My first meeting with Joshua J started like any other first meeting with a native British person. Within the first few moments of conversation, that part which is based on small talk, he asked me where I was from.
This is always a difficult question for me cos I don’t understand what people really want to know. Is it “where do you live?”, “where do you feel at home?”, or “where were you born”? In reality, when most Brits ask me this, what they really want to know is “why do you have that weird accent?”
Whenever I’m outside the UK people always take me as a Brit; at least that’s how they perceive my accent. Yet at home in England, native-born people detect something funny about the way I speak.
I first came to the UK when I was 18. I remember that the immigration officer found it odd that I had only one smallish backpack and no real plans, but he let me in because I was “rather eloquent and well-spoken”, i.e. too intelligent to be a criminal, I suppose.
As I left the customs hall, I went to an ATM machine. I’d brought no cash, just my bank card… but it didn’t work. I tried another machine, and another, until I’d tried every flavour from Abbey National to TSB. I knew I had money in my account but figured maybe I needed a machine from a different bank, so I walked out of Terminal Four and started walking, first down the slip road and then east along the A4.
It’s not really a road that people walk along. After a little while a white van pulled over and the man asked me what was going on. I explained and he gave me £5 and drove me to the nearest Underground station (Hounslow West) so I could catch a train into Central London. He also gave me his phone number and said that if I couldn’t get any of the bank machines to work then I could come stay with his family in Reading.
I got off the tube at Earl’s Court and tried all the banks. One took pity on me and let me phone my bank in Chicago. Apparently the issue was that ATM cards only work abroad when they are linked to a current (checking) account, not a savings account, which is what I had. Oh, and there was nothing they could do for me.
I slept that night in a park. The next day I went back to the airport (I don’t remember where I got the money for the tube fare) and begged the airline to let me fly back to America ‘cos I had no money. After some tears, they did. I then spent the next few months trying to earn money to buy a new plane ticket. I went back, this time with some hard cash and the right kind of bank account. And I’m still here.
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