In order to become a UK citizen, or even to qualify for indefinite leave to remain, one must take a written test. Go on, try it if you’re hard enough. When this test was developed, a reporter handed it out at a pub and the British test-takers failed.
The test is called Life in the United Kingdom, the purpose of which is fourfold: demonstrate grasp of the English language, knowledge of society, law and social services, and ability to follow instructions, and receive introduction to British civil service. If they say to tick the box in black ink, they mean it: no Xs, no dark blue. No smiling in the photo. To prepare, you need to know the age at which children are allowed to work on milk floats and drink cider in pubs, the year in which women were given the right to divorce and all sorts of ethnic, religious and political demographics which, once the test is taken, swarm out of your head like bats at dusk.
Arriving in America, I reflected that it was a good thing no test was required as surely I would fail. My early writing about the move and the repatriation was entrenched in a feeling of mismatched skill-sets. Whatever competencies I had in London were voided. My knowledge of public transport, of the complex map of London streets, of its markets, playgrounds, cafs and pubs, my standing in the local squash league, my excruciating familiarity with airports, the very tender shoots of understanding of the cryptic crossword, even my passport (we really need to see an Alabama driver’s license) were non-transferable. I had to start over.
At work, I was on a PC with InDesign, when for years I have been a Mac user and am the proud holder of an advanced user certificate in QuarkXpress. I couldn’t even follow a familiar recipe. Our kitchen scales died and were unrevivable by new battery; every time I use a recipe I have to Google the conversion. I’m pretty sure my husband still doesn’t understand that 100g of sugar is not the same in cups as 100g of flour. And there are cultural references in the New York Times puzzle that, as a foreigner, elude me and seldom any references to how badly Mara sang (8).
I don’t know where to go for shoe repairs, well, now I do because a friend recommended a place on one of these really long streets that turns into a highway; how far away is it? Or where things are in the grocery store or why organic milk is hidden away in the organic milk section, in produce, instead of being with the milk, or why it needs to have a shelf-life of two months so that I am forced to choose between radiation and growth hormones.
When school started, we were presented with lists of supplies we needed to gather; we’d never had to buy school supplies before. What’s display-size posterboard? There were too many varieties of tabbed, 3-ring, 6-string binders. It was a bit overwhelming.
Driving, cooking, shopping, puzzles: all different. Plus, having a car again, home-ownership, lawn care, yard work, repairs, trampoline assembly, voting, things people much younger than I have mastered years ago, all take that extra measure of cognition. Now, how do I go about that?
I don’t know the words to The Star-Spangled Banner and the only time I’d ever heard it sung was baseball games, but they sing it a lot here, or maybe it’s that when they do sing it everyone knows the words. If there were a test, surely that would be an area on which they’d want to invigilate you. Would an American citizenship test fall under Homeland Security or would it be devised and administered on a state-by-state basis and run by the Sheriff’s Office or Motor Vehicles?
Would an American test be as obsessed with ensuring that you know exactly how many members of congress there are, to the extent that the multiple choice answers would be: 535, 525, 553, 532?
Luckily, there is a website that compiles advice for would-be Americans. On the left-hand nav it offers a trio of links: Dating and relationships, Crime and violence, Etiquette and behavior. Like variations on a theme.
On the right-hand, is a long list of topics that in itself gives you a broadstrokes idea of what you’re getting into: Payday loans, Poker in America, Stuffed animals, Soccer moms, Tailgating parties, Book discussion groups, Sympathy cards, Islamophobia, Refrigerator magnets and Wind power.
I have sat in meetings where the men and the women will say a certain weekend, months ahead, would be problematic for a school event because there is a college football game. Understanding the SEC would be a regional requirement. As would forms of address.
You have been introduced to Sally Smith. When next you see her, provided you remember her name, what will you call her?
Over time, all but Ms. Smith are possible.
And, actually, there is a US citizenship test, run by Homeland Security. (Go on, try it.) While the British test is administered by invigilators, which sounds like interrogation but is more about patrolling the room to check documents and ensure there is no cheating, the US test, a six out of 10 affair that also tests spoken and written English, is adjudicated.
The US test wants you to know your rights in the abstract (freedom, pursuit of happiness) and to understand the history of independence, but offers nothing in the way of support or services (how to qualify for food stamps or Medicaid.) It is utterly, utterly humorless, while the UK veers wittingly or not into the absurd.
The British test, or the act of studying for it, also educates you on what the State will provide. It overrates the value of census information, the population of Wales or the national percentage of youth, but seeks to educate you on your rights as a woman, as if in answer to the questions and problems brought to an MP’s constituent surgery or a Citizens Advice Bureau. No, your child is too young to be delivering papers, you may divorce your husband, you have the right to free education but you have to buy uniforms.
But, even once you’ve passed the test, even once they’ve given you your papers and sent you on your way, it is no guarantee that you will know what to do when you get there.