No longer the "smart one"

For as long as I can remember, I've always been known as the smart one.  My brain seems to work in hyper drive and I can retain a lot of what I study.  When I was in 5th grade I was moved into a gifted program.  When I was in high school I graduated in the top 5% of my class.  I earned an award when I got my master's for graduating with the highest GPA in the class.  (An award I shared with my dear friend who also got a 4.0.)  

I don't say all this to brag, because there are tons of stuff I CAN'T do.  To me being known as the "smart one" just means I'm good at taking tests... a skill that doesn't translate very well into real life.  But I find that at meetings, parties, or wherever, I'll get asked my opinion on something or to settle a debate.  I guess you can call me a great party trick (or the most annoying guest).  

Moving to NYC was a culture shock in a lot of ways, but the biggest was to be in a room full of people who are just as good at taking tests as I am, if not better.  I definitely had to up my game.  But eventually I got comfortable surrounded by intellectuals.  

Then I came to France.  I have been studying this language for months, and it just isn't clicking for me.  I've been hitting it hard for the past month and I can now confidently say, "I speak a little French." and "I don't understand you."  And on a good day I can order a baguette.  

It's been eye opening to see how I'm treated as basically an immigrant who doesn't know the language.  I don't know how to refill my Metro card, how to unload my groceries on the conveyor belt, or how to use my metro pass to get on the bus.  Nothing is instinctive over here.  It's all done differently. 

Many people aren't shy about letting me know I'm doing something wrong.  When I tell them I only speak a little French in my thick American accent, they immediately will talk to me like I have a low I.Q.  It's almost as if they think that since I don't now French, I must not know much of anything.  I've had people raise their voice to me (as if a louder volume will somehow magically teach me French). I've have people roll their eyes at me and sigh as if I shouldn't even be there.  I've had people grab my arm and take me somewhere because they don't know how else to tell me where to go.  I'll be honest, I'm not used to being treated this way.  Because, you know, I'm the smart one.  Just not in France. 

Being on the other side of the immigrant, don't-know-the-language experience has really opened my eyes to what it is like to enter a new country.  It's caused me to have some pretty hard conversations with myself.  Have I ever treated someone like they are dumb because they don't know English?  Sadly, I have.  

So to help me be a better global citizen, I've tried to think of what I wish people would do when they learn that I'm a foreigner and can't speak their language.  And then I hope to remember to do the same when I'm back in my country.
  • Smile warmly.  I think I'm at the point now that if someone were to smile at me, I might burst into tears. 
  • Say "welcome".  I wish just once someone would let me know they are glad I have traveled this far to their country.  
  • Speak slowly.  Not because I am dumb, but so I can catch every word.  The French talk fast and drop what few consonants they should pronounce.  It sounds like just a series of vowel sounds with some gutteral "R's" thrown in every now and then.  If someone would just enunciate slowly, I think I might actually catch on. 
  • Use hand gestures or draw pictures.  When people take the time to point to something or show me what they mean, it helps so much.  
  • Write down what they are trying to say.  I can read French so much more easily than I can hear it.  
  • Stop every once in a while to see if I still understand.  It would be nice if they would stop to let me translate what I just heard back into English.  I need time to think of my English response and then have time to translate it into French.  
  • Show love.  It's not our fault we don't know each other's languages.  It's those silly people who built the Tower of Babel.  We share the same earth, the same air, the same water, we deserve the same love.  

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