France changes an American’s perspective

By David King

Before I even begin this article, let me dispel a couple of conclusions you’re probably going to come to by reading it. No, I don’t have any French family. And no, I never expected to become a Francophile. If you had told me a few years ago that I would, I’d have laughed.

Here’s the story: Five years ago, as a junior in college, I took off for a semester in southeast France. I quickly became enamored with living there, and wound up staying for the summer. This led to a two-month internship in Paris, which led later to teaching English in a province for two years.

Over the course of that time, I underwent a transition that I never could have as a tourist. Not only did I gain a deeper appreciation for another lifestyle, I grew detached from my native culture. Indeed, I came to take on a new identity—one inextricably linked to the life I made for myself there.

Today, having since gotten re-acclimated to life in the U.S., I face a very personal struggle. I must reconcile my salient, American side with my French side. To me, the latter persona is just as valid, just as tangible, and just as much a part of me as my American one.

And here’s what’s so hard about it. It’s not simply that most people here will never meet my French friends. They will never know them as I have known them—in the context of their society and in the context of their native language. It’s not that people here couldn’t learn about my daily routine in France. They likely will never be able to appreciate it as someone with a French identity (albeit an adopted one) did. It’s not that they couldn’t learn about French culture. Without undergoing the immense, personal transformation that comes from living abroad for a long time, they will not be able to understand reaching a point at which you look back on your own culture objectively.

And that’s a big question I deal with these days. I am now bicultural; so what is my identity in America?

Every now and then, something poignantly reminds me that I live between two worlds. When I hear President Bush extol America’s greatness, I instinctively think of people who are not patriotic to the United States. When I tell a New York City bus driver that I lived in France, the ignorant man ask me whether I’m French. When I say no, he—perhaps reassured—goes on to criticize the French for not siding with us on Iraq. When I meet a Jewish-American woman to whom I must explain the reason for French Jews’ fear of rising anti-Semitism in their country, I’m taken aback. She knows nothing about those tensions.

Then again, had I not been part of that very community over there, I might walk along 57th Street in Chicago and come upon a box of Jewish Star newspapers, out in the open—not hidden behind the closed, protective doors of a synagogue, as they would be in France—and just as well know nothing about the tensions, either.

Repatriated in America, I see myself today as an ambassador of sorts. In France, I felt compelled, as if it were my duty, to explain American cultural norms vis-à-vis what the person I was speaking to knew as normal. I was a teacher in this way, and my job of defending and/or dispelling was a tireless one. In America, the job has turned 180 degrees. Here, I am an ambassador of France to this country.

I love this job. It’s such an important responsibility. More importantly, it’s perhaps the most productive way I can engage my French side these days.