Being Careful

The day after the election, my dad called. First he asked my plans for my birthday, then he confirmed that I’d seen the results.

“Be careful,” he warned in heavily accented English (a freelancer who works in near-isolation, he likes to conduct our conversations exclusively in his second tongue) — “Don’t walk home alone after dark.”

I grunted assent without telling him that my classes frequently ended around 9PM, and I usually got home after 10. I also didn’t tell him that two weeks earlier, a car had pulled up next to me during my walk home; the men inside had shouted “Don’t worry miss, we won’t run you over!” before throwing their heads back, laughing, and speeding off.

Because of my omission, I wouldn’t have had to reassure him that I knew how to walk home alone after dark. I wouldn’t have had to list my defensive measures: thumb on the pepper spray, keys spiked between my knuckles, safety app open on my phone.

I wouldn’t have had to wonder if the incident recalled to him another incident, a car that slowed near us one night when I was six and we had just immigrated to the United States. That time, the men had shouted repeatedly “Go back to China!” before throwing their heads back, laughing, and speeding off.

Then, I wouldn’t have had to speculate if that reminded him of the civic association in the same town, where he had taken ESL classes for a year. After we moved away, a gunman had stormed the building during citizenship classes, killing 13 and wounding 4.

(It later turned out that the gunman was a Vietnamese immigrant himself. The shooting was – for a while – the nation’s deadliest since Seung-Hui Cho’s spree at Virginia Tech.)

Perhaps my dad understood at a more visceral level than I did the precariousness of being an immigrant in America. As I was growing up, he frequently recounted interactions he’d had with strangers, prompting me to answer the desperate question, “Do you think they were racist?”

And – in fear and frustration, wanting to believe that this country belonged to us too, wanting to protect my dad with my adolescent levity, not knowing about microaggressions, not knowing about otherness, not wanting him to be provoked, not wanting him to be bodily harmed, not wanting him to be sad or mad, not wanting us to be Chinese or at least visibly Chinese – I’d always said, “no.”

~

Old habits die hard.

Last night, my dad called me with an “English question.”

He had driven to his storage unit, he said, in a gated area that requires a pin number for entry. As he pulled up, the gate had opened and another car had pulled out. When my dad drove through – without punching the number – the men in the other vehicle had cried, “Hey! You’re sneaking in.”

His first question was: “How do you spell ‘sneak’?”

His second question was: “Do you think they were bad men?”

My heart sank. I fumed that his English was so poor after all this time. I fumed at his crudely phrased question. I fumed that he hadn’t known how to respond. I fumed that I didn’t know how to respond.

So I told him they were joking. I insisted that it was harmless. I chided him for reading too much into a meaningless situation …

Then I texted him:

“S-N-E-A-K.

Be careful.”

Statue of Liberty in Gray

Photo credit: Z

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The Accidental Patriot

This July 4th found Z and I wandering around New York, passing street after street of houses and storefronts bearing American flags and proud displays of red, white, and blue. This festive atmosphere got me thinking: What did patriotism – defined as “the devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country” – mean in our respective nations?

July Fourth Brooklyn Greenpoint

I take patriotism very seriously.

Unlike admitting your gluten-intolerance or tendency to binge watch Game of Thrones, professing your patriotism won’t garner you any respect among twenty-somethings in coastal cities today. Nonetheless, it’s true: I take a lot of pride in my national identity. Though “patriotic” hasn’t always been an adjective I would use to describe myself, I’ve finally made peace with this sometimes loaded term. As is often the case, France is to thank for this development — France, with a little help from the Netherlands.

~

Across the street from Rembrandt’s former house in Amsterdam is a convivial restaurant and pub. In May, as Z and I sat at one of the dark, wooden tables, Z pushed aside his mug of Heineken to glance at his watch.

“It’s almost 8 o’clock,” he remarked. “There’s supposed to be a couple minutes of silence soon.”

“Why?” I inquired from my happy tourist stupor, which had been steadily nursed by a glass of red wine.

“Today is Commemoration Day in the Netherlands for those who died in World War II. There’s a ceremony starting at Dam Square.”

I looked around. Waiters flew by with teetering plates while the jabber of customers blended into a single drone of contentment. “I don’t think we’ll see anything about that in here,” I shrugged.

It turned out I was wrong. As the clock approached eight, the waitstaff scurried back towards the bar; one employee flipped on the TV. When the hour struck, all chatter within the restaurant evaporated into silence, and every head turned to watch the televised procession of the King and Queen across Dam Square.

After one hundred and twenty seconds, a blare of trumpets over the speakers finally broke this reverent hush. Immediately, waiters resumed their perpetual bustle, and Dutch diners faced their table companions once again.

