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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Babar to Burkina: All for the Love of La Langue Française

This native Delawarean who is now a French citizen says that despite her life-long love affair with the French language, she has come to prefer French-speaking Africa to France.

We both grew up in Delaware — a state so small some people have never heard of it — and have been friends for decades. Were there any early indicators that we would one day be candidates for seeing the elephant? Well, we were both outsiders in high school — nerdy, maladjusted. You and I had a children's birthday party business, so we were more likely to be putting on puppet shows in clown suits than hanging out at the mall. But that didn’t necessarily destine us for international adventure. My family went to Canada on vacation — that was about it. And my mother had taught French, but for that very reason I rebelled against studying it. I wanted to do something different so tried Latin.

What made you change your mind? I took a French course in 10th grade and realized that I loved it. Maybe it was easy because of studying Latin first.

You've been to France countless times for prolonged visits, but have you ever really made a home there? My longest stay in France was the nine months I spent teaching English at the University of Bordeaux when I was a grad student. But even though I've never been an expat like you or others featured in this blog, I've been immersed in French culture for years. Now I live in Washington where I teach college-level French and travel to France at least twice a year. I also have French citizenship.

What motivated you to become officially Gallic? Marriage at the time, and now speeding through the EU line at immigration! And if you travel a lot, it's helpful to have a non-American passport, just in case we’re at war and hated by the rest of the world...

You’re immersed in French culture, as you say, but you don't seem all that attached to the country. I have an intellectual and emotional attachment to the language, but not so much to France itself. Years ago, my first serious relationship was in France, but with an Algerian — interestingly, I chose to be with someone who was also an outsider. Then later, I knew I wanted to marry someone who speaks French as the language is so important to me, but I didn't necessarily want to live in the country.

Is it fair to say that something has kept you from giving yourself over to France — from seeing the elephant in its entirety, wrinkles and all? Yes, I think I prefer making frequent travels, so that I can keep up with changes in the language and culture, rather than actually living in a place. That way I can also avoid the Rip Van Winkle syndrome when coming back to the U.S.

Would you live in France now if the opportunity arose? No, if I were to live somewhere else, it would be French-speaking West Africa. It's more interesting, and, paradoxically, I feel more comfortable with the people even though I am more of an outsider than in Europe.

Tell me more about your interest in Africa. When did it start? I was teaching French at Johns Hopkins SAIS where a number of my students were in African Studies or were Africans themselves. I tutored a student from Kenya, who got me interested in studying some Swahili. Again, it was language that first drew me in, though not French. Post-SAIS, I have worked for Cohen & Woods, a consulting firm which has done a lot of work in French-speaking African countries.

How many African countries have you visited? Six — one English-speaking, Zimbabwe; and the other five French- or Arabic-speaking: Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, and Senegal.


Where have you stayed the longest? In Dakar, Senegal's capital city, for a month.

Is Senegal your favorite? No, I prefer Burkina Faso — maybe because it's more like Delaware! The Senegalese remind me of New Yorkers: they tend to be more aggressive, hustlers. Whereas the Burkinabè are calmer, less in your face. I feel more comfortable there.

So, have you seen any African elephants? I've seen lots of monkeys but no elephants yet. I do have an elephant obsession, however, but it comes from my interest in France, not Africa. My aunt bought Babar the Elephant books for me and my brother as kids. Later, I started collecting Babar stuff: original watercolors, posters, books, stuffed animals... I love the illustrations and the old French cursive in the books.

Can you tell me any Blind Man's Tales — stories that demonstrate the differences among American, European, and African perspectives? An obvious one is the way they respond to the news that a prominent person is having an affair. At President Mitterand's funeral, his wife and his long-term mistress stood side-by-side at the grave, accompanied by their respective children. That would never happen here with American puritanism. Many Africans, even if they are Christians, accept and practice polygamy — traditional culture trumps imported religion. I have a Burkinabè friend who has 64 siblings because his father has I-don't-know-how-many wives. And of course Europeans and Africans were united in their ridicule for our attitude during the Clinton-Monica period.

