I was acting a role in living abroad, even as I was somehow trying to figuring myself out.
I didn’t know what that role was at any given moment – it changed depending on the circumstance and the people around me – but I became aware that I was indeed acting a part that people whom I’d met had ascribed to me. I was always me, as far as I knew (or as far as I knew myself or cared to admit), but I also represented to the French friends I was making, or simply to the people I met here, a certain idea of foreigner, a certain affirmation or recalibration of someone from the United States.
I would always be a version of an American, or of a New Yorker (which to the French, and even to many Americans, isn’t really America). And so I went along with it. I was either the writer or the novelist or the journalist or the New Yorker or the American or the literary know-it-all or the music critic or the amateur cook who would either confirm or refute people’s ideas about any of those things from the perspective of an American who stands in for all Americans. What I really was to them was a sounding board for preexisting ideas about my country, my culture and even my reasons for being abroad.
When my French friends introduced me to their friends, they would open by mentioning that I was an American who was living in Paris to learn French. This was only a partial explanation of what I was there for, but it gave the new acquaintance a way of dealing with me – an opening for questions, a particular approach to conversation. It would also give me the opportunity to respond with the lines that I had, if not rehearsed, at least memorized through constant usage.
Of course, we invent and reinvent ourselves throughout our lives. Living in another country, in another language, also allows you to verify your own background check. And to serve as an ambassador for your culture to another culture.
The truth is, I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I simply wanted to experience more than I had up to that point in my life. Although that can be said of anyone, even many people who remain where they have always lived, my unarticulated goal was probably not a goal but a further awakening. I wanted my own preexisting opinions upended. But sometimes the French, like Americans, want theirs upheld.
And if you as a foreigner speak the language of the foreign country where you live you’re the expert there for your country. I remember watching an episode of a French literary show, “La Grande Librairie,” where one of the guests was a mystery writer living in France. I’d never heard of her – no one had ever heard of me, either – but because she was an American who spoke French, she was called upon during the discussion of one of her new mysteries to weigh in on how effective a president Barack Obama was. To be the special correspondant from America.
“Americans are disappointed in him,” she said.
Not this American, I said to the television.
But she was the resident pundit and could say something however ill-informed because she happened to be from the other side of the Atlantic. Even though she no longer lived in the U.S., this little-known writer of little-read mysteries could still opine on American politics, politicians and whatever else the French wanted to know about her home country. Simply because of her status as a French-speaking foreigner.
I was asked my opinion on America too, of course, though privately. My ad hoc ambassadorship without portfolio required that my responses be diplomatic, whether in explaining something about the United States – health care, guns, violence, the friendliness of its people – or in offering an opinion on France – health care, monuments, cuisine, the unfriendliness of Parisians. Like an ambassador, I had stock answers for everything. I hadn’t yet arrived at a point where I could discuss anything with any depth, and simply offered up the talking points that would enable the people around me to continue debating their views of America or France as I tried to follow along. I don’t think my responses ever changed received wisdom, though perhaps my presence as an American who was deeply interested in French people, France and its culture did.
That was a big difference in the role-playing I was either assigned or that I assumed. I actually was a curious, unbiased journalist-critic-novelist and also, I hoped, an open-hearted American who was here to learn more about myself by being called upon to pretend sometimes to be someone else, or perhaps to assume to play a particular aspect of who I was, assigned by people who didn’t know me.
I would come to see that my own moral progress was realizing that everyone was as human as myself, regardless of my own cultural idées fixes. I hoped that the people I met would realize that too.