Today marks one year since I first made the journey to start life in France. When I think about settling into life in France last fall (I admittedly already look back on it with rose-colored glasses), I remember figuring out how to do things one step at a time, like a child discovering unfamiliar surroundings. Fitting in wasn’t my ultimate goal — surviving was.
I often reflect on my identity as an American in France. A friend who’s very fluent in French race relations recently taught me the phrase, les personnes racisées. It’s a brand new phrase that doesn’t translate well in English. Essentially, it means people that could be identified as a race other than the majority by their appearance. For example, I was a personne racisée in Zambia and Togo, but I’m not in France. People might guess that I’m not French by my mannerisms or clothes but you’d have to hear me talk to know for sure.
Here are a few experiences as of late that have caused me to ponder this idea even more.
- I was at the doctor last week to get a medical certificate (an official approval you need to do just about anything in France) and the doctor was less concerned about my health and more concerned about America. He has a son in San Francisco and he wanted to hear all about being from MA and moving to France.
- G and I have spent our free time lately visiting apartments. He’s planning to move in the next few months. In one apartment, the real estate guy showing us around asked after chatting for a few minutes, “You have a small accent … where are you from?” I replied, “I’m American,” with a smile. The current apartment owner proceeded to tell me that there’s an American woman who works at his company (makes sense when he told me her works for General Mills). It was almost like he wanted to see if I knew her.
- Just two days later, we were visiting another. After talking to the current owner for a few minutes, I was asked the familiar question “D’où vient votre petit accent?” (Where does your small accent come from?) and I smiled again and told her I’m American. She turned her back to me to pick something up and said “Hmm.” When I she turned back around, I saw her pursed lips. I glanced at G to see if he saw her reaction. He was trying to hold back a smirk. We quickly moved on to something else and didn’t go back.
It’s impossible to know what that lady was thinking. I can’t know what the real estate agent or the doctor really think of America either, and that’s totally fine. My experience as a foreigner in France is made so much easier because I don’t have the word “non-French” stamped across my forehead, I’m not a personne racisée. The experience of so, so many people in France is much less sunshine and roses than mine has been. I don’t know that I get to feel any certain common experience (except that of long lines at the Immigration Office) but as I move through life and continue to find my identity in a new language and culture, I don’t want to forget the tension between my experience and so many others’.