A few weeks back, I discovered that I live about ten minutes away from the Statue of Liberty – which is always a surprise when you actually reside thousands of kilometers away from Staten Island. Of course she is more petite than her American counterpart and the only ‘poor and tired’ she welcomes are spendthrift tourists cruising atop one the city’s many tour boats.
As I took an Instagram-perfect picture of her, the Eiffel Tower jealously standing to my left, I started reflecting upon my bicultural identity. To everyone else it seems like the gift that never stops giving. Nevertheless, to me, it’s a blessing and a curse. I am well aware of how lucky I am, belonging to two wealthy democratic and peaceful countries, with the added perk of one being led by a young and handsome monsieur (hint: his name sounds like a dessert, not an instrument). Despite this, I am still going to write this ‘first world problem’ blog post. I hope that it can still somehow resonate with you.
Here is the bicultural conundrum: you grow up thinking you belong to two different countries, whereas you repeatedly get told you belong to neither. That’s tough for a young person to hear. Unlike Groucho Marx, we are always desperately eager to belong to any club who will accept us. Of course once we are in, we do everything to maintain its exclusivity, as though accepting the very next person will cheapen the membership. If you grow up in France, half-American, which identity do you think people latch onto? The one that confirms your place in the nation, or the one that makes you different? I sounded the same. I looked the same. But I was that girl who celebrated Halloween, who ate burgers and pizzas rather than ratatouille and omelets and who had a mom with a thick accent. I was different. Today I am that girl with a supposed slight American tinge in her accent when she speaks French. I am the girl, who after eight years abroad, makes silly grammatical mistakes. I am the girl who cannot stand smelly cheese. I am still different.
Growing up, I was denied membership in the French club. Thus, I rejected the identity altogether. I would watch the Daily Show with Jon Stewart every single day. I had little time or patience for what was happening in France. At age 10, I decided to only ever read in English. While growing up, I would go through my mom’s old CD collection, featuring Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan or Jewel, but would ardently reject my dad’s music. Honestly, I blame French music for that – with their old men singing about looking under girl’s skirts or indulging in ‘deep sighs’ with their female counterpart. I identified more with my American family. It didn’t help that my French uncle once sent us an anti-capitalist Christmas card in the mail. I grew up with FRIENDS, That 70s Show and Gilmore Girls and dreamed of twinkies and pop-tarts in the land of croissants. My ultimate goal was to go to Harvard, finally relocating to my true home.
I didn’t go to Harvard. Shocker! Instead I went to the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Guess what happened? I got rejected by my second home. The student body at the university is about 1/3rd Americans. Those were the first to let me know I had a supposed French accent when speaking English. I was undisputably French to them in behavior and speech. It was the same with my relatives. We are forever the ‘frenchies’ of the family. To some extent, these authentic Americans are justified. I had never lived in the United States. Yet, after all those years of taking refuge in my second nationality, it truly stung. I had been rejected on both sides because I did not 100% belong to either. It is surprising how much competition there is when it comes to national identity. Everyone must ‘out-French’ or ‘out-American’ the other. With our nationalities somehow cancelling each other out, us multicurals are always the first to lose in that ego battle.
Now settle down, I know there are great advantages to being bi-cultural. My favorite is selective identification. I identify with whatever country feels the more advantageous in that moment. The most practical example is passport lines. The CIA will be tracking me down soon because I always enter the US with my American passport but I come back without fail using my French passport. Nothing makes you more patriotic than a shorter security line! I always identify as French to strangers because I love their confused gaze as they try to comprehend how a French person can…well…speak English. One day I got played at my own game by a Norwegian guy. In a very un-Scandinavian-like moment, he approached me in a supermarket and started playing a guessing game as to my nationality. The first guess is always the same: American. His second guess though: French! I asked him how he knew, preparing for an infuriating remark such as “you sound French”. Instead, he offered me the ridiculous and, therefore, perfect answer “Because you look like the kind of girl that enjoys her red wine”. I should have married that guy.
Random chat up stories aside, the true gift of being bi-cultural is having double the material from which to confection your personality. I am loud, friendly and talkative like an American but sarcastic, self-conscious and introspective like a French person. Growing up with different cultures means you will never truly fully belong to any country. Growing up with different cultures means learning to accept that and learning to see your identity as a never-ending patchwork, adding on bits of material here and there to ultimately improve upon the original work. It is realizing that by accepting full membership to one, you may ultimately be closing the door to so many other enriching and fulfilling clubs. Being a forever tourist has its curses but you should make the most of its blessings.