French Lessons with the Chinese

One of my goals in Paris is to improve my French. Shortly after arriving, I searched the internet for French language schools.  Tons came up. After perusing the offerings, prices and reviews, I chose the most logical school – the one Google identified as nearest to me. I signed up for 2 hours of group French lessons each day.

I arrived for my first class – there were 9 of us initially- and except for me, they were all Asian. Saejee, a former English professor whose husband had been transferred to Paris, was Korean, the others Chinese. Our teacher, Lucie, favoured baggy overalls, had a tattoo on her left arm and kept her long, dark hair in bun, held in place with polka dotted scrunchies. It looked so French – both chic and messy at the same time.

We each introduced ourselves – in French – but English was the lingua franca and whenever Lucie had to explain something other than in French, she turned to English. Saejee and I understood the English, but the other students’ comprehension ranged from barely to not at all. Nevertheless, they nodded in agreement whenever Lucie asked “ca va?” (its okay) even when they had no idea what she had said.

My usual partner, Yang, is a 17 year old from Hunan, China who loves languages, but struggles in English and her French is even worse. She keeps asking me to explain the meaning of words which are obvious to any native English speaker: “intelligiente”, “romantique”, “positive” but might as well be Greek to her. We have odd conversations, one of which translates as follows:

“What profession an acteur?”

“Do you know Tom Cruise?”

“No, what is a Tom Cruise?”

“Maybe you know George Clooney?”

Another shake of the head. I realized she would be equally clueless who or what a Robert Redford or John Wayne might be. Try as I might, I could not (and still cannot) name an actor or actress under 25.

Which brings up another divide. While the class is for adults, Saejee is the next closest to me in age – 35 – and the others between 17 and 30. A few are students back in China, a pair are musicians working in Paris. Una, a former book editor and Chinese teacher, moved here when she married a Frenchman.

We practice our French as best we can. I am the only student with a child but they all want 2 children- a boy and a girl. Identifying what sports everyone plays, 2 said none, 1 likes hiking, Saejee is a weightlifter and everyone else mentioned badminton. I am the only cyclist.

Lucie is strict about phone use. After the first student picked up her cellphone during class, Lucie admonished her and said “no phones during class”. Another tried to photograph  the blackboard containing verb conjunctions. Lucie told her to write it down as she would remember it better. When I tried to check a word spelling on Google Translate, Lucie shook her head. No cellphones and no dictionaries. We learned, but Lucie did not. Routinely as we we completed assignments in class, Lucie whipped out her cellphone and checked it for messages.

Compensating for this forced deprivation of cellphones, we all immediately pulled them out at every coffee break and stared furtively at the screen, scanning for messages, watching videos and avoiding conversation. But slowly the group began to talk, both in Chinese or English. Saejee returned after a day’s  absence and provided an hilarious description of her encounter with the French medical system after suffering  food poisoning. Apparently, she was turned away from the hospital and told to wait at home for a doctor to make a house call. She described the doctor as no more than 18.  She attributed the food poisoning to the “greasy French food” (her description, not mine). To a person, all of my classmates nodded in agreement. They abhorred French cooking and blamed all sorts of ills on it.

Talk turned to travel. The Chinese were intrigued I had visited China but responding that Lhasa (in occupied Tibet) was my favourite city in China was met by complete silence. Equally perplexing to them was I had started my Chinese adventure in Kunming.  They were aghast. It is a dangerous city, they said, and no place for a foreigner. That reaction was unexpected – we had enjoyed Kunming and felt not a whiff of danger. Similarly, when I discussed the million or so people displaced by the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, blank stares greeted me. They knew nothing of that. Even Chenguang, a human resources expert who had spent 7 years working in Africa, watching Western TV and reading newspapers, was unaware that the Dam had displaced a single person.

One afternoon, the conversation turned toward beauty products. Saejee bemoaned the fact that her favourite face mask –made in Korea but also sold in China – was not available in France. Apparently a Chinese substitute was sold in Paris, but at twice the cost. At this point, I returned to staring at my cellphone.

Every afternoon we meet, practice our pronunciation, work through grammar points, pick up new vocabulary. Each day, my classmates’ personalities reveal a little more. Yang wants to be pastry chef when she leaves school.  Li wants to find a romantic husband. Jing loves museums and is enthralled with the Louvre.

And so it goes.