When I decided to attend college in Paris, I went with four years of German language classes and absolutely no knowledge of French. I was told not to worry – that I would quickly pick it up through required classes and from interacting with Parisians through daily life. About a month after my arrival, I was sitting in French class, struggling through To Be conjugations when my professor stopped, singled me out, and demanded to know why on earth I would consider moving to France without understanding the language. She questioned my motives, my intelligence, and ended the rant with a surprise conjugation quiz, which I quickly failed.
My French classes were like a scene out of David Sedaris’ memoir, Me Talk Pretty One Day. My teachers were anything but nurturing and I became so paralyzed by failure that even grocery shopping and interacting with Parisians became highly stressful. It wasn’t until the summer between my junior and senior years that I found success by volunteering on a small farm in the Dordogne region in southern France, where only French was spoken.
Growing up white, educated, middle class, I could never consider myself Other. Even now, I fully realize my privilege: I understand how to navigate systems in place here in America; I not only can fluently read but also know where to research items that I don’t understand; I have friends who are experts in their fields and feel comfortable asking for help and advice. The list could go on…
Even though I wasn’t ethnically or physically the other while in France, I did learn a small bit about how language and culture can be an other-ing experience. I learned how difficult daily routines can be when a system is unfamiliar and when a phone call requires hours of practice with a dictionary. I learned how lonely such an experience can be and how easy and necessary it is to find others who are similar. It became a survival for me to have English-speaking friends – people I could relate with immediately and not have to worry about correct vocabulary.
While my experience was still one of great privilege, the lessons I learned have carried me to a place of greater empathy. As a teacher, I understood why some parents had trouble learning English or why, after working several jobs, just needed to speak their native language. I had an inkling of how overwhelming and lonely and frustrating it can be to move to a new country, to try to navigate unknown systems, and to connect with new people. I can’t imagine trying to do that with children – it was difficult enough as a single person!
Now, as we raise Bea, I struggle with how much privilege she has. Our daughter already has the appearance and vocabulary of a child whose parents value independence, inquiry, and education. While I wouldn’t want to deprive her of that privilege, I do hope to pass on the empathy I have gained by living outside my comfort zone. And, I hope as she grows older and creates her own life experiences, that we can encourage her to pursue opportunities of otherness, so that she gains her own empathy.
How are your experiences as the Other? How do you find ways to connect and empathize with people outside your normal circle?
Linked with SheLoves Magazine’s We Are The Other synchroblog.