I was punched in the face for my American accent – I still love the UK though

‘Shut up, you stupid American c**ts’.

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

I was leaving a pub after watching rugby all day along the river in York and on my way to McDonald’s to soak up the booze. I was with two friends — all of us American.

There was a short altercation between us all and before we knew it, they chased us down the street and cornered us into a dead-end where we were wrestled to the ground and beaten.

I looked up from the curb to see the man’s hand wrapped around my friend’s throat and her screaming for him to get off of her. My instincts kicked in so I tried to help her, digging my weak hands into his sides in the hopes he’d let go.

And then I felt his fist hit my face. A blow so hard I barely felt the pain so much as I experienced it: bursts of red and yellow stars behind my eyes and dizzying, crackling noise. 

When he hit me a second time, I was fully knocked to the ground — his gold ring puncturing the skin of my temple — and I felt myself floating outside of my body. That’s when I blacked out for a very short period of time.

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

This was my first time dealing with the British police, as well as my first time in a British hospital. I had only lived in the UK for four months by this point.

I moved to London from New York in October 2021 for a master’s programme in creative writing. Post-pandemic, I was looking for something new for my life and career, and the Anglophile in me chose the UK to do it.

I grew up enamoured by British comedy shows like Mr Bean and Fawlty Towers, and as soon as I travelled here for the first time in 2017 and experienced the rolling hills of Devon and Cornwall, I made it my mission to move here someday. 

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

There is so much I love about America, but it’s becoming an increasingly difficult place to live. Mass shootings, healthcare costs, anti-abortion laws and inflation were all motivations for leaving the country and finding a higher quality of life.

Let me be perfectly clear: I’m a privileged person who came to the UK through desire, not necessity. I have not escaped war or extreme poverty like so many other immigrants who seek refuge in the UK.

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

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

My first few months here were a period of adjustment and included the kind of standard difficulties that come with moving somewhere entirely new.

I learned how difficult it is to secure a flat as a foreigner, especially as a freelance writer (in my case) or anyone without a high-paying salaried position or sponsorship. You often can’t get an address without a UK bank account, for example, but you can’t get a UK bank account without an existing UK address. 

And your credit starts over the moment you move here; at 33, I was treated like an 18-year-old with no financial history to my name. And I was asked to pay six months’ rent upfront – nearly $10,000 USD (around £8,000) – for a £1,100 per month studio flat in East London. 

Off the bat, my Americanness — particularly my pronunciation of ‘tomato’ — became the playful laughing stock of new friends, acquaintances and classmates. During writing workshops in my master’s programme, some of my classmates spent more time correcting my spelling (for example, ‘color’ to ‘colour’) than they did meaningfully critiquing my work. 

I didn’t mind; I was proud of where I came from. And overall I felt very welcomed here. I was slowly making friends, dating, and working in a kitchen part-time for extra cash. 

That punch put all of it on pause. My face was so bruised and swollen that I couldn’t eat. And I was diagnosed with a serious concussion and told to stop working and studying for three to four weeks.

I got splitting headaches every time I used my phone or computer, and I lived in a kind of concussive, depressive haze that lasted months: frequently locking myself out of my flat and stumbling on my words. It felt nearly impossible to finish my degree — though I did, partially because any pause in my studies meant I’d have to leave the country — and I got barely anything out of it in my second term. 

Eventually, the worst of the 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 has finally faded with time and talking therapy.

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

I’ve watched myself chameleon my speech: lifting the ends of sentences, hardening my Ts, and adjusting my tone to sound as English as possible. Part of that, of course, is just from living here and absorbing my environment. 

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

I’m keenly aware, now, of being that ‘stupid American’ — too loud, too excitable, too ornery — and try to hide it as much as possible in public. When American friends and family visit, I’m always terrified we’ll stick out like sore thumbs; I shuffle us to the left side of the walkway, keep our voices down, stay quiet and out of the way. But I still say ‘tomato’ like an American — and I always will. 

Something strange about living abroad I didn’t know until now: you become a foreigner in two places at once. Friends and family poke fun at me for my new tone and my British-isms, and I’ve largely lost track of American politics and trends. 

But here in Britain, I’m never quite British enough. Always one step, joke, or pronunciation behind. 

Surprisingly, I plan to stick around in the UK for as long as I can because I still love it here. All the things I always loved and so many more I’ve discovered since being here, like pub culture, Jersey milk and long walks along rugged coastlines. 

I’m currently on the graduate visa, giving me two more years to live and work here, and I’m hoping to stay beyond that. London feels like home to me now. And Britain still feels far safer and more peaceful than the US as a whole. 

As for the punching incident, the perpetrator was found and arrested on the scene and my friends and I spent several months in and out of court as witnesses to their case. The court visits — which kept getting pushed back due to Covid-19 delays — became increasingly traumatic, and the case finally concluded at the end of 2022.

The man who punched me was sentenced with some hours of community service and a fine of £50 for the ‘offence of beating [me]’. Fifty pounds. It didn’t feel much like justice, but it did feel good for it to be over. 

I never got to ask that man what he hated so much about Americans in the first place — and I don’t want to. But this fear inside me is something I’ll carry for the rest of my time in the UK.

I can’t imagine what it must be like for people less privileged than I am. For those facing xenophobia or racism while escaping poverty and war.

Not to mention humans whose perceived ‘differences’ are harder to hide than my own.

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