Tuesday, May 31st, 2011
Real Intercultural Family in France: German, French and English
Real intercultural-family Don, Matthias, Metrice and Maia
Welcome Metrice and Don!
Where are you from?
Metrice: I am American. I grew up in Silver Springs, Maryland (a suburb of Washington D.C.).
Where do you currently live?
Which countries have you lived in since you’ve been together?
U.S., Germany (3 years), France (9 years)
How did you meet?
Metrice: In high school (in 1987). I went to a pilot French immersion public school growing up. I started in fifth grade and continued on in through high school. Don transferred into my high school after he and his Mom arrived in the States. He was the foreign, exotic kid and he was in my French class. I was charged with the task of trying to get to know him because all my friends had a crush on him.
Don: Until I arrived, she was the best in French class and I kicked her out of that spot. So we had a sort of friendly competition. At some point I asked Metrice for her phone number and she shot me down. Eventually, she gave me her phone number and not long after we were inseparable.
At the beginning of college, we had a break in our relationship for two years when I went back to Germany on my own to find myself. After a while we got back together and we thought about who is going to go where. Should I go to the States, should she go to Germany? She was doing her Master’s at the time so I decided to come back to the States. I surprised her on her birthday.
What are some of those things?
Don: Walking down the street people would sing Jungle Fever as we passed or yell down the street after us using all kinds of foul language. Metrice was even grabbed violently by the arm on one occasion. We’ve experienced difficulties finding apartments; the apartment would be already rented when Metrice showed up for a viewing but still available when I would inquire.
Metrice: And from both sides of the coin.
Have you felt more negativity towards your interracial relationship in the U.S. or in other countries?
Don: We were in Philadelphia and Philly is segregated in many ways. Being a mixed couple in Philly 20 years ago was not necessarily a popular thing. In the States, it can be a little more overt and hostile. In Germany, people stared more; they were not outwardly aggressive. No one grabbed us or sang songs.
Metrice: We could have given out autographs. People were more curious.
Don: In Montpellier, where we are now, it’s multicultural and young so we don’t stand out at all. We still get looks from occasional older folks when Metrice comes down the street because she has locks. Being followed in stores, that definitely still exists. It’s probably more directed towards the Muslim/North African community but Metrice still gets it too.
Metrice: I’ve had people sit next to me and ask to touch my hair. That doesn’t bother me as much as someone moving their seat on the bus away from me.
Don: In France, people don’t mind speaking their minds and shy away from being “politically correct”. If someone says things that are somewhat controversial, they are viewed as having “a grande geule” or a big mouth. There is a certain pride that comes with speaking one’s mind. There’s a scandal right now because some soccer coaches want to reduce the number of minorities on the soccer teams. A lot of people are defending them for speaking their minds. Prejudice is sort of tolerated.
Metrice: What Don is not saying is when he leaves the comfort of our family zone, he’s no longer that honorary black person as we call him. People say anything and everything around him, from ignorant to racist stuff. You’re in a position at that point where you think, do you say something or do you not. He’s of the mind where he speaks his mind.
How old are your children and where were they born?
Metrice: Matthias is 14 years old. He was born in the U.S. but we left the States when he was 2.5.
How did you go about the adoption process in France? Through the French or the American system?
We adopted her through the American system. We tried to start through the French system but as soon as we discovered that our dual-nationality gave us the option to adopt through either, we chose the American system. At the time, in France, the system was negatively oriented and they find ways to disqualify you. Even if you qualify, it can take over five years. Plus the system is not very supportive.
It was hard though, because we were in France. We had to educate the American agency about what to do. Despite that, they still helped to walk us through the process from the American side of things. We were able to find an American social worker in Germany and she worked with us to do the home study and follow up in France.
What passports do your kids hold?
Don: Matthias (and us parents) have dual French and American. Maia for now has the U.S. and Ethiopian—the process of French citizenship is complicated and lengthy.
What language(s) do you speak together?
What languages do you speak to your children in?
Metrice: I speak English and Don speaks German. We’ve left French for the outside world.
What language do your children communicate in?
