All That’s Lit To Print

baguette picture
Leigh Alley

How I Learned to Stop Loving and Worry About Baguettes

By Kimberly Yee

Oho, you really want to be a language teacher? The interviewer from Brown University teased. Tell me, then…what is it that you like so much about French—why do you want to study it? Could you tell me a story about it?

I took a deep breath and tried my best to come up with a good reason. Or, at least, a good anecdote.

Fortunately enough, I managed to save myself a few awkward seconds by recalling that one time a Knowledge Bowl reader horribly mispronounced the honorable name of Alexandre Dumas, the creator of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Because—even over a decade after starting French—I still cannot figure out why anyone would want to learn it.

I guess, now that I think of it, I should have known from the beginning that things would turn out weirdly. I was first introduced to French many years ago, when my uncle Pierre married into my father's side of an extended Chinese family. While lounging about in my uncle's well-decorated house and staring at a bowl of fake fruit, my younger cousin suddenly turned towards his father and asked for a 'pomme.'

That's not right, I said, figuring it must be baby talk. That's an apple.

No, the French word for apple is 'pomme,' my uncle replied. I stood corrected.

Once I told my mother about this, however, things changed drastically. It suddenly became imperative that I learn how to speak the same second language that my younger cousin would grow up with. Year after year, I spent every afternoon at the now-extinct Borders, sipping raspberry iced tea and trying to conjugate le passé parfait with my mother's tutor-of-the-week. Mandarin and Cantonese lessons be damned, we needed to schedule a session with Mademoiselle Alex and we needed it to happen tout de suite. Oh, Mademoiselle was growing a little lazy, wasn't she? Well, no worries, off to the local community college to select an Asian student at random. And when chère Victoria had left to pursue her studies, we easily replaced her with Khoa, who was pretty much the same but with a little more acne. Oh la la! Khoa had begun to grow lazy, too. Time to call up Estelle, who fulfilled all of our criteria by going to South Puget Sound Community College and being Vietnamese. No ais, no pourquoi, and no je ne veux pas. C'est encore plus important que la vie, le Fran&ccidel;ais.

Eventually, though, things did become a little less hectic when my mother finally settled on my last—and current—French tutor, who taught Spanish at my middle school and worked as a quadrilingual translator. One time, when it snowed outside and I was only wearing ballet flats, she kindly offered to get me snow boots so I could walk back home.

What's your pointure? she asked casually, as I rode in the back of the van with her son and daughter to their house.

My shoes are not pointy, I replied indignantly.

After five minutes of hysterical laughter, they revealed that 'pointure' meant 'shoe size', not 'pointiness index.' False cognate, apparently, but this misunderstanding didn't discourage my language teacher. She later bought me my first official French book as a birthday gift: a little novel called Les Malheurs de Sophie, by Comtesse de Ségur.

As my orthographe improved, my mom stopped forcing me to listen to French in Action tapes at night, but I still was not allowed to watch movies in English or with subtitles. I tried my best to befriend it, but French never quite became a language of love for me. It was years and years of conjugating le subjonctif, putting circumflex accents on e's, transcribing les dictées, and reluctantly conversing with house guests whenever my mom felt like showing off. Even attempts to practice with my cousin, for whom I had learned everything in the first place, were not exactly what I'd expected.

I think our moms want us to speak in French instead.

Oh. Uh, ok. What's the word for 'turkey?'

Une Dinde.

Okay. I would like some more dinde bacon, then.


Oh, right! More dinde bacon…s'il vous plait!

I ended up using French even less during high school, as the only courses I could take were online and deemed inferior by the three people who took them. Given there were so few people who had tried to learn it, I didn't use it to practice with them very often. As an ABC (American-born Chinese) girl, I definitely had no business speaking it in the first place. Well, not that I didn't try.

Oh, no thanks, Kimberly. Mon Fran&ccidel;ais est très mal, my friend replied after my attempt to flirt with him by offering to practice speaking together. But, if you'd like, you can learn to speak Chinese with me! Better yet, why don't we try to learn Cantonese together?

Uh, you know what, maybe not. Cantonese is, uh…I don't really… I looked up at the ceiling, fumbling with my hands. Dammit, I came here to flirt with a cute guy, not to explain unintentional distancing from my cultural roots.

But aren't you Cantonese too, Kimberly? You said your mother came from Hong Kong, right? You could learn to speak Mandarin with me, and my brother from another country!

Well, you see, I coughed awkwardly, wringing my hands, I don't really…

Fortunately, our favorite classmate—a boisterous young man who had grown up in Poland—was able to clarify the situation for me.

You see, he grinned, Kimberly is too embarrassed to explain that—because Hong Kong was a British colony—she has never learned to speak Cantonese, but rather her true heritage language…English.

Shut up! I screeched, whacking him.

Well, so much for that. My romantic life thus remained about as successful as Bradley Cooper's illustrious career as a French ambassador.

