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My Story

Guest article by Jean-François de Lafayette

This page tells a little about me. I’m Jean-François de Lafayette, and I’m transnational. Transnational people are people who are assigned citizenship in one country at birth, but who later discover that they belong in another country. There are millions of transnational people living in the United States alone. There have been many famous transnational people in the past, including Ernest Hemingway and the Chevalier d’Eon. I was born in the United States and have American citizenship, but I feel most at home in France.

I am at the beginning of a big transition in my life. In a few months I will get my name legally changed to reflect the Frenchman inside, but unfortunately New York State does not allow me to change my birth certificate, so people will still be able to see my Scottish-American birth identification. However, I’m currently saving up money and some day soon I will buy a house in France and get French citizenship. Then I will be French on the outside, just like I am on the inside.

Since I was a little kid, I’ve always had a fascinaton for France and French things. My dad told me that when I was teething, he put rum on my gums because it was supposed to ease the pain, and I got drunk and started singing Frère Jacques! I loved that song, and knew the words by heart. When my mom put on her Charles Aznavour records I would get up and dance around the room. Around that time I discovered a special French cheese called “La vache qui rit,” and I couldn’t get enough of it. I asked her to buy me more every time she went to the store. I also ate lots of French fries and read Babar books. I remember when I was four years old, going into the living room and asking her, “Are we in America?” You can imagine how upset I must have been when she said yes!

These kinds of things don’t happen by accident. Studies conducted at the University of Paris have shown that French children tend to have at least one parent who is either French or related to a French person. Children born to French parents may look just like Americans at birth, but they start showing signs of being French very early in life, such as speaking the French language and eating French bread. In my case, there were signs of French influence on both sides of my family. My mother is Jewish, but when she was born, my grandparents decided to give her the French name Suzanne instead of the English version Susan. She had a French boyfriend before she met my father. My father told me that there was contact with the French going back generations on his side, and one of his ancestors was friends with the Marquis de la Fayette. He and I, as well as my sister, grew up with crooked teeth, and my mother always said it was because we had large Scottish teeth in a small French mouth. Clearly, there is some genetic motivation for my transnationalism, but it may also be due to prenatal exposure to French music.

When I was nine years old, a new boy moved into my neighborhood. I noticed an accent, and was overcome with curiosity about him. I got to know him and discovered he was Belgian. I was disappointed, but by that time in my life I was already convinced I could never really hope to be French. Maybe being Belgian wasn’t out of the question? Living in Belgium might be a way to be French without giving up my American citizenship. But I was still drawn to France: another neighbor was a girl who was part French Canadian, and she had a large collection of Astérix comic books; I read them all. And then, my stepfather gave me some wonderful news: we would be taking a trip to visit both Belgium and France.

When we arrived in Brussels, my mother and stepfather were jet-lagged and slept for most of the day, but I was so excited I went out by myself and spent the day eating waffles and exploring the main square and the beautiful galleries. The next day we got on a train for the town of Bruges near the coast. Unfortunately, as our inkeeper told us, in Bruges they don’t speak French, only Flemish. I managed to have a good time, but I wasn’t as excited as I had been in Brussels.

A few days later we got to Paris. Paris was big, noisy and full of traffic, and the hotels were shoddy. We saw the major monuments, but I felt overwhelmed. We ate lunch at a Parisian café, and I asked the waiter for a large Coca-Cola. I made a big gesture, holding my arms half a meter apart, to reinforce the “large” size, because I had been served so many small glasses in Europe. The waiter came back with a humongous stein, half a meter high, full of Coke, just to make fun of me. I felt very ashamed to be seen by the French as an obnoxious American who drank so much Coke.

After we got back from our trip, it was only a few months before I started high school and had to take language classes. Of course, I took French! And a little more than halfway through ninth grade I started at a different school, and the French teacher there said that my French was so good, she wanted me to start in French 2! Even then, I felt that the class was going a little slow for me, so my teacher said that if I did extra exercises she’d let me move up to the next class. By the end of that year I’d done half the questions on every French 2 and 3 exercise in the book, and I started French 4 in the Fall. I’d done French 1, 2 and 3 in a single year! Looking back, it seems so obvious what the truth was, but nobody seemed to see it then. One of the things that complicated the picture was that I didn’t care much for French literature. I couldn’t get excited about André Gide, Guy de Maupassant or even François Truffaut, but I liked Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, themselves transnational Frenchmen. Still, I thought I couldn’t be really French unless I appreciated French literature and film, could I? It wasn’t until later that I met French people who liked comic books and science fiction like me.

When I got accepted to college, I was happy to hear that there was a floor where everyone spoke French. I’d be able to be around people just like me! But meeting some of these people face to face was a bit of a disappointment. Some of them didn’t speak French very well, some had ridiculous accents, and some were really interested in literature. In retrospect I think many of them were really Americans acting out a fantasy of what they thought it was like to be French, rather than true transnationals. I thought at the time that maybe my interest in French was just a general interest in languages, so I took German my first semester and Spanish the second, but I wound up taking French again in my sophomore year. I just couldn’t stay away from it.

Then in my sophomore year my friends started talking about spending a year abroad. I was excited at the idea. I had been feeling ashamed to be an American anyway, since the country had just invaded Iraq for the first time. There were a lot of things that bothered me about the American lifestyle, and I was quite prepared for the possibility that I might want to stay in Europe for the rest of my life. I was still thinking that Brussels was the place for me, but I couldn’t find a good study abroad program there. I talked to my friends, and three of them had decided to apply to the same study abroad program in Paris. I looked into it, and it definitely seemed the best, so I decided to go too.

