Thursday, 1 October 2015

Coming to America

Why did I move to America? Because I'd always wanted to. Even when applying to undergrad, I did a cursory search of Harvard's website (this will immediately tell you something of what I thought about America, but no matter). I ruled it out as too expensive (and I resented the idea of having to take an extra exam), but I probably gave it more serious consideration than I did French university, and I'm a French citizen.
It is difficult, I think, for Americans, particularly the academically inclined, liberal kind, to truly understand the hypnotic fascination that America (before 9/11 in particular) could have on Europeans. Your cinema and television exported a culture of sophisticated glamour. Even the world of your cheesy soap operas (Baywatch, Sunset Beach, Dawson's creek, The OC) were so much more exciting than the dour drama of our British offerings. America seemed alive, and huge, and beautiful.
To put it this way: there was only ever one trip I wanted really to take, and that was to the statue of Liberty. By the time I had moved to America, I had already been here five times. The first ever trip I took to America in 1993 was the fulfillment of an already years long dream, and I didn't even get to go to Disneyworld. The statue of Liberty was enough.
And so, when I decided to go to grad school, I decided I would try to do so in America. I had no excellent reason beyond "why not fulfill two dreams in one?" I would become a paleontologist, and I would move to America. Both things I had wanted to do since I was less than ten.
But fulfilling childish dreams as a adult has costs. I suspected, applying for grad school in my early 20s, that things might end up more complicated than a five year jaunt across the Atlantic. One does not with impunity embark on a major life change in one's early twenties.
It is now 8 years since I first came to the US, and I have been here 7 of those last 8 years. I am now married to an American man. I have paid taxes in the US for more years than I have in England (even though I am ineligible to vote). I know the history, geography and culture of this country as well as I know that of France and England, and as well as many Americans. Yet I am not an American. I am a French and English man, here by choice and circumstance.
Many academics get used to international moves. Yet I get the impression that few choose those moves. I chose mine: I applied for PhDs in the US. And I knew what I was risking. Yet I did not know perhaps how much. This week I was applying for jobs back home. My husband and I have only the vaguest idea of how we would mesh his career goals with me moving back the UK. As much as part of me yearns to be closer to my friends and family, in some ways, that seems almost more complicated than staying here and flying home once a year or so. Yet what shocked me more was that I had no idea HOW to apply for a job in Britain. All my tacit knowledge in reading job apps, all my professional skills, all my wordsmithing were tailored to the American job market. Faced with a British job application, I was stumped.
I should not be surprised by this. I am the second generation in my family to drift between countries and cultures. My mother moved from France to England in 1973, and has lived as a French expat in London since then, awkwardly balanced between a culture she no longer entirely understands, and a culture she has never entirely understood. My siblings, I, and many of our friends are a syncretic mish mash, knowing the work practices of the English and the social practices of the French and only truly feeling comfortable when surrounded by other binationals who get the feeling of never quite fitting in. And I've added America to that mix. It is my home, yet I am not at home here.
This weekend, I spoke with my mother, as I do every week. We talked about my career goals, and about my husband and I. As I told about jobs in the UK I was applying for, to convince her I cared and was not a bad son, she asked me what my husband would do if I moved back to the UK. I answered that for his career, we would probably be apart a couple more years. Without hesitating, my mother told me that she would travel to see me wherever I was in the world, and that I should think about my husband and I as a couple when making career choices. She lifted a great weight from my shoulders, at the cost of not calling her youngest son home.
I have been true to myself in the geographical choices I have made (well, apart from Ohio. Ohio was not part of the plan). I have no regrets. But the life of the voluntary expat comes with costs, all the more complicated to weigh and measure in that they are in part self inflicted. I was not forced to come to America. What does that say about my attachment to my family? And if I refuse to consider myself American, then how do I deal with having my professional and family life here? Expatriation bears a toll, and as more academics become more international, more of us bear those secret bruises.

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