Dutch Coronation Bakery

Monarchy never looked so delicious. (Visible signs of patriotism were everywhere in Amsterdam.)

~

This brief but intense interlude won Z’s admiration. “That was really impressive how everyone stopped to pay their respect,” he mused. “I wish we were more patriotic in France…”

Z’s rueful statement surprised me, but on second thought, I recalled that I’d never seen any noteworthy display of patriotism in France. Though I’ve previously written about “French exceptionalism” (the idea that the country is unique and perhaps even superior in a global context), it suddenly struck me that the French weren’t really an outwardly patriotic people.

This fact isn’t as glaringly obvious as one would think. After all, Paris in particular is so steeped in history, culture, and tourist traps that the very fact of its existence seems a testament to love of country.

Monet 14 Juillet

Monet’s depiction of Bastille Day in Paris is  misleading —  the only place you’ll see this many French flags is a European football stadium.

When I voiced that, actually, I had never seen a private residence fly the French flag, Z wondered aloud if only state buildings had the legal right to display them. After some quick Googling proved that suggestion wrong, he conceded, “Okay. I guess only the government displays them because no one else wants to.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I think displaying the flag means you support the Far Right.”

My thoughts rushed to the 2012 presidential election in the US and the controversy over which candidate wore a flag pin more often. Though a similar zeal for displaying the flag can be found among conservatives in the States, fortunately, the rest of us are still able to wield this powerful symbol without fear of being branded an unsavory extremist. After all, the flag was supposed to represent all Americans, not just a subset of the population.

I turned back to Z and insisted heatedly, “You should fly the flag! It’s your flag too — don’t let the Far Right take ownership of it. Aren’t you proud of being French?”

I went on to describe a few instances when I took part in flag-waving.

Z regarded me skeptically, finally interjecting, “Wow, they must’ve really brainwashed you over there.”

“They did not.” I was defensive. “I mean, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance when we were little and had to learn to sing the national anthem — but that was it.”

Z’s eyes widened with horror. “They made you recite a pledge to your country? And sing the national anthem? When you were children?”

“Yeah,” I affirmed, confused. “I mean, it’s not a big deal is it? Don’t they do that in every country?”

“No way.” Z shook his head. “We didn’t do that. That’s total brainwashing.”

“Oh.” I fell silent.

Admittedly, upon reflection, such practices could seem – well – creepybut apparently they had been rather effective. Not only do Americans not have compunctions about flying the flag, I also thought to myself that, under certain circumstances, Americans have an incredibly strong sense of national unity. (Hear me out.)

I recalled the nights after 9/11, when everyone in my neighborhood flooded outside to hold candlelight vigils. Even as a middle schooler, I’d felt touched by the sudden closeness of my diverse little suburb. I also thought back to the nights when President Obama was elected and when Bin Laden’s death was confirmed. I had barged into the streets with seemingly the rest of my town and watched people high-five strangers, whoop spontaneously, smile deliriously…

It was highly unlikely such reactions could have occurred on a national scale in France, I realized.

It was also in France – after learning of the Newtown shooting, Hurricane Sandy, and the Boston Marathon bombing – that I became aware of how sorely I missed that sense of American unity. There were no vigils, no acknowledgment from neighbors, riders on the metro, or most of my colleagues. Though this was completely understandable, it was also isolating.

And that’s how I grasped Z’s point. Brainwashing or no, I was patriotic.

~

Patriotism doesn’t mean I think the US is doing everything right. It doesn’t even mean I think it’s doing some of the basic things right.

But my protestations don’t disqualify me from patriotism. In fact, it’s crucial that they cannot disqualify me from patriotism.

On July 4th, as I led Z through the decked out streets of New York, I felt particularly grateful for this fact. The American flag had not yet been lost to any one group — as far as I could see.

American Flag Sunglasses

And thanks to these shades, I could see pretty far.

Titles, names, nouns: a feminist issue

I was at the coffee machine in the teacher’s lounge when a professor bumped into me en route to destination caffeination. “Excuse me, mademoiselle,” he muttered mechanically — then paused. “Sorry, I meant to say madame” he chuckled, looking around at our other colleagues. “Mademoiselle has been removed from the French language. Did you know that?”

“Sure,” I grinned back. It was a brief exchange, but his joke had attempted to unite those of us in the room in the esprit gaulois, that ribald spirit the French inherited from their Gallic ancestors which scoffs at political correctness.

In this case, the offending instance of political correctness was the French government’s 2011 ban on the use of “Mademoiselle” in all official paperwork. The order was issued after complaints that it was sexist and outdated to make women identify themselves by their marital status, while not requiring the same of men. (When filling out forms, for example, women had to choose between the civil titles “Madam” and ”Mademoiselle” while men simply had to declare themselves a “Monsieur.”)

