Before Christmas I was talking to an older woman I know from church. One of her daughter-in-laws is American (fancy that) and she is both puzzled and a bit irritated at her son's wife who is not taking to life in the Hexagon very well. She still doesn't speak French, she said, and she hardly leaves the house. She comes to family events and then refuses to sit and chat with everyone. She's not working, doesn't do much of anything and seems very unhappy.
This is not the first time I've encountered this kind of situation. Doesn't happen often but when it does, what I hear breaks my heart.
For every "American in Paris" book out there that says that integration was a breeze and claim they are now fluent in French, living in a fabulous apartment in Paris with their charming successful husbands and perfectly bi-lingual chères têtes blondes, there are many other untold stories of isolation, depression, problems learning the language, dealing with the extended French family or finding a decent paying job.
Hell, I read some of these books and feel like a failure.
If you are one of those living the fantasy, read no further. But if you are an American thinking about moving here or you are already here and feeling low, here are a few random thoughts I offer to you from my experience that might help:
Living the Shock: Yes, there are a zillion books out there about how hard it is to adjust to any foreign culture. Read away but understand that reading about it isn't the same as living it. If you think that you can arm yourself with enough knowledge to escape the worst of it, think again. As far as I can tell there is no correlation between the number of books about the target culture read and how you personally will be able to handle it. You may be in for a rough ride (or not). The only cure I know of is time. It just takes awhile to adjust. Never ever compare yourself to other American migrants who seem to be doing much better. You have no idea what is going on inside their heads. They may be suffering, too, but they just aren't letting you see it.
Dealing with Differences: People are people, right? Just treat the people around you the way you wish to be treated and you'll be fine. Yes and no. The first sentence is so general that it is useless. The second can get you in a lot of trouble. Think about it - you the American want the people in France to treat you the way you would expect to be treated back in the United States. That's not going to happen. They may behave differently toward you because you are a foreigner (and, if you are honest, don't many Americans do the same thing to the French in the US?) or they may treat you as they would another French person. Either way, it won't be what you expect and there is very little you can do about it because you can't control what other people say, do or feel.
This is the source of a lot of anxiety. Americans in general have a very high internal locus of control and are taught that they can direct or influence people, places and things if they just try hard enough. When that doesn't seem to work, there is a tendency for Americans (and I think American women in particular) to turn on themselves and start thinking it's all their fault.
Humility is good, beating yourself up is bad. It won't help. It can lead to severe depression and actually make it harder to integrate. How well does anyone learn anything if she's come to the conclusion that she's stupid or an incapable?
Being an Amateur Anthropologist: The obvious things like learning the language and table manners are actually not that hard to figure out because these things have explicit rules. It's the implicit that is tough because not even the French can necessarily explain to you why they act in a certain way or why something is right or wrong. I cannot count the number of times I did something that raised eyebrows and so I asked, OK, explain to me why and the answer was "Parce que c'est comme ça" (because that's the way it is). These people are not fooling with you (or me), they really don't know. It just never occurred to them to ask.
One way to deal with this (and to keep yourself from going crazy) is to think of yourself as an amateur anthropologist writing a thick description of another culture. Your job is not to make value judgements, nor is it to speculate why. You are just there to observe and you modify your behaviour to test your hypotheses. When I do X, I get a very strong negative reaction. When I do Y, no one notices. So if I want to fit in, I need to do Y.
Making Mistakes: What I described in the previous paragraph is a negative feedback system. Culture seems to operate that way. Do something right and no one notices. Do something wrong and suddenly it feels like someone just dropped a ton of bricks on your head. It's very hard on the ego.
My sense is that the French are very hard on foreigners and on each other when mistakes are made. They can be very critical and very sensitive to criticism. I have seen people I love turn around and leap with glee when they detect a spelling mistake in a note the concierge leaves for apartment residents. I was once walking my garden barefoot and the neighbor's daughter came out to tell me that I needed to put on some shoes. Her mother came out just after and yelled (and I mean yelled) at her for being disrespectful to an adult. I once tried to count the number of negative remarks my French spouse made to me in the course of a morning. I ran out of fingers in the first hour.
