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On France and Verbal Abuse

By Vivian Hoang

“Your French is abhorrent,” our French teacher said to our class one morning. Her mastery of six different languages was terrifying, and was clearly only used to insult us in different dialects. “You are high schoolers speaking at the level of an mentally handicapped toddler.”

Inspired and uplifted by her encouraging words, I couldn’t help but think that the so-called “language of love” was turning out to be less enjoyable than I was programmed to believe. This seemed impossible, improbable for me to think, as from the naive age of five, I was a budding Francophile, wearing gaudy red berets to school and insisting on spelling my name Vivianne, believing that the extra “ne” suggested a European mystique. How could I ignore the fact that I, in my delusion, promised to myself and always assumed that one day I would happily be living out my adulthood in France?

In truth, I never sourced where my obsession with France originated from, much less why five year-old me decided that French culture was the epitome of high class society. Why not the historical sights of Argentina? Why not the chique-geometric buildings of Greece? Why not the deserts and mountain ranges of Morocco? Clearly, I was a capricious child inclined towards the superficial definition of a European fantasy.

My plan has shifted now. I don’t plan to ever move to France. I don’t even plan to visit it in my lifetime. In fact, I have come to understand the difficult way that much like verbal abuse, the French language, people, and culture cease to be amusing past the first sentence.

Admittedly, my inability to learn French despite my teacher’s repeated castigations was no other fault but my own. My dream of moving to France would be a slightly less unattainable dream if I just hunkered down and force fed myself French textbooks until I was fluent, then turned blue and died. But even then, I would be a corpse, albeit a french-speaking one, and my parents would have to pay the $80 fee that came with the desecration of a public school textbook.

What I failed to see in my philosophical quest for European correctness was that like every other country, language simply cannot be shortcutted, and that fluency in the native language is required to even make it past TSA. Knowing phrases like “Where can I find my hotel?”, “I’d like to interview for this job,” and “I’m going to call the police if you keep harassing me,” are almost essential to livelihood in France. I, on the other hand, knew how to count to four, how to order steak and fries, the word “bouillabaisse”, and how to ask, “Can I use the bathroom?” in clumsy French. Unless I was planning to become a chef who knew one recipe and had a weak bladder, I had no hope of surviving the mystical conundrum of jibber-jabber known as a Francophone country.

My first introduction to French people, or Europeans in general, was my French teacher. My easily provoked, Advil-popping, hurricane of a French teacher. With her finely sharpened sarcasm and quite frankly, cruel taunting of students, I started to paint an unfair picture of what the rest of the population of France was like.

On the frequent occasion my teacher would make a side comment about the legitimacy of our intelligence, I imagined a French rural grandma making the same comment. Whenever my teacher made frighteningly violent hand gestures while yelling at us for mispronouncing “a tes souhaits” for the infinite time, I aptly pictured a French cashier throwing a fire extinguisher at my head for the same mistake. Everyone, including the unsuspecting mime on the streets of Paris would be out for blood, straining their French ears for the slighting hiccup– the incorrect gender assignment to the wrong object, or the incorrect conjugation of “to go” –before tearing me into shreds.

Of course, this is a massive generalization about the population of France. Clearly, the French have shown an aptitude for empathy and normal human emotion by producing Celine Dion and A Monster In Paris. And it would be irresponsible and disrespectful of me to assume that all French people were sociopathic convicts out to kill me, were it not for my teacher ending class one day with the cheerful anecdote that, “You think this is bad? Wait until you get to France and take the Metro. Then you will wish you were dead.”

So yes, much to the disappointment of a younger me, I am not moving to France. While normal children my age dreamed of being princesses, fairies, and knights, I, the most realistic five-year-old in California, dreamed of becoming a native French speaker and citizen. Perhaps my dreaming spoke to the ever-persistent romantic in my tiny toddler heart, that even in the blackened souls of the French, there shone a glimmer of hope that maybe, somehow, I could escape to European Land, where I could then eat baguettes to my fill, drink bad coffee, and get cussed out for crossing the street.

Maybe we’ve all had plans to move to France at one point in our life. Maybe the simple French villas and aspect of clothes being optional for beaches whisper our names to entice us in the night. Maybe there exists an inner toddler within us all, longing to move to France in attempts to appease the subconscious dreamer. And maybe, just maybe, if I finally learn how to pronounce “oiseau” correctly on the first goddamn try, there still remains a sliver of hope that I too, can be French.


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