A very old and dear friend of mine (American) once said to me, over too many glasses of red wine, “I don’t like you very much when you speak French.” When I asked her what she meant, she replied that she thought I had changed and had become someone completely alien to her.
Alien. I was thoroughly shaken by that comment. Is this what happens to someone who has lived a very long time outside of his or her culture of origin? Is there a part of us that becomes odd and unrecognizable to our oldest friends and family as we become more and more competent in the ways of our host culture? Is there something “foreign” in our outlook and our mannerisms that disturbs our oldest friends and family?
To take it one step further, did something very fundamental change in our personalities when we crossed over into another culture and language? I am not talking about surface assimilation and I am not talking about getting over culture shock.
This is the question I ask myself: if I had stayed in the US and not moved to France in my early 20’s, would I be today, at 45, fundamentally the same person with the same character and personality? Are the changes that come with integration/assimilation so deep that whatever it is that makes me an individual is someone radically different from the hypothetical person I would have been if I stayed home?
It is impossible to test this hypothesis. I did leave and I could not have spent the last 20 years in two places. But here are a few ideas that I play with.
Deep assimilation into another reality is a radical destruction of the old persona and the gradual reconstruction of a new one that is more appropriate to the context. Does one ever consciously think that, no, here I draw the line and I will not change? Yes. I think this is why immigrants hold fast to their religious beliefs or, in my case, a visceral attachment to the concept of “free speech”.
Wherever you draw the line, the whole process is very destabilizing to those of us who live it. It makes me question every single damn day, “What am I?" There are moments I crave the ignorance of those who have never ever left home. Where is my center? Where is the part of me that will never change wherever I am? Every person an individual, says my North American upbringing. But how unique is the individual molded by culture?
We adapt so well. It is frightening how quickly we change to suit the circumstances.
And how we become strangers to our compatriots.
“...the image of a constant human nature independent of time, place, and circumstance, of study and professions, transient fashions and temporary opinions, may be an illusion, that what man is may be so entangled with where he is, who he is and what he believes that it is inseparable from them... Whatever modern anthropology asserts - and it seems to have asserted almost everything at one time or another - it is firm in the conviction that men unmodified by the customs of particular places do not in fact exist, have never existed, and most important, could not in the very nature of the case exist.”
The Interpretation of Cultures