After passing the Life in the UK test

‘Progress is not an illusion. It happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing.’ — George Orwell

The testing room was overheated. I walked out of the testing centre with sweaty palms, my winter coat slung over my arm. Soon enough I realised that it was actually cold outside, and starting to rain. I moved my backpack to my hand and put my coat on while walking. A woman walking past looked at me doing so and smiled in a knowing, ‘shame it’s still coat weather’ kind of way. People here talk about the weather so much, it’s part of the non-verbal communication, too.

I continued on in a post-anxiety daze for about five minutes before I came upon the Grassmarket. Stepping across the road, the Edinburgh castle rose dramatically in the view to my left, ancient and ostentatious. In that moment, in that space of eclectic locals, tourists, and wayward students, I suddenly felt very un-British. The last six years felt like a brief moment in time, and it seemed absurd that I was carrying a piece of paper that officially claimed that I knew enough about Britain to be British.

What a silly concept.

The test was harder than I’d thought it’d be. I’ve been studying so much, taking every practice test available online, in some cases twice, typing up my own personal timeline of UK history, memorising the table of different court types that my husband wrote up before his test. I’ve taken practice tests just before bed, I’ve taken practice tests right after waking up. I was sure that I was overstudying. But when it came to the test, there was still one question I had definitely never seen before, and a couple others that gave me serious pause.

The question I did not know the answer to was something like: ‘What was invented in the 1930s by Frank Whittle?’ There were four possible answers, one of which was so implausible that I don’t remember it now. The other two wrong ones were ‘ballpoint pen’ (interestingly, they didn’t say biro) and ‘personal computer’. I guessed correctly: ‘jet engine’. By far the easiest question on the test was something like: ‘When is Easter?’ (the answer being ‘March-April’). Of the remaining 22 questions I would estimate that there were at least seven that I would have had no idea of the correct answer without having studied. (In other words, I would’ve failed the test if I hadn’t studied at all and hadn’t guessed correctly.) Interestingly, or perhaps frustratingly, there were no questions about courts, the royal family, sport, music, religion, or television — all topics which feature heavily in the study guides.

So, that’s yet another hurdle down towards the goal of being able to live in my place of residence indefinitely. It’s the closest I can get to getting a degree in UK living. This follows three separate Tier 2 visa applications (and fees) and precedes the most complicated application and by far the most expensive set of fees, yet. Meanwhile, we’ve adopted a wee British citizen, bought a home, and gotten our driving licences. My default spelling convention when I type is now British, and my default lexis in the areas of either academia or childrearing is most definitely British as well. And yet there’s something about this test for Indefinite Leave to Remain that makes me feel so incredibly American. Maybe it’s because I’m constantly aware of my English language privilege compared to the other kinds of people taking the same test, or the closely related privilege that comes with my American cultural knowledge. Or maybe because I’ve just wasted quite a bit of my personal time to pass some ridiculously challenging hurdle in order to prove to the British state that I’m good enough for them. Then again, there’s a quality of that experience that makes me feel rather British, too.

As I type this, I am sitting in my favourite Turkish cafe, across the street from my office building. It’s late afternoon but I’m treating myself to a glass of wine (something I’d never do in the US) and eating some Scottish salmon… on a bagel. One of my favourite songs of all time just came on: Golden Brown by The Stranglers. Lest this be some kind of British ‘sign’, let me tell you that it was then followed by a song that brings me right back to the sights and smells of my early childhood: Jump by the Pointer Sisters. And that’s me in a nutshell, folks.

picking daisies outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse

picking daisies outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse


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