I read many books about Americans and other Anglo-Saxons in France before and after I moved there in the late 1980's. And when my life there turned out to be nothing like what I had imagined it would be, I spent years wondering what was wrong with me.
Because we seemed to have physically moved to the same geographical location but they seemed to be living in another world.
In their world there was always enough money, they lived in lovely houses in the South or plush apartments in Paris, their children were effortlessly bi-lingual, and the French were this adorable tribe with quaint and exotic customs that were an endless source of amusement (not to mention new material for books and articles). Misunderstandings, problems adapting, learning the language and the like were brushed off as mere bumps on the road. They made it sound so romantic. And I would finish some of these books feeling like a failure. Why am I so ambivalent? Why do I have these moments of loss and despair? Why am I having such a hard time when all of these other people seemed to have effortlessly segued into a fabulous life here?
It took me some time and a larger perspective to understand that these books are Disney-style fairy tales. Cinderella stories with happy endings written for Americans or Australians or Brits that describe France in a way that conforms to certain positives stereotypes of the French and bucolic myths about life here. People want to read (and will pay for) stories that feed their fantasies about selling everything, dropping out of the rat race, getting on an airplane with a backpack, and writing a great novel in a bistro in Paris or restoring a French farmhouse in Normandy.
The stories we long-term residents of foreign shores share with each other bear no resemblance to the fantasies we tell or sell publicly. The True Tales are those we keep close to our chests to be whispered down wells at midnight, or we let slip only after imbibing copious amount of alcohol in the presence of those with whom we feel safe.
And that's a pity in so many ways.
Because if we look under and around the Fairy Tales we will find incredible complex stories about courageous human beings. These are people have experienced loss, grief, poverty, addiction and even madness abroad - a whole host of rich experiences that are difficult to talk about: broken relationships, illness, business failure, bankruptcy, mental institutions and even prisons. All hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of miles away from the place they used to call "home."
So why don't we write about these things? That's a complicated question that deserves some deep thinking. The best ones do usually in an oblique way and if you are a migrant/expat yourself you can read between the lines. But most don't go anywhere near an exposure of the self that would take the reader out of Disneyland and into the flawed world of real human beings. Which means that those books will never be more than the equivalent of Romance novels however well-written some of them are.
What do we need to push past to write honest and human expat memoirs? What all great writers have to push past: fear and shame.
Fear underlies much of our self-censorship. Some of that fear is justified. A book about living in France or Japan or any other country that does not follow the formula which extols the virtues of the adopted country and its native citizens might not sell so well. Worse, it could expose the author to all kinds of criticism - that he or she doesn't really understand the country and its people, that he or she is clearly not well integrated, that he or she is whining (and the last is usually followed by "And if he/she doesn't like it here, then he should just go home.") And in the very worst case it might cause pain to family, marital problems and even dicey situations with the authorities. It has not escaped my notice that expatriate authors who write nice safe things about the country they live in get rewarded for being Good Boys and Girls. Those who are critical and honest get crucified.
Shame is the other impediment. That sense that we aren't good enough and that we must hide our flaws and our mistakes. Perhaps we compare ourselves to others and think that we are "less than" in comparison. The marriage didn't work out, the spouse is abusive, the children are not bi-lingual, we can speak but can't read or write the local language, we have ongoing financial problems, our advanced degrees turned out to be useless where we landed, we drank, gained weight, offended people, embarrassed ourselves, were laughed at, got fired, fought with our in-laws, alienated friends, and suffered many indignities large and small in silence over the years or lost our tempers (and our minds) and did things we deeply regret.
This is the compost of which our lives are made. The ugly human stuff that ferments below the surface of the masks we wear and the pretty stories we write. This is the kind of expat memoir I hope to be brave enough to write one day. A True Tale that transcends fear and shame and is written with the advice of Arthur Penn firmly in mind:
“Tap into what you don’t want to say.”