Outside In: John Nicholas

outside-in

outside-in-jnThis photograph was taken from the southbound platform of London’s West Finchley Station, which has, over the years, been the link to high school, college, cultural excursions, parks and recreation, intercity train services, and intercontinental air travel for John Nicholas. “I regard West Finchley Station very fondly,” he says, “and it represents home.” As John points out, the London “Underground” or “Tube” is an essential public transportation system  that makes the vastness of London accessible and manageable. As such, it is very much part of most Londoners’ being. “Absent road traffic, the clickety-clack of the trains was faintly audible from my bedroom late at night and early in the morning. I find the sound inexplicably comforting, even now when I visit my parents.”

John has been in Baltimore for nearly 25 years – working as a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he is a Professor of Oncology – and he says that the longer he stays in the U.S., the more problematic becomes the thought of one day leaving. “I am settled here, with a house, pets, friends, and a workplace that feels like home.” Baltimore is the place he has chosen to settle and establish his adult life, and he feels extremely connected to it. He loved Baltimore from the moment he first arrived, despite its clear differences from London. “Quirkiness is a quality much admired by Brits, I think, and Baltimore has it in spades.” There was minimal culture shock for him, not least because of the common language and similar “Anglo” cultures. “Professionally,” he says, “one laboratory is pretty much the same as another; science is a global language.”

On the other hand, John’s entire upbringing was in a single location in London, the place where his parents still live, where his roots are. “This is the place that has mothered me, that I feel genuinely part of, that has deposited its values and character in me, and that accepts me fully as one of its own, so London is my inescapable and true home.” He misses the unimposing, down-to-earth nature and understated, self-deprecating humor of Brits. He also misses the architecture of London, including centuries’-old churches, houses and other buildings, the Tube, urban parks, and the English countryside . . . “I’d miss fish & chips and pubs if I wasn’t now a vegetarian and tea-total!”

It was professional and personal loss that made John immigrate in the first place. “The situation in London was difficult, as my Ph.D. studentship and then postdoctoral fellowship mentor had died following a short illness.” This was a very profound personal loss, and professionally it meant that a plan to establish his own lab in the same institution was no longer a possibility. This, and a recently failed relationship and associated complications, prompted his decision to cross the Atlantic. John says that the experience of being alone in a foreign country has matured him and made him very independent, and it has also allowed him to see and appreciate the world from a different perspective. Still, he doesn’t feel American. “I love many aspects of the U.S.,” he says, “but there are also characteristics and values that seem fundamentally different to my own.” For this reason, he thinks his green card status is entirely suitable for him. “I am at home here, but citizen status would feel inappropriate somehow.”

Like so many immigrants, John has carried a sense of guilt for being geographically distant from his parents. “In this respect, I will always wonder if I did the right thing in choosing to live on a different continent and sacrifice time I could have spent with them.” But, the upside has been forging his own path and making a true home in a foreign country. “I’ve met wonderful people along the way and I’ve experienced American life and culture from the inside,” he says. “I’ve visited more parts of the U.S. than I have of the U.K., enhancing my feeling of connection to my adopted home.” It’s small wonder that the thought of one day leaving is problematic for him.

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