Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Roots of My Status Insecurity - the Sum of All my Fears

"Perhaps the most popular way for the anti-tourist to demarcate himself from the tourist, because he can have a drink while doing it, is for him to lounge - camera less-at a cafe table and with palpable contempt scrutinize the passing sheep though half-closed lids, making all movements very slowly...Any conversational gambits favored by lonely tourists, liked "Where are you from?" can be deflected by vagueness.  Instead of answering Des Moines or Queens, you say, "I spend a lot of time abroad" or "That's really hard to say."  If hard-pressed, you simply mutter "Je ne parle pas Anglais," look at your watch and leave."

"Tourist angst like this is distinctly a class signal.  Only the upper elements of the middle classes suffer from it..." It is the middle-class that has read and heard just enough to sense that being a tourist is somehow offensive and scorned by an imagined upper class which it hopes to emulate and, if possible, be mistaken for.Fussell, P., 1982. Abroad: British literary traveling between the wars. [Kindle version] Oxford University Press, Oxford.

When I first read Fussell a few years ago I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry.  He is pitiless and often unbelievably arrogant and yet, I have the sense that he is on to something.  The above passage from his book Abroad both fascinates and repels me because one way to look at my migration journey is through the lens of class.  And that is a mighty uncomfortable exercise.

But I'm going to take a stab at it today. I need some clarity.  I feel as if I am foundering as I try to analyze my experience and how it came to that I was, for a time, I was one of the anti-tourists and even an anti-migrant.  I believe that how that came to be has its roots in where I started.  I struggle to explain it because social class is not considered a topic fit for polite company where I came from which I would describe as "anti-class."  It was downright rude to imply that anyone you met was anything other than the generic "middle-class."  It was a fantasy of social equality that didn't exist in my childhood and doesn't exist now.  

I believe that we take our class baggage with us when we go abroad.  It's not just social capital that we carry, but attitudes.  In some cases it is a sickness of self-loathing - a sense that our roots in the home country are something we have risen above, something from which we need to disconnect or disavow.  Human beings are, I think, hierarchical by nature.  The search for recognition and status are universal.  I don't think we can help ourselves.  Those who argue that it doesn't matter are either those who bring their class or "anti-class"  sentiments with them or those who have so much social and economic capital that they need worry far less about it.  Wherever you're from and wherever you landed, there are class systems into which the migrant/expatriate integrates and if that weren't bad enough, add a third and fourth which are:  the migrant hierarchy in that country and the hierarchy of whatever particular migrant group you are associated with (whether you like it or not.)

What follows is how I see that class "baggage," where I think it took me, and how I came to see it for what it was.  The overall lesson?  Time wounds all heels.

I was born near Seattle in the 1960s in what is called unincorporated King Country.  The family moved to Olympia (population about 30,000) just before I started school.  My father was a fonctionnaire (civil servant) and my mother was a college student.  Very middle-class, you might say.  And yet there were signs that we were not living in the top levels of that class.  There was the big truck and camper parked in the driveway.  There was the fact that we painted (badly) our house, ourselves in one color (white).  The house was heated by a wood stove which left the upper floors very cold in the winter.  Across the street from our house was a family where the main breadwinner was a lawyer.  To our left another house was occupied by a college professor and his wife, a nurse. 

 I remember that money was an issue and it remained one until I went off to college. Saving money was a top priority and arguments about money were common.  My father once yelled at me because he had given me my allowance and I went straight to the bookstore downtown and spent every penny.  He said I was "irresponsible."    What is almost as bad as being poor? Being told constantly that the family is close to it and that your actions might tip the family into it.  Was it true?  Were we really that close?   I have no idea.  But I'm over 50 years old now and I still have a complex about money and saving and a strong sensitivity to being told that spending money is somehow a very bad thing.

It was also the start of status anxiety.  In a nutshell, we were definitely not working-class but we sure weren't upper middle either.  The pick-up, the guns, the dog, and the hunting, fishing and camping made us a bit out of place in our neighborhood.  I grew up with the uneasy feeling that we were not like our neighbors and that some of them really didn't like my parents.

