Thirteen years ago this past Saturday, I arrived in the U.K. from America as a new bride. For fully one-third of my lifespan—pretty much my entire adulthood—I’ve been a broad abroad. And although I've come up against various culture clashes in my time here, I feel the most jarring experiences I’ve had as an immigrant have been during my trips back home.
I’m not alone in this. Just this past week The Atlantic published an essay by Rachel Donadio, a staff writer of theirs who is a literal American in Paris. Titled “American Weirdness: Observations from an Expat”, the essay chronicles her disorientation on returning to America for visits. Everything she describes is familiar, right down to the de Tocqueville quotes: the sheer overwhelmingness of the U.S., particularly its cities, in terms of size and scale and the speed of life. In her opening paragraphs, Donadio describes how she is always staggered afresh by the variety of toothpastes on offer whenever she first hits up a U.S. drugstore for supplies.
For me, the retail barometer of America is in the snack aisle, specifically the pretzels. I like pretzels, but in a Target or a Shop-Rite I quickly lose my bearings nowadays: rods and twists and knots, sourdoughs or splits, buffalo wing, garlic, cheese, or garlic and cheese flavouring, nuggets filled with peanut butter, wafer-thin crisps dunked in deconstructed Butterfinger bars.
I stand in front of the display, paralysed by my options, nagged by a sinking feeling: this has to be a bad sign, right? We must be pumping out endless iterations of pretzel as a way of avoiding (or compensating for) something, somewhere. And as far as this expat is concerned, that’s one aspect of homegoing which Donadio doesn’t directly address in her essay: the unsettling, even desperate sense of America in decline.
This is not a recent development for me; I noticed it long before the 2016 election. Even in the summer of 2009, when a leftist Democrat like myself ought to have had a certain spring in her step, I came home and felt everywhere a kind of darkness stirring. The waters of civic life looked calm enough on the surface, but plant your feet in them and you felt an undertow surging past you to suck away the beach.
I considered for a while that this feeling might be psychological projection of my own worries about my life: ageing parents, a new daughter who would eventually be diagnosed with autism, a marriage that did not endure. I also tried to determine whether it reflected the specific parts of America in which I spent my time.
The Poconos, where I grew up and where most of my immediate family still live, have endured a lot over the past thirty years as the fortunes of the tourist industry waxed and waned. Today there is a precarious prosperity in the region, but it is still possible to go out for an hour’s drive and pass through the decaying grounds of half a dozen or so ruined honeymoon resorts, the windows lightless, the decomposing shag carpets off-gassing hydrogen cyanide. Grim.
Fortunately (at least as far as my anxiety about imagining things goes), there’s data to back up what’s happening when it comes to American decline. I’ll just pick three items:
The opiate crisis, which as of 2016 kills more than forty-two thousand Americans each year: more than the number of those who die in motor vehicle accidents, and more than six times the amount of U.S. military casualties in our ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Watch an hour of daytime television, and you cannot help but mark the number of ads for drug rehab centres.
The active sabotaging of educators as a professional class: so many people seemed stunned by Time Magazine’s recent cover story (and series of cover spreads) on underpaid and overworked U.S. teachers. Not me, and that’s not just because I briefly was one myself. Most of the young American teachers I know—dedicated, smart people with master’s degrees—work holiday and summer jobs to make ends meet, and crack dark jokes about the size and scope of their student debt. We won’t even discuss the adjunct university instructors, a quarter of whom were on public assistance benefits as of 2015.
Gun violence: a uniquely American madness. I don’t refer here only to the headline-making mass shootings or gang-related shootings. I’m talking about domestic violence, suicide, and the use of guns to settle picayune arguments among neighbours. Ninety deaths a day is neither normal nor acceptable.
Again, these are all realities of American life which pre-date the last presidential election. And it would be one thing to come home to these realities if they were treated by the entire citizenry as the emergencies they are. But on nearly every trip I fall in to conversation with otherwise normal-looking people who try to convince me these crises are someone else’s problem, or overblown by the media, or ‘the price we pay for freedom’. It's like visiting your uncle who is a hoarder with rampant alcoholic cirrhosis and having him insist to you that sure, he has a couple issues, but therapy or AA won’t solve them—cosmetic dentistry will. The scope of the delusional denial takes one’s breath away.
And what’s worse, this delusion is now epidemic in my adopted country, too. When I first moved to the U.K., the country seemed to have accepted its status as the international community’s favourite character actor, popping up to play sidekick or scold to its former protégé as the situation demanded. Now, in addition to importing Goose Island, peanut butter cups, and Tim Burton, the U.K. has also taken up with American-style nativist grievance-mongers who associate with shady Russians.
In a little less than six months, Britain will leave the E.U., and the government currently doesn’t have plans in place for how to go about that. Should it fail to come up with one, it’s entirely possible we will wind up with hundreds of thousands of people out of work, thousands of businesses sunk, disruptions to the importation of food and life-sustaining medicines, and maybe even trash twenty-five years of progress on U.K.-Ireland relations into the bargain.
Even if it’s not that dire, or even if a last-minute ‘Remain’ campaign succeeds, the U.K.’s reputation has been irreparably damaged, and its status as a leading centre for finance, research, and the arts will suffer for years to come. At the moment, life goes on as normal, but there’s a distant sound of knives being whetted for our necks. Watching my birth country whistle past the graveyard is demoralising; watching my adopted country dig its own damn grave is crazy-making.
I am aware that things end, and that America will one day no longer be the world’s major superpower, or even ranked among the superpowers any more. But they don’t have to end in a way that cuts a swathe through the lives and fates and sanity of others.
I came to this country thirteen years ago as a bride; I am nobody’s bride now. I was able to steer that marriage to a kind of controlled crash, a reasonably honourable and sane end that left us all shaken and hurt, but not traumatised. Not crippled. There has to be a way for America to do that, too. There are so many heartening signs of a change in the tide coming, of a shift in the current. I hope it doesn’t come too late.
Further Reading from Better Writers
"To Be, or Not to Be" - Masha Gessen, NY Review of Books, February 2018: On the curious precariousness of selfhood after immigration.
"Another Country" - Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, February 2009: On James Baldwin's time in Paris.