| to laugh (verb) | /ʀiʀ/
I just returned from my appointment at the French Consulate of Atlanta (my first trip to which inspired a traumatized blog post, which you can read here.). Obtaining your French visa, whether you are studying or working abroad, is a bureaucratic nightmare. Okay, applying for a long-stay “assistant/lecteur” visa was much less laborious than applying for a student visa. There was less paperwork, and it was (mostly) free. I did not have to show proof of health insurance or copy a bank statement. Instead, I showed up with a few passport photos (Don’t smile! Could you remove your nose ring? Swipe your bangs to the side.), my passport, my work contract, and a few visa applications, duly signed. All in all, it wasn’t bad.
Given my first experience at the consulate, I approached this appointment with some paradoxical combination of apprehension and apathy. On the one hand, I did not want to re-enter the prison-cell likeness of the consulate’s waiting room, nor was I eager to watch as my fellow Francophiles were loudly chastised and dismissed. On the other hand, I had spent the past two years working in a department run by French expatriates, so I felt accustomed to this sadism.
When I entered the waiting room thirty minutes early, I took a seat. A young girl was chatting with the female teller, who seemed abnormally friendly for a French bureaucrat. My hopes lifted. After she had finished, I shuffled forward and told the teller that I was applying for a long-stay “assistant” visa. During this entire conversation, I spoke one word of French. However, my ability to pronounce that one word was enough to encourage the bureaucrat into speaking French. I handed her my documents, and while she stapled and copied and typed, the young girl asked me, “Are you French?”
My students always asked me this, and I never failed to laugh.I turned to the girl and laughed again. “No, I’m just an American.”
Despite years of studying French language and culture, I cannot truly identify as French outside of the superficial I-like-cheese-and-wine variety. I am the quintessential American girl. Where French women are polished and cool, I am reckless and crass. And most Americans over the age of 16 are no longer under the impression that smoking is cool.
Being American is sometimes embarrassing and, quite frankly, even dangerous, but identifying as such is also kind of awesome. Like our country and its products, our people are this wild mélange of cultures and personalities. Yes, I’m absolutely mortified by some of our policies and habits, but traveling affords you a new perception of your homeland, a perception that cannot be duplicated any other way. This is what I’ve come to realize: The American identity is this elusive entity that cannot be immediately defined. It just is.