My parents divorced when I was 12 and my mother moved to Seattle.  I went back and forth on the Greyhound bus for years.  Seattle was a different world.  It was the closest big city and it was full of things to see and do.  My mother and stepfather's house was filled with visitors who were well-educated, well-read, well travelled.  Some had talents that approached genius:  music, art, editing, cooking.  Some were self-educated, others had gone to universities, even Ivy League ones.  There was a huge bookshelf in the living/dining room and me and my siblings were encouraged to read anything we liked.  There was no television.

Two very different worlds.  In one, buying and reading a book was "frivolous" ("Get your nose out of a book and go outside to play.  I mean, Jesus Christ, kid...."), in the other not reading books was unthinkable.  When I went off to college in Seattle, I made my choice and I never lived in Olympia again.

In retrospect there was a lot to be thankful for and to remember with fondness.  I always had a roof over my head.  I went to good schools in Olympia.  Camping was downright fun.  The Nanny Noodles daycare (an intentional community of LGBT women) was wonderful.  The Evergreen State College was cool.  The wood stove always smelled nice and I loved the dry heat.  I still miss that dog.

I went to the University of Washington in Seattle.  At the time it wasn't a top school (it has a better ranking now).  I started as a business major because my father paid the very modest tuition for a few years and he argued that it was really the only "practical" major to have.  I hated it.  I skipped class and was on a downward slide to failure until I discovered something I liked and was good at:  Political Science. Murmurs of "impractical" and " where will you find work" and so on. I stopped speaking to my father. I got a job to pay my tuition.   I brought my grades up and started enjoying school.  And there I met an exchange student - the Frenchman who would later become my husband.  

So when I left the US in 1989 this was the sum of my capital.   Financial capital was zero.  In fact I was in debt.  Social capital?  Precious little.  I had a degree from a university that the French had never heard of.  My major was a liberal arts degree that had questionable status since some French knew that a US Political Science program was not the equal of the French programs.  I had excellent written French but I couldn't speak it.  The only connections I had were my husband's family. I was badly dressed and socially awkward.  I was scared out of my mind. Leaving the house provoked enormous anxiety.  For the first few months the only trips I made were to French conversation classes at the Alliance Francaise.  Some of my spouse's friends liked me well enough, but others made it very clear that they didn't. I looked for work and found a job as a secretary at an NGO in Paris where I had no status and very little pay.  But it was a job.

At that time insertion into the social world of the Parisian expats was a nightmare for me.  My French mother-in-law found an American club and a sponsor (yes, at the time you had to have someone vouch for you).  I was intimidated by the "ladies who lunched."  Sleek, well-dressed women with degrees from prestigious US universities living in posh Paris apartments and whose husbands were captains of industry.  They were higher up the social ladder than me before they came to France and were comfortably settled in the upper levels of French society.  Their French sounded perfect and their children appeared to be effortlessly bi-lingual.  The worst moment came when I went to some event and they were encouraging me to come to some tea in the mid-afternoon.  I replied that I couldn't because I had to work and they all stared at me.  If I had stayed longer, I might have met more American women in the same situation.  As it was, I fled that club and only returned after many years.

So even after I settled in and integrated more or less successfully (I even found a job in IT with a French company),  those insecurities just wouldn't go away.  That is when I really became the anti-tourist/anti-migrant.  I didn't want to be around other Americans and I passed that off as good taste on my part (under the guise of "the truly integrated don't need the crutch of other Americans.")  Truth is I didn't want to meet anyone who was more integrated, more travelled, had a better job, owned their own home, had bi-lingual children in an international school, and had lived in France far longer than I had.  In my own way, I created my own "bubble" where I could be the Exotic Beast - the only American at work or in my social circle.  Stepping out of it meant confronting the fact that there were about 75,000 other Americans in Paris alone and I was hardly a special snowflake.  Only in my "bubble" could I pretend to be a higher class than I really was; an "expat" and not a "migrant."

