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.
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.
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?