There is one thing that consistently irritates me in almost every book I’ve ever read by an Anglo-Saxon who took up residence in France; they write adventure tales about how they discovered the quaint and exotic natives and their strange customs.
These books bother me for two reasons:
- They reinforce positive but limiting stereotypes about the French.
- They never talk about the dark side - the long struggle toward some level of assimilation - that has you crying in your kitchen and swearing that you will be on the next plane out in the morning.
France is a country with nuclear technology (this includes nuclear submarines) and a highly developed, high-speed transportation system and is home to multi-national corporations in the areas of environmental services and software development. If I were asked (and I am asked often) to characterize the French I would say: quick, smart, and creative with a streak of perverse cruelty toward each other and strangers (it’s called ‘bizutage’)
The culture is implicit which means you have a lot to learn before you can function. The bizarre twist is that no one will explain the rules to you - figuring it out on your own is a test of your intelligence. It is a negative feedback system; you don’t know that you’ve done something wrong until someone angrily points out your error.
All this can lead to a state that Eva Hoffman called “immigrant rage” against the culture you find yourself swimming in. This is the dark side of assimilation. It’s a state of high sensitivity where any innocuous statement can set you off. You feel fragmented and lost when all you really want is to feel “normal”. From Lost in Translation:
“I don’t want to be told that ‘exotic is erotic’ or that I have Eastern European intensity or brooding Galician eyes. I no longer want to be propelled by immigrant chutzpah or desperado energy or usurper’s ambition. I no longer want to have the prickly, unrelenting consciousness that I am living in a specific culture. It’s time to roll down the scrim and see the world directly, as the world. I want to reenter, through whatever Looking Glass will take me there, a state of ordinary reality.”
For me I passed through the Looking Glass one day after I had dropped the girls off at nursery school and I was riding the bus to work in Nanterre. I looked around me and saw the ados in black going to school, the old ladies in their fur coats and funny hats, and the North Africans chatting in a mix of Arabic and French and realized that I wasn’t afraid or anxious or angry. They weren’t foreign to my anymore and I wasn’t out of place. This world had become my new normal, my state of ordinary reality.