Angela Natividad's Live & Uncensored!

27 July 2009

Missing Muzzy

He ain't green for nothin'.

I know this guy, a fellow expat, called Kito. (You may remember him as the man responsible for the Dirty Knife Allegory.) We talk a lot via Gchat because we're the only two somewhat-close friends from the Bay Area that happens to be sharing a time zone.

In January, when I arrived in Paris, I went through this three-day stint where I was scared shitless of doing simple things like going to the grocery store or reciprocating streetside Bonjours. On one of those days I was sitting in a cyber café, hungry as hell, talking to Kito, and I asked how he felt about his language situation.

At that point, he'd been working in Germany about six months.

"It's not where I hoped it would be," he said. "Today on the bus I saw these kids speaking German. And I hated them."

The thought of him sitting on a bus, gnashing his teeth at the sight of prattling children, stuck with me. I wondered whether I'd ever have a moment like that: when the sight of kids speaking French in ways I can't would fill me with insufferable envy.

It happened yesterday. I was sitting in a park in Montmartre, struggling with a French novel, when a shriek made me raise my eyes to the playground.

There's this kid all crumpled up on the jungle gym, crying about god-knows-what. His brother runs over to get the sitch, and the little weeper expounds on his grievances with a fluency and an eloquence I can't begin to muster.

The green-eyed angst rose inside me, thick and heady.

It's not just the want that eats you; it's the irrational desire to defend yourself to someone, to stand up and shout, "I am that competent -- charming, even! Far away from here, in a country I left, PEOPLE DON'T STRUGGLE TO TALK TO ME. I can call telephone companies, navigate discussion from the weather to work, soothe sobbing children, and make subtle jokes -- all with grace and ease."

Then I had the dilemma that an expat is always vaguely aware is coming, but tries to avoid with the optimism of fresh perspective, months before falling facedown into it: could I live with myself if I returned to a place where I'm less happy -- just because small-talk doesn't present a struggle?

Or am I equal to the challenge of staying in a country where, however much I integrate, however much I learn, I will never be a native?


Steve Hall said...

Angela, I looked forward to the day where I come visit you in Paris and we go out to dinner and you have the entire table enraptured with your subtle wit and humor which I have come to know and love.

Of course you;ll have to tell me you've enraptured everyone...because I'll have no idea what you're talking about:)

Jimmy Little said...

As someone who's lived nearly all his life in places where his accent, dialect, language, and / or culture has not been native, all I'll say is that one of the seductions of doing so is surely that it makes small-talk a (creative) struggle...

no said...

It's not just language barriers that become an issue. It's the cultural differences like sense of humor that really hit home, at least in my experience. In Quebec, people have a very distinct sense of humor. It mostly falls into the 'slapstick' category. Or point A to my point Z.
Fitting in has nothing to do with acquired language skills. If anything, it just makes you realize you might not fit in ANYWHERE.
And then the trick is to become okay with that when the inevitable realization happens. Which it will.
I suspect like me, you're an outsider and always will be. Which is why you are a decent writer and observer. The closer you get, the more you become 'native,' the less accurately you can observe.