I step into a baby clothing store on a whim, looking for a gift for a friend who’s just given birth. The shop is cheerful and whimsical, with a fluffy pastel cotton-candy interior. I’m a bit disoriented in this foreign world of cutesy teeny-tiny fashion.
Smelling fresh carrion, two black-clad saleswomen croak “Hello” and descend upon me. They bare their teeth into something resembling a smile.
One of them, an older woman with deep-set eyes, indicates the rack for newborns. I peruse the adorable clothing, realizing a simple onesie costs 55 euros…
I have no time to fake a polite exit before the dark-eyed woman re-materializes in a cloud of heavy perfume and the oppressive stink of 30 years’ worth of cigarettes and red wine. There’s something sinister about this husky-voiced woman with stingy hair and George Washington’s wooden teeth, cooing at me with a saccharine voice.
“How old did you say the baby was?”
“Uhm, about 2 months.”
“So it’s NOT a new baby then!”
“I guess not…”
“Et, c’est dans quel pays?”
My eyes narrow in confusion, and my mouth is parted–I’m breathing discreetly through my mouth.
Quel pays? What country? What kind of trick question is this?
She repeats herself, cartoonishly enunciating “Quel PAYS?” Her gray teeth stand out against the spackle caked on her face; she looks like a 20’s vaudeville clown.
“No, no, no…” Her colleague joins in behind, and they are now both braying at me, in tandem: “Pays, pays, pays…” All that’s missing here is an undead barbershop quartet to complete this ghastly spectacle.
What did I do to gain entry to this hellish dog and pony show?
“The south of France…?”
“Oh, voilà! You know, we only ask because every region’s weather is different, every season is different, which you must keep in mind when shopping…” Her smarmy response disgusts me, and their logic has me stumped. I don’t belong here in this farce. I respond with logic that might speak to them:
“Well, this is a travelling baby. You know, the kind of baby that travels all over France with her parents, so any kind of clothing would be fine… At any rate, thanks very much for your help, have a great day!” I chirp and fly out of the store.
The air outside is heavy and oppressive, offering no relief from the burning that stings the back of my throat. I feel foolish, destabilized, unsettled. Despite their bizarrely condescending behavior, I still suspect the fault lies with me and my insufficient French.
It’s time to retreat home. I’ll buy the gift another day.
Mix, flood, wash
Swipe, blot, scratch
Too much water, muddy
Too much color, sloppy
Too much detail, cluttered
Swipe, blot, scratch
Imperfection is expected
It’s an average weekday. The post-holiday slump, the hangover of end-of-year introspection sticking like sludge in my step. What happened to all those grandiose promises I wooed myself with? I thought things would be different this year. But perhaps I’ve seduced myself back into torpid complacency. Safe, sweet complacency.
I step into a tobacconist’s to buy revenue stamps, and I’ve got 1 euro change. “Keep the euro, and give me one of those,” I point to a scratch ticket, and muster up an awkward smile. The clerk hands me my stamps and the ticket, and I look up into his face. Mouth turned up, eyes turned down. There is no familiarity or warmth in that hollow, forced gesture. My own tight smile dries up as I turn on my heel and step out of line.
I duck around the corner to scratch my lotto ticket, back turned to the world. For some reason, I don’t want anyone to catch me in the act, to see the faint glint of hope in my eye as I try my luck. I scratch, and the lucky number comes up: I’m a 1 euro winner. One euro in, one euro out. I’ve broken even.
Now, I ask: Do I try my luck, and get another ticket? I realize I’m already lucky to have broken even, and I should quit now. But quitting now is tantamount to complacency! Why not just try? I’ll never know if I settle for breaking even.
Approach another tobacconist, exchange the winning ticket for a new one. Scratch, scratch, scratch. Loser. Guess I shouldn’t have taken my chances, after all.
I realize that this is about more than a stupid lotto ticket.
Stuff the loser in my pocket, and start sauntering toward work. On the way, a man with a misshapen head and heavy jowls is playing accordion. Under the bland, gray sky, it sounds like an elegiac processional hymn. The gray sky starts melting into me, turning it all into one homogeneous paste. I wade on.
Winter rains coat the stone walkways in town. Gray above, gray below. A pre-recorded man’s voice ricochets off the stone buildings, and through my head. Advertisements. The pushy scripts are read by a noncommittal man’s voice, just innocuous enough to sound attractive.
50-percent off, get your King Cakes for the Epiphany at This Bakery. That Shop is offering you a limited-time offer on Whatever. Buy 2 Things, get one free at Some Other Store.
