Being in a foreign country has a way of making my brain sloshy with new thought projects.
In this brand new place (which will soon feel old hat), I have re-become a sponge. I am soaking up everything around me like it’s my only purpose in life: a porous repository thrown out into the torrential Northern rains, just to see what happens. Actually, I am a porous repository who threw myself intentionally into the torrential Northern rains, just to see what would happen. And I do see it as my only purpose in life.
I just ascended from the dining area of the house I’m staying in to my temporary room on the third floor (in American floors… it’s the 2ème étage, here) after eating the most perfect homemade crêpes I have ever encountered (although ours were a close second and third, Marisa and La Maison 😉 ) with some Northern beet sugar and my host teacher, her two daughters, and her oldest daughter’s friend. They had what I’m sure, to them, was a completely ordinary conversation about people at school, clubs, extracurricular activities, etc. It’s the kind of conversation my mom, sister, and I would have around the dinner table every day, or with one of our friends, with two notable differences: it was in French, and in France.
The sponge analogy came to me because, even though I didn’t interject in their conversation nearly as often or as fluidly as they could, I was a spongy participant: I was soaking up how they construct sentences, how they shaped their mouths, how they pronounced words and what expressions they chose for each situation. And more deeply, I was listening to what they find bizarre and what they think is cool, what they notice about people and how they think about their lives. My impression, overall, is that there is so much that is familiar in a country/language halfway around the world.
Being a human sponge comes with certain responsibilities, I think, and among the most important is the ability to compare without evaluation. There is a this is better than that approach, and there is a this is here, that is there approach in which the evaluation to be made is how intriguing is this difference, or how revealing is this similarity. There is no value judgment, there is only noticing.
And in my eyes, one of the ultimate purposes of cultural immersion (and learning other languages, for that matter), is developing empathy. In stepping outside and being a sponge, letting this new place fill me with new things, I am learning how to understand them — not understanding them, but learning how to understand them. Even more complex-ly, it feels like I’m learning how to understand them without ever fully “understanding” them; rather, I’m learning how to accept and integrate what I do not understand into what I think I do (or thought I did). I am being a point of intersection. And this experience of being a point of intersection, of developing intercultural empathy, will in some (unknown at this point in time) way enable me to be of service to the world. I am learning to be a global citizen, part of a larger community.
And I am acutely aware of one thing, one skill that is indispensable to my Important Mission: I speak French.
To be fair, I think that we all do this kind of work, intentionally or not, every day in every aspect of our lives, in English. We are perpetually encountering new things and people and situations that we hadn’t previously known how to understand, and LIFE is a process of learning how to do it.
The only thing that makes me feel it more acutely in this situation than at home or at Whitman is the degree of difference — I have been thrown into the deep end, into this town where only English teachers speak English. Maybe there are deeper ends that I have yet to experience, cultures and languages that are even more disparate than this one. But for the moment, I am trying to intensely engage with where I am. I am spongy but not passive. I am an observer-participant. And all this is made possible by viewers like you.
Just kidding. It is really made possible by having learned French.
If in some terrible black-hole-of-despair alternate future there is no use for French in my life, I have justified my 8 years of study with how much I am LEARNING from being able to communicate with French people.
And we all know how much I am a nerd about learning.