[Blogger’s note: I’m an American expat twice removed, having relocated to Canada early in the new century and then to the southern coast of England in 2016. This post details an important event in my immigration journey that had me stressing over an exam grade for the first time since my student days decades ago. ]
You know the classic anxiety dream where you’re at school and the teacher announces a pop quiz for which you are totally unprepared? Also, for some reason, you’re wearing nothing but tighty-whities? I felt a similarly palpable panic while wide awake and en route to take the Life in the UK Test, a requirement for immigrants like myself who seek permanent residency in Britain. Mercifully for the townsfolk I passed on the walk to the test centre, I was fully clothed. And sufficiently informed, or at least in theory: I had read and re-read the three-volume study guide published on behalf of the Home Office, the governmental department that rules on visa applications. I had also taken more than 40 practice tests, both in the guide and online, and passed them all – out of 24 questions, you’re allowed six incorrect answers and I had not missed more than four. And I’d been through a comparable process in Canada when I applied for citizenship there. Yet I couldn’t shake the unnerving sense that I was going to blow it. Long-suppressed memories of my scholastic shortcomings in adolescence resurfaced on cue to fuel this fear – the C- on that baffling algebra exam, the D for that botched frog dissection in biology, the essay that was returned so full of red marks it looked like a crime scene. Let’s just say I was never the teacher’s pet.
I tried to force these ghosts of bad grades past to the back of my mind so that I could concentrate on what I’d learned from the study guide. The first chapter briskly summarizes Britain’s long history from the Stone Age to Boris Johnson – I imagine the updated Liz Truss edition will be out soon – and all those prominent figures, landmark battles and important dates were jostling for space in my crowded noggin. Which king hid in a tree again? What events brought about the Fabulous… no, wait, Glorious Revolution? Gloomily I pondered what would happen if I blanked on this section come exam time. Would I be deported on the spot and forever separated from my beloved British husband because I couldn’t remember the difference between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads?
With growing unease, I did a mental review of the rest of the guide. I had found the pages dedicated to sport to be particularly bewildering given my scant knowledge of British athletic endeavours. Like, isn’t cricket the game where they try to catch the Golden Snitch? I also had doubts about my grasp of the chapter on government, a deep dive into parliamentary democracy full of nit-picky factoids such as the year in which hereditary peers lost the automatic right to attend the House of Lords and the number of members in the Welsh Senedd. (1999 and 60, in case you’re wondering.) At least I was fairly confident about the section on culture, which name-checks Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming and the Beatles, and notes that Tilda Swinton is among the British actors to have won an Oscar. (Oh, honey, I’m gay. I’m aware.)
It should have given me comfort to remember that, as an American, I had an advantage. The US and the UK share many customs and cultural touchstones – it’s lucky we patched things up after that awkward Revolutionary War business – so I arrived already familiar with April Fool’s Day, Florence Nightingale, Monty Python and many other study guide entries. For someone from somewhere very different, the learning curve must seem insurmountable. But even this cultural cousin was overwhelmed by the avalanche of new information. What was the Beveridge Report? Why do Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have “devolved administrations?” And what the heck does UEFA stand for? (Don’t bother giving me the answer to the last one. I refuse to retain that info on principle.)
As the test site came into view, I steeled myself for disappointment. I could take the exam again if I didn’t pass, at a cost of £50 for each attempt, but the hubby and I had already spent a small fortune on the visa application fee and the immigration lawyer. Our budget couldn’t handle many repeat blunders on my part. What if I failed, like, six times? 60? What if I failed 6000 times? My stress level hit the red zone as I entered the building.
Once inside, I was briefly distracted by the annoyance of a rather invasive security check. My fellow test-takers and I were made to empty our pockets, pop our collars, roll down our socks, and submit to a thorough, ahem, wanding to prove we weren’t carrying any crib sheets or listening devices. According to the staff, some cheaters have had off-site accomplices feed them answers via concealed audio transmitters. Fair enough, although I don’t know what good such a device would do stashed in my socks. It’s been years since I’ve been able to hold my ankle up to my ear.
After passing muster and readjusting my person, I was directed to the testing room, which, with its unflattering fluorescent lighting, bulky outdated computers and wobbly caster chairs, resembled a telemarketing office for dodgy timeshares or pyramid-scheme products. I was seated in front of a computer monitor the size of a Mini Cooper, told I had 45 minutes to complete the test, and given the signal to begin. I clicked the start button and the first of the 24 multiple-choice or true-or-false questions appeared on my screen. I broke into a grin. Question 1 asked, “Which type of film is director Nick Park famous for making?” I’d known the answer to this one even before I cracked open the study guide. Being a fan of Park’s wonderful Wallace and Gromit series, I chose “animated” out of the four options. My worries slowly ebbed away as the test went on and I realized that each question had appeared on one or more of the practice exams I had taken. One about a medal-winning Paralympian swimmer had shown up at least four times. As I clicked “Submit” upon completing the test, I felt reasonably certain I’d answered 22 questions correctly. Of the two in doubt, one on the freedoms enjoyed by new immigrants was vaguely worded but I think I worked it out in the end. The other asked for the country of origin of James I and I just couldn’t recall the answer in the moment. I guessed “the Netherlands.” Looking it up afterwards, I discovered that the correct answer is Scotland. Humble apologies to my Scottish readers. I’ll be sending a mea culpa haggis in the post to each of you.
I exited the testing room on a cautious high and joined the queue outside a tiny office where a staff member waited with our results. On the day I was there, attendees weren’t told their scores if they passed, only if they failed. I can’t say whether this is standard policy at all sites. The poor guy in front of me was informed he missed 11 and was crestfallen. When my turn came, I stepped into the office and received the good news, and even though I’ll never know exactly how well I did, I’d like to think that the sunny manner in which the verdict was delivered meant that I scored spectacularly high and that my towering intellect will be reverently referenced in test offices throughout the UK for decades to come.
As I left the site, a far happier man than when I’d arrived, my first thought was, “What was all that angst for, anyway?” My second thought was, “Wow, that was…random.” When I took the Canadian citizenship test, the study materials given were wide-ranging, but the exam itself sensibly focused on the practicalities of being a responsible citizen of that country – where to vote, who has the right to vote, what the leader of the provincial government is called, and so on. By contrast, the British counterpart was more like a pub quiz – a little sport, a little history, a smidge of entertainment and a few grab-bag surprises. Quite fitting for a country that loves a pub quiz as much as it loves football or fish and chips. Looking back on the experience now, in the glow of having recently received the news that the Home Office approved my Indefinite Leave to Remain visa, it strikes me that the aim of the Life in the UK Test is to educate immigrants not only about civic fundamentals but also about the richness of the British identity. There’s a reason why it’s not called the Merely Existing in the UK Test. Because yes, civic responsibility is important to being a good resident of Great Britain, but chuckling through a viewing of Wallace & Gromit, or losing yourself in a Miss Marple mystery, or gathering with your besties for quiz night down at your favourite tavern? That’s life, mate.