When I studied abroad in Spain, I was really able to embrace my host family’s way of life, maybe because I decided before leaving that I would pretend I had grown up with them. I watched movies they saw as kids, read their old books, ate anything they put in front of me, imagined that I shared their political beliefs. Maybe I would never pass (or want to pass) as a real Spanish person, but I had a good experience there.
It was a nice, sound, middle-of-the-road way of doing things, and for some reason, I haven’t done it at all that way this time. Instead of strolling down the middle of the road, I find myself trying to hop along with a foot on each side. On one side, I refuse to give up my cultural “comfort zone.” I’m not willing to put my schoolbooks in a big purse instead of a backpack. I haven’t stopped rolling my eyes (and sometimes threatening civil disobedience) when faced with classic French bureaucracy. I’m judgmental about French educational methods. I boil with anger when I try to get on the bus and six or seven people squish into the door in front of me. I know I should just push ahead, too, but how can I do that in good conscience? Plus, I like my own culture, and I like acting like an American. When my friend Kim and I went to Ikea just before Christmas, we were waiting to take the spot of a woman who had two giant boxes she was trying, alone, to cantilever into her trunk. So, I hopped out to give her a hand (and get the spot sooner). She looked at me like I look at people who I think are trying to get me to join cults: at little nervous, a little weirded out, and very uncomfortable. I felt badly invading her personal space . . . but I figured, hey, she should be thankful for the good-neighborliness of Americans, and she couldn’t have gotten those boxes in the car on her own.
At the same time as I hang on to my “American-ness,” I have this expectation of being able to fit in and seem completely French. I think I’m getting a tiny taste of what immigrants must face—this question of the “A” word: assimilation—trying to keep an intact identity and intact links with home while wanting to have that same old sense of belonging in the new place, too.
But, slowly, we find a balance. It helps that I love French cheese. I can hold my head up proud in the grocery store as I pick out the same chèvre that all the French mamans pick up. And my adorable little students are very accepting. They’ve heard my garbled French, but that didn’t stop two seven-year-old boys from getting in an argument over whether or not I was a French native. Um, guys? I don’t conjugate my verbs.
Lest you think, from my students’ mistake, that I’m managing to fit in, I’ll tell you what happened on my way home that evening. As I waited to get on the bus, the woman in front of me turned around and asked me where I was from. When she saw how puzzled I was, she explained, with a chuckle, what the giveaway was: “You waited to get in a line to get on the bus. Only Anglophones do that.”