“When I’m there, it’s like I never left. It’s a nice thing to have.”
Andrew Stewart is the director of marketing and communications at the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art
I think I had wanderlust from an early age. I came here from Linlithgow, a small town near Edinburgh, Scotland. Linlithgow’s main claim to fame is that Mary Queen of Scots was born there. It’s a gorgeous little town. My father was a mechanic, my mother was trained as a nurse, but stayed home with four children. My dad dreamed of going somewhere different like me but my mother didn’t want to go anywhere. I grew up thinking, I wish something would happen, something exciting. I have two brothers and one sister. They’re all still in Scotland. I had an unremarkable childhood. I always felt Scotland wasn’t right for me. I graduated high school in 1978 when there was a terrible collapse of the economy and a prolonged recession. Thatcher was elected in 1979, she was hated in Scotland, and she pretty much dismantled the traditional industries in Scotland, so there was very high unemployment.
I was training to be an electrician. I went through an apprenticeship, but there was no work so I was unemployed for a while after I finished up my training. Eventually, I ended up finding a job, working in power plants. It was pretty interesting. I worked in the Shetland Islands for a while. I made some friends and one of them had been to Israel. He had bought a motorcycle and taken it to Israel and sold it for enough to pay for the trip. So we bought some motorcycles in London and took them to Israel. It took about six weeks to get there. I was interested in working on a kibbutz, I liked the idea of a socialist communal farm, and I ended up staying there about ten months. It was amazing to me. We were picking avocados and bananas, things you didn’t see growing in Scotland. I loved it. About three or four months in, I met this American girl and we started getting involved with each other. After leaving the kibbutz we ended up in London. We both found jobs immediately and it was a great summer.
In the meantime, I got a well-paid job in Scotland at a nuclear power station. So at the end of the summer, she went back (to the US) and I went to Scotland. I really missed my girlfriend. I had been at this new job three or four months and I asked for a leave of absence and I went to visit my girlfriend. She was at Barnard College in Manhattan, living in a dorm. I never left. I never went back to Scotland. I came over for a vacation and I just never went back. So that’s how I came to America. I came on a tourist visa.
I had to sneak into the dorms every single day. A friend got me a job with two Greek brothers who were installing siding on houses in Westchester County just outside New York City and we’d go up there every day to work. After my girlfriend graduated, we got an old car and drove across the country to Santa Cruz, California, where we both found work. Nobody cared about your work papers at that point, especially if you were white. They weren’t asking where you were from. I think I made up a social security number. The thing that scared me was the Selective Service. They got my address and started sending me letters asking why I had not registered with them and I eventually got a letter in an FBI envelope which I didn’t open. I was paying taxes. I just kept on working illegally until we decided to get married. After that, I came clean with the government and got a green card. Subsequently I became a citizen, when my first child was born. I decided I was here for good, I might as well participate and vote. I’ve lived here now more than half my life.
There was a big earthquake close to where we lived in 1989 which freaked out my wife to the point that she stopped sleeping. Then her dad, who had heart bypass surgery about ten years before, dropped dead one day. Shortly after that, her mother had a recurrence of cancer. So we moved back to New Jersey and lived with her mother until she passed. It was a good opportunity for me to go back to school. I went to Rutgers. I studied history and political science. Very useful. I got a job working in advertising and after that I worked for the Franklin Mint, from 1995 to 2000. I got really interested in museums and ended up working for the Barnes Foundation.
I go back to Scotland once or twice a year. It’s always been a priority of mine to go back. I feel like I didn’t ever really say goodbye. And I love going there in the summer. When I was married and the kids were young, we’d all go over. The first thing we did when the babies got home from hospital was to get them passports.
I loved coming to the US. My first impression of New York? It reminded me of TV from my childhood. Starsky & Hutch, Kojak, Taxi. I remember coming here and realizing that car tires here made squeely noises. I used to think it was just sound effects on the American TV and movies I watched as a kid, but it really happens. You come here, and there are giant cars everywhere, and big roads, and all those people in Manhattan, millions upon millions. There are more people in New York than in my whole country. So just the feeling of being around all those people all the time was so different and so interesting for me. I used to question everything here for about the first year. Then I stopped doing that, or at least I learned to keep it to myself. I questioned the politics, and lots of silly stuff, like why are people driving automatic cars instead of stick-shifts. I remember people saying why do you question everything. When I first came over people would realize I was not long here and more than a few times people said to me that I must be so glad to be here and be free. I’d just laugh.
I feel very American at this point. I mean, I do think of myself as Scottish and obviously with the current political situation in Scotland, I’m very interested in what goes on there, but culturally I definitely feel more American than Scottish. Although being from Scotland does give me a different point of view. The whole debate in this country about having medical care available for everyone is an example. For me it was like, huh? You have to have a job to get medical insurance? We just had access to medical care for everyone in Scotland and my generation never gave it a second thought.
Could I have made a life in Scotland? Sure. I look back at the time when I was unemployed and I remember that I really felt hopeless. It was a dreadful time in Scotland. I go back now and it feels very different. Many of my friends have successful careers and have moved back to Linlithgow because it’s really an ideal town. My parents still live there and when I go back I stay with them. My two brothers are there also and my sister lives in Glasgow which is nearby. It’s really wonderful to go back. And lots of my friends are around. Two very close friends, one was the best man at my wedding, live a five minute walk from my parent’s house. I go back and it’s just all there. I love it. When I go home, I’m very much at peace. When I’m there, it’s like I never left. It’s a nice thing to have.
Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition June 25–28, 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.