Well I rode that ribbon highway
I saw above me the endless skyway
I saw below me the golden valley
This land was made for you and me
The accent is a dead giveaway. A few nights ago I stopped to ask a guy for directions, and when he'd pointed me towards the right apartment block and I was cycling away he called down the road after me, "Hey, are you British?"
Yes, I tell people. Yes. I grew up in London and then we moved to the countryside, to Norfolk (which is this bumpy bit on the right-hand side) and now I go to university near Dover where the white cliffs are. It's complicated.
It's a question I answered a lot when I first arrived, and it's the first thing people ask when I'm introduced to them. To start with it was quaint, and then it was irritating, and then one night when I'd been here a week or two I'd been running errands all day, and I came home in a tearful rage because every single smiling shop assistant had asked, "Hey, are you British?"
What they meant was, hey, you're interesting, tell me more. But all I heard, at a time when what I really wanted was to fit in, to feel like I belonged somewhere in this new country - where the cars drive on the wrong side of the road and turn right on red lights and the kettle flicks upwards for on, not down - all I heard was, hey, you're different, you're not from around here are you?
But then again, sort of.
You see, I wanted to say after talking about Dover, You see my grandmother's American. She married an Englishman and moved to a little seaside town just outside London. My dad grew up there, but he went to boarding school in Connecticut. Now my uncle and his family live out here too, just around the corner by Mount Tamalpais. I have a whole family out here who I mostly know through the internet. From California/to the New York island I have people who share my blood; people who would give me a place to stay if I needed it and welcome me into parts of their life I've never experienced because I am foreign, who have connections I can use and who know friends of friends who can help me get where I want to go. I am American enough to question, around the family dinner table before I left for California, whether I should apply for a blue passport to go with my red one.
Are you British? they ask me, and the answer is yes, yes but also American. It's complicated.
It's complicated because I have blood on this land but no cultural intuition. I am part-American but I say pavement instead of sidewalk and biscuit instead of cookie and use words like fab and queue, and when someone gives me a ride home I ask if they'd like to come in for a cup of tea. I've never seen a football game and I don't know how baseball works and don't even get me started on drinking games because I've never mixed alcohol with ping-pong balls. Je parle le français à la place de l'espagnol. People ask me to repeat myself twice when I'm ordering coffee because my words have strange inflection, and I hate reading aloud in class because, I can't help it, I sound wrong.
Are you British? they ask me, and sometimes I say yes, and then, sorry.
The accent is a dead giveaway, so mostly I try to speak when spoken to. But America isn't like the Tube, where making eye-contact with a fellow passenger is considered a social faux-pas. It was no wonder that, sooner or later, someone sitting opposite me at the counter in the CoHo, on a busy Friday lunchtime, would say something like: Hey, I like your watch.
Her name was Ziba. She was a third-year hijabi. We talked about Syria for an hour, and what it's like to grow up an American Of Afghan Descent. She took me to Eid celebrations that evening. Now we study together and catch coffee between classes and she Facebooks me inspiring quotations from the Qur'an, and on Thursday she took me to Ashura commemorations in Sacramento and gifted me a headscarf.
The accent is a dead giveaway, but when you already know someone through their photographs their voice doesn't matter. It was no wonder that, sooner or later, I'd get the chance to meet Lexi or Cierra or Ashley or Emily, or Victoria or Marissa or Lauren or Alayna.
We took a trip to San Francisco (and stopped at the bridge on the way to play tourist), and shot in the ruined baths and on the golden beach. I'm going to Santa Barbara for Thanksgiving. Perhaps I'll make it to LA for the big meet-up next summer.
The accent is a dead giveaway, but it can also be my greatest asset. America is the land of dreams and I have one, one crazy one, one that I can start to build in a tiny way while I'm here. It was no wonder that, sooner or later, I would be anticipating that question - Are you British? - as the perfect ice-breaker when out on assignment as a photographer for the campus newspaper.
My job at the Aggie is teaching me to think of my strange voice as an advantage, but it's also where I met people like Bijan and Abby and Ciera. People who take me home to meet their mom, people who introduce me to their friends at parties, people who make sure my first experience of American football is pitchside with a 300mm lens and a press pass.
Now I have friends here who will welcome me into parts of their life I've never experienced, even if it means translating Farsi for two hours. Now I have friends here who have connections I can use, whose friends of friends are automatically my friends because we are young and hold cameras and for years have shared a world through a lens and an internet connection. Now I have friends who will give me a place to stay if I need it, if it's three a.m. and biking alone down Covell Av sounds less than appealing.
So, are you British? they ask me, and the answer is yes. Yes, but my nationality is mixed. Yes, but I live in the USA. Yes, but I'll be an alumna of the University of California, Davis.
Yes, but don't let the accent fool you, for this is where I am putting down roots.