Some thoughts on expatriation and “roots”

Being a long-time resident of France, I’ve tended to forget what it’s like to be an expatriate in a foreign country. I’ve felt at home in my adopted country and different from those who are only in France for a limited time. I haven’t shared expats’ initial concerns about language, housing, shopping, and culture shock. I speak French, have a French ex-husband, French sons and French friends, live on the French economy, and think in euros, meters and centigrade.

Now, however, after spending six months living and teaching in China, I can certainly relate to many of the concerns expatriates have when they move abroad. When I arrived in Shanghai, I didn’t speak Mandarin; had to use sign language when I shopped; was shocked (at least at first) by all the spitting; and suffered from the pollution, the lack of green surroundings and the crowds.

HK,_Shanghai,_April09_opt

And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed my expatriate experience. It opened up a whole new world to me. I was no longer comparing French and American cultures but discovering a new, very rich and complex, one. Nor was I continually comparing “the French” and “the Americans”. Now it was trying to understand “the Chinese”, a people that is much more diverse, individualistic, helpful, welcoming, and fun-loving than we in the West are often led to believe. Of course, speaking the language and staying on longer would have allowed me to delve further into the culture and to interact more with the local population; I only perceived the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. But my perception of China and the Chinese has certainly changed.

And while I was in Shanghai I had one of most rewarding experiences of my life, that of volunteering in a Chinese orphanage.

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I think what also helped me enjoy my stay in Shanghai were the expatriate associations, both American and French, I joined while I was there. Through them, I made new friends, went on walking tours and visits of the city and its surroundings, took a few Chinese cooking courses, discovered local restaurants and jazz clubs, even journeyed to Tibet! I also helped re-launch an international social group in Shanghai, attended the Shanghai Literary Festival, and participated in a local Anglophone writers’ group. All this, in addition to teaching fifteen hours a week at the French lycée, kept me very busy; and I rarely had time to feel “alone in a foreign country.”

I left Shanghai in July. Having enough miles by then for an award ticket on Air France, I embarked on a trip through six western states of the U.S. visiting family and friends. The landscapes I saw in the west, as well as hearing and speaking my native language again everywhere I went, soothed my soul—so much so that rather than return to France at the beginning of September, I decided, serendipitously, to lay down my bags until Christmas and give living in California another try. I’ve done this three other times since my divorce ten years ago, but circumstances always brought me back to France, where I’ve lived for nearly 40 years. Now, however, I’m retired, my children are grown, and I haven’t yet been blessed with grandchildren. Of course, I miss my sons, my friends, and my apartment (which I’ve been lucky enough to rent out), but, otherwise, nothing in Paris now really obliges me to live there anymore.

So far, I love being back in the Bay Area and the life style here. I’m reconnecting with childhood friends and making new ones, taking some classes, joining local groups, and doing research for a new book at the UC Berkeley library. Despite how much I appreciate living abroad, I’m now discovering how good it feels sometimes to return to your roots.HK,Berkeley

(an adapted version of this post recently appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2009 edition of AAWE News Paris)

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Published in: on November 3, 2009 at 11:53 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Nice blog page! and I like your piece. Hope you extend your stay after the new year! – Caroline


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