How long did it take for me to get my head out of my own behind?  A long time.  The big blow was finally admitting I was an alcoholic.    The seeds were there before I left the US but the progression of my addiction played out in France.For years my anxiety and insecurity was calmed by endless glasses of wine.  No one is responsible for this but myself but I would say that under the guise of "integration"  and "When in Rome..."  I escaped detection until the day I just couldn't do it any more.  
An alcoholic builds a house of lies and my "bubble of integration" turned out to be exactly that - a cunning bit of architecture that only existed in a delusional mind.     I was not better than the tourist - for crying out loud, my working-class grandparents were tourists and happy to have the opportunity to just kick back and enjoy the ride.  I was sure not better than my fellow migrants/expats.  In fact, we had a whole lot in common and since getting sober I have met a lot of people like me with roots in small towns or cities holding next to useless liberal arts degrees from lesser-known schools who nonetheless found a way to go abroad.  

Just as tourism became something attainable by the middle and working-class, so, too, has migration come to be within their reach.  In my study of Anglophones in Japan most came to work in the education industry - mostly English teachers.  There was a brief period in the 1980s to 1990s in Japan when these jobs had some status and good pay.  That's pretty much gone but they still come to Japan from the US, Canada, the UK and Australia to work in the conversation schools, public and private primary and secondary schools, and sometimes even the universities.  In France they come as au pairs (domestic work) or as the spouses of  French citizens.  Think about that for a moment because it's huge.  

The roots of tourism come from the "Grand Tour" where Englishmen and women (and later some Americans) headed off to the Continent for a few years accompanied by a private tutor with all expenses paid by parents.  Once upon a time that was what going abroad meant - it was a personalized educational experience for the upper classes where they did, in fact, learn languages and culture and so much more. Some even stayed. Look around you, my fellow Anglophone migrants, and you will see very few of your fellow migrants/expatriates who could even dream of such a thing.  
Would I have liked to have such an experience?  To have gone to France with a guide and immersed myself for a couple of years in French culture and language?  To not worry about getting a job until I was ready?  To forgo the anxieties about money?  To send my children to bi-lingual international schools?  Hell, yes!  Was it within my reach?  Hell, no.

I and others could only go in the first place because there was a spouse waiting on the other side or a job.  We were not the products of prestigious schools with degrees that would have propelled us into the upper classes of our home country societies.  We did not have parents with the financial resources or connections to help us migrate and insert us into the host society at a high level.  We had to finance our travels ourselves and that meant work which might be poorly paid, have few benefits and confer low status.  I think it is entirely justifiable to have a sense of pride at what we have accomplished.   Luck had something to do with it, but so did effort and persistence.

This is not the picture our home country citizens have of "expatriates" but I think it's a truer one than the stereotype of the "rich expat drinking by the pool."  And that is why I rage when I hear the latter.  It is inaccurate in most cases and can even be a lie as evil as any delusion that came out of an alcoholic mind.

Today I am still conflicted about all this.  I still have residual resentment toward people I perceive as having had an easier time.  I wish a lot of my experience abroad had been different. Going with some money would have improved things, not to mention a lot more therapy.   I feel a deep sense of shame at how badly I behaved. The temptation to join in on the bashing of tourists and the less-integrated migrants is still there - that old game of building myself up while tearing others down.  As Fussell points out, it is popular sport and fun. However, it's a little like taking a drink; feels great going down, but the morning after is something else.

Over the years I have also made progress in acceptance of my home country experience.  For all that I have said here about it, there was a lot to like and be grateful for. There is nothing like the taste of fresh salmon or a trip over the pass to Eastern Washington.  My great-grandparents were lovely people and I miss them.  My working-class grandparents were fun people - conservative but genuinely curious about the world and they made the most of their years after retirement.  I miss them, too.

I have a wood stove in my house in France.  I don't think anyone in my family in France understands what it means to me:  the smell and the heat bring back good memories from my childhood.  It makes me feel safe.  Sometimes I still miss Seattle with its public market, and wood houses.  Some days I would give anything to be back in my mother's kitchen with her making pancakes and me sitting on the couch with a coffee and a paper copy of the New York Times.   

