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A Stranger to Myself

I’ve just returned from a quick trip to the US where I attended a family wedding. It’s difficult to explain, but I always find these trips unsettling. I really enjoy returning to the US and seeing family and friends. But often the comfort, the ease of communicating in English with people who know me reminds me of how hard I have to work to establish these things in France. And at the end of the day, French culture is not my culture, although I love learning about it and trying to integrate the best I can. My 'outsider' status in French culture has also made me aware of my 'insider' status in relation to American culture. 

To give a concrete example: during my trip to the US I was on a road trip and a classic rock station was playing on the radio. About halfway through the trip, I realized that I had recognized every single song that had played, and could probably name most of them. 

Before moving to France, I never would have stopped to question my recognition of anything related to popular culture. I recognize songs on the radio, I would expect many other people would and there is nothing special about it. In that moment, however, I could see that I am a product of my culture. I realized that I recognized those songs because I am American and was born and raised in that culture. As Raymonde Carroll writes (who I’ll refer to later), I create my culture, and it creates me.

Cultural baggage is more a part of us than we realize, until we’re removed from the context where it makes sense. And so this post is going to be about when the strange becomes familiar, and the familiar strange, or more simply how living in a foreign country can change everything about how you see the world, and yourself.

I’ve talked to different friends who have also lived abroad in France. One admitted that, once having lived in two cultures, you’re never completely satisfied again because you’ve witnessed both the positive and negative aspects about both cultures. Take American customer service and administration. I’d love to transport the American mentality about customer service to France. In the US, information is easy to access, and people are helpful if you can’t find it, contrasted with France where you often have to chase down people to get anything done. On the flip side, if only I could move all of the cheese in France to the United States…

Another friend described it like ‘living between two realities’. This thought actually inspired me in the title of my blog. The French English mix (Ma Vie In France) is meant to express this dichotomy.

Incidentally, this is good place to bring up language, since in English we have both the words stranger/strange and foreigner/foreign. In French, both words are represented by ‘étranger/étrange ‘ which maybe better depicts what I feel living here since it comprises both meanings. I can never escape the fact that I’m a foreigner here. People can here my light accent when I speak, and my cultural references and codes are different. Sometimes, quite frankly, it’s just annoying. On the other hand, though, I find French and French culture so fascinating that when I go back to the US, it’s all I want to talk about. What draws me to French can also push me away at the same time.  But what’s most unsettling, as one of my friends said, is that you gain an awareness about your own culture that can be unpleasant. You realize that your humor, your tastes, you references, are yours and do not represent some kind of universal truth or barometer. You learn to see the borders of culture, where your own culture ends and where the rest of the world begins.

My experience of French, on the other hand, works in a contrary sense. I know and recognize French as a ‘foreign’ culture. I generally expect it to be different and I’m delighted when I find differences I think are great and I appreciate (health care system, ample vacation time) and I want to run the other way when I come across difficulties that don’t exist in American culture ( adminstrative errors that are difficult to resolve, high tax rates, etc.). 

So in a sense, I have enough distance from American culture to observe it as a ‘foreigner’ might, while I also am trying to better understand French culture.

Two texts I recently encountered can help to illustrate what I’m talking about. The first, a study of French/American culture by a French writer named Raymonde Carroll. Carroll writes about cultural analysis of both French and Americans, trying to help explain cultural ‘misunderstandings’ and some of the important mental steps that are necessary in order to do this. In particular, she talks about the importance of ‘seeing the familiar as strange,’ in other words, experiencing one’s culture as strange or foreign. This is difficult to do without having distance from one’s own culture, and that’s exactly why, I think, foreign travel is so interesting and important, at least for me. Especially in the United States, because of many factors we tend to consider ourselves the center of the universe.  It doesn’t help that American media is imported all over the world, so that we also see a reflection of American culture in other countries. But the fact remains that American culture is one of thousands, no better, no worse.

Another useful reference is from Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-born French writer and intellectual who I had to study for a college course a few years ago. Kristeva is well placed to talk about ‘difference’ or ‘otherness’ in more academic terms. She in an interview refers to herself as «  an adopted-American Frenchwoman of Bulgarian origin with a European citizenship. » Kristeva wrote one book in particular which deals with the subject of ‘foreigness’ or ‘otherness’ called « Strangers to ourselves. » While a lot of the book is dense and difficult to get through, she gives interesting comments about the origin and concept of ‘foreign.’ Her idea is very simple and complex at the same time. More or less, she argues that the idea of strange or stranger, foreign or foreigner is something we usually consider as separate from ourselves. By definition, something foreign is something we recognize as not familiar, not part of our daily life. It is a negative definition. We use a judgement based on ourselves, on our own familiarity on something else.

This is the problem, because we don’t recognize that we ourselves, in our identities are not absolute, we do not inherently carry any form of truth. By using ourselves and our lives as a gauge for what is familiar and unfamiliar, we are automatically creating the ‘other’ as something lesser and undefined. Kristeva goes deeper and using her background in psychoanalysis says that the feeling ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’ that we associate with others actually comes from within, it is our attempt to reconcile the discomfort in ourselves and from our subconcious.

Kristeva and Carroll are saying the same thing essentially, for different purposes. Basically, we use ourselves as a barometer for the rest of the world. We recognize that we are different than the people around us because we can see that we are physically different. But seeing culture as a different thing, not only other cultures but our own, takes effort.

Carroll and Kristeva would argue that this effort is important. For Carroll, the risk of not recognizing or making the effort to recognize your culture as one of many is cultural misunderstandings, or more simply put, miscommunication. For Kristeva, it is less concrete, identifying the ‘foreign’ means making a judgement based on a false, imperfect model, ourselves.

Categorized as a foreigner in France, I’m very aware then of my ‘otherness’. On the other hand, this has also made me more sensitive to American culture and has given me perspective and allowed me to step outside of it, as much as this is possible.

I’ll always feel ‘rooted’ to American culture, it’s what comes naturally and I’m not trying to replace it with anything in France. English words will always emerge in moments of stress and anger. And when I’m fed up with France, sometimes I just want to watch a mindless American comedy and savor the nuances and references of the jokes, the wordplay that I can understand effortlessly.  But then I also realize that these jokes are not universally funny and are only effective in a certain context.

I choose to live in France and I wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world right now. But it’s true that moving to France has showed me more about my American self than I ever could have learned in the US. 

Carroll, Raymonde. Cultural Misunderstandings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. 
Kristeva, Julia. Etrangers à nous-mêmes. Fayard, 1988.


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