Secret Life of an Expat: The Foreign Girl

I have always been attracted to foreigners. In second grade I was intrigued by the influx of southeast Asian refugees who showed up at my school. I had never heard of Cambodia or Laos before, but I was ready to be friends with their strange food-eating nationals the moment they arrived.

One summer, I became fast friends with a girl from Puerto Rico (exotic to a Mainer) and my BFF in eighth grade was Vietnamese. Maybe knowing these people reminded me there was a world beyond my town. Maybe my parents taught me to be culturally curious. I had to know these people, where they were from, why they were here. What it was about them that made them different from me.

And when it was time for college, I absolutely had to go to “the melting pot,” New York City. My career would probably be in much better shape now, had I gone to Rhode Island instead, but I couldn’t bear the thought of four more years in New England. These cultural urges sent me to Africa when my friends were buying Eurorail passes, and because of them I’m not at all surprised to find myself living in a foreign country now. A lot of other people tell me the same thing: it’s fitting that I ended up in France. Maybe all this time I wanted to be the foreigner.

Now that I have a job and a group of people that I see every day, that’s exactly what I am. The American girl. The one who doesn’t understand everything you say and will probably add something irrelevant to the conversation because she thinks you’re talking about something else. The one you have to stop and listen to because she speaks slowly, with an accent and uses all the wrong words. It’s like a code when I talk, and some people are better at understanding it than others. For instance, the kid I sit next to, six months out of art school, sometimes listens to me talk, waits for me to finish, then politely says, in French: “I’m truly sorry but I have no idea what you just said to me.” If the girl who sits behind us is in on the conversation, I can look to her for a translation (she understands the code), but sometimes I just have to start over. It’s good though, I would rather people tell me I’m not making sense than smile and nod and pretend that they understand (which is what I find myself doing at least five times a day).

Everyone’s had the experience of working or going to school with foreigners. I worked with one in LA, in an office of four people. Sometimes it was more comfortable when he wasn’t there because then I didn’t have to wonder whether he was bored, whether he understood the joke, whether he was laughing for the right reason. I wouldn’t internally criticize him for not using his time better to practice speaking English with us, or take ESL classes at night instead of going home and playing video games. This was always followed by an internal admonishment, where I’d tell myself that it must be really heard to learn a new language, especially if that language has a completely different alphabet than your own, and maybe he’s just shy.

I think about that guy as I navigate my own workplace. I smile a lot, and feel more and more comfortable taking part in big conversations. It’s useful that we’re working on our own parts of a big project, where we work more or less autonomously, rather than changing our tasks and work-flow every day.

My coworkers are kind with me, and I do my best to pronounce their language as well as I can. And if they’re bothered by having a cowboy boot-wearing, war-mongering, bible-banging, McDonald’s-eating American (I’m none of the above, really) in their presence, they don’t show it. Sometimes they want me to answer to the sins of all Americans. “Is it true that 50% of Americans don’t believe in Global Warming?” I try to respond the best I can, and to be honest I don’ t know the answer. I’ll usually say something like “there are a lot of stupid people in the world” and think but not say, “you can’t believe everything you hear about a country, especially if it’s coming from a different country’s news industry,” though unfortunately that particular statistic is probably true. I tend to hear a lot of generalizations, and of course America does the same thing to France.

I’m trying to convince them that Americans eat other things besides just hamburgers for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but I don’t think they believe me.

Anyway, I signed on to be the foreign girl, and hopefully I will one day be the graceful, exotic foreign woman who speaks perfect french with a slight and ever so charming American accent, and otherwise fits in, just enough, wherever she goes.

For now I will struggle through and be grateful for the fact that I get to spend nine hours a day in an office full of French people. It’s already helped tremendously with my language skills, and I was right to believe that having a steady job in France would be a huge boon to my feeling like I belong here.