or identifying your fellow countrymen, and it’s pretty inescapable. My own accent provokes an immediate reaction when I introduce myself. At first, I avoided it, trying to speak as little as possible or quietly to avoid criticism or remarks, but I’ve learned that if someone has a problem with my being American, then a friendship will never work anyway because I can’t change where I’m from. So, now I smile widely and introduce myself confidently with the voice and accent I have, even though my voice sounds strange against even my own ears when I spend so much time listening to my friends’ and lecturers’ French/Italian/Irish/ Dutch/Japanese accents.
I’m a legal alien. What a strange thing, to check that “immigrant” box on applications or to remember that I am here because the government has allowed me to be here. I do not have a right to live in Ireland, it is a privilege. And while I am legally allowed to live here, I am still a foreigner. This is not a value statement but rather a fact that I simply must adjust to.
It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile. I wasn’t ready for the barrage of misconceptions I encountered about my country. There isn’t much use trying to convince someone that what they saw about the US on the internet or TV doesn’t necessarily apply to all 330 million people or each state/region, so I’ve learned to pick my battles when it comes to people’s opinions of my country. It can be quite hard to hear friends, teachers, and people I admire say these things about my country, but boy, has my skin thickened up. All of us from other countries hear loads of misconceptions and just have to deal with it. And I’ve learned that many times, the best course of action is to inwardly validate my own experiences and outwardly smile.
And then, Sting leads us into the part of his song that always hits the closest to my heart: that haunting chorus of Be yourself, no matter what they say. I always feel like Sting is singing directly to me when I listen to this song.
Be Yourself: Living outside of your home country is a constant balance in so many ways. I try not to stubbornly hold onto my own customs or habits for fear of cutting myself off from new perspectives and experiences. At the same time, I run the risk of losing myself or trying to be something that I am not by adopting too many customs that aren’t mine.
No matter what they say: Everyone has an opinion about how I should act and whether I’m being too American or not American enough. It’s a great way to have an identity crisis.
Of course, all of these challenges pale in comparison to the things I love about living abroad, and the challenge is part of what makes it worth doing. But when the going gets tough, it’s nice to feel like someone else knows what being a legal alien is like. And at the end of the day, how do I navigate it all? I remember that, regardless of what anyone says, what I am at my core, what defines me, is not necessarily being American, or an expat, or a University College Dublin student. I am me. If my high school years at Visitation School taught me anything, it's how to be myself. And that’s all I have to be.
Be yourself, no matter what they say.