In January 2000, we decided to move abroad with Aliénor, our little 9-month old girl, to go to New York City. NYC, because Philippe's company offered him a job opportunity there. We still remember saying to one of our brother/brother-in-law: "if we ever start enjoying America, come right away and bring us back." He must have forgotten about it or else he does not really want us back!
January 2015. We are still in NYC, living in Park Slope no longer with one but with now four kids aged 14, 12, 9 and 8.
During the past 15 years, we have evolved, we have changed. We became different, no longer entirely French but still not completely American.
The first years
The first years, when we envisioned staying in NYC for a short or medium term, we tried to blend into local culture, and wanted to have nothing to do---let's admit it---with French people.
In this context, we welcomed our children's first words in English with a mix of amusement and pride.
15 years later, as the short term expatriation turned into immigration and maybe even naturalization, the challenge became different.
Why remain French?
It is now time to pass down our French culture to our children. Why? Is it really necessary to know that we do not plan on returning to France any time soon? As French immigrants in the USA and probably soon citizens of both countries, wouldn't it make more sense to put the French aside and focus only on the English so that we give our children a better chance to get into the best universities here in the USA? The answer to this question is very personal. It comes from deep down inside and each parent gives it a different answer taking into account their personal history and the circumstances of their departure.
For us, both French citizens, it is important to pass down our French culture for it is about creating a cultural filiation and at the same time constructing a family's identity.
It is a hard task because where in France it is done automatically, here we are alone with---or rather even "facing"---our children. It is also a real challenge as we have no map to follow, we are like skiers in fresh snow. The answer to his challenge must be very different for Franco-American couples where one spouse is born American. In this situation, the Americanization of the children is not building against the couple but in continuity of the couple.
Our situation is not very common as we know few immigrants who are no more expatriates and who have decided to settle in the USA for a long term. Our situation relates more to that of the French colons in Canada or the British in the 13 Colonies! Granted, a situation which is becoming less and less unique knowing that more than one million French of age 35 or less have left France for good, many of whom come to live in the USA.
Bilingualism and the school saga
When one speaks of expatriation, the question of bilingualism always comes back to the surface. But if great oral skills are necessary, this is only a small part of the challenge. One should also focus on written skills and the joys of verbs and grammar, history, literature, cooking, manners, all these little nothing that actually blend together to shape a population and at the end of the day participate in the building of a national identity.
In NYC, French citizens are not left alone. We have access to private French schools such as the LFNY (Lycee Francais de NY), the Lyceum Kennedy or the ISB (International School of Brooklyn). These schools are however very expensive and this is often an issue for French immigrants, as opposed to expatriates since the schools' tuitions are often included in the well known "expatriates' packages". In the past 10 years we also have seen a development of the bilingual offer through the dual programs developed in NYC public schools. The success of these 100% bilingual programs is so great that the waiting lists are getting longer every year with a shortage of qualified teachers.
Finally, outside of these schools, there are also some after schools programs which offer various cultural activities in French such as acting at the LLS (Language and laugher Center) in Brooklyn or at the FIAF (French Institute Alliance Française) in Manhattan. Such programs are however mostly targeting a population who is learning French as a second language. The few cultural classes (such as French History) for French native speakers that are offered throughout the city outside of the French or bilingual schools are often canceled because unfortunately too few kids register.
Keeping a strong connection with France
For us, the challenge is harder because our kids go to a regular NYC public school.
However, Philippe's commitment towards the French community here in NYC as a Franco-American lawyer helping mid-cap French companies or entrepreneurs settle and develop in the USA, and as a substitute member of the AFE (Assembly of the Français de l'Etranger), as well as Aurelia's work as a teacher at the FIAF Alliance Française here in NYC (where she is in charge of the program for bilingual young kids and teenagers), help us better grasp the difficulties and issues of maintaining the French culture in our own family.
And of course there is France in France! We know that French vacation in the summer with grandparents is essential. It is then time to catch up with the French curriculum and finish the French work books as every single detail of language and culture matters and this dual learning process requires time and energy from both the child and the parents. We, with the help of tutors, teach them as much as we can---not without occasional resistance---to appreciate Prevert, enjoy Moliere, sing the Marseillaise and we check every once in a while that the "ouch" never takes over the "aie".
In this respect it seems that our kids raised outside of France are more French than some French kids, a little old fashioned for sure, as they are raised in our childhood's France of the seventies/eighties.
It is our children to construct their own future
For our still young kids this biculturalism is very simple and straightforward, in particular in a society as diverse as it is in NYC. For them, French remains their dominant language---they speak to each other in French---and France is the dream country of the cousins and freedom of summer vacations. When asked, they say that they feel 100% French and 50% Americans but they really do not give it much thought. One day, we heard Antoinette answer to someone asking her where she was from (as she was speaking to her older sister in French) that she was "French from New York of course!" Aliénor, aged 10, just finished a paper on "how knowing two cultures open the world to me".
Let's face it, it is very likely that with the kids growing up, we will encounter obstacles on our path, for the obvious reason that our children will have less time for the French curriculum. But their French culture will already be part of them and it will be entirely up to them to decide what to do with it.
Alceis Global Nomads thanks Aurélia, teacher at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York and Philippe, lawyer in the bar of Paris and NY.