I feel morose as I find myself slithering through the wet streets, killing time before work. I’m not above their stupid gimmicks after all. How can I compete with perfectly-orchestrated color schemes designed to attract my eye? I’m disappointed in my brain, as it falls for their slight-of-hand tricks that gussy up the same old products and commodities in flashy fake allure? My brain is no match for those advertising bigwigs that are experts in the art of money extraction.
I feel guilty as my feet take me toward the attractively-colored Makeup Shop. I choose a lipstick color, and stand in the checkout line, feeling defeated. A tight-lipped saleswoman calls out to me in a firm, clipped voice: Other line please, you sheep.
I’m thus herded with the others toward the designated station where I part with several euros of my hard-earned money, all for the sake of vanity. I steal a moment after lunch to smear on my new lipstick. Am I beautiful yet? Is the sellout, commercialized and commodified Lari satisfied?
I look at myself in the mirror, and my heart softens a bit. It actually looks nice. I’ve allowed myself this one indulgence, and I can’t say I regret it. The Me in the mirror gives a loving, yet reproachful smirk: You’ve had your moment of excess. Now wear that lipstick, and continue on your way.
I remember the last time I drew as a child before giving up. My parents had given me a deluxe art set for my birthday: markers, watercolors, pencils… it was a glorious art set that packed up nicely into a wooden briefcase. Perhaps I believed that this art set would instantaneously imbue me with talent. I decided to attempt to draw one of my mom’s retro cooking pots with flowers on the side. It came out lopsided and just all wrong. I was disappointed in myself and disgusted at the hideous blob I had created. I wanted so badly to be good, to have proof of my talent. Instead, I was glaring at empirical proof that I sucked. That was the moment that art didn’t feel free anymore. I didn’t deserve that art set, and I would do well to forget the whole thing. I left the briefcase in the basement to collect dust.
Fast forward to Seoul, circa 2010
I’m walking in Hongdae, the young, hip, artsy neighborhood. Streets are chock-full of funky cafés, cheap restaurants, art galleries, and clothing shops. At this time, I’m feeling deeply lonely and generally lost.
I enjoy the atmosphere of this neighborhood, so I find myself here often. I don’t know what else to do with myself, and so I go walking. I just walk for hours on end. Fall is just thinking about getting started, and the bright warm sun feels nice, while the air has a crisp snap to it.
I notice a small, dusty art supply shop. There are no lights on inside, and the sunlight transmutes through the front window to cast everything in a gray-gold soft focus. They’re going out of business, and there’s not much selection left, but that paper, those pencils, the pastels… they smell wonderful. I end up buying a thin sketch pad and the few pencils remaining: moss green, dusty yellow, and a soft graphite pencil with eraser. A few hundred meters away is the little park where children and parents play in the morning, under the blurred watchful eyes of the occasional homeless person. In the afternoons, students sit in the park to smoke cigarettes and drink beer after class. On weekend evenings, young Western foreigners come along to drink, while wannabe deejays plug in their iPhones and use an app to simulate the art of the turntables. Nobody cares.
On this golden lonely afternoon, there are just a few people in the park. I plonk myself down and start drawing again, for the first time in I don’t know how long. I’m surprised at how good it feels. The lonely melancholy in my stomach is mitigated. I’m scratching an itch that I didn’t realize I had. I’m drawing trees and flowers, and soon I’m approached by a woozy bleary-eyed Korean woman. She asks to see my drawing, and I oblige. She turns to the next page, asks for my pencil, then starts sweeping the page with large haphazard swipes. She sweeps and swipes, then finally adds two details, eyes and a nose, and suddenly the picture is coherent: she’s drawn a woman with long hair and robes. The woman hands me back my drawing pad and shuffles away, wishing me a good afternoon. I’m a bit stunned as I wish her the same.
I realize drawing just feels right.
I wake up and try to remember what day it is. Thursday. F is still in dreamland next to me. I wonder what he’s dreaming about, because he’s chuckling lightly into his pillow. I exit the bedroom on tiptoes, and come out to sit at our table by the window. It overlooks the garden, and from where I’m sitting, I see nothing but green: all those tree leaves take on a yellowy brilliance in the morning sunlight. I open the window to let in the fresh clean air. The world is silent, except for one faraway cheeping bird. There’s some leftover coffee in the pot, so I add it to a glass with some ice and toast some bread. It’s going to be another hot day, and I’m glad to eat while it’s still cool enough to satiate my appetite, before the heat steals it away.
