Saturday, May 19th marked the one year anniversary of my arrival in Paris and of becoming an expat. It has taken me two full days to recover from the celebrations to be able to write something about it.
At the six-month mark, I wrote a little check-up post, outlining the things I had accomplished and the things I still wanted to. I thought about writing this post in a similar format and addressing all of my “wish list” items from six months ago to see how far I’ve come. I may still do that, but for now, I wanted to write something a little more honest and authentic about what it has really been like for me to be an American living in Paris.
First, I want to emphasize that this past year has been one of the best years of my life. I’m having a great time, meeting wonderful new people everywhere I go, gaining a ton of valuable work experience at my job, and expanding my sense of independence and adventure. I wouldn’t trade this year for anything, and I realize I’m very fortunate to have this opportunity. Living and working abroad has always been a dream of mine, and I’m lucky to be in the category of people who gets to say they are really living out one of their dreams.
That being said, there is a down side to living in a country where I’m still (slowly) learning the language. I’ve written enough posts about my struggles with French–some funny, some expressing frustration–so I’m sure those who follow my blog closely enough realize, to some extent, the role that the element of language plays in my life. But over the last few weeks, I have really started to struggle with something: my identity as a non-French speaker (yet!) in this country.
Have you ever had one of those dreams where you’re in a group of familiar faces, everyone having a good time, and no one can hear you? The dream starts out fine–you know the people you’re with and you know you’re about to have fun with them. When you realize no one can hear or understand or see you, you become confused, and maybe panic even starts to set in. And then, after several desperate attempts to be heard, the only thing left to feel is frustration. This cycle is my life.
Despite this dream being the perfect analogy of what I often experience here (being in a group of friends speaking to each other in a language I can understand but cannot express myself in), not being heard in a group isn’t the issue that’s been weighing me down lately.
What a lot of people don’t understand, is that even though I’m lucky enough to have such friendly and kind people speaking to me in my language while I’m in their country, is that I often have to change everything about the way I communicate: my vocabulary, my body language, my accent, the subjects we talk about… in order to be understood.Although I’m doing what I can to learn French while working full time (in English), I can still only converse on the level of a five-year-old. It took me months to figure out why I haven’t been feeling like myself in this country, and then it hit me: I am NOT myself here. Nor can I be, until I can fully express myself in French.
On the day of my six-month anniversary in Paris, I left for a trip to the US. On that trip, I had the strangest feeling. Of course I missed my friends and family and was happy to see them all, but it was more than that. Recently I realized what the “more” was. It was relief. Relief because I could once again be the outgoing, sometimes funny, always quirky, opinionated, non-wall flower that I’ve been for most of my adult life. When I read that sentence back, those adjectives do not resonate with the person that I am here in Paris. I have been reduced to a shy, insecure, quiet, easily-intimidated young woman who needs assistance to do a lot of things. Sometimes, I literally feel like another person has taken over my body and the “real me” is forced to sit in silence and watch the whole thing play out.
I know a lot of people who have lived abroad and who have struggled as they adjust to cultural and language differences. But most of the people I know who have embarked on a similar journey have had one important difference: they didn’t do it alone. They either moved with friends, classmates, a significant other, family, or at least knew someone well enough in the new country that they could count on. This is not to say that none of those people faced the challenges I have. On the contrary, I’m sure they did, and I know I’m not alone in feeling like I am another person while in a different country. And I definitely have people I can count on now. But the people who really know me well are a 6 hour plane ride away at best.
At the end of the day, all I can do is try to be as close to the “real me” as possible, and hope that the more I learn French, the more my true personality will come out. Then my next concern will be if all of the French friends I’ve made will still be able to stand me at that point 😉 I’m not homesick, and I have no intentions of leaving France anytime soon (sorry Frenchies!), but it’s good to reflect on the challenges you face every now and then. If you don’t recognize why you struggle, how can you know where to concentrate your efforts?
Tagged: American expat, American in Paris, expat, France, Paris, Travel
“Have you ever had one of those dreams where you’re in a group of familiar faces, everyone having a good time, and no one can hear you? The dream starts out fine–you know the people you’re with and you know you’re about to have fun with them. When you realize no one can hear or understand or see you, you become confused, and maybe panic even starts to set in. And then, after several desperate attempts to be heard, the only thing left to feel is frustration. This cycle is my life.” What a brilliant way to express this feeling! I know exactly what you’re referring to. I’m quickly coming up on the second anniversary of my arrival in France, and I’m STILL working on this. The good news is that it does get better, but I’m starting to believe that being an expat will always involve feeling a bit like a perpetual outsider. Then again, that’s also part of the excitement of the expat adventure, right?
