Column: Being a Scot in America

By Sharon Armstrong

When I first moved to America, I was enchanted, although to be accurate, I didn’t really move to America, I moved to New Orleans, a foreign land within a foreign land, a place where anything could happen, and often did.

America is a great place for Scottish people to visit. Americans love accents, and they especially love those of the Scots and the Irish. It’s something that I have never really understood, but while most Americans continue to have a quite astonishing difficulty deciphering the words themselves, even when confused they keep on smiling.

I have fond memories of writing down orders for orange juice at a bar in the French Quarter, as regardless of how slowly I said the words, it just didn’t click for the bartender. As for my dad, with his thick Ayrshire accent and his tendency to talk softly, he might have actually died of thirst if my handy notepad hadn’t come to the rescue. However, since most of the Americans he talked to seemed to think Alba-accented swearing was cute, he was never quite 86’d (refused service – ed.). Everything worked out just fine.

Scottish expectations of Americans are often justified. They really are optimistic. They really are friendly. They really do smile a lot. They hug strangers, while their kindness can be overwhelming to the average chary Scot, I made some good friends within days of arriving in the Crescent City, and most have stood the test of time.

Now, Americans will ask you if you know their far-flung relatives back in the old country, I guarantee it, but you will almost feel bad when you laugh at them – almost. Many talk about God – a lot – and they like to eat. They are generous. They appreciate success, and they are not afraid to say so – financial triumph being an important component of the American Dream, an ingrained part of the national psyche. Now, ask the average American to define this dream, and the confusion starts again.

The accent doesn’t always work. Once, at an Irish Festival in Jackson, Mississippi, a big no-neck red-neck in an Utilikilt tapped me on the shoulder while I was buying my favourite festival snack- a big ol’ smoked turkey drumstick. I love those things; they are so excessive, another aspect of America that tickles me – the wonderfully ridiculous food portions. Anyway, this sunburned man with his wrap around shades had been listening when I asked for my meaty treat, and he was not impressed. According to him, my so-called Scottish accent was apparently not quite up to snuff, and needed a little bit more work. It was all right, he supposed, but no turkey leg. I smiled, and walked away before the urge to share a little bit of my granny’s Glasgow heritage overwhelmed me, in the name of authenticity of course. Can yer mammie stitch, I thought. Aye? Well….

Bubba Weird-Kilt happened years ago. A random man with an image of Scotland and Scottish that fell somewhere between the festival Tartan Tent, Groundskeeper Willy, and Braveheart. His view of exactly how a Scottish person should sound was set, and no amount of disproof was going to change his mind. It was that simple, just like him. Inside his psyche history lost out to fantasy, belief won against reality, and preconceptions trumped experience. America does seem to love its alternate universes, just listen to their politicians – let’s hear it for the Multiverse!

But that was what I loved; that feeling that anything could happen, all those choices and viewpoints existing side by side, not so much a melting pot as a great big mixing pot of opposing ideas, and heritages. And now, after over ten years living here, the feeling remains, recast in darker shades. America has changed, or maybe I have.

Today, America is a supposedly first-world country where a quite ridiculous number of Fundamental Christian Creationists clash with scientists on the public stage seeking to define religious beliefs as science, and as such as worthy of scientific merit as evolution, and therefore to be taught as such in schools in some weird war on rationality.

Where God – if there is a God – must have to wear earplugs to get a rest from those who insist on using religion as a political weapon; to be cherry-picked-up and hot-potato-dropped according to need. It is a country where millions of people live in abject generational poverty while others live gilded lives such as few people could dream of. Its politicians tout policies filled with such obvious, paradoxical inconsistencies that listening to them I feel kinship to the baffled bartenders who had such difficulty understanding my attempts at beer buying in those New Orleans pubs. I hear the sounds, but have no idea what they mean.

Facts are touted as negotiable, but episodes of cynical political grandstanding are not. It is a country where the leading cause of personal bankruptcy is medical bills, but there is a hysterically fervent opposition to universal healthcare. Where guns are a fetish as well as right, and a bad science-fiction writer invented a religion for the stars. It is a paradox that nurtures Fox News and the Daily Show, purple mountain majesty, strip mining and fracking, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Rush Limbaugh, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.

America: a country where anything really might happen.

Sharon Armstrong is a Scottish freelance writer currently based in New Orleans, Louisiana. After graduating from Strathclyde University in Glasgow with a BA in English and Psychology, she moved to Edinburgh where she worked, amongst other things, as a reporter and arts reviewer. Her love of travel led her across the Atlantic to New Orleans where, like so many before her, she stayed far longer than she planned to. Returning home to Scotland to undertake a Masters in Journalism at Edinburgh’s Napier University, she moved back to the US where she currently works deep in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter with the WWOZ Jazz and Heritage Radio Station as a writer, interviewer, producer, and co-host of the station’s weekly Celtic music show, Music In The Glen, with Sean O’Meara.

  • kjh64

    “Where God – if there is a God – must have to wear earplugs to get a rest from those who insist on using religion as a political weapon; to be cherry-picked-up and hot-potato-dropped according to need. It is a country where millions of people live in abject generational poverty while others live gilded lives such as few people could dream of. ”

    Europe has plenty of religion. The difference, in the USA it is mainly Christianity, in western Europe the religion is mainly Islam. Also, millions of people do NOT live in abject generational poverty due to the vast American welfare state which the average American pays for with a huge chunk of his/her tax dollars. Most generational welfare recipients have an entitled attitude and are lazy, with irresponsible breeding habits, who are on welfare generation after generation thanks to the creation of the welfare state which enables their bad behavior. Most people don’t live gilded lives either save for the rich.