Four Languages

  1. During my senior year of high school, I organized an attack on my Japanese teacher. He only had himself to blame. He told us about a tradition in Japanese culture where at the start each New Year, people throw soybeans around the house to ward off demons and welcome happiness. Being the children we were at the time, my best friend and I couldn’t resist planning our very own “Bean Day” in our sheltered rural classroom. We secretly schemed, gathered our beans, and marked our calendars for February 3rd. We exchanged furtive glances in the halls, our mouths saying nothing but our eyes bursting with the knowledge of what we had planned. When the bell finally rang for eighth period, we sprinted up the stairs, panting for breath. Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi! A chorus of adolescent voices rang out as Sensei unsuspectingly walked through the door to a shower of beans attacking him from every direction. His warm eyes crinkled with joy as we fell to the ground clutching our sides, filled with pride that our plan had been a success and relief that we weren’t in trouble for our disruptive behavior. This is how life always was back then, so carefree. My days were spent in laughter and the ignorant bliss of youth. I was happily unaware of the ease with which I lived and the demons that lurked in the future. Demons who would not be so easily scared off by beans and the naïve wishes of a younger me.

 

  1. I am living in Paris. I say these words in my head at the beginning of each new day. I am a sophomore in college and I am living in Paris. I arrived by myself at Charles De Gaulle, freshly single for the first time in over two years, in a blur of excitement and nerves. My hands had been shaking since I boarded the plane the night before. I am free. I meet myself on the corner of every new street, greeting the old me like a long-lost friend. With every bonjour, baguette, and bisous I am healing, as if the language of love itself can mend the cracks of my weakened heart, erasing the identity of the demon who stole mine. Give us this day our daily bread. The monotonous prayer so often muttered in the early hours of a small-town Catholic high school now has a new meaning. This sinful bread, this forgiving bread. It is warm and inviting and fills me with gratitude. My confidence blooms as the flowers do that spring, and I smile at the smallest nuances of my everyday Parisian life. The man outside the cheese shop who greets me on my walk home. The singing church bells of Notre Dame. Even the pigeons seem to coo in my favor, cheering me on with every stride.

 

 

  1. The call to prayer woke me at 5 am each morning. Allah-u-Akhbar, over and over again. I knew I should feel grateful. Not everyone gets to study abroad, let alone go twice. But the independence I found in Paris had some how disappeared, and was replaced by anxiety and frustration, about standing out, about always being different. I wanted to appreciate the old medina, where smoke rose from roasting meat and sweet scents of mint swirled around my head, but I was constantly reminded of my status as outsider. I clenched my hands tightly around the straps of my bag as women in vibrant scarves scurried about and men stared and purposely stepped in my way. I wanted to be the confident woman I met in Paris, not the helpless half of an unhealthy relationship I had been before, but the differences were too great, restricting the freedom for her to be me. I had traveled to Morocco to improve my Arabic, despite countless warning from concerned friends and conservative family members. I wanted to dispel the misconceptions they had of the Arab world by bringing back stories of my awesome adventures abroad. But when I finally arrived and walked through the streets, I was paralyzed with a fear I had brazenly insisted I didn’t posses. I realized that the people there had just as many misconceptions about Americans as we did about them. I wasn’t prepared to become a stereotype, defending my culture and my values. I was happy to be there, but I was also uncomfortable and I didn’t know how to explain to everyone back home that my trip was not as cool or exotic as it seemed. Everything was mashi mushkil. Not a problem. Except that it was.

 

  1. I still can’t express what the big lesson was from my experiences abroad, but I know that when I came home to my rural New Jersey town, something about me was different. The things I used to love about the places I knew so well suddenly seemed out of place. The drama of relationships and online aesthetics of college life that had once consumed my time suddenly felt simple and unnecessary. When I was away, all I wanted to do was fit in, but once I came home, being different didn’t seem that bad. I even started feeling like myself again. Learning new languages has let me discover new places and cultures, and through them new parts of the woman I want to be. Because of French, I know that I feel my most confident self in the heart of Paris, reading on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens. I know that I feel most brave in a street market, using Arabic for the first time with a local. I know that I feel happiest seeing the gratitude in a Dominican woman’s eyes when I’m using or at least trying her native language over mine. I know where language has taken me and I know how it has changed me, and I know that to find out where I go next, to find out who I’m supposed to be next, all I have to do is listen.
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