Great post, Nikki! Hang in there … bon courage !
Merci! I knew when I was writing this that you’d be one of the ones who would understand… I’m glad to know I’m not alone, and most importantly that it gets better. Bon courage a toi (if I may?)!
Mais bien sûr! Oh, and félicitations on one year down, MANY more to go!
Ah, hah! You have just reminded me that perhaps the next step in learning French is to incorporate the French keyboard and it’s many accent marks. I know there was an accent missing over the “a” in my reply comment to you, but dang it, my QWERTY just can’t do it. You’re such an inspiration, in so many ways, Michael! 🙂
I know, right? I actually don’t use an AZERTY keyboard because they drive me nuts! Do you have a Mac? If so, you can produce all the accents you need even with your QWERTY keyboard by using the OPTION key. You can even make my favorite special character: œ (option + Q)!
I do have a Mac, but I have a PC also (both are for work), so it depends on which computer I’m on. But I’ll have to give that a try! Thanks again for one of your many great tips! 😉
We’re headed stateside on our 6 month expat anniversary and I’m looking forward to being myself too. At what point do you think the Paris you and US you merge?
How excellent! I think 6 months is a very fitting time for a return trip “home!” And I’m glad you can relate… I think that right now there are definitely moments when the two “mes” are one in the same… especially when I’m with my boyfriend who I met over here. I feel really comfortable with him and can just goof off or have a bad day and not worry about someone taking it the wrong way. And I would say I definitely exhibit the stereotypical American trait of being “bubbly” and smiley, which a lot of French do not, and that’s just something I can’t hide. 🙂 How about you? What changes or similarities to your behavior from home are you noticing?
I can relate to the “wanting your real you” to shine through…I am Parisian French but live in Canada and I often come as shy. I do speak English well enough to express myself as I would like to but it is not the only factor. I think culture differences have a lot to do with it as well! Anyway good luck! Hope the French treat you well!
Thank you! What part of Canada are you living in? Cultural differences definitely play a pretty big role in all of this. I’m always interested to discover new differences, and even though I wish it were easier at times, it’s the cultural differences that make living in another country worth the struggle! 🙂
Hey Nikki, wow you’re at a year already! Time flies. I’m almost at a year myself.
I know what you mean; in French my personality is a lot different. It would probably help if I put more time into learning French. It’s just going to take a lot of time before you feel yourself more, and you’ll have several breakthroughs, usually around every 6 months or so, depending if you’re speaking/studying the language or not, and depending on if you have a natural affinity for the language or not.
I’ve JUST started to make friends, en français, and I notice that I actually laugh more when speaking with them because there’s a lot of funny language mistakes that happen (or not understanding) and I think that it’s kinda’ cute that it creates this ice-breaker that doesn’t exist in English. I am also trying to figure out how to incorporate more of my personality into French — it’s just hard because I
can’t tell what appropriate/funny/stupid/witty or not. It’s the toughest with my bf’s family, because if I make an inappropriate joke on accident I would be horrified.
Whoops my comment got messed up because of some coding error with the WordPress comment box. I had to click ‘enter’ although I wasn’t finished. Anyway, congrats on everything you’re accomplishing in your life! I have enjoyed following your journeys (I haven’t commented much lately but I read all of your posts). Bisous
Thanks Dana!! I knew you’d be able to relate to this, and I really admire your efforts to really incorporate yourself into “French life” and learning the language. I know that’s a big barrier for me, and I wish I could invest more time into it, but it’s hard with a full-time job. That won’t stop me, though! 🙂 I’m so glad we have gotten to know each other through our blogs… I really enjoy yours, too, and reading your posts in French is definitely a big help to me in my learning process. Looking forward to the next time you come to Paris! 🙂
The ‘expatriot struggle’ is shared by your family and friends. The time and distance barriers are sometimes too real and sometimes seem impossible to bridge. Yet we will always continue with our struggle and support too, for love of you, knowing that you are living your dream. A dream that we, all your family and friends contributed to in one way or another. Reading about the travels, trials, and adventures great and small and knowing that you are changing and growing in momentous and small ways, is so exciting, yet, bittersweet too. We all want the very best for you and yet must live with the fact that we will never ever be able to be a daily part of this exciting adventure and life changing time in your life, but this is our cross to bear. Yet, I too, wouldn’t change a thing, for the joy and pride I feel in your accomplishments, and struggles too, continue to inspire. You may not be homesick, but as for myself, I am heartsick for missing you. Bisous! Mom
Well even if you don’t feel like you’re a daily part of my adventure, you are! I think about all of my friends and family every day, and the decisions and choices I make have a lot to do with the people who are (not were) in my life. Distance does make the heart grow fonder! 🙂