My friend Karen moved back to the United States from France in 2011, around the same time I did. Before that huge move (she had also lived in France for many years), Karen expressed concern about losing her unique status. “I won’t be the American living in France anymore,” she sighed.
I knew just what she meant. The American in Paris. Well, at the time I was the American in Clermont-Ferrand and she was the American in St-Jean-des-Ollières. I know, that probably sounds less poetic.
Of course, Karen and I shared nothing in common with the Gertrude Stein or F. Scott Fitzgerald camps. But living abroad for what was -- in our heads and our everyday discourse -- destined to be a “definitive stay” (for life, rather than on a limited ex-pat gig) had always carried a certain caché. It had made us feel distinctive and moderately unhinged. While I understood what Karen meant, the problem for me was that others’ perceptions of my unique status didn’t correspond very well to my actual life, and so I felt the nagging prod of being a fraud.
Who was I, anyway? Many times at professional conferences throughout Europe I was introduced not as having a PhD from the University of Michigan, or as a researcher who studies human emotion, but as “the American who moved to France.” I have been mentioned in (other people's) books in just this way as well. My life was caricatured as a clever reverse-brain-drain act in which Dr. Paula Niedenthal "discovers" that one can have a “fuller and more sane” life, if not a perfect career, by moving against the flow. I was caricatured as daring and, therefore, beloved.
But that wasn’t how my life felt to me. Far from it. Even after years and years of living abroad, I still often felt like I was in a bubble, walking around being looked at like a zoo animal. I was either really cool or a horrible capitalist pig, but neither had anything to do with me. And rather than the contrary, the more I understood my linguistic, social, and professional contexts, the harder it became to feel like I fit in, or ever would (or would ever want to) at all. Call me daring, but also call me a failure. A failure at being a symbol for other people's dearly-held beliefs.
A couple of weeks ago, here in Wisconsin, I met a woman who has lived abroad in many places, and still travels internationally extensively for her work. She spoke French to me, and we chatted comfortably. Then, I switched to English and asked her where she had learned French. Well, she had lived in France, and she had worked for ten years for a French institution. We sat in silence for a while. Finally I asked, “how was that?” She is a beautiful woman with a very soft voice. But her voice became brittle. “I just couldn’t do it anymore,” she said. “I couldn’t stand having my judgment tested and my decisions and actions doubted just because I am American.”
I blew out all the air in my lungs and sat back. And was silent.
Wow, I thought. I can just sit here and say nothing. Someone else experienced and is now articulating what I have felt with exactly the same accumulated frustration born of constantly and automatically provoking the use of clichés.
I was finally in a situation in which I didn’t have to explain myself.
It was the most cathartic experience I have had in years. The sound of that woman’s voice took away, at least for a while, the bitterness I felt about people's biased perceptions of the ways in which my life was unique.
And all because her comments made me feel not unique at all.