Never before have I been such a commodity. At home, I’m known to skulk mostly in shadow, my unusual bookish quirks serving to weed out unwanted attention. In the United States, I am in fact one of the least loudly “American” people I know: I can’t properly digest beer and a hamburger, and I prefer solitary bonding time with Virginia Woolf to an American football game.
In France, however–particularly in my town, and particularly at the high school where I teach–I am “the American”. This is a label I have never really considered to apply to me (partly because the label itself implies that there is only one culture across the Atlantic; America is a continent, not a country,) but it is, in fact, true that I come from the Americas. I also happen to be the first American (North or South) that many of my students have ever met, and I’m often greeted in the hallways with stares and whispers of, “Is that the American?!” I mentioned in my break-down of frequent US stereotypes that living in France has taught me just how American I am, despite some surface incongruities. I love to weight-lift, have heatedly defended Lake Tahoe and Colorado against the Alps, can’t function unless I have twelve projects going at once, and will tell anyone I meet that San Francisco is the best city on the planet. In those respects, I certainly am American through-and-through.
Though I am California-laid-back when it comes to paperwork (this took moving to Argentina for six months in order to achieve), I am still wired from my childhood trisport days, when I didn’t stop moving until 10pm. At university, my typical day was about 18 hours long, which I can tell you now is an extremely American quality. Though I’ve recently sat back many a time to a bottle of wine and a good laugh at the fact that I will probably never receive my social security card or my government housing assistance in France, I have not yet ceased reading a novel a day or insisting on constant activity. Parts of me are adjusting to a malleable personality with every move I make, but some of my personality will always be, well, me: that-somewhat-odd-American.
It took the insistence of 1,300 French boys for me to finally accept my “American” label, and then this week, my students threatened to withdraw it. The other day, one class actually could not speak for a full ten minutes after I told them that I have never watched the Simpsons (sorry, not interested.) After going over proper deadlift form with a boxing student, he asked if I train outside on the beach like “they do in the movies.” My answer, coming from California, was, “Yes. That’s one thing the movies get right.” We agreed to switch passports and see if anyone notices. On Tuesday, I told a group of girls that I prefer the way French men dress to US garb, and they told me I was archaic; they, too, would like to trade nationalities. So far this week, no less than twenty students have claimed to be more “American” than me.
One of my favorite classes is a private lesson I teach with a Portuguese boy who moved here four years ago. He speaks French very well, considering it is his third language after Portuguese and Spanish, and he’s starting to pick up on English. At the end of every lesson, we usually discuss the differences between the US, Portugal and France. It’s interesting to see how many cultural subtleties there are in the world, and how global societies have become–my student has family in Portugal, Spain, France and the United States. He and I are both odd breeds influenced by many places, and we’ve found comfort in knowing that there are other people out there like us: individuals who do not speak the local language perfectly and act slightly “off”, but who can fit in through odd trilingual dialect and strong determination. Luckily for me, it’s becoming more and more normal to not identify with just one culture.
I think it’s OK that I’m not fully “American”, nor perfectly integrated into any of the cities in which I have lived over the past four years (six.) Some days, I like to read three novels, fill out a grant application and then go for a run to a neighboring town; on others, I can sit in a nearby park for hours until the sun sets. Today, I craved peanut butter cookies, but tomorrow I will probably want alfajores or patacones or empanadas. I will always identify with the United States and, specifically, California, but there is a part of me who will never feel at home there, or here, or anywhere else I go because, for me, home will always be meeting new people and planning my next adventure.*
*My next adventure is, in fact, Berlin, where I hear they also like strenuous activity and strict deadlines. I’ll let you know if I fit in…