who are you when no one knows you’re smart?

I had the pleasure of having the best three-hour lunch last weekend with a really smart woman from Australia who’s recently landed in Paris wherein I talked and talked and talked and talked. I talked so much that at some point I noticed my throat was getting sore and that I might get hoarse if the conversation continued for much longer.

the topics were some of my favorites: privilege of all kinds, systemic inequities, federal mandates for maternity leave, immigration, cake, family, how interesting it is that some people want to see different parts of the world and others are perfectly content staying put.

here's the adorable swedish cafe where we had lunch. it looked like something straight out of an ikea catalog. it's in a cool area of paris called "le marais." {Café Suédois at the Swedish Institute. 11 rue Payenne.}
here’s the adorable swedish cafe where we had lunch. it looked like something straight out of an ikea catalog. it’s in a cool area of paris called “le marais.”
{Café Suédois at the Swedish Institute. 11 rue Payenne.}

it wasn’t just that I was bonding with a kindred spirit who shared my worldview. it was that we were speaking the same language, our mother tongue, and we understood each other perfectly. even her bits of Aussie slang that punctuated the conversation could be easily translated into some concept that I could easily wrap my head around.

I didn’t realize how much I had missed talking with native English speakers until I had the opportunity to speak with her. like, really speak with her. and listen to her and understand her. I knew when to nod and when to laugh and when it was my turn to say something back.

the past week in France, my third week here, has been challenging. the language barrier is starting to wear on me, even though I’m getting (slightly) better at expressing myself everyday. I feel stunted when I have to par down my extreme propensity for conversation and verbosity to a few words here and there that I have to say slowly and sometimes repeat in order to be understood.

I get frustrated that when I meet new people, whether a barista at a café or someone in my French class, I’m reduced to simple questions and commands that must make me sound like a really humongous toddler. my humor, my smarts, even my basic manners are null and void with this new vocabulary. (I swear it’s so hard to remember to say “please” when you’re trying to remember how to say “napkin.”)

my new Australian friend and I were talking about this very thing. communicating a different way than what you are used to really reminds you of all the things we rely on to make ourselves understood, not just the actual words we’re saying, but how we get people to quickly understand who we are.

I am a sarcastic word snob with an affinity for self-deprecating humor. I am smart. I am educated. I am a middle-class person with the time and money to pursue random interests and to volunteer. I am a health-conscious person who knows the language of juicing and gyms and grocery stores that sell organic honey. I am a socially conscious person who speaks of systems and isms and oppression. I am a black girl with roots in the country, the sort who likes to wear her hair in braids sometimes. I can tell people these things, or some of these things, through my jokes, through my retelling of stories or reiteration of stories I’ve read in newspapers or listened to on NPR, by the way that I know what’s supposed to be funny and what’s supposed to make me cringe and when to be like, “oh ma god, no!!!”

immersion in a different language and culture has shown us, we deduced over lunch, how much we rely on idioms, jokes, shared cultural knowledge and, yes, even unspoken acknowledgements of talent or skill or class or knowledge—sameness or differentness—to communicate to other people. to unconsciously instruct people on how we should be regarded.

unrelated to this post—I just think I look cute here. taken the next day at musée d'orsay. 1 Rue de la Légion d'Honneur.
unrelated to this post—I just think I look cute here. taken the next day at musée d’orsay. 1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur.

being a stranger in a foreign land without a firm grasp of the language has stripped all of that away from me and this week I’ve seriously been wondering who the hell I am. if no one knows that I’m smart, funny, bookish and wine-o-esque whitney who occasionally slips back into a Texas accent, then am I really that person? who am I instead, to these people with whom I can’t really communicate? how do I feel about myself when all of those good qualities that come with American class privilege are no longer affirmed by those around me?

has anyone else felt this way? will it pass?

14 thoughts on “who are you when no one knows you’re smart?

  1. It will pass. One day, you’ll wake up from a dream in which you were fluently doing your thing. Literally. You’ll dream in french. And you’ll look back and wonder where all time went. My sis took french for 4-5 years, and then went to live there. She cried the first 48 hours because they could not understand “her french” and her host family could not offer any assistance. She just had to take her time, as the french she had been taught in college, of course was just the basics of the french that her host family spoke, a language they spoke their whole lives.

    It’s wearing on you now, but the experience will just get sweeter with all the mistakes and fumbles as you persevere on your way to fluency and ease with the language.

    I’m loving reading about your journey…you are an inspiration.

  2. Whitney! Paris & the French in general are difficult to crack, socially, if you’ve ever spent longer than vacation time there. Being American is a blessing (we’re usually ok with making fools of ourselves in a effort to connect, be understood) & a curse (as a lot of Parisians assume at we’re all convention-going rubes). you seem to handle the duality with humor & self-awareness. Rock your time!

    I came across your blog last night (while whallowing in the self pity that usually accompanies an ill-conceived exit from a job that I hated…without a plan) & I love it/your writing. Eight months post-job I can’t even snag a barista gig & I’m wondering why I just couldn’t pick up & leave for parts unknown for a few months. While I contemplate I’ll continue tuning in; your adventures & your lovely pictures remind me to dream.

    PS – one of my fav cheap eats is Candelaria in Marais on Rue Saintonge. My French is non-existent but my kitchen Spanish is the bomb. It’s a great mix of cultures &, again, cheap. Enjoy!

    1. oh, thanks! sorry to hear about your job. you’ll find something soon—but it’s super annoying/stressfu/soul-sucking in the interim, I know. and thanks for the rec, I’m always looking for new places to try!


    i have been in germany for one month and i’m still stuck in the very basic conversation phase. it’s frustrating. i find that i gesticulate much more than usual in hopes that i’m getting across what i’m trying to say.

    i recently had a conversation with a german who, while travelling america, said she felt so stupid and helpless because she couldn’t even navigate anything more than simple conversations with strangers. how she would understand what’s going on but not being able to contribute to the situation or conversation. this is exactly how i feel. it’s so hard to not have the words to say what you really want to say and instead, as you say, reduced to simple words and phrases.

    hear! hear! to remembering to say please. i’m always forgetting because i’m just struggling to say, “pass me the mustard”.

    anyhow, i’m sure it’ll get better. it has to. if anything, know that you’re not alone! your post certainly made me happy to know that i’m not.

  4. Whitney: Just found your blog and I’m super excited to live vicariously through you!

    I love this post in particular– it instantly brings to mind everyone I’ve ever worked with as a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) tutor in the States. How frustrated they must be, trying to convey who THEY really are (ingenious, comedic, philosophical, etc.) in a language of which they have only a basic grasp. In my current job, as a manager in a call-center (so glamourous! lol) some of my employees complain about having to talk to people with “accents” on the phone, insinuating they are less intelligent than native English speakers. I like to remind these employees that hey, that customer’s English is a heck of a lot better than your [Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, whatever].

    So kudos to you for stepping out of the comfort zone of most Americans and immersing yourself completely in another culture and language! It speaks highly of your strength, bravery and imperical awesomeness! 🙂

    1. thanks! working in a lot of customer service jobs over the years I’ve interacted with a lot of non-native English speakers in the US and I completely agree with you—there is a level of contempt that is completely unwarranted. I am always infinitely impressed with people who are speaking another language and living in another country. even before I came here, I thought it must be the hardest thing to do.

  5. Whitney,

    I am really enjoying your posts as you are doing what I only wish I could do! Traveling to another country and not being able to communicate is one of my biggest fears. I will live through you in the meantime and enjoy your photos and comedic escapades.

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