Emma Kaufmann: The Unconventional Expat

Emma Kaufmann: The Unconventional Expat 

By Claire Bolden McGill

Published in Global Living Magazine – Issue 19 | July/August 2015

British expats Emma Kaufmann and Claire Bolden McGill.

I’ve met a lot of British expats in America. Just because you have the same culture doesn’t always mean you’re automatically going to get on, but thankfully, when our mutual blogs brought us together for a chat, Emma Kaufmann and I got on famously. We have the same outlook on being an expat in the U.S., despite her being a forever expat, and me being a temporary one (sob, sob!).

Emma, 44, is an artist and author based in Baltimore, Maryland. She is not a conventional expat, and I love her view on life and her talents are a-plenty. This is her laugh-out-loud interview. You’d best get a cuppa and sit down for this one!

How long have you been an expat in the U.S. and what brought you over here?

Oh wow, let me think, it must be coming up to 15 years now! My motivations for coming over are somewhat lost in the mists of time, but I believe it was something to do with a desire to live somewhere else apart from England, a boyfriend inviting me to go to Baltimore with him, and nothing tying me in England to keep me from taking the plunge. Did I mention I was also six months pregnant when I got here? I flew on my own as my boyfriend was already here. In one of the ironies of life I was upgraded to Business Class for the first time in my life because of my bump and was gutted because I could not quaff liberally of the single malt whiskey they were serving. I burst into tears when a woman from D.C. who was sitting next to me (there is something of a standoff between D.C. and Baltimore peeps) told me that Baltimore was dreadful: “Just like your East End with lots of riots, gang violence and poor people.” When I got off the plane I did not feel like I wanted to be living in a place where I was likely to be shot while I was out shopping for tea. As it happened, Baltimore is not that violent. Well, some parts are, of course, but it is not all a seething den of iniquity! It has turned out to be a perfectly safe place to raise two girls.

I think a lot of the time I forget that I am actually not from here. It’s only when someone says, “I love your accent. Are you from New Zealand?” that it occurs to you that you don’t have an American twang.

You still have very British qualities – whenever we get together, you and I manage to have a good old British chinwag. What bits of Britain keep you sane in America?

I don’t think I have ever been sane, but the way I have kept a hold on my last string of sanity is to surround myself with people here who are bonkers, zany and off the wall. People who can talk the back legs off a donkey, so to speak. Because one thing I have found is that, in general, Americans do not really have that peculiarly English rambling way of doing small talk when you first meet, which will encompass everything from the wart on your foot to the fact that it looks like it might possibly rain. Americans just don’t meander very much. They are like a strong current when they start to talk. They have to be going somewhere. They have to be talking about facts. They have to be talking about American football and how Player X did an awesome Pooch kick with his tight end in last night’s game and didn’t I see it? Americans also like talking about their kids and how they are going to celebrate their achievements. When we finished a year at kindergarten back in the day in the U.K., we’d have been lucky to receive a Sherbert Dip-Dab to mark the occasion, but here you ‘graduate’ from kindergarten with a big party and sometimes even a mortarboard and gown. Soon maybe they will be giving out honorary degrees to kindergartners: Professor of Fingerpainting with a Doctorate in Doing Number Twos on the Potty.

You are an artist and an author. Do you take influences in both art forms from both British and American cultures? If so, which ones and how are they interpreted by different audiences?

Funnily enough, when I wrote my book, Cocktails at Naptimes – a guide for bad moms everywhere – I wrote it with a woman living in Aberdeen, so the book was written with U.K. and American influences but was published in Australia. Australians have a very crude sense of humor that makes English people blush, while English people just plain confuse Americans.

You can get away with saying almost anything as a Brit in the U.S. and a lot of the time you can see the wheels spinning behind their eyes as your American friends try to compute what you are saying. For the most part, they are not going to say, “Look, I don’t have a clue what you are talking about,” because it may make them seem unsophisticated. So being a Brit here is really fabulous. Even when you are insulting someone they will just smile and nod as if you are giving them a compliment.

As an artist I usually paint animals, so that is very easy because painting a Pug is not political. Everyone loves animals, so I am speaking a universal language. As time has gone on though, I have become more American. I have become more gushy and sentimental. I can say to someone “Wow, your dog looks fabulous,” and not feel self-conscious. I am not a very positive person, but I have become more positive during my stay in America – mainly because my kids have told me repeatedly to stop being mean about people.

READ MORE from this issue of Global Living Magazine

As a non-conformist, non-cookie-cutter mother, how does your quirkiness go down in the American mom-sphere?

I think, to be honest, that a lot of mothers thought I was bonkers here because I did not helicopter-parent. I did not slide down the slide with my kids and I did not praise them when they got to the bottom. When mothers said “Good job” for going down a slide I would think, well, hey, isn’t that just gravity? Luckily I managed to find a laid-back bunch of moms to hang around with who did not care that no one had washed their hair or showered or had clumps of oatmeal in their hair. Why do some American moms with babies spend an hour every morning blowing out their hair? Who’s going to see it? Well, besides other mommies at the playground, but I mean really, wouldn’t you rather spend that time sleeping?

What three things should America adopt from the U.K. and why, and vice versa?

Things America should adopt from the U.K.:

  1. Chill out on Sunday, folks; enough with the Puritan work ethic. Sundays are for drinking down the pub and faffing about with the paper and a large Sunday roast.
  2. Jordan (aka Katie Price). I don’t think they want her or her inflatables any more.
  3. The art of small talk that English people are so good at.

Things the U.K. should adopt from America:

  1. Shockingly high standards of oral hygiene. I was not familiar with floss or having my teeth scoured twice a year before I got here.
  2. Can I have first dibs on Jon Hamm? Overall the perfect man; sexy, but looks like he leaves the toilet seat down.
  3. The rule that you can turn right on red (in some States). Mind blown. Mind officially blown.

To find out more about Emma’s artwork, check out her Etsy store: www.etsy.com/shop/studioemmakaufmann. To learn more about her book, Cocktails at Naptime – A Woefully Inadequate Guide to Motherhood, visit www.cocktailsatnaptime.blogspot.com or find it on Amazon.

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[Image courtesy of Emma Kaufmann]

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