Metrice: Matthias is completely trilingual. And Maia is starting. Because she was adopted, we waited a little longer before we started introducing French. We would also like to introduce Amharic but we’re limited to where we live right now. We definitely want to see if we can find someone for that. There’s not much of an Ethiopian population in the South of France.
What religion is your family?
Metrice: Me personally, I can’t really claim a religion per se, but I feel very spiritual.
Don: Metrice is a hippy.
Metrice: Probably true to some extent.
Don: She wears birkenstocks and all that stuff….I don’t have a religious affiliation either. I would say the one philosophy—I call it a philosophy at least—that speaks to me the most is Buddhism. But I don’t really follow anything per se.
Metrice: And one of our kids has a Catholic school education—we’re open. The wonderful thing about the Catholic system in France is it’s much more open. You have all types of kids—Jewish, Muslim. It’s not like Catholic education in the U.S.
Don: They don’t require the kids to follow religious studies. There is religious instruction in the school but if kids don’t want to follow it, they don’t have to. Also they have kids of different denominations in the school. I remember one incident where Matthias spoke out in class about the popular belief of Jesus being the most important religious person. And everyone in class disagreed with him. But the teacher supported him. So it’s Catholic but open to other thoughts and religions.
Do you have an overall good perception of the French educational system?
Metrice: We’ve learned to tolerate it. We don’t necessarily have a positive view of French education. When our son was younger, we were able to supplement what he was doing in school with more experiential fun activities outside of the classroom. Overall, we don’t think the French system is creative or helps children to think outside the box.
We’ve also had to learn a lot to advocate for our son in the French system. It’s a very elitist system. If you have the means to support your kids and if you know the system you can navigate it. But if you don’t, then your options may be limited. It’s a tough system to navigate and you need to learn a lot to be able to navigate it.
Don: It’s like learning under Napoleon. It’s very much about memorizing and negative reinforcement. For example, you have a grade scale of 0 to 20 in general. If you get a 10 out of 20, you get a good grade. Reaching 20 is virtually impossible. Average is actually a good thing. The feedback and the comments are very much restricted to where you failed, what you don’t know and what you did wrong versus the Anglo approach of “you were half way there and that’s great.” In the French system, not everyone is believed to be capable of being a rocket scientist or an engineer, and the process of weeding kids out starts fairly early.
What have been your major challenges as an intercultural family?
Metrice: From my perspective, because we are so different, there’s a sense that we don’t really have a place that we fit that people are going to get us. Our block, here in France, is pretty tight knit and class has a big role. If you don’t fit in with that right peg, it can be really difficult to break open the door and boundaries. I don’t feel like we fit in the U.S. in a lot of ways either, unless you meet families in similar situations, otherwise you’re explaining yourself all the time. It’s not a criticism towards other people because you don’t really get it yourself until you go through the experience yourself. You sometimes want people around you that understand. Your magazine is wonderful because you’re addressing a need.
Don: For me it’s more when I’m out and about with my family, you wonder are they staring because they’re curious cause we’re foreigners, cause we’re a mixed couple or what.
Also, innate things that are cultural that are obvious to people within that culture but difficult as an outside person trying to understand. There are things that Metrice never understood about me but understood once we lived in Germany. For example, to ask someone how something works or ask directions. Metrice would say, “Go and ask,” and I would say I want to try to figure this out on my own. It wasn’t really a male thing. My experience in Germany was that people were not quite so easy to help or give directions (which is my perception and generalized–not necessarily true of everyone, we met some really great people in Germany!). It wasn’t a male thing.
Metrice: I would highly recommend for anyone married to someone from another country to spend time in their country.
Don: Another example (of an innate cultural difference) is the way you sit at the table—Americans have one hand under the table. In France that’s considered rude. Things like this that are obvious and evident for one person from one culture but to another, it can be a little frustrating.
Metrice: Also, from a child’s perspective, one of the risks of growing up in this weird existence is our kids mature in very different ways. It can be hard for them to find their own network and find people that get what they are about. Matthias is not really French but he speaks perfect French. Even though his French is perfect, it doesn’t mean he understands all the cultural nuances that can come up. All the kids in his class think it’s really funny when he sometimes misses these nuances. So kids have to a strong sense of themselves and confidence.
As a parent, how do you raise a kid with self-confidence and a strong sense of themselves?
