Shocking: I Discovered That I am Still French

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Ontario License Plate, Ottawa, April 2014

Ontario License Plate, Ottawa, April 2014

You never really stop being an immigrant.

Abroad, backpackers and locals love to ask where you are from. “Canada”, I’d reply—I was traveling with my Canadian passport. Sensing my accent, other Canadians usually assumed I was from Quebec. “Nope. Ontario. But I was born and raised in France,” I had to explain. Sometime, Nicaraguans thought I was a Tica, from Costa Rica—this was pretty funny.

When I was tired of explaining why I could speak French English and Spanish, I would say “Yo no soy de ningún lugar”—from nowhere.

Because occasionally, this is how I feel.

Don’t get me wrong. I feel Canadian. I am a Canadian citizen and no one ever questioned it here, we live in a very inclusive society. And after all, I have been a full-time resident since I am 21. I have just turned 31. I spent a big chunk of my life in this country.

Yet I am still French. Much like Feng is still Chinese.

And it took me having a kid to realize it.

We are raising a kid in a country none of us was raised in, and the exercise is harder than it seems.

“Do you need a car seat?” one of my friends asked when I was pregnant. I paused. Well… yes, I guess we would need one. “But he is going to be tiny!” Feng said. “Can’t we just like… hold him in the car?” “Uh uh,” I said. “It’s against the law here.”

I have never used a car seat. My mum held me when I was a baby and then I was allowed to ride in the open trunk of the family’s Fiat car. As for Feng… well, his parents didn’t have a car in communist China—his father rode a bike and, somehow, Feng and his mum fit on it.

But in Canada, safety is paramount. You need to buy a car seat, install the damn thing and strap your bundle of joy correctly.

I don’t mind. Safety does matter. We bought a car seat.

This was just the beginning of a long list of “oh, that’s how people do it in Canada?” moments.

Feng and I never had store-bought baby food. He was fed rice pudding and eggs, I was fed bread, ham and alphabet-letter-shaped pasta. Our parents never used baby monitors—we both grew up in tiny apartments, they could hear us just fine. We were both potty-trained early: in China, bathrooms were a hole in the ground, outside, and in the apartment I grew up in, the toilets were shared in the hallway. Food allergies must have been pretty rare because I had never really heard of them before coming to Canada, where many places ban peanuts and other allergy-triggering foods. We didn’t have outlets protectors—we were simply told not to touch them. We have never wore a helmet riding a bike. Feng clearly remembers running to cross the road in China (there weren’t as many cars back then) and I was walking to school alone around 7 years old.

Oh, by the way: I was born in 1983 and Feng was born in 1974. We aren’t that old. And we both grew up in large cities.

We can’t help it. We are raising Mark the Chinese and the French ways. We respect Canadian customs and abide by local rules, etiquette and laws. But at home, we use Chinese/French parenting skills.

I just can’t be a Canadian mother. This is not me.

In France, kids are seen as not-so-wise-yet adults in training, basically. French tend to consider kids should adapt to adults, not the other way around. As a result, kids are taught from a very young age to behave, to eat like adults, to be polite and to fit into society. You won’t see a lot of restaurants with “kid menus” in France—children are expected to eat whatever adults are having, or a simplified version of it (kids don’t usually love oysters…). Streets are not designed for strollers: parents carry babies but as soon as kids are old enough, they are expected to walk. Kids aren’t special snowflakes: they can usually wait and aren’t constantly the focus of everyone’s attention.

I can’t help applying this philosophy to Mark. For instance, I taught him to clean up his room before he sleeps: he puts all his toys away into a big box. Then we repeat the process in the living room (because I hate stepping on Lego). I help him, of course. But hey, it’s his toys. He knows that if he makes a mess, he has to help me clean up.

We haven’t used the stroller since Mexico. Mark can walk just fine, I’m not going to push him around. If he gets tired, we take a break somewhere.

I expect him to listen to me and to behave in public. I know he is young, but it makes sense to start now. I need to be able to trust him when we got out. He knows he has to wait for me when I pay at the cash register, that he has to hold my hand when we are in the parking lot or in the street. On the other hand, I let him explore the malls freely (I’m right behind him, obviously) where the environment is pretty safe.

I say “no” or “non” multiple times a day. He is fine with it. Kids need limits, right? I taught him to wait. The world isn’t going to end if he doesn’t get food/attention/toys right away.

