Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates, in alternating parts, the experiences of a British woman in Hong Kong and a French woman in the UK.
I spent the summer of last year in Oxford in the UK, teaching French students English. It was an intensive course to meet the foreign language requirements for their entrance exams to elite French higher education institutes — the Grandes Écoles.
One of the best parts of my job was that I had to consistently communicate with my students in English. I barely had time to point out that I was a French woman myself, which sometimes led to hilarious misunderstandings. I would do the class in English, up until the point — there always came a point — when students would stop paying attention and defy their teacher’s authority by talking or texting among themselves.
I would then ask them — in their native tongue, for heightened effect — to be quiet. After a baffled silence one of them would usually venture: “Miss, where did you learn to speak French?”
Reader, that is the measure of how good my accent has become: I can trick a bunch of French kids into thinking I’m British. I regret to say, however, that even after all these years, I’m still quite unable to fool the locals.
“Your English is amazing!” said the woman at the next table at a local café last Sunday. I had just asked if she would keep an eye on my things while I went to the bathroom. The café in north London, called Belle Époque, is an imitation of a French tea room, so it isn’t exactly a hotspot with the local hipsters. It doesn’t serve lattes in glass tumblers, nor does it do avocado on toast or eggs benedict, which means that if I want to sit all morning with my laptop, nursing a teapot, no one minds.
Before she complimented me on my English, the woman had asked where I was from, picking up on the trace of accent I have never been able to shake off. When I said “France”, she melted in a sigh of epistemological satisfaction. “Well, of course,” she said, gesturing vaguely towards the café’s interior. “Belle Époque: this is why you’re here.”
I smiled and made my awkward way to the bathroom. To be clear: I don’t haunt faux-French cafés in London on a poorly judged nostalgia trip. I like Belle Époque for the reasons listed above, and because it is quiet even at weekends. My exchange with this table neighbour, which is one I’ve had many times since moving to the UK, made me self-conscious for a moment. In essence, “Your English is amazing” is a statement I take to mean: “English clearly isn’t your first language, but such a great effort!”
English has always been there in my life. What was the first English word I learnt? “Hello” maybe or “yes”? Definitely one of the two, both of which happened to be French varieties of biscuits from the early 1990s — a time when my biscuit consumption was at a lifetime peak.
Hello (now discontinued) was a hazelnut and chocolate chip confection marketed as a traditional American cookie. One advert for it featured an American student in France on the phone to her parents, saying: “Hello, they’re almost as good as mom’s cookies.” Her dad would reply with an aside: “Hello? Honey, it’s Kate who says hello!” “Poor Kate,” exclaimed her mother, taking out a tray of home-baked chocolate chip cookies. “Alone in France!” But Kate giggled on the other end of the line, cosy in her Parisian mansarde studio because she was stuffing her face with French-made cookies that were almost as good as those from home.
Yes, I’m sorry to say, was a slightly more boring interpretation of layered British sponge cake. Its main selling point was not so much that it was good but that it was unlikely to make a mess. In a TV commercial for it, a man sat on a sofa eating a Yes cake and congratulating himself for not leaving any crumbs on the said furniture.
The reason I’m going over these cultural snapshots is to show to what extent my French childhood was wrapped up in a certain idea of Anglo-international culture, one which, like the English language itself, I would eventually internalise with great success.
The only thing that strikes me as authentically French at Belle Époque is the shelves of French mass-produced biscuits opposite the counter, ones you would find in any French supermarket. Judging by their packets, I notice that a competing trend in the French biscuit industry is, and has always been, for its marketing to reinforce the country’s traditions. My all-time favourite is Petit Écolier, my madeleine if you will. The brand is defined by the shape of an early 20th-century French schoolboy in his uniform imprinted on a plaque of chocolate, itself stuck to a petit beurre. It’s all very Belle Époque.
I’m not a product of a Grande École myself. My school grades were far too average to make me a viable candidate, with the exception perhaps of English (English as a foreign language, not English literature), a subject at which I always mysteriously excelled.
My remarkably smart French students last year not only had to prepare themselves for careers as engineers or political scientists, they also had to be able to read the British and American press on a weekly basis and produce a synopsis of the competing points of view contained therein (aka the French spirit of synthesis). On this at least I could be of some help.
But at the end of the day, their very satisfactory command of English will have been impelled, at its root, by the same rationale as my own: English is the language of power. It belongs everywhere; it is omnipotent and therefore not only useful but also stylish and marketable. It is the language of advertising, even French ads, even ones that have nothing to do with cake or tea or carbonated drinks. Intensive English courses in Oxford are not a hard sell to internationals.
The first English sentence I was taught was “I love you”. It was supplied to me by my grandmother, who was a pacifist and would remain eternally grateful to Americans for having liberated our home town from German occupation in August 1944. She was sceptical of transatlantic culture but would allow hardly anyone to criticise Americans in front of her. She and I got along beautifully, but I would have learnt English and drooled over American culture regardless.
Previous stories in this series:
“I am not Chinese”
“I’m officially almost British”
“Cantonese should be defended”
“Deserving to become a citizen”
“When church meets state”
“I don’t suddenly feel British”
“Goodbye to subsidised education”
“To be an American in Paris”
“There’s a snake under my desk!”
“Loaded words for movers abroad”
“All China’s roads lead to Hong Kong”
Photographs: Graham Barclay/Bloomberg News; Getty Images/iStockphoto; Charlie Bibby