Africa is a mystery to most Americans, though perhaps the World Cup will help to dispel that. What is the biggest cultural gap? Americans will open up to total strangers, whereas Africans are often extremely private. I have a Burkinabè friend who told me she had a boyfriend — but didn’t want me to tell her sister, even though the two of them are close. I know other African families where several sisters sleep in the same bed but will not undress in front of each other. Americans are puritanical, but Africans have more taboos.

Do you have any Treasured White Elephants — something useless or bizarre that you've collected from your travels that you're attached to nonetheless? I've been collecting traditional cooking utensils from West Africa. One of them, a kind of primitive whisk, is hanging on my kitchen wall. A Senegalese broom — a bunch of straw tied together with a bit of dress fabric — does a better job on the kitchen floor than our industrial ones.

Will you celebrate 4th of July, le quatorze juillet, or both? I don’t do much for either, but I will put out a French flag on Bastille Day but no American flag on the 4th. And a Québecois flag went out on June 24th for la Saint-Jean.

Lastly, let's talk food. If you had to design a menu for the summer season consisting of a favorite dish from America, France, and Africa, what would it be? Grilled capitaine (fish) kebabs from Africa, with spicy sauce on the side. A French puy lentil salad with garlicky vinaigrette. And my mom's sour cherry pie for dessert. She uses Crisco (yes, it still exists!) so I avoid the crust, but the filling is wonderful!


ML Awanohara said...

My dear Beth, in the interval since we had our conversation and this Q&A got posted, I've been sniffing around trying to figure out where exactly we can place you in the complex social structure of "seeing the elephant" types. The reason for my confusion? One the one hand, you possess one of the necessary qualifications for becoming a hero of seeing the elephant: i.e., language mastery. On the other hand, you haven't been an expat--and therefore haven't paid your dues.

Still, I'm open to the idea that maybe you've been cleverer than the rest of us. You've figured out a way to see the elephant without pulling up roots, I guess because you were smart enough to realize that the grass(lands) weren't any greener elsewhere, as well as to anticipate the challenge of going home again after abandoning your native land--the so-called Rip Van Winkle effect.

But for you to prove that you've spotted the elephant on your prolonged travels, I think we need more evidence that you've become one of those odd hybrid personalities that are the unmistakable mark of a long-term expat.

So, just as I used to invent games when we were kids, how about if I pose a kind of "Princess and the Pea" test of your creds as an American-French-West African mix.

Can you tell me: how did you respond to the news that the French soccer team had imploded at the World Cup? For me, the story was just bizarre, but did the French side of you understand it? And how about your French-speaking African portion?!

Elizabeth said...

My first reaction was: typical French! The insult -- which I won't repeat here -- was typically French. The essentially going on strike was a typical reaction. (I tell my students that striking is one of the national sports!) The reaction of the French public to the incident and the defeat seemed related to the general discomfort with matters of race or immigration. When les Bleus were victorious in 1998 (I think?), the dream of a France in "black, blanc, beur" (black, white, Arab)seemed closer. This time around, the team wasn't seen as "French" but rather as French "issus de l'immigration" -- code for minorities and not "real" French. But the French were also irritated with the government for not being more invested in le football.
The insight I would offer from my "African" side, is more from the Muslim perspective gained in Africa and in studying Arabic here. As with the incident a few years back when Zidane head-butted the Italian player after the insult to his sister, this time around, Domenech's reaction (although he's not Arab or Muslim)would have been easily understood by Muslim Africans. Mothers are close to sacred in Islam (thus the frequent mention of the Virgin Mary in the Qu'ran)and if you value certain body parts or even your life, you'd best not insult them!

ML Awanohara said...

I agree, understanding the art of insulting is a rare and valuable insight! It means you've seen not only Babar but le barbare, no mean accomplishment.

