I’m looking at the goofy smirk of someone who’s delivered a burning comment, minimizing, derisive. Defiant whispers in my intimate classroom setting, being interrupted, receiving groupfuls of disgusted stares. Perhaps without realizing, my students can be decidedly unprofessional. Deers in headlights turn aggressive. “I don’t understand you” leads to uncomfortable feelings, and the instinct to deflect and lash out with a cutting remark.
I’m no stranger to the vulnerable insecurity that arises when your language is symbolically taken away. Suddenly confronted with the inner discord of translating a rainbow of thought into black-and-white, just to be understood. Not to mention that in France, classic pedagogy is infused with the idea that you can always do better, no matter how good you think you are. Liberté, Egalité, Critiquez. Make a mistake, and pay for it. The language classroom is no different.
Many of my students have lived the trauma of classroom humiliation at the hands of the all-powerful Teacher. Being shamed for the crime of being wrong, the hurt when classmates chimed in to further deride them. They’ve been trained not to ask questions, to expose a vulnerable moment. It’s easier to shut down. A common student response, be they 8, 18, 38, or even past retirement age.
Interactions with me can make ancient antagonistic feelings bubble up. I am seen as a critic, an insolent interloper, imposing my language–deemed simple, inferior, lacking nuance or artistic merit–onto my student. I become the symbol of their Old Rival.
English itself becomes a fetish object. Adored, yet feared. Necessary, yet despised. Simple, yet frustratingly irregular and nuanced. A language of countless verbs, a language of action. Not like French, a language of adjectives and lush description. English, a language that contains far more words than theirs, with double meanings and endless colloquialisms. Many don’t understand the true complexity of operating in a language where you cannot translate word-for-word.
In those moments of student frustration and corresponding contrarian response, I’m no longer speaking to an adult member of society, but to an insecure child, that lashes out with an antagonistic “I know what YOU are, but what am I?” This speaks to my inner child, who hates to be told what to do, is tired of people lording their authority to minimize and patronize me, to diminish my intellect, my language, my heritage.
No, I refuse. It does a disservice not only to myself, but to my student, if I am no longer present. My role is to facilitate, unblock, decode this system, to break it down into sensical, ordered, comfortably logical bits. Not to field proverbial spitballs. So I wait out the emotional hailstorm, extracting linguistic information.
Storm dies down. Move in, execute my grammar lesson, administer study tips and friendly goodbye’s. Deep breath.
If only they knew how often I must become the emotional bouncer, keeping out the riffraff.
“Attention, all passengers for the 11:20 train for _____. Due to–”
A herd of elephants trumpets by.
“…we regret to inform you that there will be a significant delay. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Bouncing into the information office, I see the usual old dogs at their post, along with one grizzled unfamiliar face.
“Hello! I’m meant to take the train at 11:20, but I didn’t catch the reason for the delay…?”
I try to speak as naturally as possible, but my accent gives me away. My French is like a dog wearing a hat: innocuously unnatural.
Tired, deliberate, his response lacks all pretense of social niceties:
It does not concern you.
Excuse me, but I have the impression that it was just announced.
It. Does not. Con-cern. You.
His tone adds, “Fucking foreigner.”
His stern face dully chastises me, through deep frown lines and a graying smoker’s pallor. Maybe he always talks to women like this. Maybe he’s sick and miserable, and needs to vomit his misery onto others. Maybe his dog just died, and his boss made him roll into work today anyway. Maybe his partner is terminally ill, and he’s angry at the world. Maybe he’s just a Grade-A asshole.
10,000 maybes, and it’s likely that not one is correct. Whatever the reason, it is irrelevant. I know I will meet him again, in countless other forms.
My friendly demeanor melts away, and with a bite in my voice, I thank him for the information and bid him good day. I resist the burning urge to flip him off as I turn on my heel and escape.
My logical mind is outraged: I’m not to be cowed by one passive-aggressive backhanded comment. What nerve he’s got, shirking social conventions of politeness! How dare he! A brute like that shan’t speak to me in such a ghastly manner! I’ve a mind to dress him down!
Someone tell that big talk to the pressure in my chest that’s feeding the fire in my throat. Angry tears boil over. I wish for thicker skin, for French that could cut, for some witty Bette Davis-style comebacks: grace with a touch of disdain. Yes, if only I had a sharper tongue! Then these people wouldn’t mistreat me; they’d respect my invisible anti-bullshit forcefield. I feel infantilized, maladjusted, incapable of survival in this world filled with Grade-A assholes.
I speedwalk away, hiccuping pathetic tears, hating myself. The more I walk, though, the more the burning subsides. What am I doing? Is my core this easily swayed by an external force? Why do I need to wait until I’ve become the Perfect Me to be acceptable? No, I’m deserving of respect now, first and foremost from myself, because I can’t count on anyone to fork it over automatically.
One more experience under my belt, one more internal growth spurt. Ready for the next meeting with another manifestation of that unbearable condescension that I despise. Next time, every time, I don’t want to be so quick to minimize myself. There will always be another grating external force. I’m learning that it will sway me only if I allow it to.
I’m at a plastified table at a roadside café.
Gwen Stefani trills “Just a Girl” in my head, and I tap my feet with the drumbeat.
This place is an 80’s dream. Rows of glasses behind the bar, backlit in flourescent. Recessed lights overhead illuminate the curved bar, which is paneled. It looks hollow, as if the panels were made from balsa wood, ready for a Hollywood stuntman to crash into.