What a relief it was when I finally admitted that my life abroad was not necessarily better than the one I left behind; it was just different.  And I am losing that fear of failure and that constant comparing of myself to others that caused so much anxiety for so many years.  However, when I go back to the West Coast and we speed down the freeway toward the farm in the Willamette Valley I watch the Olympia exits go by and I think about stopping and showing my children where I spent part of my childhood - where the roots of my fears about people and class and status began. 

It never happens.

9 comments:

Mike Staubes said...

I created the following equation after reading your wonderful article.

Separateness ∝ Wrongness (Separateness is proportional to Wrongness).

I am separate because of (money, PhD, house, car, class, last name, fine ass, ________ fill-in-the-blank) is directly proportional to WRONGness. You are not your money, hair, class,...whatever. Therefore, if you think the above, you are wrong.

For some reason I came up with the following example. I was taking photographs in the Cimetière du Montparnasse and by the tomb of André Citroën...a smart, rich, engineer...
and I asked myself, "self, who was this man?"

I could only respond with a phrase from a poem be e. e. cummings

             "and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death"

The ultimate question: Who are you? Who were you?

I could have stood next to any tomb in the citmtière and ask the same question.

I can stand next to any person and ask the same question.

Separateness is proportional to Wrongness

Inaka Nezumi said...

Powerful post. Hard to think of anything to add.

Where I grew up, tourists were likely to be higher in class/income/wealth/education then the locals, so kind of opposite of the Fussellian model of uncouth barbarian tourists disturbing the refined Parisian locals and the migrants who would like to blend in with said locals. Resentment naturally ensued, similar to the resentment of a migrant who is working hard to fit in against those who seem to have it easier. In fact, my family had moved into the area from out of state when I was little, so we also felt like migrants working to blend into the very parochial local culture. Including feeling resentment at those rich out-of-state tourists who would haughtily deign to visit our rustic village for amusement, and then would breeze off when the fall leaves finally fell off, or the snow got too deep to deal with. So I guess I had already gone through this whole process from an early age.

In contrast, where I live now, we don't really get tourists. So there is not the opportunity to contrast one's own situation with them. But the need to feel accepted in the local culture is exactly the same. A human invariant.

We also used a wood stove for heating when I was growing up. Wonderful when it was fired up, not so wonderful when it was my job to get it going again first thing in the morning... I like electric heat now -- God gave us electrons for a reason, no sense in wasting them, I say.

Maria said...

To me, social class is also a mindset, not just monetary worth. Or perhaps it's just a matter of education. While a good education can be gotten with money, you can also achieve knowledge by yourself with a mind open to understanding different ideas of all kinds. If you have any discernment, the internet is a wonderful place to acquire knowledge. Yes, like your experiences with your father and mother after they were separated, I had my differences with acquaintances and friends, and my parents. My parents were like your father, concerned only with the practical that will put food on the table. I was more concerned with food for the mind, and so were most of my social circle, like your mother and stepfather. I have come to accept not having much money, but I will never accept having an uneducated mind. I classify myself as lower class in physical wealth, and middle class in mental wealth.

Tourists can be a headache, mostly because of the congested crowds they have grown into. What bothers me the most, though, is the ignorant tourist who never bothered to read up anything about the place they are visiting, and who haven't the least idea of the culture, the history, or life in general of my area. I'm not saying they have to be experts, but a little research goes a long way, and thereby avoid extremely dumb mistakes like asking for the subway from Santiago to Vigo and other jewels. (There is a trip on the highway of almost two hours from city to city. They are not twin cities like Minneapolis and Saint Paul.)

Wood stoves are still in general use in these villages. It's our only form of heating in the winter, and, yes, the upstairs is cold in the winter. Lighting it can also mean risking blackened lungs, especially on a still, cloudy day with no breeze whatsoever. I do like to stand in front of it on winter evenings, though, and warm my bones!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Mike, I like that equation. A lot. And back in a previous post I mentioned that we lose a lot when we choose to separate ourselves. And if a farmer in France is a cool guy you want to talk, why isn't the farmer in your home country equally interesting? :-)

Nezumi-san: Thank you. Oh, I can see what you mean. Makes me wonder what the villages around the world think of the adventure tourists and the "gap year" youngsters. We are here to "help" you and bring money to your local economy, you poor downtrodden provincials! No one likes to be condescended to.

