Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates, in alternating parts, the experiences of a British woman in Hong Kong and a French woman in the UK.
Writer Lauren Elkin is an American expat in Paris. Like me, a resident of a large, multicultural city (in my case, London), she has recently become a citizen of her adoptive country. “I was not a rebel,” she wrote in Flâneuse, her 2016 book on women walking the French capital and four other global cities, a book in which she also reflects on her experience of expatriation. “I was just someone who happened to have moved countries.”
To the inevitable feeling of “displacement and dislocation” she encountered in Paris, she consistently responded with a desire for “re-placement and relocation”.
Reading this, I was reminded of the famous lyrics of Joséphine Baker’s song “Mon Pays”: “J’ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris” (I have two loves, my country and Paris). The song suggests the country is not the city, perhaps even that a capital city with a cultural aura as idiosyncratic as that of Paris is a country in its own right. This may be even truer for the immigrant, for whom immediate connections matter more than the abstract, symbolic ties of nationhood.
I asked Elkin to talk me through the history of her relationship with my home country, starting with her first year in Paris in 1999 as an international student from New York’s Columbia University. The city was not the most obvious overseas study destination for an English literature major, she concedes, but Paris was home to one of Columbia’s two international campuses. The other, in Beijing, was even more remote from the city that initially interested her as a student of British modernism: London.
The UK capital, which she visited for her research, disappointed her: “It reminded me a lot of New York City!” On the other hand, she had no preconceptions of Paris. “It was very pure,” she says of coming to France for the first time and discovering a surprise affinity with the country. Since then, she has looked for any excuse to return to the French capital. In 2002, she went there for an internship, and in 2004, for a one-year fellowship as a language teacher. She moved permanently to Paris the same year.
The way you assimilate as an expat depends on your adoptive home country, she says. There are people who have lived in the US for only a small portion of their lives yet unproblematically call themselves American. Yet Elkin, who obtained French citizenship in 2015, is periodically described as an American writer, especially, I note, when she writes for the French press — most recently in Le Monde, in which she advocated greater representation of France’s most illustrious women in public monuments and statues.
I think this is partly because an international identity has cachet in the writing world. Equally, it seems that in France national identity is not a fluid concept. Perhaps this is a characteristic of old European nations, I suggest, telling Elkin that I don’t think the British will ever think of me, a French immigrant, as British.
It is July when we speak and France have just won the World Cup. In the US, comedian Trevor Noah quipped on The Daily Show that “Africa won the World Cup”. That attracted criticism from Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the US, for denying these players their “Frenchness” and, in so doing, borrowing the rhetoric of the far right. In his defence, Noah suggested the players’ African origin should be celebrated in conjunction with, rather than against, their French identity.
“There is a sense that Frenchness doesn’t allow for a hybrid identity,” Elkin suggests, before telling me that librarians still periodically ask her if she is an exchange student, as if the idea that she has come to Paris to stay is incongruous.
In literature, famously, Americans go to Europe to reinforce their existing sense of national identity, not to share the countries’ decidedly monolithic sense of nationhood. “And they always go back,” Elkin notes. “Or, if they’re Daisy Miller, they die.” In any case, she concludes, they don’t accommodate the Old World. “I don’t think I’ve accommodated the Old World either.”
By the end of her life, Joséphine Baker had changed the lyrics of her song to “mon pays c’est Paris” (Paris is my country). She meant, of course, that as a woman of colour, she had found more freedom in choosing her identity and belonging in the French capital than in the US. I ask Elkin if she feels more attached to Paris or to France: which is home?
“Well, soon I’ll have a baby here,” she says. “The degree to which I have become French is based on the amount of living I have done here, not on an intention to integrate into the culture.” As her book documents, she has done a lot of living in Paris.
But Elkin loves France. She could see herself living elsewhere in the country — Burgundy, for instance. Oh yes, I offer, where the wine is good. “Exactly,” she replies.
“But the dream of belonging perfectly has disappeared,” she says, with what I interpret as a sigh of relief. “Like the dream of the perfect accent.” I, of course, know exactly what she means.
Previous stories in this series:
“I am not Chinese”
“I’m officially almost British”
“Cantonese should be defended”
“Deserving to become a citizen”
“When church meets state”
“I don’t suddenly feel British”
“Goodbye to subsidised education”
Photographs: Getty Images; Marianne Katser; Till Jacket/Getty Images; Julian Elliott Photography/Getty Images; AFP/Getty Images