My heart skipped a beat and then pounded so hard that I thought it was coming out of my chest. What had the pretty little French store clerk said? My worst nightmare!
It had started easily enough. The first question was whether I had my store-loyalty card, which I promptly handed to her, and then she asked if I wanted a bag, and I said no. I even got it when she said the cost was 19 euros and 20 cents, without looking at the register. But when I handed her the 20-euro bill, she said something I didn't get. I paused and could feel the people behind me in line staring, edging closer, and pictured them getting angry as I held up the line. The tension was palpable.
"Dad," my 13-year-old said, "she wants to know if you have 20 cents so she doesn't have to make change."
As we left the store, I realized that I had become one of those immigrant parents—the ones who can't speak the language and often depend on their children to interpret the world. We see them in the United States all the time, and I have often been exasperated by their inability to function. They are slow to follow instructions or to understand how to work the self-serve checkout line at the grocery store. No sympathy from me, and I was always projecting from my stance and visage the attitude that if they have come to live in the U.S., they should learn English and adapt to our culture. Why should we have to accommodate them and their lack of effort at acclimatization?
But here I am starting my third year in France and still unable to hold more than just the simplest conversation (in the present tense only). And not for lack of trying. The university holds special classes for foreign researchers to learn French, and I have taken other courses and studied on my own and with a private tutor, and yet, here I am. I am a white, upper-middle-class, well-educated male who has enjoyed the opportunities his status afforded him. I'm used to occupying a room as the alpha male and being someone to deal with. But now I walk into a room and have no idea what is going on. Is the coffee free? Do I kiss or shake hands or hug? Is it bonjour or bonsoir, and when does it become bonsoir and not bonjour? It is not in my nature to have to rely upon the kindness of strangers, but when you are not in control, and you know nothing, you have to do just that.
I was lamenting my lack of progress in learning the language to a French friend that I know. She is the smartest woman I have ever met and speaks French, German, Alsatian (a local dialect) and, of course, excellent English. She told me that she had felt the exact same way for the several years she lived in Vietnam. No matter how hard she tried, with all the resources available, she could not learn Vietnamese.
"It opens your eyes to the plight of immigrants," she remarked.
This made me wonder what it must be like being a Hispanic immigrant in the U.S. Many of them work long hours at minimum-wage jobs, trying to feed their families here and send some money back to the homeland. How would you ever learn English? How could you?
In "A Christmas Carol," Marley's ghost tells Scrooge, "It is required of every man, that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death." I'd better get started.
R.H. Coupe, a longtime resident of Mississippi, is currently living and working in Strasbourg, France, with his reluctant wife and youngest child.