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Shocking: I Discovered That I am Still French

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 travelling 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 mom 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 mom 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 worn 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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