All customers, me included, have found seats in various alcoves along the perimeter of the wall. We’re burrowed in, and nobody makes eye contact.
Scratch-ticket enthusiasts scratch.
Lotto gamblers hand over betting slips.
Construction workers puff generously-rolled cigarettes and drink espresso from tiny cups.
Neighborhood regulars with gravelly chuckles sit muttering to themselves.
I listen, write, sip coffee.
My coffee tastes weird, watery and tinny, giving me the impression the water and grounds have been re-used.
A subdued, anonymous air hangs still in the café. Outside, traffic moans and chugs by. A huge truck bed is full of spiralled hay bales, like great unrisen cinnamon buns.
A parking lot buzzes with morning vitality. A man, half-asleep and wearing two days’ worth of five-o’clock shadow reaches into his car, thereby exposing the forbidden recess of his upper buttcrack, and his flaccid paunch hangs forward.
All the while, I’m humming to myself.
I’m just a girl in the world…
“Yeah, when I was in New York on business…”
“Those 2 weeks I was in the U.S…”
“The food is terrible… all those hamburgers and hot dogs…”
“American culture? What culture?”
“There’s not much history there, is there?”
“Ugh, that American accent… I can’t understand a thing!”
“The thing about Americans is…”
I mold my teeth back into a stiff-lip chiclet smile. Heh, heh. Very amusing. They look so comfortable, self-assuredly snickering at a caricature of a country they love to shit on.
I observe with fascination the smug joy in their eyes, the derisive wheezy laugh. All driven by a glaringly misguided, yet gloriously seductive need to be better than.
Why should I rain on their shit-parade? I wouldn’t dare spoil their moment of naive delight by questioning their pseudo-intellectual, stunningly brash hubris. There are indeed plenty of things to criticize, sure, but they’re pulling at low-hanging rotten fruit. The bland revelation is too simple, too deliciously satisfying to resist.
Is this how they go through life? Satisfied with a facile, self-serving version of reality, with no desire to learn more?
I’m not offended at their (perhaps unintentionally) injurious comments; that would be too easy. No, I’m learning. This is a pernicious trap of logic, a hasty generalization. Such exchanges remind me to work to avoid this pitfall myself.
“Mm-hmm. Whatever you say. On to page 2…”
Canoe base, night. Outdoor bar, live band. Throaty, wobbly experimental electro music. White dude with locked hair bopping in the glow of his laptop screen. An unbuttoned office-worker type plays clarinet in time, and a third guy strums an upright bass. A fourth member sits cross-legged onstage, fiddling with something.
I wait at the bar with F, among a pushy mass of people. It’s finally my turn to be served; the bartender gives a “hello,” and I respond with an echo. A woman who’s elbowed her way through the crowd has usurped my place and blurts out her order before me, and he sets about serving her.
Incredulous, I raise an eyebrow at her. She avoids eye contact and flashes her cracked smile at the bartender, exposing a silver tooth in questionable condition, and cigarette-stained gums.
Whatever. F and I take our drinks, and watch the quartet onstage, nodding vaguely and politely in time with the noise.
“Le FN est le pire ennemi du peuple.” A cardboard sign, painted roughly and taped to a stick, then stuck into a traffic cone. On the steps of the theatre behind the sign, a ragtag-looking group of about 20 young people sit, chilling in small groups. Rolling cigarettes with clumsy fingers and quietly existing. An older, grumpy-looking woman wearing a bath robe stops to point a finger at them and yell. Me, I lift up my sunglasses to peek at their sign, look at them, and simply nod my head.
In a café, in a seat facing the outside terrace. On the other side of the glass, a trio of stylish people in their 40’s smoke cigarettes, sip rosé, and chat, all done coolly. Meanwhile, a trio of police officers on bikes stand and watch the center of town, paying particular attention to the ragtag group of peaceful demonstrators. Minutes later, they ride away, backs flat and butts up in the air.
Tramways worm through the wide-open central plaza, back and forth, crawling along. Sliding noses intersecting every 9 minutes.
Wind’s picking up. Parasols ruffle, fountain jets spit haphazardly in all directions. Hoods drawn, feet hasten, scarves are clutched to necks. A woman dressed in bold primary colors walks by, covering her head with a large scarf that billows and waves behind her. Her head and face are completely covered, like a colorblock ghost.
Fat raindrops descend.
April 2012, Seoul.
I’m sitting across F at a barbecue joint. Sitting on long wooden benches, spicy marinated chicken grilling over a nest of coals on the table between us. We’re getting to know each other, but there are no first-date jitters. We’re chatting and shooting the shit. Normal human stuff.
The meat starts smoking, and I quickly grab the tongs to flip the meat. It’s burnt. I sheepishly smile at F and apologize. An exasperated server appears from nowhere and pulls the long silver ventilation tube closer to our “extra-crispy” chicken. The smoke whooshes away into the tube. We eat around the charred bits of meat, and chat on. Normally, I’d be embarrassed at this, the cardinal sin of Korean barbecue: Thou shalt never burneth thy meat. Curiously, though, in the face of this potentially date-ruining moment, I’ve never felt more at ease.
April 2017, France.
4 a.m. I’ve just woken up from an awful nightmare, and I’m in tears. Half-asleep, F slings his arm around me, and gently places a hand on my stomach. His touch brings me back to this reality: I’m snuggled up, cozy in bed, and safe. Shhh, there’s no reason to freak out.
In a single loving gesture, he puts me at ease.
This time, every time.