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Trip Status: “It’s Complicated”

My alarm clock, Ottawa, July 2017

I’m no sure why I always seem to be taken by surprise by stuff I plan. It’s not so much the fact planned events actually happen but rather that they are already happening. Where did time go?

I spend my days focused on the multitude of tasks that have to be accomplished, from doing the laundry to editing reports, from invoicing clients to putting Mark to bed. The big picture fades into months, weeks, days, hours going by, erased by the minutiae. There are days when the routine makes me want to scream. I feel like I’m going to go crazy if I have to buy yet another loaf of bread, give Mark yet another bath, turn my computer off at the end of the day and start it all over again in the morning.

Yet, this time, the perspective of breaking out of the routine made me anxious.

“Are you done packing yet?” my family emailed me five days before the transatlantic trip.

“Not even considering it until the night before,” I typed. “Otherwise, I won’t have anything to wear.” I’m apparently noticeable enough, walking around naked won’t help my case.

The truth was, I wasn’t mentally ready yet to tackle this summer trip to France. If I could give it a status, like on Facebook, it would be “it’s complicated.”

When I started to mention we were going to France, my Canadian clients and acquaintances sighed with envy because Europe is that sophisticated, historical place where women in Chanel dresses flirt with men in Armani suits. “Lucky you!” fellow expats also said because no matter how much we like Canada, there is always stuff we miss from home, including relatives.

I should be excited but strangely, I’m mostly stressed out. When we go backpacking, I feel alive again. I’m inspired, happy, impatient, scared as well before jumping into the unknown because for a while, it’s going to be Feng, Mark and I against the world. But there is no sense of unknown and discovery here. I know exactly what I’m going to find in France, a neutral statement encompassing both aspects of life I miss and the reasons why I left without looking back 16 years ago.

Even though I visit fairly often, I’ve been gone for a long time—almost half of my life. And if leaving at the end of the holiday is heartbreaking, transitioning from Canada to France isn’t smoother.

When Feng spends more than half an hour with his parents, we tend to have an argument in the following few hours. It usually goes like this: step 1, my in-laws suggest, recommend or do something we don’t need or approve. Step 2, Feng more or less patiently explains why XYZ isn’t right for Mark, him or us. Step 3, Feng comes home stressed out or report on the discussion. Step 4, I disagree with my in-laws who nonetheless will do whatever they decide because hey, who cares about our opinion, it’s irrelevant.

“I’m sick of it, Juliette! You say something, my parents say something, and I’m always stuck in the middle!” Feng can shout at any point.

While this statement is generally correct and I don’t have a solution (except “ignore your parents”, but it’s not going to happen), I know how he feels.

In France, I’m also stuck in the middle. I’m stuck between English and French, between Canadian and French parenting styles, between various family dynamics, between cultures and between stereotypical roles. To my parents, I’m French. To Feng, I’m Canadian. Don’t ask what I am or who I am because after a few hours in France, I have no idea myself. “I’m fine,” “everything is okay!” I repeat like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have to be fine. This is the closest I’m ever going to get to a party thrown in my honour—after all, I’m the one who brought Feng into my family, Mark into this world.

I understand everyone and I can predict all these cultural gaps but there isn’t much I can do except trying to bridge them the best I can. And when these gaps are too wide, I have to pick a side because I can’t be both French and Canadian at the same time.

It’s much easier to be who I am when both of my worlds don’t collide. When they do, it’s a strange exercise of switching identities back and forth. In my head, I picture myself in a hallway. The door on the right opens onto France, the one on the left leads to Canada. It doesn’t matter which one I choose as long as I close it behind me. But when I’m in France with Feng and Mark, I open a door, close it, step out in the hallway, open the other one on and on and on again until at one point, I lose a key or slam one of the metaphorical doors behind me.

It’s not just a trip, it’s an existential journey because I’m Feng’s wife, Mark’s mother, because I’m also a sister, a grand-daughter, a niece, and because deep down I’m still a little girl who wants to make her parents happy and proud. It’s harder to connect if I’m Canadian because my family can’t relate to this part of my identity yet it’s impossible for me to go back to France as if I had only been away for a couple of weeks.

So I compromise, explain, translate, excuse. And then, there are the unspoken words—what if? What if I had stayed in France? What if I had taken a different path? What if I hadn’t developed this compulsive need to explore the world, picking up a Chinese-Canadian husband and giving birth to a Chinese-French-Canadian kid in the process?

In the midst of all that, I don’t want to lose myself, whoever I am.

Shit. Now I really have to pack.

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