Bilingual and Bicultural status Part #4: Two Cultures – how to juggle?

As a French expatriate who has been living in the United States for 45 years, I consider myself bilingual and, to a large extent, bicultural.[1] I have often pondered over what this means – and some years ago, I expressed those musings in writing in a few blog posts.

A project that I have had in mind for at least a decade now but has not come to fruition was to examine the complex lives of American expatriates who live in France, and of French expatriates who live in the United States.

This topic absolutely fascinates me and, when after having seen a Facebook post on which I had expressed my gratitude about being bilingual/bicultural, Judy MacMahon, the Fondatrice of asked me if I could write a longer piece on that topic, I immediately agreed. So, here I am.

Bilingualism is not the burden or the problem it has been made out to be by some, but neither is it the complete bliss that others would have us believe.

– François Grosjean, Bilingual: Life and Reality –

Meet the author Elisabeth and the five friends she surveyed for this mini-series.
Top left to right: Marie-José, Sylvia, Laurence, Betty, Rebecca, and the author Elisabeth

Read Part #1 here: Six Expatriates—an informal case study
Part #2: Now, that I’m an expat, how are my language skills?

Part #3: What helps and hinders acclimatization?

Part #4: And now, in which culture am I more comfortable?

Betty’s response to this question was that she still feels “more comfortable in American culture,” but that it may be because she “continued to spend quite a bit of time in the USA over the years.”

Rebecca replied “neither, and both. […] I go in and out of both languages and cultures with equal ease (and discomfort.)”

Sylvia found it tough to answer this question. She admitted that she would never be French, but that she is no longer American (her own emphasis): “There are so many things in U.S. society now that I cannot understand (she normally returns to Washington, DC, her hometown, at least once a year!) She added that no matter where she is, she is a bit of an “outsider” and that “you can be happy anywhere, and you can be unhappy everywhere.”

Laurence feels equally comfortable in both American and French cultures – “no culture is better or worse, just different, and knowing where those differences lead is helpful.” She both likes the French culture of analysis, because she loves delving deeply into any subject, but she also likes the American culture of action, because she finds it “very positive and hopeful.”

Marie-José said that, since she came to the U.S. when she was only 20 and has lived most of her life there, she feels more comfortable in the American culture. America became an asylum for her, since her family was opposed to her leaving France and marrying an older man (yet, she would not mind having a small place in Paris!).

I feel exactly as Marie-José does. I came to live permanently in the U.S. when I was only 23 years old. I have lived here for over 45 years. I consider myself more American than French, and even doubt that I could ever live in France again, as much as I love my native country, although I still have great difficulties accepting the individualistic mindset of most Americans – and the opposition of too many of them to things like universal healthcare and other social programs.

How do I negotiate living “between two cultures”?

Living between two cultures is something that my expat friends and I do have to take for granted – it is just part of our lives. We have all built a family life in our country of adoption. Betty added that, having lost her parents, with whom she was very close, a few years ago, has made her feel more anchored to French culture.

One issue, as Sylvia mentioned it in her response to a previous question, is that, as expats, we feel like “strangers” in both cultures, and one way to negotiate this is to accept it and realize that, on the other hand, being of two cultures, we are richer for it – with a greater perspective on, and better understanding of many things. Marie-José feels that her status as a “forever immigrant” has allowed her to create a healthy and useful distance to what surrounds her, and that this distance helps her being a better observer and writer.

Recent discussions on bilingualism/multilingualism point to the fact that our head is not a container for two or more language systems, but that all resources that one has in any language increase one’s ability to make meaning and to understand, interpret, and navigate the world.

The one thing that I have always had a problem dealing with, is that there are things that are very dear to me, and part of who I am, that I cannot share with those to whom I am very close – my daughter, my husband, my friends here in the U.S., and my own family and friends in France. And that is due to a linguistic and cultural barrier that cannot be broken. And that’s what makes me a stranger in my native country and a stranger in the U.S.A. But I simply live with it.

What do I do to keep in touch with life in my native country? Has it become easier to do so over the years?

Of course, everyone mentioned the internet, which has made it much easier to remain connected with one’s country of origin. It is now possible to have online subscriptions to newspapers and magazines, and even to watch newscasts, other TV programs, and films from one’s native country. A number of us can recall the time when all you had at your disposal was snail mail and the occasional expansive phone calls with friends and relatives. These days, we have e-mail, social media, Skype and Zoom to keep in touch with them.

Betty, who is a big music fan, bemoans the fact that, in the 1990’s (i.e. before the internet was truly developed), she was not able to keep up with the American music scene, and that, once it became possible to do so, she was out of the loop. I would state that, if I was totally disconnected for the most part with French popular music through the late 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, I have been taking advantage of internet resources since this century began and feel that I keep up quite well with it now. On the other hand, I think that the fact that I taught French for close to 30 years did help me in that respect.

I would add that social media groups such as My French Life and following a few people on Instagram and Facebook has helped me keep up quite a bit with what is happening in France (and I could follow many more, but there are only so many hours in one day!) Finally, Rebecca mentioned that her teenage daughter keeps her “informed of contemporary American life,” adding that “until she discovered Tiktok and made other French-American friends, my American culture and language was stuck in 2000.”

Are you an expat and do you consider yourself Bilingual and/or Bicultural?  Please share your experiences and comments with us below.

[1] A semantic field is a lexical set of words that refer to a specific subject.

Works Consulted:

Another useful read (although probably difficult to find in English):

Bilingual and Bicultural Status is a 5 Part Series

Part #1: Six Expatriates—an informal case study—Introduction
Part #2: Am I bilingual yet?
Part #3: What helps and hinders acclimatization?
Part #4: Two Cultures – how to juggle? (this one)
FINAL: Weird expectations, Children and Writing

About the Contributor

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

I am a native of France, and a retired French university professor living in the USA. I return to France every year and love discovering new places I have not yet visited. I am interested in issues of bilingualism and expatriate identity. I enjoy good food, great books, and all kinds of music.

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