You mention French discomfort with "issus de l'immigration." That reminds me of something else I've been mulling over since we conducted this interview.

I'm wondering, is it possible for a person to learn the language so well that the elephant loses much of its allure--has that happened to you with France? (Though you still have your beloved Babar, bien sur...unless you've had to overlook politically incorrect traits in him as well? Jamais de la vie!)

Conversely, are people who don't master languages (either because they are lazy or don't have a facility) more prone to seeing the elephant in the original sense of the term? Precisely because they don't understand everything that's going on around them, they find it easier to sustain a sense of mystery, romance, and adventure (though they are not immune to disappointment, as I've tried to show with this blog).

As you know, I embarked on my overseas travels without bothering to master foreign languages first. No doubt I was emboldened by starting out in Britain. Like most Americans, I naively assumed that I spoke the same language--only to find I had to learn how to speak (and esp write) British English, an experience akin to becoming bilingual.

Then I went to Japan and tried to learn Japanese on the fly while working various jobs. Perhaps perversely, I thrived on the daily challenge of having to figure out my strange surroundings. What is more, not having a grasp of language made it easier to settle there, at least initially. I was given license not to fret about things that otherwise would have concerned me (and later did), such as racism (the Japanese are not unlike the French in this respect!) and government inertia. It was almost like being a kid again.

I say this with some trepidation -- I'm aware of your formidable language skills (and the fact that you are training others to follow in your footsteps) -- but can a rush to become familiar with language breed a surfeit of contempt? Or am I just being slightly silly and glib, by way of covering up the fact that I don't like studying verb endings?!

Amber said...

First, let me say, I really enjoyed reading this post as an American-expat in France. For the past 3 years, I've been living in Paris, with my French husband and - though I'm not a francophile by nature - I've warmed to the culture and society.

In just thinking about issues of intolerance and, dare I say, racism in France, these are discussions frequently debated by my husband and I. As a number of citizens here (though not all), he has argued that it's not a problem of identity or racial inequality but rather cultural assimilation. An old argument which I believe becomes more and more stale and, unfortunately, is often incorporated. In terms of the World Cup, I have not heard once from local Parisiens any racial slurs or ethnic rants against the French team, simply words of disappointment at the ridiculous behavior of both the team and Domenech - who seriously should have been fired 2 years ago. However, I have heard completely inappropriate ethnocentric rants from French politicians which causes me to believe that, perhaps, the problem lies largely in the representation. Unfortunately, the voices who are heard around the world are those highlighted in the media which are often top-down. While living in Paris, I have noticed people are so invested in this notion that "equality" does exist for all, they have trouble recognizing when it does not and their government representatives skirt the issue or frame it in that tired assimilation paradigm.

In France, and in Europe in general, I believe fresh representation in the government is in order but the question comes "from where"? Who? In the last election, I knew a few Parisiens who registered and went to the polls to simply turn in a "vote blanc" because they felt they had no viable options.

I believe the racial backlash surrounding the World Cup - as with the riots - is just another manifestation of the larger problems that need addressing. However, I do not believe it's only a French thing. One can see it all over Europe and, while I was overjoyed when Obama was elected, I was shocked and appalled by some of the racial comments made by fellow citizens over the course of the US campaigns. I believe all those in the North/ West, and beyond, have quite a ways to go in truly establishing ethnic harmony. However, this has all been said before by those better informed than myself.

In the case of Parisiens, I would completely agree with anyone who claims they can be cold, unnecessarily formal and dismissive. However, like my dear New Yorkers, they can surprise you with their generosity, openness and genuine engagement . . . if the wind strikes them right.

For some time, I've wanted to visit the African continent and travel around a bit. This post has further fueled that desire. I would love to get a better personal perspective on the differences/ similarities between various French-speaking regions. Merci de partager ton experience !

Elizabeth said...