If you’re thinking that such a ban is stupid and/or pointless, you’d have plenty of French men and women for company. The common response here was derisive annoyance or defensive anger. The government is destroying the Gallic spirit! … There’s nothing wrong with a lighthearted Latin culture that celebrates differences between the sexes … Surely these kinds of policies only suit repressed Anglo-Saxon cultures, with their vulgar notions of gender equality and cantankerous feminists.

Nursing my cup of morning brew, I analyzed my reaction to the professor’s remarks. To be honest, even after all this time abroad, I still feel a bit glamorous being called “Mademoiselle.” Admittedly, I was also flattered to be assumed assimilated enough to not be one of those feminists.

However, the fact of the matter is: I am one.

Facing Notre Dame Cathedral

My opinions aren’t chic, but I’m not turning my back on them.

At least I’m a stickler for language.

Of course “Mademoiselle” hasn’t been purged from the common lexicon, and I don’t  think it should be (this blog’s very name is evidence). Rest assured, it’s still a popular way to address young women. Nonetheless, I think the government made the right move in treating men and women as par in terms of paperwork.

Words are important. Identifiers – titles, as well as names and nouns – are crucial.

And what may seem like a trivial, isolated issue is actually endemic to much of French language and culture.

~

His wife's last name

An optical illusion: you can see it as a stub from the morning paper AND as an instance of sexism!

Sometimes I forget to bring a book on my commute and grab the day’s edition of Direct Matin, the free and somewhat trashy paper distributed around metro stations. Usually I scan the minimal news content before tittering over celebrity gossip and reports of odd happenings.

But instead of being amused by this odd tidbit, I found it deeply problematic. To summarize (italics are mine, and comments in parentheses are my reading between the lines):

A 37 year old man in the Rhône region of France is the first married man to take the last name of his wife. This has only been legal since the end of 2011. He ran into a lot of difficulty during the process, since many city halls refused him, pointing to problems with existing I.T. systems. Though he finally succeeded, his quest didn’t have anything to do with feminism (whew! no worries guys). He only wanted to change his last name because his Armenian family had adopted a Turkish last name to escape persecution (so, any other fellows wanting to try this newfangled take-your-lady’s-last-name-thing better have a solid excuse!)

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great that a man can take his wife’s last name. It’s not so great that this act is only legal as of last year; one has to jump through ridiculous hoops to achieve it; and it’s being reported on as some amusing novelty demanding a particular justification (besides feminism, of course, which is apparently not appropriate motivation).

Bride on the Seine River

A devoted husband takes up his wife’s dress… but definitely not her name.

~

Given the sexism around the issue of names, it may not come as a surprise that there’s also sexism around the issue of nouns. After all, the word noms in French refers to both “names” and “nouns.”  They’re essentially the same thing: identifying words.

Unlike in English, nouns in French are gendered. This means… well, not much typically. Chairs are female while toasters are male. Mustaches are female. Nail polish is male. For the most part, genders for nouns are totally random and serve zero purpose besides frustrating foreigners trying to master the language.

Eclair and macaron

These pretty pink pastries – an eclair and a macaron – are male. My digestive system didn’t mind though.

Where the issue gets dicey is when a noun refers to a profession; then, the genders are correlated with the sex of the people who commonly perform the job.

The word for nurse (infirmière) is female.

The word for ambassador (ambassadeur) is male. A news editor (rédacteur) is also male. So are professor (professeur) and engineer (ingénieur).

As both men and women have been entering into professions not traditionally performed by their sex, there has been some adaptation of the language. For nouns describing female-dominated professions, masculine forms were quickly introduced. It’s now completely common to refer to a male nurse as an infirmier.

But – ladies, wait for the catch! – there’s resistance to creating feminine equivalents of male-dominated jobs. This is partly a problem of historical language; for example, an ambassadrice already refers to the wife of an ambassador instead of a female ambassador. The bigger issue though is that even women suspect adopting feminized job titles would decrease their job status. That’s what happened with the word rédactrice, which came to mean the editor of a women’s magazine instead of a general news editor who happens to be female.*

Language, it seems, is not a woman, despite langue being feminine in French.

~

I don’t necessarily have final words to offer, or solutions to propose.

I’m not looking for anyone to say “Pardon my French.”

I just believe it’s worthwhile to dissect and dismantle potentially harmful sociolinguistic frameworks.

These aren’t the kinds of things you learn in a French classroom, but I think they’re discussions worth having. Don’t you?

~

*Beeching, Kate. “Women and Language.” Women in Contemporary France. Ed. Abigail Gregory and Ursula Tidd. Oxford : Berg, 2000.