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la vie française

What's more French than a day spent at the fresh market and a bag full of veggies and baguettes?

I was thrilled at the prospect of coming to Réunion and finally getting to immerse myself in French -- a dream that I have had since I was 14 years old. You see, I have always been a bit of a Francophile. Some teens are obsessed with video games or sports or reality tv; I, however, was obsessed with France. I wore an Eiffel Tower necklace. My bedroom was Paris themed. French was my favorite class in high school. I downloaded covers of all my favorite songs redone in French from Limewire. My entire French class went to France one summer, but my parents would not let me go, even though I had saved the money for it from my own job. The movie Taken had just came out that year and my father was convinced that I would be the next victim.  I wanted to go to college and major in French and study abroad so that one day I could live la vie française and escape the US and my family forever. But my university did not have a French program and slowly, my fascination with all things French faded as I slid into adulthood.

Réunion is a remote French island in the middle of the Indian Ocean that is mostly only visited by other French people. In essence, it is linguistically isolated; unlike mainland France, where people are likely to come into contact with foreign tourists, immigrants, or other anglophone people, the people in Réunion are largely monolingual French speakers. And the house that I live in has 3 French women as my housemates. Only one of them speaks English and she has been traveling much of this month.

An ideal immersion situation, right? That was my thought.

But upon arriving in Réunion, I was hit with an intense fear of speaking and I became essentially mute in all French situations. And there are are a lot of French situations. The linguistic discomfort that I experienced here was completely unexpected.

My failure to be able to produce French was really jarring for me, and once I realized how hard this was going to be, I found myself feeling even less capable of speaking French. It seemed to be a vicious cycle; the more I wanted to speak French, the more I would prepare myself to speak French when the time came. The more I prepared myself, the more I felt myself freeze as soon as I was spoken to. I started to just blurt out “Je ne parle pas le français” to anybody who spoke to me. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy as the more I said I don’t speak French, the less I spoke French.

This was layered with one of the strangest feelings I have had while traveling. In India, I was immediately identified as a foreigner. It was easy to see I didn’t belong, and when interacting with Indian people, I was treated as a foreigner immediately. This came with good and bad things, but mostly, I learned to love it. Indians love foreigners and love to talk about their country and our travels in it. But it also meant that they would obviously speak English to me, rather than their local language. Being a visible foreigner meant that I was understood without having to explain myself.

But here, it is different. Réunion is very diverse -- about 30% black, 30% Indian, 30% White French people, and 10% Chinese. I blend in seamlessly with the white French people, in a way that I started to feel like I was undercover. I was French, until proven otherwise, which I revealed as soon as I would open my mouth. When I’d go out in public, it started to feel like I was harboring a deep secret, or like I was committing a crime by not knowing how to speak French. I began walking around with headphones on to stop people from talking to me on the street or in stores because I didn’t want to get “busted.” About 2 weeks ago I realized what was happening -- I was so afraid of being outed as a foreigner that I was hiding. I did not want to be caught not knowing the language and not being able to explain myself, because somehow my mind had created the narrative that not speaking French well = very very bad.

Luckily, even though I was not speaking French in public spaces, I was still living amongst French people in my home, and forced to speak my broken French to do basic things like negotiate space in the kitchen and diagnose wifi problems. My landlady has been so gracious with me, speaking in the slowest, clearest French and always ensuring that I understand everything she has told me. If there is something I don’t understand, she does not rest until she explains it through miming, synonyms, and google translate and I understand.  I am positive that this has been the key to my huge growth in listening comprehension this month. 

My new Mantra. I have decided I am not allowed to say that I don't speak French, only that I am learning it. It has always been received with such friendliness (and much slower French!)

Maybe you recall that in February, I finally came to terms with the fact that I am a perfectionist. It still surprises me when I find new areas that this perfectionism comes out (turns out, it’s pretty much in every aspect of my life, who knew). And after nearly an entire month of refusing to speak, I am slowly starting to parle Français -- even with strangers. It took me realizing and identifying the perfectionist tendencies with my need to faultlessly speak French in order for me to start to dismantle that. I need to be comfortable with the fact that my pronunciation is going to be bad. My grammar is not going to be good. And heaven forbid, I might not even sound smart most of the time. In short, in order for me to actually practice my French, I need to be imperfect with it. And that’s perfect.

The last few days, since teasing out these deep feelings inside of me, I have been amazed at the French conversations I have been able to have. I ran into my friend’s mom out on the street and she asked me, in French, how my French progress has been this month and when I will be returning to Réunion Island (this definitely isn’t my last time coming here!). I understood and graciously accepted a compliment on my tattoos at the farmers market this morning. I saw an acquaintance who invited me to his home this weekend, and I explained that I had to decline because of a birthday party I am attending tomorrow. A new housemate moved into our house and I showed her around the kitchen, introduced her to our house dogs, and told her she can ask me any questions she has as she settles in. Were these conversations perfect? Not grammatically -- far from it. But the perfection comes from the fact that they are actually happening.  I am speaking French! It’s real!

I keep thinking a lot about little high school Gina. I am living her dream. Maybe I didn’t get to go to France with my French class or do an exchange program in college, but here I am at 35 years old, living like an exchange student. She would be so excited to know that all that time studying French over 20 years ago was not a waste. I might have taken a detour, but I am out here healing that inner child who so deeply wanted this and was not able to due to circumstances out of her control. La vie française est maintenant !

I know my experience here is not unique, as there are so many people who have had to learn a second language and have been confronted with discomfort, fear, and discrimination because of it. I have a newfound deeper respect and understanding for immigrants and international students who have had to immerse themselves in English out of necessity, rather than recreationally like me.

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