The first month in Paris was very stressful for me. It was hard being in a place where everything was so different. But I was very much driven to succeed there, and to fit in. I made an agreement with some of the other people in the study abroad program that we would try to speak French to each other as much as possible. I moved in with three French students, two brothers and a sister, and discovered that they were transnational as well: their father was from Sardinia. I took classes and my fluency improved. After two months I was sitting in class and realized that I was understanding my professor without thinking about what he was saying! I made French friends and was invited to go to cafés and parties with them, just like a regular Frenchman.

Eventually I learned how to do things just like the French. I could walk into a bakery and conduct an entire transaction in French, and I don’t think the bakers even knew I wasn’t French! I learned just when to pull up the handle on the metro doors so that they would open as soon as possible. I ate couscous and merguez, just like real French people do.

It’s hard to overcome twenty years of socialization, though, and in a lot of ways I looked and felt very American. Sometimes I wore shorts, even though I didn’t go jogging. I found myself shopping in the imported goods sections of supermarkets looking for peanut butter. I even went to an American specialty store to buy Oreos. There was a lot of pressure on me, and I felt lonely. The idea of finding work was daunting. I succumbed to the pressure and returned to the US. I felt sad, even though there was no good reason why. I had made some friends, but I was planning to stay in contact with them. Many of my friends were Americans from the study abroad program who were going back to the US too. Still, the minute the plane left the ground I started crying uncontrollably. I know now that I was abandoning my true self, but at the time I couldn’t explain it.

I went back to America, and tried to live as an American. I finished my B.A. and got a master’s. I became a successful computer technician. I met a lovely woman who later became my wife. But at times I missed Paris. New York was close enough, but it just didn’t feel right. I got involved in a group that held French parties every month, where French people who wanted to be Americans would dance with Americans who wanted to be French. Those were fun, but there was something unsatisfying about them. It seemed like a lot of people at the parties were fixated on sex, but for me the desire to be French went deeper.

I continued to think I was interested in languages in general. I took night classes in American Sign Language for a year. I knew that American Sign Language was a descendant of French Sign Language, but I thought I was interested in it for its own sake. I enrolled in a PhD program in linguistics, planning to study ASL, but I found myself writing papers on French instead. What was more disturbing was that people seemed to like my work on French better. I took a job with a French company based in New York, but I was frustrated that they didn’t give me more work to do on French.

I also met a wonderful American woman and in 2001 we were married. We went on our honeymoon in France, and had a wonderful time, but I still felt wistful and kept visiting my old haunts. I wasn’t excited about coming back to the US either, but I had work to do. The French company I worked for succumbed to the dot-com crash and laid me off shortly after I got back from France. I continued work on my PhD, and decided to do my dissertation on French. I applied for teaching jobs, and was hired to teach French at a university in the area.

Two months ago I went back to Paris to do research. I was only there for two weeks, but in some ways it felt like I’d never left. Because I didn’t have much money I booked a room in a dorm for transnational students from America and ate in the student cafeterias. I fell right back into that student lifestyle, and in between visits to the library I walked all over the city. I even passed for French again; I spent several minutes talking with an American librarian, and she didn’t know I was American until I told her. It felt like I belonged there and I kept feeling the impulse to explore more, to learn more about the city and the country. I missed my wife and our young son, but I didn’t want to go back; I wanted to bring them to France.

Even before I left, I was thinking about how to get back to France. I’ve seen ads for jobs that require Americans or native English speakers. When my PhD is finished, I can apply for jobs teaching English in France. But my wife is not enthusiastic about the idea. Even though she is part Acadian, she doesn’t speak French as well as I do, and has never felt the same draw to it. She thought she was marrying an American, and doesn’t want to live in France. She might be willing to spend a summer in France, but doesn’t want to settle there.

I don’t know what to do. I feel torn. I can try to live with this desire to be French, but I don’t know for how long. I don’t want to lose my wife or be separated from my son, but I don’t want to live in denial either. I’m taking steps to ease the situation. Studying French for my dissertation helps to calm me. I regularly buy a pain au chocolat from the local French bakery, and go to French restaurants when I can. Still, there are times when I need to be an American. It makes my son happy to go to McDonalds, so I go with him, but it feels really fake, and I have to fight the urge to order a Royal cheese instead of a Quarter Pounder. You can’t go through your life for everyone else, though, and sometimes you just have to be true to yourself and hope that people will see that you’re really the same inside.

I have a friend who seems to have it all going on. He not only speaks Spanish, but Catalan as well. His boyfriend of more than fifteen years is from Barcelona, and they are planning to take advantage of the new Spanish laws and get married. They spend part of every summer in Spain, and soon he’ll have Spanish citizenship, but they still come back here every fall. The other day I asked him, “Don’t you feel bad coming back to the US?” He said, “You get used to it.” I feel like telling him, “Face it, Miguel, you’re transnational! You’re totally Spanish. Why don’t you try to move to Spain permanently?” He’s so lucky.

The preceding is a work of fiction. The narrator’s interpretations of the facts and his plans for his future are entirely fictional. However, the facts themselves, including the narrator’s feelings, are closely based on actual facts and feelings in the author’s life.

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