Petit Déjeuner Club
“Usually American students are lazy, but not this lazy.” My French teacher, Monsieur Professeur, gestures to the the two Bard College students in the back of the classroom with their heads on their desks, alternating between texting and sighing.
“But they are usually this de goma,” he uses the Spanish term for hungover, to make sure I understand.
I nod. I know he is talking to me because due to a slight miscommunication at the beginning of my French immersion class three weeks ago, Monsieur thinks I am a Spaniard. Well, not exactly. He thinks my mother is Spanish and my father American. They fell in love when he was backpacking in the south of Spain near the seaside village where she grew up.
It is possible he believes this story because it is the one I told him. On the second day of class, he was confused by my accent and I had the vocabulary of a French kindergartener.
Monsieur then explains to the rest of the class that this wouldn’t happen to our Asian students – they cannot hold their liquor like Americans can. Yuya, a Japanese teenager with a Justin Beiber bangs in his eyes and leather patches on his tweed elbows, peeks over his Casio translator and nods. Merci. He returns to his notebook, printing notes carefully over a mahogany ruler he has placed to reinforce the lines on his notebook.
Monsieur continues his lecture on the past progressive tense as Imad, an Algerian father of three, opens the door and says bonjour. It is 1:12. Class begins at 9:00.
Imad speaks fluent French, but is taking the course to improve his grammar and spelling. Unlike the rest of us, he can follow the professor’s French, but is frequently preoccupied with cultural differences, like the French medical system or the existence of women in the classroom.
He tries to squeeze himself between the back wall and the last row of desks, knocking over Yuya’s Herschel backpack and waking up the hungover New Yorkers. They sigh and update their Facebook statuses. Yuya says, “merci.”
“Welcome,” Monsieur says to Imad. He’s not really. But, passive-aggressiveness, like humor, does not translate well. Imad smiles. He begins copying the letters on the board onto a notebook of graph paper with Spiderman on the front. On the first day, Imad told us he was studying law. Either that or right turns. I’m not sure. The word is the same for both in French.
There are 12 of us in the beginning intermediate class and we have been divided into three neat groups. The Bard College pair is part of Team USA, joined by a junior from Georgia State. Yuya represents all of Asia, along with Toon, a high school freshman from Bangkok, and Cui Ying a Malaysian graduate student. Imad is joined by two Saudis, including Sultan who prefers playing ping pong to attending class. Our classroom overlooks the courtyard and Monsieur watches Sultan play ping pong as he seethes. There are three Libyans on the roster, but I haven’t seen them since the second day of class.
As for me, I am generally grouped with the Americans, but given my dual nationality, sometimes Monsieur calls on me to confirm a European bias.
How did these groups form? Well, in some ways, they developed organically. I am sure there is a psychological theory that explains the human tendency to affiliate with those who are perceived to share common physical and linguistic characteristics. Whatever it is called, it could be used to explain everything from high school cliques to sectarianism to old-fashioned racism.
And you can make the argument that Monsieur exacerbated and perpetuated these John Hughes-esque stereotypes through his comments in class. But one of the aims of the course, according to the Common European Framework of References for Languages, is the “student’s ability to understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance, to include personal and family information and simple aspects of one’s background and environment.”
What are stereotypes, if not “simple aspects of one’s background and environment?” And with a limited shared vocabulary there’s little room for nuance and depth. No allowance for robust debate. Alternatively, there is no way for us to see past the stereotypes through a shared joint at Saturday detention. In this class, we will forever be the “criminal,” the “athlete,” or the “princess.”
On the last day of our four-week class, Monsieur showed us a clip from a local news exposé on how poorly foreign visitors are treated in Paris. Through the use of hidden cameras, journalists showed Chinese tourists being verbally abused by French waiters and Parisian hôteliers charging American travelers exorbitantly high rates.
Monsieur explained that over 80 million tourists visit France each year, but that his country has a problem with its accueil, or welcome, of foreigners. He explained that the French rarely speak foreign languages and are skeptical of outsiders.
When I asked him why that was, he said, “it’s too complicated to explain.”