Before Seattle became a cool place (thanks to movies, Microsoft and grunge) the migrants the locals loved to hate were the people from California and other US states. The local paper had a columnist, Emmet Watson, who railed aginst them. The general consensus was that he was right. They were ruining the city for the natives - raising house prices and destroying the environment. A good example of how internal migration mimics international migration. Before I left the country it never occurred to me that an anti-migrant attitude might be a very unfair one. All the "we were born here" or "I'm third generation Seattle" really meant was "We got here first and so we should have the right to keep you out or make you uncomfortable if you slip in."

I grant you the convenience of electrons but I wouldn't give up my woodstove for anything. :-)

Maria, I can see that. I have come to hate the ord "practical." I have kept my mouth firmly shut when it comes to my daughters. They can study whatever they want. I am just grateful that they want to study at all. Some muttering from my mother-in-law whose dream is that her grandchildren become civil servants. Nothing wrong with being a civil servant but I had a parent who was one and can't say that he enjoyed his work all that much, nor did he earn enough money in my opinion to justify it being a practical choice. He was an outdoor kind of guy and I think he would have loved to work for the National Park service or something like that.

That desire to learn, to read and to travel can be threatening to a local community or a nation. There is a reason the Amish pull their kids out of school early - so they don't leave. But the contempt (how many times did I hear from my father that "those that can't do, teach.") only serves to isolate the child and really make him/her want to get out. As a counter-example I read a really nice dissertation the other day written by a local at a local college about a community near where my grand-parents farmed in the Yakima Valley. Good work and a good example of someone who didn't have to leave home to study, to learn and to do research.

bubblebustin said...

Beautifully written, Victoria!

You are in a class of your own.

Tim said...

I got into a bit of an argument with someone in the US whose company was bought by a much larger French company called Ingenico that you might have heard of. Basically he hates working for Ingenico and just quit and says we will never ever work for another US subsidiary of a French company ever again.

I responded that I knew an American woman living in France originally from Seaattle since 1989 who has worked for many French tech companies and from everything she told me she has had really good experiences. I mentioned this American woman I knew had also done several expat tours in Japan for various French tech companies, to which this individual responded that an American living in France since 1989 is "really" French NOT American anymore so she doesn't count in his mind.

**I have one confession I have to make in that when I tell your life story to people in the US it is hard for me and for the people I am talking to not to embellish about your lifestyle in Paris especially when I get to the part about the wedding and the "Princess Di" dress.

Tim said...

It will be very interesting over the next few years if due to Brexit a large portion of the American expat community in London(That is even more status driven than in Paris)centered around the banking industry is forced to relocate to Paris or some other city in the EU. In fact I have seen several articles indicating the property prices are already on rise in Paris especially in places like Auteuil and Neuilly and the French government is quite explicitly using snob appeal to get London banks to move to Paris instead of Frankfurt or Dublin(basically saying the Frankfurt and Dublin are hole in the wall cities compared to London and Paris).

Tim said...

One other thing I noticed is Marvin Van Horn told me about a French documentary on Netflix called Emmanuel Macron: Behind the Rise with English subtitles about the Emmanuel Macron campaign. One thing I noticed is in several of the meetings Macron staffer we eating McDonalds takeout food in his presence. I find it hard to imagine something similar going on back in the 1980s during the Francois Mitterand campaigns.

Even Macron himself doesn't seem to have the greatest eating habits. He seemed very eager on election day to stop at some roadside fast food place on the way back from Le Touquet(which is his legal residence and where he official votes) and Paris. All in all though an interesting documentary.

Of course now at the Elysee Palace they have a special 24/7 kitchen serving the finest French cruisine.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiY4rXzXYLg&t=58s

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thank you, bubblebustin! Good to see you and I'm glad you liked reading it.

Tim, That is so funny. The French don't think I'm French and an American doesn't think I'm an American any more. Wow. :-)

I still have that dress in storage somewhere. Maybe in Brittany. It was my mother-in-law's doign and she has great taste.

Oh, that would be an interesting post-Brexit development - having more Americans move to Paris from London. I think it sounds like a damn good idea.