I agree that the problem is a European-wide one, as witnessed by the "voile integral" debate in so many European countries.
I don't think Parisiens are any more cold, formal, dismissive than people in other large cities; they can be wonderfully warm and you say, on a good day (often le 36 du mois prochain, as the French would say!)
Do get to Africa soon - it's closer than the U.S. for you there! And cheaper!

ML Awanohara said...

Amber, I take your point that the media being intensely focused on French racism. They almost never let up. Indeed, shortly after I posted Beth's interview, the New York Times ran a front page story about France's fears about diversifying its overwhelmingly white grandes écoles. I noticed the article was on the paper's most emailed list the following day.

Fellow traveler said...

I love hearing about a fellow language nut! My entire life has been shaped by learning Chinese. I've failed to find a way to make it fit into my American life, as Beth has--but the years I spent in mainland China were somehow central to my life. After letting an unprecendented--for me--amount of time pass without using my Chinese at all--three years, since a monthlong trip through China in summer 2007--I just spent this weekend doing some reading in Chinese. I had gotten too discouraged by the difficulty in finding any use for it in my professional life. Amazingly, it isn't all lost. Working my way through the little snow-flake like characters transports me into some other kind of realm. It's a permanent kind of secret language, secret knowledge, storage-place of memories. The China I knew in the early 1980s--knew very deeply but didn't love a lot of the time--is largely gone. And I find I miss it, or at least the riddles it constantly gave me to struggle with. The new, frenzied, money-mad, polluted, power-seeking, swaggering and still dictatorial China is one I may never be able to live in again. Pity the language doesn't live in as many places outside the motherland as French does! I may have to explore Taiwan. It sounds like a very civilized place, where modern life didn't totally displace older cultural ways of being. But the language is a kind of country of its own, that one can inhabit anywhere, anytime, as long as one managed to learn it.

susumu said...

I have the same respect for language as Beth does. When I was a reporter I stopped visiting Korea and writing about it when I realized I can only go so far using English and Japanese; either I should learn Korean or give up, and I chose the latter course because there were other priorities at the time. (Thirty years later, I'm studying Korean and having fun comparing Japanese, Korean and Chinese.)

I am open to the idea that someone with a deep understanding of politics or economics or the human condition generally can discover new truths about a culture without mastering its language. The proverbial Ruth Benedict is a case in point, although my recollection is that The Chrysanthemum and the Sword was pulled together from data collected by an army of informants who did understand the Japanese language.

It's also true that being steeped in a particular language or culture doesn't necessarily bring wisdom and a benign, moderate relativism -- the best possible outcome of "seeing the elephant," in my view. Those who adopt a new language and culture wholesale can become myopic. They can be as insensitive to others as some of the British were in their heyday and many Americans still are in their decline. (My sense is that one needs some personal core to overcome this cultural absolutism, but I haven't thought through whether that core has to be articulated in any one language. I tend to think not -- my cocker spaniel, Cadbury, has a core, for example, and we don't know much about his language. But that's a whole new subject...)

But I am definitely for learning a language and about the associated culture because it could (not will) enrich a person if he/she does it well. It doesn't have to be some exotic language; it could be English. In flying into strange lands as a reporter, I was often rescued by locals who had studied abroad (often the US) and were the only ones willing to speak to a visitor. The other way to break the logjam is to do the elephant thing -- settle down for a while, preferably with a local iki jibiki ("walking dictionary") partner, and struggle, or entangle, with the new language/culture and see what happens.

ML Awanohara said...

I'm really intrigued by the above two comments. Here are a couple of follow-up thoughts:

1) Learning a language is a big investment in another culture, one that takes time (I was always told that Japanese is a "seven-year language"), dedication, and resources. The upshot is that expats tend to divide into two main camps. On the one hand, you have those who immerse themselves in the culture, taking the trouble to learn the language and, as Susumu notes, often finding an iki jibiki (walking dictionary) along the way. (I would add that sometimes they even marry the person, out of gratitude or affection or a mix.)

