Writing

Confused in Massachusetts: being foreign in America

Our weekend editor writes in from the USA

I’m writing this in the small town in Central Massachusetts where my boyfriend grew up. His mother’s wind chimes are jangling gently in the branches of the pines outside the window, which are tall, taller than our pines: all the trees in America are impossibly high. It’s a rare breeze that has come this morning, because there’s a heatwave here. It’s not just “up in the 90s” (over 30ºC) but humid, the kind of humidity that feels like permanently wading through a hot bath and brings with electrical storms of Biblical magnitude. “I bet you’re not used to this heat are you?” say relatives. They can’t imagine England ever being hot. They’ve seen the Harry Potter films.

I never thought that I’d end up with someone foreign, but here I am in America again, where we come at least once, sometimes twice a year to visit my boyfriend’s family and friends. It takes a while to adjust when I first get here, even after seven years of visits. Despite the same language we share, the US is in many ways more alien to me than many countries where I don’t understand a word.

The foreignness of America is never more apparent to me than in a customer service scenario. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the general perkiness of waiting staff; it still feels sort of intrusive, vaguely tiring (all that smiling!) and just a bit bizarre. The television is perky too; an endless stream of adverts for bewildering medications, and sports shows – everybody loves sport here and talks about it constantly. There is football, and basketball and baseball and volleyball and hockey (two types). There are professional and college levels. I explain the rules of netball to my US family, to try and fit in. They have never heard of netball. “No you can’t dribble. You can only take one step with the ball, and pivot, like so,” I mime the moves I last performed as a Goal Shooter in 1989. They humour me, nodding politely. “Is it on TV?” “No,” I say. “It’s not on TV.”

Despite the pervasive sportiness, here, it’s quite hard to get outdoors. The pavementless topography of the suburbs doesn’t engender public transport, let alone walking anywhere. There is nothing here to walk to, anyway: no corner shop, no late night garage, no pub. If you want something you have to get in your car and drive there, and it’s probably in a mall. Twice a day, before and after work, I join the people taking gentle strolls around their neighbourhood, in full workout gear, because after a week of barely moving, I’m sweating too.

There aren’t many tourists in this part of the world, even though we’re just 45 minutes from Boston. It’s a commuter town, in a mostly working class area. I never feel more foreign than when people are truly straining to understand my weird non-American voice. At least once a visit, someone in a shop or a restaurant will say, very sincerely, “I love your accent!” to which my reply always is, “Thanks – I love yours!”, and they look at me like I’m mad. Because of course they don’t *have* an accent.

There are beautiful things about this part of the US too. I love the knee-deep snow in winter, and the endless sun in summer. The charity shops make my heart beat fast: they are the size of small-supermarkets, big enough to warrant shopping trolleys. The food is bigger, better and more plentiful. Especially the fruit and vegetables. The vegetables are massive. The countryside is quixotically beautiful, and in this state, it is everywhere. There are glittering mile-long lakes, and farms, and nature reserves less than half an hour from the city. More than any of that, the people we love are here, and that’s why I’ll keep coming back.

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