Entre deux chaises / Between two chairs
My mother, a Frenchwoman, has been using an interesting expression to describe my cultural situation lately: entre deux chaises (hence the tag). Literally it means “between two chairs.” Yes. That is what it is. This is going to be a post I hesitated to write, but which some might find interesting (I hope), since I think my particular way of being bicultural is both an uncommon one (insofar as I speak both languages well, cling to both cultures and act like an expat rather than an immigrant) and a common one (hello, fellow hybrids!), and one with which most people of non-immigrant and non-expat families aren’t very familiar.
A quick biographical recap: I was born to a French mother and American (French-speaking) father in the States. I am a double citizen by birth. I spent most of my childhood alone with my mother and her French expat friends, going to Utah for long bouts to be with my dad and his very, very American family. I spoke only French at home and only English everywhere else. I lived in France 2 months a year and did two years of K-12 there as well as a six-month stint at a musical conservatory in my early 20s. I was raised very thoroughly French in a culture, under the periodic influence of my father’s family, that also made me thoroughly American. I ended up both, and because it’s hard sitting in two chairs, I also ended up in neither. I’ve spent my entire life trying to perfect my speech in both languages, trying to balance out what is American/Anglo and what is French, and my graduate student work reflects this, with it french writer and its british writer (future post: the delight and relief of being bicultural in a foreign country) and its american video games.
What is it to be entre deux chaises? It’s not that you’re neither one nor the other; I’m too well trained in Derridean thought, and was too struck by Nick Royle’s lectures on the impossibility of non-genre, not to believe that it’s more a question of being both. But who is one kidding? One is both, and also one is neither. I just like the image; trying to straddle two chairs, and falling through, uncertain.
What is it to be entre deux chaises? It means that I pass in both places (in every sense of the word “pass”), yet I feel just enough of a foreigner in both, yet I feel compelled in both to tell people my bicultural status even though my accent would allow me to seem fully native. Then there’s culture shock. Two very different cultures, and yet I get no real culture shock in France… whereas I do in the States, for whatever complicated reasons that may be (I was raised in a very french environment for NC). But that aside, America is certainly one of my countries, one of my places, one of my cultures; I’ve spent more time there than anywhere else. I wander into my forests in North Carolina, the deserts in Utah, and I’m as home there as anywhere it’s possible to be home.
What is it to be entre deux chaises? Not knowing why you’re reacting to something the way you are, or why a given situation seems tense or off: is there a cultural misunderstanding happening? Have I missed something about the current “home” culture I’m navigating? It goes almost without saying that I have, I do – things from both cultures go over my head, I don’t get a lot of references, and I spend so much of my time trying to decipher the cultural rules that keep apart French behavior and American behavior. It’s been like this since I was born. I’m not complaining; it’s fascinating, if often confusing. I was at dinner with French friends the other night, for instance, and kept having to remind myself to make sure both my hands were on the table. In the states I have to remember not to look people in the eye “too long”; that complaining comes across as whining if not cowardice; that frankess (a word I bet comes from French) is usually discouraged; that anglo-saxons respond to criticism as if they were being personally judged; that hands should be in laps if they’re not holding utensils; that it’s polite to help the host of a dinner party to cook and clean up. In France I have to remember that eating cheese and fruit at the same time rather than in separate courses is bourgeois sacrilege; that people screaming at each other does not remotely indicate the same potential violence it would in an anglo culture; that it can cause offense to insist on helping out a lady in her kitchen; whether it’s appropriate to congratulate a pregnant woman; etc. — and the whole time: whether I’ve accidentally done something offensive to one culture or another, and whether I’m behaving in one when I should be operating in the other …. that’s being entre deux chaises.
It can also be sad, or lead to sadness. Losing friends because of series of cultural misunderstandings that are understood too late, because cultural misunderstandings are so hard to see happening; that has happened to me. It is horrible, on the level of culture, in the sense it gives of one’s own helplessness (so many people without this experience don’t really believe, I think, that cultural misunderstandings, not just individual ones, are at work… and anyway, someone really angry with you is unlikely to step back far enough to take culture into account. But this is besides the point, if I have a point).
Abruptdeparture made a very apt comment on my blog post about being looked at to the effect that I, as a native (“native”), must feel under much greater pressure to pass than he does in Korea, where passing is impossible. This is true. There is intense pressure to pass. Passing is the easiest, often the only, way to truly be included in groups of French people (unrelated to me), the French who are my people just as Americans are mine. I have always yearned to be as French as possible, while also refusing to give up my Americanness, whatever those two terms may mean. Nearly all the bicultural people I know end up choosing one or the other, for reasons I won’t presume to judge – often practical ones. I can’t do that, for whatever reason. It’s entre deux chaises for life, no matter which country I end up spending the rest of my life in (a question that is up in the air).
What does entre deux chaises have to do with this blog? Someone suggested I write it as an “American in Paris” sort of thing, but I can’t do that. All I can do is be a Franco-American hybrid in Paris, coming across things that are both strange and familiar, that call out the French elements I pushed some of away during five years out of this country, that also strike what is American in me as interesting and different. So. How to wrap up these disparate thoughts? I’ll keep writing on this in one way or another, no doubt; it’s a huge part of my life, the untangling of the cultures, the attempt to sit in both chairs at once. Walking through what should be a strange place, either in France or in the States, and understanding it, moving along in it, while always at a remove. That feeling: always being at a remove. The children of immigrants will know what I mean, I think, as will anyone raised between two countries and/or two cultures. The impossibility, much as one may try, of conveying the experience in full to someone who has not had it. Alienation and intellectual removal in the countries that are meant to be yours, that are yours but that you have to work constantly at keeping yours.
An angsty post, perhaps? I hope not. Back to more concrete subjects soon, I expect.