Metrice: When we moved to Germany, we lived in an area without a lot of diversity or people of color. We worked really hard to make sure there were books, pictures, toys and figures that were ethnically diverse. We had books from Sesame Street about how people are different. We talked about a lot of things. We got videos, like Roots, and watched this as a family. We had The Cosby Show series. So it was the things we did to constantly keep it present. I think from a racial standpoint, we were ok. It’s been a constant effort to make sure that the self-confidence and all that stuff is there. We talk about a lot of things and that makes a difference.
Don: We also make sure to observe U.S. holidays like Thanksgiving, and invite friends. For Christmas, we would have Christmas on the evening of the 24th, which is what I grew up with, and the morning of the 25th which is what Metrice grew up with. We’ve tried to fuse some of the traditions of the States with the country we are living in.
Metrice: We’ve also gone into his school and baked cookies on Valentine’s Day, for example. In terms of trying to make sure Matthias wouldn’t be ashamed of being American or ashamed of being different, a lot of kids are ashamed to speak English in public. In fact he gets upset with me if I try to speak French with him in public. English is part of what we do together. I think we’re lucky because I know parents who have really tried hard too and it turned out differently.
What are some of your cultural differences?
Metrice: Oh wow—we have a lot but over the years we have kind of negotiated them. The Christmas thing was a biggy for a while. The past five years we’ve been really neutral about it. For me, it was like I just can’t do the night thing, I’m sorry. And Don was like no, I have to have my feast. The other one was nationalism—the whole pledge of allegiance and all that.
Don: Coming from Germany 20 years ago, being nationalistic or patriotic or however you want to put it, was a delicate subject matter. Coming to the U.S. and the whole pledge of allegiance thing in the morning, standing up at every ballgame and sports event and singing the national anthem was quite shocking to me because it was frowned upon at that time in Germany. At the time that was tough for me to understand and tolerate. I’ve softened my views on that now.
Metrice: When Don and his Mom first arrived, it was very much an American bashing—they were in culture shock when they arrived. I became the “why do all Americans do this” target for all things driving them crazy about the U.S. Now in Europe, if I have a complaint about something, there’s a tendency for each of us to overly support our history and culture and what we think is right about it. But over the years, we’ve softened some.
Don: Another thing that was weird to me when I came to the U.S. was having political discussions or even arguments, there were certain subject matters you weren’t supposed to bring up at a dinner discussion like politics or religion or what’s the other one?
Don: In Germany or France, you can have heated discussions about everything and it’s just fun. Metrice would tell me I couldn’t say that.
Another major difference is I would describe myself as more of a grumpy European with the negativity thing whereas Metrice has more that American optimism that you can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it. That’s something that will never change about one another.
What have been your greatest joys as an intercultural family?
Metrice: Because of where we live, not far from the French or Italian border, we travel a lot. We go to Germany quite a bit. It’s kind of nice that the world is a smaller place for us in some ways. I love the time we spent in Ethiopia—we spent a week or two—and we plan on going back. Now we’ve opened up to another culture and that’s normal for us. I never imagined my life when I was 13-14 that I would be here.
Don: Because of how I grew up, my family really makes the most sense for me. I grew up in Germany with two parents from different cultures but grew up with a single parent, and her being French. I never fit into German culture completely or French culture completely. So being in this kind of relationship makes the most sense because it allows me to continue viewing things from an outside perspective and from a broader and global perspective.
Also, I notice when we travel, people would speak languages we didn’t understand and it didn’t make me feel weird or uncomfortable because I’m used to those circumstance through relationships—being exposed to something you don’t understand that is radically different from how you view the world. It’s not threatening; it’s interesting. It allows you to experience the world in different ways and different layers. It really opens doors to a lot of perspectives.
Metrice: It’s really fascinating to watch our son growing up within our unique context. When we arrived in Ethiopia, for example, for some of the American families it was very shocking. It was interesting to see my son just rolled with it—he was very at ease and very comfortable. On the flip side, he takes all of this for granted and it’s his norm. We have to remind him that he lives a very privileged life. I like that our world is getting smaller and our kids are experiencing something incredible. It’s neat to be in a situation where you are constantly learning and having new experiences.
Thank you Metrice and Don!
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