Stakes [Pull Up / Put Down]: An Interview with Gwen
I conducted this interview as part of Stakes [Pull Up / Put Down]. For more information about the project, read the project overview. To read additional entries as they come available, subscribe to The Letter.
Again, credit to people for making connections. In response to a tweet of mine requesting introductions for this project, an acquaintance put Gwen and I together via e-mail.
Gwen and I talked over Skype one Saturday morning. I had green tea and she had coffee, her in her London home and me in an AirBNB in Aix-en-Provence. The talk, coming after a day of travel for me and a sleepless night with her son for Gwen, felt like we’d cozily met up at the breakfast table in our pajamas for contemplative morning conversation—just before the rest of the house started to stir.
It Started as a Break from Manhattan
Gwen lived and worked in New York City before she moved to London.
Craigslist prompted her move. When trying to sell a chair, she discovered the site’s job boards—and particularly its job boards in other parts of the world. One year out of a divorce and ready for a break from the Manhattan grind, Gwen put in an application for a job in London. After accepting an offer for a graphic design position, she struck off to England for a two-year stint.
London didn’t provide a soft landing.
“The first two years were pretty lonely. When you go outside the bubble, you're outside the bubble. It’s painful, and you don’t know if you’re doing the right thing,” she said. “And the job turned out to be horrible. After a year, the woman who hired me fired me because my design was ‘too American.’”
Though she could have let her visa expire after two years and gone back to the United States as planned, she went ahead and renewed it—despite the challenges London threw at her. “I couldn’t let London beat me like that,” she said.
And then, by the time she needed to renew her visa a second time, she’d made friends, she’d acclimated, and she didn’t want to start all over again.
Does London Now Feel Like Home?
As of the date of our conversation, Gwen had lived in London for over a dozen years. She has partnered up with someone she met in London via eHarmony—she swears they never would have met otherwise—and they have a son. She has applied for and received U.K. citizenship.
Gwen is very much entrenched in London.
However, she feels like she has many homes. “My mom and dad have retired somewhere else from where I grew up, but where they live now has deep family roots, so I feel connected to it. And I spent so much time in New York City, that I feel very connected to it. I loved New York,” Gwen said. “Now, I appreciate the British culture. So I’m attached to places, but the sense of home is now a sense of self. A confidence in who I am.”
Expat or Immigrant?
When people push—people like me—Gwen calls herself an expat. I asked why she didn’t feel like an immigrant to the United Kingdom, especially with U.K. citizenship.
She hadn’t considered the question, so she mused on it for me. “Probably because I’m a bit arrogant. I am an immigrant,” she said. “Maybe it’s white privilege. I feel like anywhere I go, there I am, which is something to think about. When you think of yourself as an immigrant, you're a bit humbled. I think it's a humbling term.”
Does she feel like the British make her feel like an immigrant—humbled—even though she doesn’t self-define as one?
She senses that the British will never see her as truly British, even with her U.K. citizenship. However, she doesn’t feel like the British see her as an immigrant, either.
Mind-Expanding Cultural Differences
Gwen said that moving to London opened her mind to the ways that different cultures have different philosophical perspectives on human beings and what makes a good life—and how they embed these perspectives in their policies and customs.
As examples, Gwen pointed out the more generous vacation she receives in England versus what she received in the United States. “In New York City, it was constant work. Relentless. Two weeks’ vacation. Burnout,” she said. “I got here, and I remember my boss telling me to go home and stop working.”
Also, she feels that England has a social safety net that allows people to take risks and to fail. “In the art world in New York City, the threshold for failure is so small. You only see the profitable stuff. How boring,” she said. “In London, you see stuff that has no financial merit. There’s no money in it, but it’s amazing.”
Third, she mentioned that she had lived in London only a short time when her roommate pointed out her wasteful habits. She was boiling a full pot of water for one cup of tea. “I was living with so much excess, so much waste,” she said. “I didn’t even realize it. It was the American way.”
Finding that You Can’t Go Home Again
Will Gwen ever go back to the United States, now that she’s lived in England so long (and gotten citizenship)?
Originally, Gwen and her partner planned to live in the United Kingdom until their son turned two, at which point they expected to return to New York City for the public schools. Ultimately, they planned to move to Sydney, where her partner has citizenship.
Then, she said, “Brexit and Trump happened. And all these shootings started happening. Even if I didn't have a child, why would I go to a society where I can't go to WalMart without being worried that I’m getting shot?”
The longer Gwen stays away from the United States and its culture, the harder she finds it to return—even for a visit. “I spend more time being horrified when I go back. They're raping and pillaging their land and their people with their policies,” she said. “If I thought I could go back and change it all, it may be different. But I don't think I could do anything.”
She and her partner decided to buy a house in London. “Now, we’re not planning to go back to the United States ever, unless something drastically changes. I don’t want my son growing up thinking that’s okay.”
Does she feel sad about the change in plans? “I’m pretty practical about it,” she said. “We looked at the options and what’s best for the one life we’re going to live.”
Only the family ties mix her feelings about the decision. “I know my parents are getting older. My sister is there to take care of them, but I'm not,” she said.
A Thank You
Gwen and I concluded our conversation with the plan to stay in touch and see each other for an in-person warm beverage when we next end up in the same place in Europe—although my heading to London will likely happen more quickly than her appearance in Switzerland.
I look forward to the continued discussion when we do.
For more information about Stakes [Pull Up / Put Down], the project that generated this interview, read the project statement. If you would like to participate as an interview subject or have a participant to recommend, please contact me. To get updates on the project, subscribe to The Letter.