Why didn't you give me Chinese lessons instead? I whined to my mother as we bustled about in the kitchen, trying to figure out what to make for Cultural Dish Day.

I did! Don't you remember? When you were a little kid, you took calligraphy lessons in Mandarin with Brandon's mother.

Yeah, but why didn't you teach me Cantonese yourself?

Because, she leaned in and hissed, I do not have good memories of my time in China. It is not like America. My family was very poor, and none of us could afford what I give you. When I left for boarding school in Britain, I swore that I would never come back.

Oh, I murmured quietly.

She shrugged.

Wait. You went to boarding school in WHAT country again?

She looked at me and blinked. England, of course, she replied.

Now, what do you think? I know I can make some pretty good scones, and maybe we can find a recipe for clotted cream if we look hard enough—

Scones? CLOTTED CREAM? Wh-what about char siu bao? Dan tat? Shrimp dumplings? Singapore mai fun? Aren't we Chinese?

Char siu bao will go stale if you don't reheat them, and Singapore mai fun has too many ingredients, she replied.

It was thus with defeat that I presented my classmates with cream puffs.

What cultural dish is that? My English teacher blinked, curious.

Dan tat, I replied sulkily. Well, it had eggs and cream, so, close enough.

Oh. Weren't you going to bring in some more of that stuff you made last year? The frog eggs?

I raised an eyebrow. You mean the tapioca pudding?

Yes, that! He nodded.

Just then, the Spanish teacher appeared at the door and waved me out.

Kimberly, are you ready? He asked, nodding meaningfully.

Yes, sir, I replied, sighing and unfolding the piece of paper I had prepared.

Alright, everyone, if you could please give us your attention. Before we proceed to eat all of these lovely cultural dishes, Kimberly is going to read the Lord's Prayer en Fran&ccidel;ais. Thank you so much for agreeing to this, by the way.

De rien, I replied, clearing my throat and crossing myself. Dans le nom du Père, le Fils, et L'Esprit Sacré…

As time went by, I began to question whether the language I had devoted so much of my life towards mastering would ever come into use. Not once had my family visited Paris; nor had we ever found ourselves stuck in a snow-covered cabin with only a native Québécois to guide us home through the dark and stormy night.

Ooh, you should apply to Sorbonne, my mother crooned. You'll learn so much more French at an actual Parisian university!

This seemed like a good idea…for about two seconds. My mother quickly discovered that in order to attend a French University, you must apply through a French website, for which there exists no translated version or English subtitles. In the end, we decided to just apply for regular old 'Murican state universities like everyone else.

But, after all the trouble I'd gone through to learn French, I wasn't ready to let go of my weird talent just yet. I'd spent so many years on this ridiculousness—at least, I should get some sort of recognition for it.

So which SAT Subject tests did you take? I asked my good friend, the Polish student.

Well, I took one in World History, and one in US History, and another in—

Yes, yes, but did you get an 800 on any of them? I asked, raising an eyebrow challengingly.

Well, not that I know of yet, since I just took them—

Oh really? What a shame, I replied, batting my lashes with mock sympathy. Because I did, on the French one.

That's lovely, Kimberly, he replied pleasantly.

I beamed.

And what did you get on the Chinese one?

I prefer Virginia Woolf to James Joyce, my classmate Katherine groaned. We had lately been reading a lot of stream of consciousness novels. Personally, I found Joyce easier to read, but I stayed silent for the sake of our feminist connection.

Yes, James Joyce doesn't use punctuation, our English teacher replied. I blinked. I had read Joyce just fine…why, had I actually used an anglicized text on accident that corrected his unique punctuation?

As I puzzled over this, I decided to look more closely at an excerpt of Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man.

—Do you remember, he said, when we knew each other first? The first morning we met you asked me to show you the way to the matriculation class, putting a very strong stress on the first syllable. You remember? Then you used to address the Jesuits as father, you remember? I ask myself about you: IS HE AS INNOCENT AS HIS SPEECH?

I stared.

Sir, I turned towards my English teacher, do you mean…James Joyce doesn't…

Use punctuation marks? Yes, it's his style. Apparently, he replaces the punctuation marks with a dash, he replied.

Well…actually, it's an old style of French punctuation, I said, and showed him an excerpt of Les Petites Filles Modèles, also by Comtesse de Ségur.

Maman! dit-elle, maman! je veux voir maman! —Ta maman va venir, ma bonne petite, répond Camille en l'embrassant. Ne pleure pas; reste avec moi et avec ma sœur Madeleine.

Huh, I thought he came up with it by himself. He blinked. Actually, Joyce did spend some time in France while writing it, so maybe he was influenced somehow.

Yeah, I was wondering why I didn't have any trouble, and it turns out…

So you're used to it!


Hmm. He peered at it closer. Mah-man? he asked.

Maman. The n is silent because there's no vowel after it.

Why do the French have so many silent letters?

I dunno. I shrugged, staring out the window. French are weird.

You would know, he chuckled. Maman?

I nodded. Maman.

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