Trip Status: “It’s Complicated”

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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.


About Author

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


  1. Well, then, leave Brittany for a while and go explore unknown places of France. You’ll be surprised of how adventurous this trip is going to be 🙂
    Safe travels!!

    • To be honest, we mostly come for my family so it’s hard to take the time to explore. It’s just… a different mindset 🙂

  2. I totally understand you! Somehow when I go back to France it’s like the insecure, unhappy teenage part of me comes out to play again. But the adult, confident and happy me takes over. I’ve accepted now that when I go back I will sometimes throw in some English words in the conversation, I will have a bit of an accent pronouncing certain words and I will altogether be a different person from the one I used to be.
    I guess it helps that my Scotsman never comes with me. I don’t need to translate and bend backwards to adapt to him as well. But yes, sometimes it feels like I’m constantly doing the splits.
    It’s similar when my in-laws come, his Scottish-ness comes out, the different accent and the different words I learned and used in Scotland come out and we all need to adjust.
    I guess it’s a good opportunity to take stock of how much we’ve changed, how living in a different culture has forged us, but also to see what part of the change is simply due to maturing?
    And yes, I too often wonder what it would have been like had I stayed.
    And I miss having an adventure, discovering something new to me. France certainly doesn’t hold the same wide eyed appeal to me as it does to people here.
    Pardon pour le roman 😉 Bonnes vacances!

    • When you mentioned the ‘unhappy teenager” in you, I had a bit of an epiphany. You know what, maybe this is partially why transitioning is difficult. After all, I was still a teen when I left home, and now I’m coming back as an adult. Mmm… interesting perspective. Thank you for that!

  3. I completely understand. I am always in the middle too and it sucks. Going home is always nice but stressful too.

    Hang in there ! Hopefully the trip goes well 🙂

  4. Oh man, I can relate to this post on so many levels! This past week/last four years have been so stressful that it’s been hard to find time to get excited about this trip. Plus, there is definitely the added trepidation of anglo husband vs French fam and all the fun that brings.
    In any case, bon voyage. Too bad we will be on opposite sides of the country. Would have been fun to meet in a café on the other side of the ocean.

    P.S. I have another blog for you to follow:

  5. Je suis d’accord avec Helene, revenir en France dans la maison parentale revient à faire un voyage dans le temps. Je ne le vis pas réellement car mes parents vivent dans une maison que je n’ai connue qu’adulte mais j’aurais probablement le même sentiment que vous sinon. Chaque voyage en France apporte pour moi son lot de stress et je dois généralement me faire un peu violence pour y aller. La dernière fois était bien meilleure, en partie parce qu’on l’a vécue vraiment comme des touristes. On a fait des trucs de touristes, pris des photos kitsch, testé les nouveautés, goinfrés de bouffe française. On a acheté des souvenirs et confié nos enfants aux bons soins de la famille histoire de prendre du temps pour nous. Et c’était parfait ainsi

    • Vivre la France en touristes, c’est génial. On a fait ça une année à Paris avec Feng, c’est probablement la fois où j’ai le plus apprécié la ville.

      J’ai l’impression d’être quand même partie “adulte” et mes parents me traitent comme une adulte, j’ai de la chance. Mais Nantes reste la ville où j’ai grandi, donc y revenir dans un autre contexte (celui de l’immigrée) est curieux.

  6. I share your feelings.
    I stressed out before I go back to Malaysia, and anxious when I was there.
    Since we speak dialect at home, my husband couldn’t understand what we were discussiong most of the time. I could have my family, my kids and my husband talking to me at the same time, and people got mad at me because I forgot what they asked. At the end of the day, I was trying to satisfy everyone, and tried to squeeze time for my own needs.
    This trip, I enjoyed many moments chatting with my mother and sister in the morning, while my husband and kids were still asleep. My mother would prepare any breakfast I like, we talked and laughed, until my French family woke up and the other roles took over. I didn’t even have mood to do shopping.
    I’m actually considering going back alone next time.

    • I feel for you, it’s hard… an the more different cultures and languages are, the harder it is. I’m happy to hear you were able to enjoy these stolen moments with you own family but yes, it’s difficult to switch roles, from mother to daughter, from wife to mother, from wife to daughter.

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