Sometimes this constant criticism is crushing. I don't know what it's like for American men married to French women but it comes up quite often in my conversations with American women married to French men and they take this behaviour very personally.
The conclusion that some come to is that France is not a safe place to make mistakes and that can be either an accelerator or an impediment to integration. There is no doubt in my mind that negative cultural feedback systems work. Fear can be a very powerful motivator but then so is encouragement and positive feedback. Lack of the latter can lead to an American migrant simply giving up.
Letting Time Take Care of It: Remember that no one has the power to change people, places or things. Il y a des cons partout (there are idiots everywhere) and every migrant who has a bad experience with someone in the host country needs to take a step back.
The longer you live somewhere, the more experiences you will accumulate, the more people you will know, and the better you will feel, until the exact opposite happens and you'll wake up one day and wonder how you could have changed so much. At that point you'll have a different fear: losing yourself. When you look in the mirror, have coffee with a friend or walk out of a government office with exactly what you came for, you'll have this flash of "Who in the hell is this person? Is it still me or is it some alien that's invaded my body?"
Dealing with Bad Situations: Sometimes the situation really is a bad one and would be bad regardless of where you are living and who you are married to. I've heard some true (and truly terrible) tales of that charming husband changing drastically once he arrived on his own turf: mental and physical abuse, controlling behaviour and the like. It happens but isn't it interesting that you don't find many autobiographies about that when you peruse Amazon for stories about Americans in France. (Or, for that matter, similar tales about French women in the U.S. married to Americans.)
Finding Your Way: Only you can determine whether it's just a question of culture shock or if you really are in a bad place. My best advice if you are struggling is to first give up the idea that going at it alone is always your best strategy. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't and asking for help does not make you a failure. Consider the possibility that those who did integrate and built lives here supposedly solo are not telling the whole truth when they write about their experiences. Maybe they just got lucky. Or perhaps they suffered a great deal but that sort of thing doesn't sell books or make for a very popular blog, does it?
Oddly enough, sometimes it is other Americans who are not helpful. Folks, this is not a race. It's not a competition. It's not about who has the best French accent or whether or not someone has a "real" job or who does or doesn't spend time with the American community in that area. There is no prize for "Most Integrated American Living the Most Authentic Foreign Experience." But sometimes we act as if there was such a thing. And when you think about it for two seconds, that's really dumb.
Getting Help: So once you've rid yourself of other people's expectations, where do you go for help? Personally, I think it's perfectly OK to go back to the source and by that I mean other Americans. Look, the French husband, colleagues, friends and so on may not get where you are coming from because they've never been a foreign woman in their own country. Not their fault and it's not yours either.
Find another American or an English-speaker who you trust, and perhaps has a situation similar to yours, and sit down for a long lunch where you can get what you are feeling off your chest. Or find an organization that can point you to people who can help.
Let me be crystal clear here, if you are having trouble adjusting to life here this can be the very best thing you can do for yourself and the people around you. Getting your head on straight will put you in a frame of mind that is much more conducive and open to integration. Another possibility is a cross-cultural counselor. I've never used one but I know they exist (and if anyone has links or one to propose, please do so). The American Church has a program for Americans called Bloom Where You're Planted which I've heard is quite good. In the past I was a member of AAWE (Association of American Wives of Europeans) and I thought they were very good folks. There is also a professional association for women called EPWN (European Professional Women's Network).
Temporary refuges or a place to live permanently? Does it really matter? When you die, do you really think the more integrated foreigners here will have a better shot at heaven? Or that someone will inscribe "Lived in France for 30 years and still couldn't use the subjunctive correctly" on the family crypt?
Just relax and do the best you can. Concentrate on being happy, not on complex verb tenses or whether or not you did or said something "wrong" at dinner last night. Take it one day at a time. If you are really struggling and in a very bad place, find help (and please feel free to send me an email if you like). Integration is a process, not a race. A journey, not a destination. And remember that nobody gets to be valedictorian of this class.