France Brings out the American in Me
When I lived in the US, I was often critical of many things ‘American’, not the least of which was the ignorance towards the rest of the world that I felt (and still feel) many Americans exhibit. And this ignorance extends beyond ‘Joe Schmoe’ who thinks that the United States is the best “because it just is!” It also affects the American political system, as demonstrated by the peculiar decisions regarding action (or lack thereof) in foreign lands (see recent history in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Cuba, etc.).
But when I moved to France, something happened. I started defending the United States. At first I didn’t even notice that I was doing it. None of my friends from home were around to point out the glaring disparity between my current and former attitudes towards my homeland. Eventually I was able to detect the change myself and, true to my most prominent personality trait of being curious, started asking questions. Why was this happening? What was different? Who is this patriotic American girl trapped in my body and what has she done with the critical soul that preceded her?
Initially I thought that perhaps the change was due to my uncanny ability to advocate for the opposing side of someone else’s argument, even if I don’t agree with that stance. Then I considered that maybe being away from home has made me appreciate it more. I even wondered if this change was caused by the feeling one gets that they are the only one of their kind for miles/kilometers around. But in the end, the reason for my new-found position on the States was simpler than I had expected: I am American. And the fact is, as an expatriate, I am confronted with my national identity several times a day.
If I go to a bar and an American song starts playing, I’m asked if I know all the words (and even more interesting things happen if said song is either ‘Born in the USA’ by Bruce Springsteen, or Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s ‘American Girl’). If I walk down the street and I hear American English, I already feel like I know the person. If I eat breakfast, if I eat an egg sandwich, if I mention peanut butter, if I wear layers, if I watch an NFL game, if I wear flip flops, if I take French lessons, if I ask if I can have butter on my popcorn, or do just about anything that varies from the deeply rooted French culture that I am surrounded by, it strikes the American chord inside of me in a way that living in the US never did.
Living in the States I didn’t have to think much about the fact I was American on a daily basis. I went to work with other Americans, I hung out with Americans, I ordered my drinks on a Saturday night from Americans. The only moments that gave me pause, and required me to consider what it meant to be ‘born in the USA’, were those I experienced while watching international news. Now that I’m in France, nearly every moment brings the reality of my background into focus. However, I’ve been abroad many times before and my nationality has never been such a focal point. What makes this adventure any different? I have two theories:
Theory one stems from the idea that the French may be particularly resistant to foreigners. A conversation with my own (French) neighbor revealed a supposedly common notion, even among nationals of the country themselves, that the French are wary of strangers—French or foreign—and so their Cultural Difference Detection Senses are heightened.
Theory two revolves around the idea that I was so personally unprepared for such differences that I, myself, created this new-found emphasis on my Americanism. Though I read book after book on French life before making my move, talked to numerous expats and former French residents, and even listened to French audio lessons on my iPod before making the big move, it wasn’t enough. Books may be helpful, but there’s something about actual experience that even the most detailed tomes can’t replicate. From childhood, I have traveled to many places for family or educational trips, but didn’t leave my own country until the age of 18. Culture and language definitely vary across the United States, but I would argue that the variation isn’t nearly as drastic as what I experienced when I moved to France.
The answer to what has made me so much more aware of my nationality—and subsequently more patriotic—could lie in either of these options, or maybe a combination of the two. But given the fact that taking a five-hour drive from most parts of the US will result in arriving in a new destination also in the US, whereas the same drive from many parts of France will bring you across the borders of another country (meaning the French are more likely to be foreigner-friendly)… I’ll put my money on theory two (an American upbringing doesn’t provide the best preparation for a cross-cultural move). So the new question I’m asking myself is this: Since I’m constantly reminded of where I grew up, how will this affect my assimilation to the culture from which my ancestors came? I’m not sure yet, but I’m excited to find out!Image credits:
1. French American t-shirt, via zazzle.com.
2. Bruce Springstein, via Rollingstone.com.