On the other hand, you have those who travel but don't put the time into language learning because they have other priorities, or perhaps they want to but lack the aptitude. (My friend Andrew Horvat would dispute the latter: he thinks it's a myth that only some people are good at languages. But I'm not so sure...)

In my experience, these two types of foreigners (both of whom are in fact "seeing the elephant") tend not to like each other very much, especially as non-linguists outstrip linguists on the earnings front. While living in Japan I observed countless times the linguist getting paid peanuts (relatively speaking) to translate and interpret for the non-linguist, who is taking in an expat salary.

(Perhaps an analogy for this situation might be mothers who stay at home vs. go out to work. They try to respect each other's decisions but don't really...)

I wonder if any of you three linguists--Beth, Fellow Traveler, or Susumu--can corroborate this observation of mine? I also think it holds true in academe, where you have area studies specialists pitted against mainstream scholars--I'm thinking of that old “rational choice vs. area studies” chestnut in political science.

2) I'm glad that Susumu reminded us of the power of non-verbal communication and body language. He brought up the example of Cadbury, the cocker spaniel, who communicates very well with his owners despite knowing only a few words of English and Japanese. Interspecies communication has always interested me, and I have a theory that long-term expats tend to be quite good at it--perhaps I'll do a post on this one day!

I'm also interested in studies of how animals communicate among themselves. Elephants, I am happy to report, score high on communications: they can actually talk to each other with their feet! Field biologist Caitlin O'Connell was in Namibia working on nonlethal methods for deterring elephants from raiding local people's crops. One night she was pretending to read a book while observing a young elephant sneaking past her house. She dropped the book by mistake and noticed that the startled elephant ran off literally on her tiptoes. On another location, while observing elephants at a waterhole, she saw the matriarch suddenly turn, flatten her ears, and lift one leg off the ground. Several other females then faced the same direction, and soon another elephant appeared. O'Connell went on to do a study on seismic communication in elephants.

To sum up, there are many levels and types of communication, and I personally think you need all of them (or as many as possible) when you travel, particularly if you harbor an ambition to try living in someone else's culture.

Elizabeth said...

A hodge-podge of comments of a rainy Saturday morning:

• It is frequently true that someone who does not master the language of the country in question may be far better informed on its history, politics, arts, culture, etc. I remember a rather sleepless night spent before my citizenship “interview” at the French embassy for fear that they would question me on French history and thereby condemn me to permanent mono-nationality!

• Likewise, a native speaker of a language may be completely clueless about the culture, traditions, and mores of a country sharing the same language. I recently spent two weeks in Niger helping with a museum workshop led by a French curator who had never set foot in Africa before. One of my hats during the séjour was to take him aside 36 times a day, as the French would say, and “translate/interpret” local customs, vocabulary, reactions.

• Charlemagne (I have retained a bit of French history!) reportedly said, “To know another language is to have a second soul.” I would not have chosen “soul,” but perhaps “realm” as Fellow Traveller puts it, or pair of glasses, or personality even. Friends and students who have “known” me in both French and English comment that I am a very different person in each. My mother would say, “To know another language is to ruin your formerly excellent spelling skills.”

• It is true that those who master a second language (or don’t) may have a certain disdain or frustration for/with those who have not, especially if they have resided in the country for years. My Arabic professor in Fez complained (in impeccable English) of his French neighbor who had lived in Morocco for 15 years, but couldn’t even muster a sabah al-kheir (hello) in Arabic. And how many times do we hear Americans, who they themselves speak no other language, grumbling about “these Latinos/Vietnamese/etc. who can’t even bother to learn English”? Those of us who regretfully don’t speak Spanish are starting to understand a bit better what it feels like. A few years back in Durham, NC, we were four at the table – speaking among us native or near-native German, French, English, Kikongo, Lingala, and a smattering of Italian, Swahili, and Arabic – yet totally frustrated at trying to order a glass of “hot” water when none of us could come up with caliente (which we’ve never forgotten since!).

