“I was so nearly an American,” writes Stephen Fry. So was I, as everyone knows. Stephen has an American alter-ego he calls Steve. Steve is confident to the point of rudeness, eats jelly, wears jeans and calls his mother “Mom.” I can pronounce Julie in English or in Norwegian. The idea of an alternate life – a Julie who moved to the US at age four and never went back to Norway – is fascinating. Whenever I speak American English with real Americans, or find myself saying “we” and meaning “all Americans”, I wonder who I could have been.
I’ve lived two incomplete lives – I was an American child without a future and a Norwegian teenager without a past.
It sounds dramatic, but I thought this idea for the first time when I was still an overly dramatic American little girl. “Julie can be a bit over-dramatic sometimes,” my kindergarten teacher wrote on my first report card. I didn’t care about report cards. I had an active imagination, and people who didn’t play along with the story line in my head, annoyed me. Every now and then, I would go to school and introduce myself as someone completely different – a princess, a witch, my own older sister. I spent at least an hour reading alone in my room every day. No one (except my sister who wasn’t allowed in my room during “quiet time”) seemed to think this was a problem. I had plenty of friends and prominent positions in several “secret” playground clubs. I was the girl who got the lead in school plays. I took writing classes and acting classes after school, and my short stories were five times as long as the other students’. I was bad at math – I got the answers right, but I was too slow. I didn’t care what my friends wore to school, as long as my own outfit was just the way I wanted it to be. I preferred dresses, but my mom made me wear sneakers to school, and sneakers with dresses was a fashion crime to me, so I started wearing jeans. I was a Girl Scout, which meant crafts and sleeping over in the Science Museum. Because I was Norwegian, I couldn’t eat candy except for Saturdays, my parents didn’t want me to watch TV as much as I wanted to, and I got the day off on May 17th. And I knew I was going to move away from everything and everyone soon.
This American girl didn’t grow up. Some time between age ten and eleven, she stopped existing. When I turned 13, I was a Norwegian teenager. I studied my classmates’ back pockets and learned that there were at most three acceptable brands of jeans in the world. I was thrilled when fashions changed and wearing skirts was finally “allowed”. I was the girl with “too many opinions”, the girl with the best grades in the class, serious, professional – elected into the student government every year, despite never running for office. I was really good at math. I still didn’t care about report cards, but I worried about seeming like a nerd. I was a walking dictionary, but I didn’t know the words to children’s songs. I got lost in places where my classmates had grown up. My friends had a shared childhood which I couldn’t remember.
At the start of ninth grade, I came back from a summer in the US, with layers in my hair, an unknown brand of jeans and “power bead” bracelets on my wrists. I had gotten a glimpse of American high school, and I desperately wished I knew which clique I should have been in. I didn’t fit in at my small town Norwegian school, but I wasn’t an outsider either. Because I had grown up in the US, there was a convenient excuse whenever I stepped outside the line. My clothes weren’t European designer brands, but they were American. I didn’t drink alcohol, but I organized Halloween parties and brought candy corn to class. Of course I was “good at school” – I got a head start by being bilingual. I was never going to do drugs, because that might make it difficult to move back to the US some day. My classmates seemed to accept these excuses. I did too. I had a single explanation for every difficult teenage emotion: I don’t really belong here.
As I write this, I’m wearing clothes from France, Sweden and Spain, and shoes from Germany. I’m listening to Swedish music. In Fake Plastic France – the American student community in Paris – I was so European. I didn’t wear flip flops, I didn’t go running and I would never drink soda with food. I casually paid a small fortune for underwear. I didn’t know what beer pong was, and I preferred wine anyway. In journalism class, I argued against the public’s right to know the names and addresses of crime suspects, but I impressed my teacher by knowing about Rawls’ veil of ignorance. I joked that I wished there were no other Norwegian girls at the American University of Paris. Being the only one would have given me another convenient excuse for weirdness.
But I know that I’m not me because I’m European or because I’m American or because I’m both. I like my Swedish indie pop, French lingerie, Italian coffee, and American television because my friends do. People don’t belong in places. People belong with people. As a Norwegian girl, I’ve met people who are so important to me I can’t imagine a life without them. Dreaming of an alternate reality in which these people don’t exist to me, actually hurts. But I still do.
I wonder if over-dramatic Julie would have gotten in to Harvard. If she would have followed American dating rules – if those rules even exist. If she would have been more confident, more ambitious, more naive than me. If she would have had an easier life, a more interesting life. She would have known what to vote in elections. She would have longed for Freia milk chocolate rather than Ben&Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream. Her classmates wouldn’t have held her responsible when the US went to war. She would idolize Norway, because she only saw it in summer. Her relationship with her grandparents would be uncomplicated, but distant. She wouldn’t ski, but she would ride a bike. It would take her longer to learn that race and culture are not uncomplicated outside of elementary school classrooms. She might have worried about being too average rather than too much of an individual.
Moving away from a friend is the least painful way to lose one, and having grown up in the same place as your classmates doesn’t mean you’ll never be lonely. American Julie might have learned that before I did. But she would have missed out on most of my friendships. It’s hard to imagine anything in her alternate reality life making up for that.
For Julie Balise, probably the closest I’ll ever get to meeting my American adult self.