When you’re from Minnesota, you never really expect that you’ll become an immigrant. Some have migrated to, well, Chicago for instance. This, however, does not actually make you an immigrant. You might move to Arizona in your golden years, but this makes you more of a snow bird, and not actually an immigrant. So it was more than a surprise to find myself in France. Living. With a French man. It all seemed so simple, until someone spoke. Wait. They speak French here. Yeah, I don’t speak French. This could be a problem. After a few minor/major visa misinterpretations, or violations, I became part of the system. I was now enrolled in mandatory French classes, with my piers. My piers were now, of all ages, all classes, all religions, and ethnicities.
I had been learning a few French words, phrases, but aparently my Minnesota accent was stronger than I thought, and I found myself repeating everything. Well, let’s be honest. I still find myself repeating everything. Everything. Words are repeated to me, and in my head they sound exactly like what I said, but yet are misunderstood. That’s what I just said, I say, and people laugh. So, to combat this, I am sent to mandatory French class. I’m not certain what the first thing is my teacher asked me, but I am certain of the response – oh, so certain…. I hear it over and over… “Mon Dieu!” she exclaimed, which means, “Oh my God!” Did you take some sort of motivational classes I wondered, because you yelling, “Oh my God!” or in other words, “I can’t believe how stupid you are!” is really motivating me to move forward in this educational process. But after a night of tears, I began my lessons.
My lessons were not alone. After “je m’appelle,” we mostly just nodded, so with all respect, I will call them Japanese, South Korean, Mexican, Cambodian, Russian, Phillipino, and the 10 Arabs. These were my piers. And we clung together like on the sides of life boats. Two life boats. The Arabs wanted their own boat. Our teacher seemed to make fun of us equally, and after beating the waves for 4 hours a day, we ended in tears. Now, not only was I learning French with my Minnesota accent, I was learning it with a Japanese one, a Mexican one, a Russian one, and so on… Some days, I’m not sure we were even speaking French. I assumed it was some other language, and so I wrote it down, memorized it, cried, and went back the next day.
Despite all this, progress was made, and I passed my test, and received my visa. I still find myself repeating everything, sometimes thinking, well, this is just how Ji Young said it. My French is better, and I hope also my understanding, not of the language, but of the people. Being different is hard. Not just, oh that was challenging, but tremendously hard. Not to be understood, for even the smallest thing, that hurts in any color, in any language. I get it. It’s hard not to judge. It’s hard not to want to be around people who are just like you. But this is not the world we live in. In any country. We are enveloped in a changing world of diversity. In our countries. In our neighborhoods. Tolerance is not good enough. I have been tolerated. I have been ignored. It is more painful than I ever imagined. But don’t feel sad, there is so much joy and humor in our differences if we can get passed them. If we can see beyond it all. Just imagine our class photo. This is not a lesson for your heart, but for mine. I need to find the joy in it all. I am finding the joy every day. It is a privilege to be humbled, to be challenged. And after you’ve cried a little, you can always laugh. I have lost my Minnesota accent, and gained a Japanese/Korean/Cambodian/Russian/Arabic/Mexican drawl. And my heart is open.
I’m still an imperfect person though. As kind and open as I want to be, I have to admit, I found a bit of satisfaction when my husband and I went on vacation to Italy. Of course it was no different for me, I was going to be misunderstood wherever we were. But he saw what I go through on a daily basis. We were going to stay in a convent that had been converted into a hotel. When asking directions to the convento, we heard the same response over and over. Convento? Si, convento. Convento? We repeated what sounded exactly the same to us. Si, convento. Finally, one said, “Ahhh, convento….” Like they were able to translate this completely broken word and now repeat it to us in their language. Trust me, it was exactly the same. Now, whenever challenged communicating here in France, we laugh, and say, “convento?”
Last week we spent a wonderful vacation in New York. New York is a city of immigrants. A beautiful, wonderful, delightful, exctiting, stimulating city of diversity. What a joy! What a constant adventure! The cab driver that drove us to the airport for our departure was from Equador. He was full of stories and information. Some of it correct, but none of which we corrected. He was so proud to be an American. He arrived in 1998 and said he was a New Yorker. He loved New York. We spoke of other immigrants and the election and the how people just need to be good to each other. “Yes, yes!” he said. “We have to remember Thanksgiving. We have to be grateful. Just like the Jewish people were on the first Thanksgiving. They came to America because Adolfo Hitler (he said Adolfo) was killing them, so they came to America to be safe and they were so happy they celebrated with a turkey. And now we all celebrate with a turkey because we are free. It is beautiful.” I looked at my husband. “It was pretty close,” he whispered to me. We couldn’t correct him. Weren’t we all tired of being corrected? And after all, hadn’t he made his point about being grateful? And wasn’t that what it was all about. Sure we’re all different. But we’re all just trying to be safe, be happy, and be home. And if we keep those as our truths, laugh more than we cry, we all have a reason to be grateful. “Yes, yes,” I said. “Convento.” And we sat in gratitude.