Farewell USA

Farewell USA

A British expat bids farewell to the U.S. and reflects on how she made the most of her temporary host country.

By Claire Bolden McGill

Global Living Magazine – Issue 19 | July/August 2015

226I’ve spent three glorious years in the U.S. as a British expat and self-proclaimed ‘UK Desperate Housewife USA’ blogger and writer. I think I might go as far to say they’ve been the best years of my life so far.

Oh, there have been bumps, and bouts of homesickness, and moments of temporary confusion, and elements of frustration, and there have been times when I’ve got the hump with my host country about some silly thing, but I can assure you that in my heart and my head it’s been a very glorious experience, and very enriching, and very, very rewarding. I would not swap the three years we’ve had in Columbia, Maryland for anything. Sometimes I ask myself if I’m going home, or if I’m leaving home… I’ve definitely put down some roots here.

Once upon a time I was a little girl in the 1980s with a fascination about America. I wrote stories about the Miami Dolphins football team (with very little research undertaken) and blonde girls at the mall who wanted to be cheerleaders; I watched Fame! and wanted to dance with Leroy in NYC; I read the Sweet Valley High books and felt things like lockers, hall passes and proms were missing from my life. Yes, America was a dream for me – a land of cultural difference that intrigued and interested me through three decades of books and movies. So, when my husband said we could go to the States for a short ‘tour’, I declared the ‘could go’ turn into a ‘will go’ and that statement set the tone for the rest of our journey across the pond.

IMG_20150523_192819_195We have positively embraced America – its culture, its people and its lifestyle. Sure, we recognize its failings, its issues and its problems, but there is much to love about America, and, while I still have a piece of my heart for Great Britain, it almost feels like I’ve been having an American affair stateside for three years.

We wanted to try something different, have some new experiences and take ourselves out of the comfort zone of our three-bed semi, public sector jobs and shopping at Waitrose, because that’s not really my dream, in all honesty. I like a bit of risk, adventure and I have a passion for living life to the fullest. We came with the mindset that we’ll throw ourselves in and get on with it. I like to think that when I go to a place, I go and fully integrate, make a difference, shape things, and in return that place and those people will make a difference to me and help shape me as a person. It’s certainly been true of this experience. My family and I have traveled, experienced great things, and have grown together because of this expat journey in America. I can’t tell you how important it is to get in this mindset as a temporary expat – live the days like you might just be sent home tomorrow!

IMG_1341The most important thing for me was shaping my expat experience the way I wanted to. I purposefully set out to meet a huge range of American people and this was mainly through my blog, www.ukdesperatehousewifeusa.com. I also blogged within the local Columbia community and, from that, several people reached out to me, I got invited to events, and began to meet up with all sorts of people. It’s been a joy to be accepted into the community here. I wanted my expat life to be more than creating a little Britain in the U.S., doing the school run, going to coffee mornings, listening to women talk about where they shop for groceries and when they intend to steam-clean their sofas. I decided to do something different with my expat life and to have some out-of-the-box fun. So I got extra work on TV, including hit shows House of Cards and VEEP, and presented on morning news shows in the region. I also attended political and community events, offered my writing skills for county magazines, trained as a fitness instructor and nutritionist, and made myself a part of the community, working on charity events and projects. All of this has made my expat life different and rewarding. My commentary in all this is that things are possible in the U.S. if you put your mind to it, and that everyone loves hearing and accommodating an English accent. (It really does help!)

READ MORE from this issue of Global Living Magazine

I would advise anyone coming here to the States that you have to believe in yourself, take risks, do things outside of your comfort zone, challenge yourself; don’t hanker after the U.K., don’t create a community that isolates you, and always be the cheery Brit that folks remember if you want to have a rich and rewarding time. It’s not always easy to do, I can assure you. But there is so much to see and do, and not just in the travel aspect, that it’s a shame to waste any waking moment as a temporary expat. Every day you can see or do something new, like taking a walk in a new place, having a cup of coffee somewhere different, or talking to someone you’ve never met. Those are the expat everyday experiences that will enhance your life on a daily basis.