I’m definitely a French mother and Feng is a Chinese father.

And this is the way it’s going to be.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

34 Comments

  1. All the things you mentioned about setting limits, saying “no” and expecting kids to fit into the adult world are things I really like about French parenting that the French seem to have managed to hang on to while the UK has lost them. If I ever have kids here, I’m happy that it will (hopefully still) be the norm to have those expectations.

    On the other hand, I wonder if some of the things you wrote about (baby food, car seats etc) aren’t more signs of changing times than changing cultures. I remember when it became the law that kids had to wear a seat belt in the back of the car, for example, and allergies definitely weren’t as prevalent as they are now. And there are some things in France that I hope will “catch up” with countries like the UK (and probably Canada too) – for example, I hate the way it’s considered normal, even among educated people, to smoke around tiny children here or have a few drinks before you drive home with your children in the back seat. It would be nice if we could always hold on to the good things and let go of the bad!

    • Good point about “changing times”. I left France in 2001 and I think I am a bit stuck in the 1990s… things may have changed over there too and I am not aware of it.

  2. I quite agree with Canedolia about the changing times rather than changing cultures because a lot of things you are talking about… I saw them in Paris before I left. Kid menus, 5 years-old in strollers, screams/cries/running in the restaurant… I think it’s just a trend. Parents are more “relaxed” and let the kid “discovers by himself”… Not all of them, fortunately.

    • Maybe I’m stuck in the past when it comes to French education! Only one of my French friends has a child so I always refer to the way we grew up… but that was, ahem, 30 years ago.

  3. A couple of years ago I was following the blog of an American French teacher living in the US (some place like Colorado) who had decided to only speak French to her nephew and her baby son and she was going to raise her son “French”. At first I thought this was neat, but then I realized you can’t raise a child to be a different culture from the one you grew up in. Just because you speak a language doesn’t mean you can raise your child as though it is your native culture. I think the woman had never lived in France as well, and in the end I stopped reading her blog because it just seemed so presumptuous of her.

    So good on you for recognizing that you’re raising Mark the French way and not worrying about trying to conform to something else.

    • Yes, I know exactly the family you’re talking about! I was surprised actually, because at first I thought they were American living in France. It makes little sense to educate your kid the “French way” when 1) You’re not familiar with French culture yourself 2) You don’t live in France or in a French environment. It’s not like French education is best… it’s just that I am more comfortable with it.

      • I was curious about this blog so I just looked it up. She did live in France for at least 2 years. It seems, at first glance, it is more about teaching them the language than making them “French”. Anyway, just wanted to say awesome blog Zhu, I love reading your posts.

  4. I’m trying to imagine how you rode in the trunk! How old were you?

    My parents never ordered from the kids’ menu for us, either. (We’re of Asian descent.) No chicken nuggets with a side of fries for us! Maybe that’s why I was never a picky eater.

    From what I’ve seen, laying down the rules early makes for nice kids and eventually likeable adults. The kids who are left to run roughshod just have it work against them later, because they’re less pleasant to be around as they get older. Who doesn’t want to be around a good kid? I know I love them.

  5. Moi j’ai grandi avec deux soeurs: au début le port de la ceinture n’était pas obligatoire (et en général, inexistante à la place du milieu), alors quand ça l’est devenu, j’étais assise entre mes deux soeurs et on me “saucissonnait” en croisant les ceintures qui étaient de chaque côté!

  6. Like other people have said, a lot of what you have said is due to the changing of the times.

    When I was a child in Ottawa, bike helmets were not obligatory. I think I was a teenager when the law was passed requiring children to wear bike helmets. I wore a bike helmet sometimes when I was around age nine and I only had a bike helmet because I thought it was cute and I had to talk my parents into buying it for me.

    My parents had four children and they crammed us all into our Chevrolet car (this was before the SUV and van craze). I think that cars back then were longer but not necessarily bigger inside. My younger siblings (aged 2-3) did not have car seats. If I remember correctly, back then babies had car seats, but as soon as the child was big enough to sit up properly (2 years old) they sat in the car like a normal person. I remember being in awe that some of my friends had car seats, but most of them didn’t really have a car seat – it was just a seat to make then sit higher so the seat belt fit them better. Now I know that even in France car seats for children are a requirement (European law).

