"We were quite confused," says a drunken friend, summoning up my whole career, "that when you were asked what you intended to write about, you responded that you intended to write about George Washington's dog, doggie doo, I mean companionship, and the dignified dog that wore a housecoat as a uniform." I didn't mean that. I said it. George Washington's dog. I meant in the hazy light of the bathroom mirror, we were both properly impressed.
It has taken some time, during several giddy months of drinking, I have noticed, for me to really process that I'm actually an American. We don't flatter ourselves as much, at least not consciously, as the French and Germans. We're not cool. We aren't cultured. We aren't even British, even though (let's face it) we were – very much, weirdly, historically, unknowingly – British. And then, finally, I realise that it has something to do with the accent.
The French and Germans may all have differences – food, culture, dress – but they all have accents. We have none. That's partly the result of English pig-headedness, though I've done my best to improve. (I can say I live in New York. That makes me distinct.) But it's also the result of the fact that language is highly personal, and you naturally start to pick up the phonemes of your country of origin; the British sound more unusual than we do. This lack of understanding of what you sound like means that expat readers of my blog often go into shock whenever I express sympathy for things that Americans do, and then quickly click off when I ask them where I'd be if I were American. "Jesus, do we not have doctors?" a female fan asked me once. "It's so embarrassing," I replied. "Whose idea was it to colonise the New World?"
Here's another way of looking at it: if I were you, this would be one of the aspects of my culture that I would find embarrassing and self-hating. (One reason I think the French and Germans are better at editing their manners – the smug "buon appetito" is a key one – is that they took so many years to accustom themselves to living in Britain.) I recently discovered that German and French children are taught Shakespeare in school. No one ever looks at me funny if I say I'm British.
In other words, I feel like a living, breathing example of that student's constant formulation: "Am I British? Yes. Do I sound like a British person? Yes. Am I a British person?"
But an enormous amount of self-awareness takes time, and not just for immigrants. When you let down your guard, the self-questioning starts to level up the pressure. What am I thinking about? Am I being a wimp? Am I a bigot? Do I make you uncomfortable? Before you know it, the years in which you were comfortable being British and not paying attention to what you sounded like are long gone, and now you're paying attention to what you sound like.