IMG_20150606_174457_106I’ve spent much of my time meeting and interviewing expats, so now the tables are turned on me. My friend, Jo Parfitt, asked me some questions about my time in the U.S.. These are my honest answers.

If you could live anywhere in the States, where would it be?

California, without a doubt. I love the climate. I wish there was a posting for us to go to San Diego, because that place has everything – culture, history, a progressive attitude, art, interesting people, a great atmosphere, fabulous beaches, gorgeous wine and some amazing people. If anyone wants to give me a job there, I’d take it in a snap!

What’s been your most memorable experience in the States?

We’ve had so many, it’s hard to pinpoint one, but when I think about what made me go “Wow, this is so different and amazing,” it would probably be the fortnight we road-tripped as a family around California, and two days in particular. We spent a night in Beverly Hills with an Aussie friend I had met through my blog, and that was utterly surreal and mind-blowing, but then, to contrast this completely, we took a camper van up into the desert and camped out under the stars, as basic as you can imagine. It was a refreshing, liberating experience to hear the coyotes howling, to see the rabbits scampering and to eat beans out of a tin can in the middle of nowhere. My husband, son and I slept together that night under the stars and early in the morning drove to the coast to have breakfast, watching the sun rise and hearing the waves lapping onto the beach. At that moment, I felt like I was truly experiencing a change in the way I viewed what’s important in life. America gave me that opportunity and that memory, and I will be eternally grateful for it.

What are the key differences you’ve noted between the U.K. and the U.S.?

So many to mention! Our cultures are very different, as are our attitudes. Americans are very positive and have welcomed me with open arms. They are keen to take risks, embrace people who want to challenge themselves, who are able to offer something, and who make that happen. Us Brits are far more cynical and less inclined to be open and accommodating. In the States I’ve developed a much more can-do attitude.

IMG_1180I would like to take back some of that positivity to the U.K. and to begin to help people become more empowered by opening their minds to possibilities. One of my favorite quotes is: “You should be thankful for the journey of life. You only make this journey once in your lifetime.” (Lailah Gifty Akita, Beautiful Quotes). Take the risk, carpe diem, make it happen – that’s the attitude America has given me and I’d love to share this with my British chums so that they can experience some of how I’ve been living. I do hope it’s possible in the U.K., but it’s this bit about my return that makes me the most anxious.

For the record, America…

  • I love turning right on red.
  • I love how friendly most people are.
  • I love driving on the highways.
  • I love drive-thru everything!
  • I love the summers and the beaches.
  • I love the American positivity.
  • I love how there are always loads of excuses to have a party.
  • I love only being a two-hour plane ride from Florida.
  • I still don’t get American football, sorry!
  • I miss walking to towns!
  • And I totally cannot function in East Coast winters.

Are you returning to the U.K. forever, or is it just a pit stop before the next adventure?

Firstly, I really hope my return to the U.K. turns out to be an adventure too. I’m not one to sit around and wait for things to happen to me, so I intend to seek out and enjoy all that I can back in Blighty. The return to England does not mean I’m slipping back into ‘normality’!

But, yes, I do wish for another overseas adventure. This is my second outing as an expat, and each time I’ve lived abroad I’ve felt like it’s been a gift and that it’s meant to have happened. For me the journey has been quite a spiritual one, and I bet those itchy feet will begin to ache slightly for another expedition within no time!

Finally, what are your top tips for temporary expats?

My forever-expat friends here in the States often say to me, “You put us to shame; you’ve done so much!” But this is because I knew I was only here for three years, and so I packed it all in – simple!

I am often asked what is the one thing I learned as expat in the U.S. It’s actually three things:

  1. Keep an open heart and an open mind to your new culture.
  2. Never say no to an invite.
  3. Seize the day, always.

I do return to the U.K. with a heavy, yet, fulfilled heart, but I will try to capture the essence of these three things in my life there so that I can shape and create an exciting, satisfying life back at ‘home’ within the British culture. The adventure continues…

Gosh, I’ll miss you! Fare thee well, Uncle Sam!

Photography courtesy of Claire Bolden McGill

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