Yesterday on my excursion to the chateaux of the Loire, I hung out mostly with a group of South American (and one Hungarian) girls. I did not really identify with the blonde, legging as pants wearing, study abroad girls who a Brazilian guy remarked looked just like the mean girls from American high school films. Nor did the French take me into their fold, but then as to be expected, they appeared to all be close before the trip and doing it together.
A good part of my animosity towards study abroad girls and American nannies who marry French engineers whose names they can’t pronounce is jealousy. I didn’t do study abroad, my family wouldnt ‘have stopped me but in the end I graduated early to save money instead. And when I did think of studying abroad, I thought I should go to Morocco as a more practical choice that woud set my resume apart from the hords of girls who studied in France, plus I could learn the trendy, in-demand language of today, rather than the language of high society of yesteryear and a seemingly waning power on the world stage.
Well, I’ve definitely gotten my chance to live in France though. And I wouldn’t want it any other way, except I wish I could have done a homestay. ALthough if I do end up with a French guy, or simply stay here long enough, I think that will more than make up for it in terms of my language skills.
A few years ago, I was volunteering at an Elks event in New Jersey, surrounded by the middle class white people, of which a large percentage were Cattholic, almost WASPs of integrated Irish, Polish, Italian descent, and felt myself a part of the group, understanding that this was my heritage, this crowd of cops and teachers and upwardly mobile middle class people whose parents or grandparents struggled in some ways. I felt like I needed a partner who would understand the mythology of the group, the meaning of country music in this context (or not), how good people can be a little bit Republican, someone who knew the songs by heart that my family played every year on summer vacation, who appreciated the Boss and Bon Jovie not just as a cultural curiosity but as someone who sang their song without thinking too much about it.
I was wrong.
And when I was in business school, and we went to rooftop bars (after I had subsisted on mostly eggs and pasta as an English teacher the year before), and while most of the people did not come from money or have particularly lucrative careers before, they were now part of a global managerial class, optimistic about their future and ready to work hard and long so as not to struggle financially with the little thigs and to move up in the world. Not really caring that much what they did as long as it gave the lifestyle they wanted. Not particularly curious, but purposeful.
I felt very alone in this group, and like I didn’t belong.
Because just before that, I hung out with people who wanted to change the world. Who really believed in the noble purpose of their clerical tasks done for little or no pay at a non profit or advocacy organization. Who worked as waitresses to afford to work for free on Capitol Hill. Many of whom simultaneously believed in the political system and wanted to be part of it as they condemned at some level how the sausage is made. Well not all. Where purpose and privilege- not everyone had to worry about paying the rent as much as others- often coincided, though there was self consciouness about the problem and scholarships there to help people get on the first rung. Where everyone has two master’s degrees and might well still be struggling to fin da job or make ends meet. Where people care passionately about things and develop skills that the rest of the world finds irrelevant, mostly useless, and horribly boring…
When one changes or jumps or adds another layer to identity, the feelings can be intense. I felt I was selling out when I went to business school, but what I wanted from life and the way I saw the world had changed irrevocably. I may not be a study abroad girl or a Paris or nothing type who has no other ambitions, but yes, I have indeed chosen Paris over all other things, for the moment, and I bear more resemblance to them than I ma willing to admit. When I was dating the Algerian guy and he didn’t understand why I was so upset to leave Paris, since his dream was to go to New York and he played the greencard lottery every year…
Identity feels like a messy collage. I have been many things, and I hope to be many more.
Maybe even French, in three years or so.
And I”ve also become, with the help of a very globetrotting friend who’s lived everywhere and sees through a lot of the tribal bullshit, a person who sees past my non falsifiable beliefs about the world, who may get offended when people gratuitiously insult both my country of origin and my adopted home, who may still participate in a religion, but sees through to the power structure and doens’t buy into it, who wants adventure, and stability, and transformation into the kind of person who gracefully handles all of this, and lives more simply and not so much in my head.
The kind of person that loves being on the road but also loves home, and who realizes this will all change eventually.
But who looks around and thinks, Damn, I never want to leave.
And quite recently, someone who calculated the airtravel costs of visiting the remaining 3 continents I haven’t seen- Australia, South America, and Antarctica (which would be a flight over the continent without landing)- and found it to be a mere 3000 euro. Doable for sure.
1 year ago, I signed up for another six months in France, fairly certian I would go “back” after that, and I travelled furiously trying to tick off items from my bucket list.
3 years ago, I thought I would just go ‘Home” to DC and that my study abroad year was my last hurrah in France. I remember telling my parents Paris was just a big city, and there was no real draw to being here.
6 years ago, I was walking to econometrics and a professor asked me if I wanted to go to Madagascar and I said yes.
12 years ago, I thought I’d never be kissed, and a few months later met someone who did indeed kiss me, and whose family opened up my eyes to a world I didn’t know existed, or never thought I’d be part of it.
24 years ago, I was probably watching Beauty and the Beast and longing to be Belle, and have the townspeple wave to me, “Bonjour!”
Who am I? All these things and none, and more to come.
Identity is a funny thing, and I think the most important thing is to remember that we create it.
We do get to choose who we are, and the choice to change is not an act of betrayal of our former selves, it is the ultimate creative act.
Choose wisely and without fear.