I got slapped in the face for my American accent but I still love the UK | British News

“Shut up you stupid American idiots.”

It came from an alley where a few drunk people were huddled under an awning from the rain.

I left a pub after watching rugby on the riverside in York all day and headed to McDonald’s to enjoy the booze. I was with two friends – all Americans.

A brief altercation ensued between us all and before we knew it they were chasing us down the street and backing us into a dead end street where we were being dragged to the ground and being beaten.

I looked up from the curb and saw the man put his hand around my girlfriend’s throat and she was screaming for him to get off her. My instincts kicked in, so I tried to help her, digging my weak hands into his sides hoping he would let go.

And then I felt his fist hit my face. A hit so hard that I hardly felt the pain as much as I experienced it: red and yellow stars behind my eyes and dizzying, crackling sound.

When he hit me a second time, I was thrown completely to the ground – his gold ring pierced the skin of my temple – and I felt myself floating outside of my body. Then I passed out for a very short time.

Katy Severson runs through a field next to the shore

I’ve made it my mission to move here someday (Image: Katy Severson)

I don’t know exactly how long, but long enough for them to run away and a police officer to appear out of the pouring rain and ask if I was okay.

This was my first contact with the British police and also my first stay in a British hospital. At that point I had only lived in the UK for four months.

I moved to London from New York in October 2021 to pursue a Masters in Creative Writing. After the pandemic I was looking for something new to do with my life and career and the Anglophile in me chose the UK.

I’m passionate about British comedy shows like ‘Mr. Bean and Fawlty Towers and when I first traveled here in 2017 and experienced the rolling hills of Devon and Cornwall I made it my mission to move here one day.

Ironically, part of me was also looking for a way out of the US.

There’s so much I love about America, but it’s getting harder and harder to live there. Mass shootings, healthcare costs, anti-abortion laws, and inflation were all motivations to leave the country and find a better quality of life.

Let me be very clear: I am a privileged person who came to the UK out of desire and not necessity. Unlike so many other immigrants seeking refuge in the UK, I have not escaped either war or extreme poverty.

Katy Severson is standing on a train platform

I watched as I changed my speech (Image: Katy Severson)

But I still saw a chance for a better life and future for the family I want and hope to build here. I knew that in Britain I could raise children without fear of school shootings, that I could go to the supermarket without planning my escape route in case of a shooter.

Life in London somehow feels more relaxed and less chaotic than life at home.

My first few months here were a period of adjustment and included the usual difficulties of moving to an entirely new location.

I’ve learned how difficult it is to get housing as a foreigner, especially as a freelance writer (in my case) or someone without a high-paying job or promotion. For example, one often cannot get an address without a UK bank account, but one cannot get a UK bank account without an existing UK address.

And your credit starts all over again as soon as you move here. At 33, I was treated like an 18-year-old with no financial background. And I was asked to pay six months’ rent up front – nearly $10,000 (around £8,000) – for a studio flat in East London costing £1,100 a month.

Right off the bat, my Americanness—particularly my pronunciation of “tomato”—became the playful laughing stock of new friends, acquaintances, and classmates. During the writing workshops in my master’s program, some of my classmates spent more time correcting my spelling (e.g. “color” to “color”) than meaningfully critique my work.

I didn’t mind; I was proud of where I came from. And overall I felt very welcome here. I slowly made friends, started dating, and part-time worked in the kitchen to earn some extra money.

That blow stopped everything. My face was so bruised and swollen that I could not eat. And I was diagnosed with a severe concussion and told to stop working and studying for three to four weeks.

I got severe headaches every time I used my phone or computer, and I lived in a kind of harrowing, depressed state that lasted for months: I frequently locked myself out of my apartment and stumbled over my words. It felt almost impossible to complete my degree—although I managed it, in part because any interruption in my studies meant I had to leave the country—and I barely got any of it in my sophomore semester.

Eventually, the worst concussion gave way to manic depression and extreme anxiety. I was afraid to walk alone after dark and imagined worst-case scenarios everywhere I went. Most of that anxiety finally went away with time and talk therapy.

But 16 months later, one effect remains: I am deeply ashamed and afraid of my American accent.

I’ve watched myself alter my speech: I’ve raised the ends of sentences, hardened my Ts, and adjusted my tone to sound as English as possible. Of course, part of that is simply because I live here and absorb my surroundings.

Other Americans I’ve met have also changed their accents slightly. We all adapt and assimilate. But mine feels particularly emotionally charged.

I’m now acutely aware that I’m that “dumb American” – too loud, too excited, too irritable – and try to hide it in public as much as possible. When American friends and family visit, I’m always afraid we’ll be noticed; I push us to the left side of the sidewalk, keeping our voice low, staying calm and stepping out of the way. But I still say “tomato” like an American – and I always will.

Katy Severson is standing on a cliff by the sea

London feels like home to me now (Image: Katy Severson)

Something strange about living abroad that I didn’t know before: You become a foreigner in two places at the same time. I’m ridiculed by friends and family for my new tone and British ways, and I’ve largely lost touch with American politics and trends.

But here in the UK, I’m never quite British enough. Always a step, a joke or a conversation behind.

Surprisingly, I plan to stay in the UK for as long as possible because I still like it here. All the things I’ve always loved and a lot more I’ve discovered since staying here, like pub culture, Jersey milk and long walks along rugged coastlines.

I am currently applying for a graduate visa which will give me two more years to live and work here and I hope to be able to stay beyond that. London feels like home to me now. And Britain still feels far more secure and peaceful than the US as a whole.

As for the beating incident, the perpetrator was found and arrested on the spot, and my friends and I spent several months in and out of court as witnesses to her case. The court visits – which have been repeatedly postponed due to Covid-19-related delays – became increasingly traumatic and the case finally ended in late 2022.

The man who hit me was sentenced to a few hours of community service and fined £50 for an “offense of hitting”. [me]’. Fifty pounds. It didn’t particularly feel like justice, but it felt good that it was over.

I could never ask this man why he hated Americans in the first place – and I don’t want to either. But I will carry that fear with me for the rest of my time in the UK.

I can’t imagine what it must be like for people less privileged than me. For those confronted with xenophobia or racism while fleeing poverty and war.

Not to mention people whose perceived “differences” are harder to hide than my own.

immigrant nation

Immigration Nation is a series that aims to destigmatize the word ‘immigrant’ and explore the powerful first-person stories of people who have arrived in the UK – and call it home. If you have a story you’d like to share, email james.besanvalle@metro.co.uk

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Justin Scaccy

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