En été, un voyage
by Valerie Wu
In the summer of 2016, after having taken three years of French, I decided to participate in an exchange program to France itself. I had enough familiarity with the French language that I knew how to say hello (bonjour), how are you (comment allez-vous?), and thank you (merci). The three essential components of human interaction I had in my linguistic grasp, and the words were a solid comfort, warm and heavy in my palm. Humans were interconnected through communication, and I romanticized that concept to the point that it became my basis for existing. In his novel L’etranger, Albert Camus states, “I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.” In that context, I was opening myself as well, to a cultural experience, a language immersion, a place where I had no words but the ones laid ready in my palm.
I had always been fascinated with the power of words, but one never fully appreciates the power of words until they're no longer there. As a writer, it was especially difficult for me; having always relied on words as my one asset, the sudden absence of them left me—quite literally—dazed and confused half the time. Language has always been a flagship of the human experience. Left without that, there is only the core of what it means to be human: the five senses. To see, to hear, to smell, to taste, to feel. Voir, entendre, humer, goûter, sentir. The original aspects of the human being, anywhere, everywhere.
Led by the main French instructor on our campus, whom we called Madame Stampfl, eleven students, including me, were going to be staying with host families in Montpellier, a city in the south of France. We would be living there for about twelve days, and the remainder of the time would be reserved for sightseeing in Paris. All of us had at least two years of experience with the French language, though a few had lived in France for a while and were consequently, more experienced. I was not the latter. In some ways, my education in French has been much of the same robotic drills: simulations of real-life restaurants and ways to describe medical health emergencies (“Is the human body feminine or masculine? Why do we have to assign gender anyways?”), conjugations to say what you did instead of what you are doing.
French—France—was foreign to me, yet it wasn’t the first time I’d ever been an outsider. As a child, my parents had taken me to Taiwan each summer. I recalled feeling like a stranger-in-residence. My cousins would speak rapid-fast Mandarin and tell my grandparents about their weekends in Taipei. My weekly two-hour Chinese lessons were never enough; there was always a word I could never quite grasp.
Yet, my decision to go to France was motivated by the same concept that had sparked many of my other decisions: I was a writer. One of the first exercises I ever did in writing class was one based on fragments of phrases. We were given these cut-out papers with words on them: cat, flowers blooming, sunlight underneath the heaviness of her thighs. I repeated these words over and over in my head, trying to find a flow that sounded right, a rhythm in the syntax, and there–I found it, this perfect beat, this pattern. It was what I was thinking about when I made the decision to encounter a new country. I was so familiar with words that I was confident in my ability to communicate, despite the fact that I was severely lacking them in the type I needed
The interim between the last day of school and the day we would begin our French journey was a chaotic mess. I was torn between relaxing–it was the end of school, after all—packing, and brushing up on my French skills. We had simulated real-life French restaurants in class before, but I still couldn’t get the pronunciation right for je voudrais (I would like). I opened multiple language-learning apps up, spoke into them as if I was Facetiming—as if language had a face, one I could stare at and speak to. I entertained this notion in my mind, the features of linguistics. Perhaps the mathematical structure itself would be cold, but it would evoke warm feelings—something like connotations, the way home had a sort of positive tone to it. Stranger, though, was a bit ambiguous. The negativity of the word was debatable.
At seven a.m. on a Tuesday morning, the group of us met at the Norman Y. Mineta Airport in San Jose. My study of French vocabulary had included the section “à l'aéroport,” which was a whole five pages dedicated to what one did before flying. Enregistrer les bagages was to register the baggages. Going through security control was passez le contrôle de sécurité, and to arrive at the boarding gate was arriver à la porte d'embarquement. I translated the way I knew these words in English and formed them into phrases I could associate with meanings. In my writing classes, we’d talked about analogies, how words themselves had relationships to other words: cat is to dog as light is to dark. I interpreted the French language using the same cognitive mindset. It was a matching game, in a sense—the way each character in Chinese as a different tone.
Having grown up with Mandarin as a constant, these tones were nothing new. Tones were like music to me when I was younger. The way they assimilated to each other was the message, the theme. French, however, is a different category of linguistics. There are no tones, but there are accents, and there’s a certain kind of rhythm or flow you have to get right. Particular beats of certain phrases are more pronounced. Rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat. A fundamental part of learning taiko, the art of Japanese drumming, is to know that words represent beats. Don is standard, a quarter note. Tsu is a quarter rest. Do-ro is the equivalent of two eighth notes, but you’d play them fast and right next to each other so that they’d seem like one.
Our flight wasn’t directly to France. The first destination would be Dallas, Texas, where we would then make a connecting flight to Paris. From there, we would proceed to Montpellier via another flight, where we would then meet our host families. There was both a thrill and nervous excitement about this–a dilemma of whether we should start speaking French, or just not speak altogether. The majority of our host students were fairly proficient in elementary-level English, so it was a comfort to know that there was a way we could survive with our own words. I’d personally experienced this back when I was the host for my French student. She had the ability to answer basic questions: if she was hungry, if she was tired, where she wanted to go. For me, though, understanding French was like listening to whales singing underwater. I knew the sounds were something beautiful, but it was as if they were dulled by misunderstanding, a language barrier that I couldn’t cross. Yet, I felt a certain kind of comfort, knowing that this process of being in translation would only be for a limited amount of time. Two weeks would go by quickly.
I didn’t know this at the time, but I had always been a foreigner. This trip, though, would be the one that made me figure out why.
— Valerie Wu is a student at Presentation High School in San Jose, California. She has been to more than seven countries, but her favorite one by far is England. Her work thrives at the intersection of ethnicity, migration, and human rights, and has previously been recognized nationally by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Find her on Twitter @valerie_wu.
Photo: Rue de Buci, Paris, 2017 by Betsy Neis, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Siblíní. Find her on Instagram @betsy.neis.