The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I wasn’t just learning to drive on the right. I was becoming an American.

Making a political commitment, one block at a time


For weeks before I got behind the wheel, I had nightmares about head-on collisions. Sometimes, in my dreams, I was alone in the car. Sometimes my boyfriend was with me, or my grandmother. At the moment of impact, I’d jerk awake and fall quickly back to sleep, the memory of the imagined crash disappearing until the middle of the next day. I’d be standing on the subway platform or waiting in line for lunch when I’d remember that, once again, I had dreamed about killing myself, and usually someone I loved, with my driving.

I’m not a bad driver. The problem was that after almost 12 years of living in the United States, I still hadn’t learned to drive on the right-hand side of the road. I grew up and learned to drive in Australia, where left turns are tight, and the driver sits on the right-hand side of the car.

“It’s not like I can’t drive at all,” I’d often insist, intent on setting myself apart from people who had never learned an essential life skill. And as long as I lived on a college campus or in New York City, my allegiance to the left-hand side wasn’t a problem, because I never needed to drive: There was public transport, and taxis, and friends with cars who could be bribed with cupcakes. But when the opportunity arose to do reporting out of state, or the option arrived to move to a more car-dependent city, my allegiance to my old Australian ways began to look like inability. In theory, I could drive; in practice, I couldn’t. I’m a dual citizen, but until now, I’ve only ever been a passenger in America.

And so, on a recent visit to D.C., I took my recently-renewed Australian driver’s license to the good people at Hertz, and I rented a car. I tried to ignore the nightmares and the nervous fluttering in my ribs. My parents, who visit the United States often, could do this; so could my big sister, who went to college here. And, sure, I only drive during my annual trips home to Sydney, but how hard could it really be?

Rather hard, as it turned out. Trying to drive on the right felt like trying to write with my left hand or read a book from back to front: All my instincts were off. My eyes kept glancing left toward a rear-view mirror that wasn’t there, and my left hand would grope for the handbrake and find the door handle instead. Despite my fear of listing accidentally to the left, in fact, I kept drifting over to the right side of the lane, because my brain wanted my body to be on the right side of the car. I sat at intersections with my left blinker flashing, watching the traffic fly past and panicked — wasn’t I going to turn straight into it!? — before remembering that I was supposed to make a wide left turn. (In preparation for this, my dad had urged me to come up with a mnemonic device: “Think of Bernie Sanders,” he’d joked. In my driving lesson, as in real life, Bernie didn’t quite get the job done.)

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My boyfriend sat beside me, calmly counseling me. He reminded me to use my side mirrors, to check my blind spots before changing lanes. “You’ve got a lot of room on your left,” he said, by way of telling me that I was drifting too far over to the right. When it came time to practice merging onto the highway — merging left, which is uncommon at home — I floundered, my body unused to swiveling and accelerating and pulling left into rapid traffic all at once, and other drivers honked their displeasure as I panicked and gasped, “Oh God, I can’t do this.” He kept his cool throughout. (Though he did pour himself a generous splash of bourbon once we later got home unscathed.)

We pulled off the highway and, in an effort to reassure me, he reminded me that I was essentially attempting to rewire my brain. I was undoing a decade’s worth of instincts and trying to install a completely new set of impulses, something that couldn’t be done easily or quickly. After just a few hours, both my brain and my body were exhausted by the mental work and the sporadic surges of adrenaline, like I’d been speaking another language and riding a roller coaster at the same time.

I wiped my eyes and gripped the steering wheel too tightly, and merged back onto the highway, thinking about what he had said. I wondered, with some dread, about what would happen if the rewiring was successful. Would I be able to drive comfortably at home in Sydney?

And all of a sudden, after 12 years of hailing cabs and hitching rides, learning to drive on the right felt like a terribly tangible commitment to the United States. As we sped along Jefferson Davis Highway, the Lincoln Memorial in front of us, I thought (for the first time since I’d sat at the wheel) about the political moment in which I was relearning to drive. Since November, so many of my fellow dual citizens have started to truly appreciate the off-ramp provided by their other passports. Here I was, making a neurological commitment to stay in the United States, choosing to make it physiologically harder to go back to the place where I grew up.

My most recent trip home, in February, ended in tears. I wept as I packed and as I ate my last meal with my parents, weighing the cost of changing my flight in return for just a few more days’ respite from America’s new reality. The next morning, my mother, an American who left Washington for Sydney in 1984, all but pushed me out the front door with my suitcase. There was important work to be done, she said, and I had the means to do it. There was my team of dedicated journalists, she reminded me, and the man I loved, all of whom intended to stay. She wanted us at the wheel.

Daunting though it was, I wanted to be there, too. We pulled into the parking lot and I breathed out a long-held sigh: part relief, part exhaustion, part sadness. With my right hand, I put the car in park.