France and the US

In Between Two Cultures: My Life as an American in France

There are those who expatriate for a determined amount of time for their work. Others decide to definitively expatriate for various reasons of their own.  And others just drift into expatriation. Some expats return to their original country; others stay on, and so on. Expatriation is not lived as a fixed state of mind. Attitudes will change as the out-of-original-country time period lengthens. 

Once upon a time, more than half a century ago, I came to France on a whim. No expectations, just a quest for a change in experience. Pete Seeger’s “Little Boxes” was not for me. Then, somehow I did not make it back to the USA for more than occasional visits from one side of the year 2000 to the other.  Given such a stretch of time, my expat experience could only evolve. 

At first, there was no question of being an expat; I was just here. And I always felt that if things got rough, I could always go back. Little did I know about the point of no-return.

In my family if you don’t know what to do with your life, you study. So I got a DEUG (the title of a 2-year degree at the time). Of course, as my stay in France lengthened, my parents wanted me back in the US. They resorted to the tough love approach of cutting me off financially. So I had to find a job. At the time, all the language schools were vying for native speakers as English teachers and I easily got jobs, even with little experience. As I finished my DEUG and still did not know what to do, I studied for a License, then a Master’s and a Doctorate. 

By this time I had developed a career as an English teacher and had slid into “expathood.” Going to the States was no longer a re-turn, but a turn. I had somehow unknowingly passed that point of no-return. Leaving France for the US or anywhere else presented the same difficulties: I would have to start a new life, make friends, find a job, housing…culture-shock in a new country, or return culture shock to an old one would be in the works.

It was too hard to go back, and not worth the bother. I was too lazy to go off to another country; I stayed on in France and made my life as an expat, but, staying in France for the duration necessarily involves adapting to different habits, attitudes, thinking. This begins by learning the language with its specific concepts of the world, e.g. the difficulty of translating the difference between gourmet and gourmand into English, and how it carves up the reality of the world, e.g. where in French an “armchair” (fauteuil) is not categorized as a “chair” (chaise). And more hazy rules and customs concerning personal space, time, body language…

Long-term living in another country necessarily changes one’s point of view and thinking about what had been culturally invisible (cf. Raymonde Carroll Cultural Misunderstandings translated from the original French Evidence Invisibles.) Knowing only one culture is like being a fish in water: it does not know it is surrounded by water. To analyze one’s own culture there must be a point of comparison/contrast with another. 

An expat comes to metaphorically sit up high on a theoretical fence looking down, where one’s original culture is on one side and the adopted culture on the other, espying the differences.

Leaving one’s country of origin for another brings up the questions of “home” and of identity. Tony Morrison’s book, Home treats the question of defining “home.” Is it a geographical location? if so, where? Is it where one has grown up, but a place that has been taken over by others where one cannot go back? Is it another place where one has been? Is it people? Is it a question of belonging?

These are the same questions an expat needs to answer to define “home.” Is it where one was brought up or where one is living at the moment? And how long has the moment lasted? Where is this person referring to when s/he says, ‘I’m going home.” 

As to the question of “identity” how does the expat identify his/herself? 

Interestingly, I still identify mainly as American, except when I am in the US! In fact, I identify by difference from whichever of the two countries I happen to be situated in at a specific moment. On the other hand, I identify with either culture when I am neither in the US or France, depending on mood, feeling, or convenience. For example, when in the Casbah of Istanbul, I was asked where I was from and answered, “France.” The merchant heard my accent, took one look at me and answered, “You’re French the same way I’m French!” I laughed in agreement and acquiesced.

In fact, the United States is my reference, but no longer my home. When someone in France speaks about walking dogs, customer service, schools, etc…I often answer with, “But in America …”

And then, if one has lived in a “new” country long enough to become a citizen of that country, can this person still be called an “expat”? They are living in the country of (one of) their citizenship(s). And if they have children born in this country, the children might have double nationality, but they are certainly not expats.  It would seem by this time the expat is no longer, but is rather a former expat gone native. I prefer the term bi-cultural.

What does it mean to be bi-cultural? What does it mean for a child to be brought up bi-culturally?  This makes for some interesting encounters, for example, in a restaurant when a waiter, wanting to be friendly and hearing my son & I speaking in English asks where WE are from. Mother & son are not FROM the same place. I’m American, but he’s French-born.

A bi-cultural is no longer either/or, but a mixture of both. How much of one, and how much of the other depends on how attached one is feeling toward one culture or the other.

After a recent long and arduous trip back to the suburbs of Chicago for a funeral, as we got close to my parents’ home, my son suddenly turned to me saying, “Mom, I’m confused.” In no state to respond, I asked, “What are you confused about?” And he replied, “When I am in France people say I’m American. When I’m in America, people say I am French. I don’t know what I am.” My immediate reply was that no one decides who you are. You decide for yourself. Secondly, it does not need to be all or nothing. It can be 50/50, 60/40, 70/30…and as I think about it now, it can even change over time.

The bi-cultural is aware of differences between their cultures and can conform with one or the other depending on where they are and who they are with. They perceive the best and the worst, as well as what is in-between, and in the end, they identify with both, to some extent. 

Thus, over time, the expat assimilates customs and mores of the second culture, metamorphosing into a bi-cultural butterfly.

Did you enjoy this article? TAIP is 100% reader-supported through tipping. If you want to leave us a tip of any amount it would be highly appreciated. These tips help support our efforts to keep TAIP an ad-free environment. Just as at a cafe, the tips are split evenly among the team.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.