Cat’s asking me if I want to drive her car. I’m so busy thinking about how numbered my days are with her and the family that I don’t hear her at first.
“Shelby, come up here. Have a go,” she says again, opening the driver’s side door and climbing out. I look at Clare, who’s grinning like a fool. She urges me with her eyes to follow our host-mother’s orders.
I climb out of the back seat and go around the vehicle to the front door on the right, which Cat’s left open for me. I crawl in and strap myself into the driver’s seat, my breath quickening from excitement and nervous fear.
“You can drive a manual, yeah?” Cat asks. I grin.
“I’m a farm-girl, Cat. Everybody drives a stick where I’m from.”
Driving Cat’s car isn’t as easy as I’d expected it to be. Everyone had been telling me, the British don’t drive on the wrong side of the road, just the other side. This kind of rhetoric led me to believe that learning to drive in a foreign country was cake, like I was already an expert and only needed to position myself about six feet to the left—like I would be fine behind the wheel of a British coupe, driving my host mom and best friend to Sir Isaac Newton’s home.
In the driver’s seat, all I feel is wrong, wrong, wrong.
* * *
I’d been trying so hard since Day One to be anything but what I was—American. All of us—every student at Harlaxton—shook off our USA garb the second we touched down at Heathrow. We shopped at Primark and Boots hoping it would make us British. We drew out our “a’s” when we spoke and spelled color with a “u,” hoping we could pass as citizens. We fought about which football team was better and we loved the queen. We ate biscuits, not cookies. We said “cheers” instead of “thank you.” We used the metric system.
Day after day, our British professors would stress that there was no such thing as a “British identity.” We were listening, but we knew they were lying.
Everyone but us was, oh, so British, and we were
Just. So. Foreign.
Not just foreign. We were American. They could pick us out in a crowd at a glance. We started to pick out the Americans too, hoping that it would gain us some credibility, but in the end, it didn’t change who we were, and we were never able to mask it.
Why we wanted to, I’m not sure, but it seemed as though all of us were struggling with knowing we somehow didn’t fit in. It was more than culture shock or homesickness; it was feeling misplaced. We’d expected things to be different, and we took to those differences so readily, but we hadn’t expected to never really belong. We hadn’t expected to try so hard to overcome adversity just to fail.
I was coming to terms with this in the driver’s seat of Cat’s car. I was realizing that four months wasn’t enough time to become British. I was facing the reality that I might never be British. I’d come here an American with the intention of changing herself, becoming more culturally aware through immersion, and emerging from her experience as a bright, British butterfly.
I was going to fail.
* * *
I wake up from a hard slumber aboard Flight 86 to Chicago. I’ve missed the safety demonstration. I look out the window on my right.
I’m somewhere over the Atlantic.
I feel the tear streak down my cheek when I realize I’ve missed my chance to say goodbye to England. The woman next to me shifts in her seat to comfort me.
“Oh dear,” she says in an English accent. “Are you leaving home?”
I laugh as I wipe my eyes and say, “No, I’m going home.”
“Oh, you’re American!” She laughs at her mistake and pats my hand.
At 30,000 feet above sea-level, I start to understand what re-entry shock is. They’d warned us about it back at the Manor, but what they didn’t explain to us is that going back where you came from after you’ve been away, after you’ve changed, after you’ve spent four months trying to fit in elsewhere would make you feel like a foreigner in your own home.
Maybe I failed at becoming British, but I became a different American than I was before. I know how it feels to be foreign. I know how scary it is to feel misplaced. I know how depressing it can get to not know where home is. I know that being stuck between coming and going is unnerving.
But I’ve learned that the time you spend in the interim is the time you spend really living.
Shelby Koehne is an English major who studied abroad at Harlaxton College in Spring 2011.