In the past four years of my life, where I have three times over experienced what it means to be an “other,” someone who does not quite belong, as I have made close and lasting friendships with immigrants both in France and the United States, and as I myself have attempted to emigrate, I have never felt more like a foreigner than when going to the routine “visite d’OFII.” For those of you who might never have requested a “visa de long séjour” or spent more than three months in France on a visa, you won’t be very familiar with this procedure. In essence, all visa-holders coming from non-European Union countries are required to declare their presence on the French territory from the moment they arrive in their host city and have their visa stamped at customs.
Within the next three months, l’OFII (The French Office of Immigration and Integration, there’s one in each major French city) will at whim send you a convocation to attend one (or two, this time) rendez-vous in which you will get a shiny sticker on your passport that serves as your titre de séjour (residency permit). You must pay 58 € in addition to the 50 € paid when you originally requested your visa (not to mention the 70 € I paid for Campus France!), and you must undergo a standard radiograph examination (to make sure you don’t have TB) and a doctor’s visit. The whole process takes several hours, as they cram at least fifty people into each interview time slot, and you have no say over when the visit will be scheduled. If you fail to show up the first time, they will send you a warning with another time slot, and then if you still don’t show up, you will not be permitted back into France if you leave l’espace Schengen (the Schengen zone). And once you have your vignette, you are good to go for the remainder of your visa. This visit is only required for the first year of a visa/titre de long séjour.
However, if you leave France and come back with another visa de long séjour (as in my case), you are required to attend yet again this uncomfortable and lengthy medical/administrative visit, regardless of the fact that you might be in the same city at the same school with a folder full of radiographs and medical reports from your visit a year ago. Whatever, it’s another bureaucratic hurdle that I have to overcome in order to live in France.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t always feel like a foreigner when living in France. After all, I’m descended from white Europeans, even look relatively “European” (I’m small and brunette and blue-eyed), and I don’t wear the headscarf. I speak passably fluent French that for the past four years I have been trying to perfect, including my accent. Although when I speak, a Francophone would be able to identify me as a non-Francophone, he is often not able to pinpoint the country (USA) or even the language group (English-speaker), unless he is very familiar with certain idiosyncracies of the English language (ways of structuring our thoughts, a tendency to speak with the back of our mouth, and, in my case, a lack of consistency in pronouncing the French “u”). I always take it as a compliment that they might not know where I’m from, as a signal that my French has vastly improved. My friends tend to be cosmopolitan, prone to travel, and conscious of what it’s like to live, even briefly, in another country, or they are foreigners themselves, in which case I feel like co-conspirators. But occasionally, even among friends, I am made to feel like an un-invited guest, or as a representative of my country seemingly having all the answers for “why we do what we do” (as if I am responsible for all 312 million U.S. citizens or for the government’s actions worldwide). Being American abroad makes you both proudly conscious and ashamed of your heritage, with a schizophrenic need to justify something over which you have largely no control. Neither my Swiss second family nor my multinational group of friends understands why I don’t immediately volunteer “I’m from the U.S.!” upon being acquainted with a stranger or when buying vegetables. Apparently, being from a different country requires you to constantly wear a name tag that you must pull out on demand. And to think I wanted to “blend in.”
But despite my whining, I must admit that I really have no idea what I am talking about when it comes to being an immigrant. Sure, I have to deal with all the incredibly annoying bureaucratic requirements, but so does the majority of people who live in France. Sure, I have a little accent and grow red when I have to “defend” things that happen in the U.S. that I was never ok with, but I am not a real immigrant. I am a privileged white American who is here to study a Master’s in France, and I have the luxury of returning to my home country whenever (theoretically) I like. I chose to come to France, and I did not flee war, terror, poverty, lack of job opportunities, or famine, and France does not place a quota on the number of U.S. citizens who choose to study abroad. I had been separated from a loved one for only one year. I might face ignorance or bigotry because of my nationality, but I will not suffer from the implicit racism that most North African Arabs and sub-Saharan Africans perceive on arriving upon French soil. I speak French and English, the two most highly valued languages for finding a job in France.
As I sat for an hour in a small, cramped room at l’OFII last Friday, my e-reader in hand as I tried to pass the time, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone in the room, myself and one other excluded, was of African or Asian descent. (Europeans do not have to pass through l’OFII). As I snuck a look at some of the passports, I remarked that a disproportionate number of individuals came from former French colonies or “areas of influence” such as Senegal or Morocco. In the post-colonial era, why is it that so many former colonies still educate their young in French? Why is it that there are so few job opportunities or that so many students try to make a life in France instead of their own country? Were these all students? Here on exchange or for the full five to eight years of undergraduate-masters-doctors study? What does this all mean?
I’d appreciate your comments if you have any insight or would like to share your own experiences as an immigrant/emigrant abroad.