Today’s brekky: Iced coffee and toasted grain bread spread with butter and crushed raspberries.
I crunch into my toast and wonder. Where F and I will be tomorrow, next year, in 5 years. Where we’ll travel next. Why the Incas practiced cranial binding. What my family’s doing at the moment. How the Ellis book I’m reading will finish, and what I should read next. How the word “toejam” came to be. Whether I’ve got it in me to accomplish anything resembling greatness. What New Zealand is like. What I can whip up for lunch today. How humans first invented butter. What I would do if I didn’t have to work today…
I would close all the blinds and shutters to keep out the heat. In the cool darkness of our apartment, I would bake a walnut coffee cake with a thin layer of coffee buttercream icing, and keep it in the fridge. Like those impossibly hot summer days when I was a girl, I would curl up with iced coffee and a good book; the bits of sunlight that get past the shades would offer just enough light to read by. In those days, my mother would warn me that it was bad for my vision; now it’s F who doesn’t want me straining my eyes. But I’ve always loved the cozy feeling of hunkering down in the dark while the outside world is screaming hot.
I turn back to my iced coffee, of which I’ve just taken the last gulp, and sigh. Work starts in a couple hours.
“False beginner” is a term language teachers throw around to describe a learner who has begun from the top in learning a language, but who in fact already has some knowledge. This knowledge may come from (as in my case) environmental exposure, but not necessarily active usage of the language.
It can be difficult to identify their learning needs at first, and the classroom context may not work for them altogether (as in my case). I took Intro to Spanish while I was at UMass, and I didn’t do amazingly. Even if I can read aloud with a very good accent, the classroom setting is not how I have been in contact with the language, and it’s not a skill I associate with books and formal studies. Even if it worked for me with Japanese and French, formal classroom studies aren’t always my bag.
I’m a language parrot. I can imitate the accent, pronunciation, and manner of expression of native speakers, but this means I can also pick up incorrect or lazy speaking habits. I learn from hearing people use a language, and observing how they do so; textbooks and learning materials fill in the cracks and give me some rules to follow, but I don’t need them to make up the backbone of my knowledge of a language.
As for my accent, I have to credit my grandmother, who taught me to read aloud in Spanish and corrected my pronunciation when I was young enough to retain it. (Ah, the wisdom of the Grama… she helped me cement an excellent Spanish pronunciation during the critical period of language acquisition, which means I don’t sound like a complete gringa when I speak Spanish!)
I may not understand the subtilities of Spanish grammar, nor can I conjugate an irregular verb to save my life, but I know I have a relatively sophisticated vocabulary and decent oral and written comprehension. I’m currently working on a research project using primary documents in Spanish, and would like to eventually go to Puerto Rico to do research on the ground.
Funny enough, these are things that are difficult to admit. I never used the Spanish I knew among my peers or my family out of fear of criticism: I knew it was far from fluent, so I didn’t want to bear the embarrassment of being made fun of for my mistakes and having them pointed out without mercy. I already felt out of place enough, considering my appearance isn’t typically Latina (according to many people I’ve interacted and argued with throughout my life), and I was afraid of being labeled as a poser, someone with no right to claim my heritage. (I wrote a creative nonfiction essay about this experience called What’s the Opposite of a Coconut?, which was published in Killing the Angel Issue 2 in 2013.) In fact, the fear of judgement by others pushed me away from expressing a very real part of myself and owning my identity. It has always been easier to stay quiet than to speak up.
With all this in mind, it’s no wonder that the classroom environment, where everything is either right or wrong, where mistakes lead to a lower grade, where one is constantly evaluated, isn’t my ideal Spanish learning environment.
Being a false beginner in a language puts one at an advantage when they decide to plunge into refining their skills; but meanwhile, the approach needs to be modified and tailored to the students needs, keeping in mind that it can be easy for the learner to lose their bearings and become discouraged. Language classes also tend not to teach grammar and vocabulary in the same order that the false beginner learned what they know; so from the beginning, it’s very easy to alienate the false beginner by immediately pointing out how much they don’t know. Just because someone is familiar with certain concepts of a language doesn’t mean that they have a rock-solid foundation; there are often cracks to fill in, little by little, without pointing out the depth and quantity of those cracks.
This is all true for me, and as a language teacher, it’s even more interesting to pick apart this phenomenon, and examine effective ways to deal with these students with whom I fall into the same category.
One thing I’ve learned during my various language studies is: The better you know yourself, the way your brain works, and the way you learn most effectively, the more success you’ll have in the learning process. And with this in mind, I’m jumping in.