• True, true that those of us who master another language (I am not a linguist, however) and attempt to add to our income with translating are often poorly remunerated and understood, relegated to the status of service providers (like professors of today, I might add with a sigh…). Others don’t understand the gruelling, time-consuming task that it is. A certain African ambassador once sent me a 25-page report to translate into French, and then called a few hours later to ask if I had almost finished.

• As for the “mainstream scholar,” s/he has been an endangered species for the past 30 years, at least in language departments where everyone has a narrowly-defined niche…much to the detriment of the profession, to my mind.

susumu said...

(Trying again. I've been failing to post it properly and it's getting old.)

From my experience, linguists (in the sense of those who love language learning) often are not big thinkers or alpha personalities. I think there is some parallel between this fact and the contrast between area studies types and the rat choicers; the former are prone to modest induction and the latter to immodest deduction. The linguists and area folks disdain the nonlinguists and rat choicers as lazy and over the top, not realizing that at least some of these latter creatures have attributes that they sorely lack and are quite marketable to boot.

That being said I can think of at least a few people off hand who are great linguists and are at the same time doing very well, thank you, as top executives of major corporations. One of them is an American living in Taiwan who used to think big thoughts on banking and finance at a top US consultancy and now leads a major local bank, conducting all business in flawless Mandarin. I don't know what this proves -- perhaps only that this guy is an exception. For all I know, he grew up in China.

Being a bit of a linguist myself, I would venture that we tend not to be movers and shakers of this world.

Anonymous said...

Nice thread about language. I think Susumu may be on to something. Those who are able to set their egos on the side table long enough to immerse themselves in a new realm of perception and expression (what is required to become fluent in a foreign language) tend NOT to be the same personality types that succeed in large American companies. (I do not believe this is true in continental Europe, where an executive’s being multi-lingual is taken for granted.)

American MBA grads are taught that their value-add in the corporate hierarchy is in defining reality as concretely as possible and in representing their firm’s interests pretty much to the exclusion of others’. Concepts that do not have distinctly bordered, bankable value are “fluff,” and people who don multiple perspectives and speak in abstracts are simply “not business-like.”

At the same time, I can appreciate the corporate business person’s perspective. They need people who have shown a mastery of specific tasks, people with whom they can communicate in their same corporate dialect, and who have a clear view of the Company’s definition of success (usually something to do with making a lot of money).

As Susumu suggests, people who dedicate a good chunk of time and effort to mastering a language as structurally and culturally different as Japanese tend to be “academic” and ergo “of limited utility” other than as translators and gofers. To a corporate executive who has very clear operating deliverables placed on him/herself, hiring a person with 10 years of experience in the industry but limited foreign language skills is generally GREATLY preferable to hiring someone with great foreign language skills but little “practical” industry experience. Not bias, priorities.

ML Awanohara said...

Most blog posts, let alone comments on them, disappear into the ether, but for this one I feel like hitting the pause button. Isn't there something amiss with a society that places priority on money making over all else? For me, "seeing the elephant" is also an allegory. It represents the journey that some of us take in life to discover meaning beyond the narrow confines in which we were born. From this point of view, becoming versed in other languages and cultures ought to be worth something more than a pat on the back.

I understand what you're saying about the need for practical industry experience. But I think it's a pity that highly skilled and sensitive people can't fit into the corporate world, except as servants to the people who speak only the language of profits and are wearing blinders.

One more point: I notice that no one has mentioned the struggle that non-native English speakers have in mastering our tongue. For a start, they have to deal with elephant words -- words that do not follow the usual phonetic rules for English. "Subtle" is an elephant word because the "b" is silent.

Now that's one thing you can say for Japanese, which in every other way merits its reputation as the devil's tongue: no elephant words, at least as far as I know. ;-)

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