Monday, October 24, 2011

Going The Distance

A very good friend of mine left for an exchange program in Argentina. She had never gone out of France on her own, let alone lived in a foreign country thousands of miles away for an extended period of time.

We write to each other often, and she just told me how she feels very alienated. People are very nice to her and all, but somehow she doesn't feel like she fits in. It might be the language barrier (she speaks decent Spanish but with a heavy French accent), or it might be that she's only been there for 3 months while all her classmates have known each other since freshman year so it's already a too close-knit circle to break into. Either way, she's having a problem blending in.

Upon reading her emails, I just smiled. It's not schadenfreude mind you, it's just that I know the feeling all too well. Been there, done that.

At least she's white, so she still looked like everybody else in Argentina. In freshman year, I was one of the very rare specimens of the Malayo-Polynesian species, and I didn't speak perfect French so people knew I was a foreigner, but they couldn't really put a finger on my origins. I don't really look Chinese. I'm too tall to be Vietnamese. My double eyelids say I'm not from East Asia. They're like, "Are you Mexican? Peruvian? A mix of Chinese and something else? Or are you just French with a funny face? Seriously what are you?"

It was nerve-wrecking.

As a foreigner in another country, people will be interested in you for like two seconds. After the exotic factor dies down, you're going to have to make real friends like everybody else. And this is when it gets tough. A friendship gives you a sense of belonging and acceptance, and this can only be done if you have things in common. What did I have in common with these French people? Nothing. I didn't look like them, eat the same food, speak the same mother tongue, practice the same religion, get all the French films references and quotes, or come from the same cultural background. My French was bookish and extremely pedantic, and the people around me were speaking 'youth French', with their verlans and derived expressions and corrupted vocabulary and SMS language and Franglish. I couldn't be any more different. Heck, they even had a different handwriting! In France there's a standardized handwriting they teach you in primary school so believe it or not, they ALL have the same handwriting. This standardized handwriting is so well-established that you have French Script as a font in Microsoft Word.

The only thing that saved me from being shunned into oblivion was the fact that I had a knack for languages (so it didn't take long for me to adapt to their French), and that I was an avid reader. Really, my years of being a bookworm finally paid off. In a prestigious French public engineering school, you have this highly educated environment where people actually READ, where they know how to have fun but still maintain their academia. They have this ability to switch from speaking vulgar French into formal French using proper enunciation, elevated register, specific vocabulary and impressive articulacy in a split second.

You can't keep up with that unless you have varied reading materials. I didn't know a lot about European history, and the French are a bunch of very Euro-centric bunch of people for whom Europe, with its long history in philosophy and literature, is the cradle of human civilization and thus, they are very proud of it. So I did a massive amount of reading, especially in areas of European art, music, literature, history and philosophy. To really know a people, you have to speak their language and know where they come from.

And I wasn't afraid to speak up. I wasn't afraid of getting and standing corrected, I made up lame jokes, I asked a lot of questions, I answered a lot of them too. You can't hope to survive 5 years of college without blending in with people, or you're going to end up depressed. College years are supposed to be the best years of our lives.

So yeah, this is what I told my friend who went to Argentina. The lonely feeling will creep up sometimes because of homesickness, but only if you don't keep yourself busy. And friends keep you busy.

Well I don't know why I'm worried about her. She's a party girl. So she'll be fine.

1 comment:

farah said...

is it true that French people are snobbish? I heard that they like to snub those who speak in English to them :)