    Let’s see, what did I eat when I was a child? Pancakes, grilled cheese sandwiches, sandwiches, eggs, KD were all foods I ate regularily for lunch. For dinner we normally had pasta (my parents are Italian after all!) and salad. I rarely ate bread unless you count sliced bread as being bread, haha.

    • This is fascinating to me, because it shows how much Canada changed as well, something I wouldn’t be aware of since I didn’t grow up here. I think that when it comes to parenting, Ottawa is a bit on the conservative side as well. Many government employees enjoy year-long mat’ leave and while this is a great perk (and I’m certainly not criticizing it!) it fosters some “holier-than-you” attitudes among mommies sometimes.

  7. Even if I got French citizenship, I would never be seen as French. I am an Italian citizen, but I never offer this information to anybody here because nobody here would accept me as Italian. That’s the beauty of Canada – if you become Canadian then others think of you as Canadian as well – no judgement calls.

    I really enjoyed your post because it led me down memory lane. It’s been so much fun reminiscing about old times. It was also really eye-opening to see how Canada is today vs. what I grew up with (remember, I haven’t lived there since 2002).

    Times have changed, but you are right, this is a difference between parents in Canada and parents in France. I think that the one thing that I like the most here is the value families put on eating together. In Canada there are so many families that just don’t eat together – everyone just eats whenever they want to, alone. Children grow up here into adults that want to eat with other people. A lot of children in Canada grow up to be adults that just go and pull out some food out of a huge fridge and fix themselves up something to eat.

    • I must admit that we were pretty bad at eating together as a French family! My parents were both freelancing so they had a flexible schedule. My brother and my sister are 6 and 10 years younger than me, so we had different school schedules (i.e. I was in high school when they were in middle school, so I was starting classes earlier, finishing later but I had a longer lunch break). So it was common to sit together at the table but my parents would have a coffee, I would eat a kebab I picked up on the way back from the lycée (I know, not the healthiest food!) and my sister would nibble on pasta while my brother ate the last croissant. 😆

  8. Ahh reading your post gave me sweet childhood memories, espcially riding in my parents’ car without carseat in Ivory Coast. I think i turned out fine. I completely agree with your comment regarding food allergies. My parents fed me EVERYTHING (i.e. beef tongue, snails, okra, etc…) when i was young and they had no worry about those and i plan on doing the same thing with mine.

    • Feng and I have no food allergy so I wasn’t too worried about Mark. But you will hear many many recommendations from your doctor… and some contradict each other’s!

  9. Salut, je te suis sur Twitter depuis quelques semaines et j’ai un peu découvert ton blog par hasard (j’avais pas vu le lien dans ta twitbio, quelle quiche!). Mon mari et moi sommes bientôt résidents permanents et nous comptons nous installer à Ottawa (on est Niçois, sauf notre fils qui lui est né à Vancouver, il est canaaaadiiiieeeenn comme il aime nous le dire). Juste pour te dire que j’ai aimé ton post, que c’est comme si j’avais pu l’écrire tant je partage ton point de vue sur les différences locales 🙂

    Notre déménagement est prévu pour cet été, ça va faire bizarre de revenir au Canada après avoir repassé deux ans en France le temps de reçevoir la confirmation de résidence, en tout cas, super blog!

    • Ben bienvenue sur le blog et rebienvenue au Canada 🙂

      Vous étiez au Canada pendant combien de temps avant la RP? Qu’est-ce qui a motivé votre retour en France et l’installation prochaine à Vancouver?

  10. J’ai fait mes études à Halifax, NS, et après on est allés à Vancouver pendant 3 ans, et là on va s’installer à Ottawa. Notre fils est né là-bas, et on a envie de se réinstaller au Canada pour la qualité de vie, les salaires plus haut et des meilleures conditions de travail (je suis prof)

  11. ok – You are super lucky if Mark waits for you! Cam won’t even listen and then she get put on time out. This is more her personality than hers. I love the adult parenting philosophy. Good on you, that’s awesome.

    • Mark might change but for now he is at the stage where he mostly wants to please us. Note that nothing works if I’m tired or if he is!

  12. I was thinking the same few days ago. I might live for 40 years in Africa, my kids will receive a french education. About parternal african education ? I can’t tell michoco’s father is missing all the time… I guess paternal african education starts after 7 years old !!!

    • Part of why I’m reading your blog (aside of the fact our sons are about the same age and that you write very well!) is that I’m always interested to see how other multicultural families living abroad adopt local customs… or not 🙂

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