Life with an Accent*: Twenty-Five Unimportant Complaints From A Happy Immigrant Plus One Confession

I am a very happy immigrant, practically a poster-boy for American, and especially for California, immigration. Nevertheless, there are some recurrent irritants in my life as an immigrant, specifically. I have held my peace for forty years; in the end, I have earned the right to vituperate a little.

Since I was born and lived in France until I was twenty-one, it’s not surprising that many of my complaints have to do mostly with language and food. Here they go:

Statements that irritate me:

“I just love your accent.” The same accent I have tried to get rid of for forty years.

If I limped, would they just love my limp?

“I get my French and Spanish confused.”

They never know either.

“My French is rusty.”

They are lying to themselves. There was never enough metal to rust.

“I only know conversational French” (always a woman, saying that).

“I be American. I would wanted ate French,” isn’t conversation, honey; its baby-talk.

“I know someone who speaks six languages fluently.”

How come it’s always Lower Slovobian, or Eastern Macedonian, rather than an obvious language such as Spanish, German or French? How would those who just know someone know what that someone knows, anyway?

* Title by my student and fellow immigrant Miriam Kojnok.

Statements proudly listing fifteen different national origins in one’s ancestry.

How can they possibly know? Most of their putative ancestors – always Europeans for some reason – were busy slaughtering one another for most of history; they did not have the inclination to marry one another. The braggers could easily be the products of multiple rapes of course but then, they would be even less likely to know their ancestry.

Chinese immigrants, mostly from the mainland, who refer to me in their language as a “ghost,” rather than the more polite, “ghost-person.”

Conversations that make me squirm:

White, US-born individuals telling me about their favorite French restaurant, after I have tried politely to escape three times.

If there were any real French restaurant near where I live or work, it would have come to my attention. Their restaurant owner has a Persian name (not “Parisian”); the cook is Mexican, like ninety per cent of all cooks around here. Neither has any idea of what the dishes listed on their menu are supposed to taste like. All these dishes taste alike. The menu itself is in a sort of French larded with spelling mistakes that no French speaker could make if he tried. Why do their “French” restaurants never carry any basic French dishes, such as blanquette de veau aux morilles, lapin en civet de sang, or simply pot-au-feu (the latter, too hard to spell)?

Why “white” individuals (above)? I give Americans of Chinese extraction the benefit of doubt because they come from superior stock, cooking-wise.

Yuppies discussing the merits of different wines in front of me because I have a French name.

I don’t know the vocabulary (in any language). I did not take the $800 wine appreciation course. When I was growing up, we had three kinds of wine: wine for summer, wine for weekdays, the rest of the year, Sunday wine (always the same). I am still not rich enough to buy wines worth discussing. I am a Californian: I co-own a house with a bank, instead.

Connoisseurs explaining to their children in a loud voice that the French eat “escargots.”

It’s very bad to lie to children, especially one’s own. Using foreign words to do so is downright vile. Those are just snails, the garden variety, to be precise.

Anglos parents seeking my approval to send their children to Europe for two quarters so they will become fluent in a foreign language (sometimes two).

They won’t. They will go to the beach or skiing with other English- speaking kids, like nearly all study-abroad students. They might pick up some rare words in a foreign language though, such as “sunscreen” and “antifreeze.”

Any conversation or monologue that includes the words, “coup degrâce,” invariably pronounced, “cou de gra,” without an “s” sound at the end. That would mean being hit with a piece of animal fat. Even the French are not so heartless as to finish off the condemned that way.

Incidentally, “Mardi Gras” does not mean “Fat Tuesday”.

It means the last Tuesday before the first Wednesday when good Catholics must refrain from eating meat during Lent.

Solemn discourse by famous university professors (you would be amazed if I named names) who assure me that I don’t understand Quebec French because it and the French I know are not mutually intelligible, being completely separate languages.

It matters not that I assure them that I never get lost in Quebec, that I read Quebec newspapers and even watch Quebec television without stressing out. The professors are like twins separated at birth to fifty million French people who are convinced that English and American are utterly unrelated languages and that, therefore, the claim that I often watch BBC television series is delusional.

Any conversation that includes the words “ugly American.”

Where shall I begin? First, it indicates a significant lack of general culture. (See below.) Second, the use of these words constitutes a tremendous suggestion of collective insanity: The words are drawn from the title a novel of the late fifties whose hero was a kind, rational and culturally sensitive American expatriate who happened to be an ugly son of a bitch. This 180-degree distortion is what suggests collective insanity. Third, the whole idea is presumptuous: Tourists are often clumsy, more often pitiful. They are almost never really offensive (except rich Germans in large groups and they, only at airports). If tourist were in any way bad, what would give you the right to claim that American tourists are especially good at being bad? (You need proof.) Finally, you are not fooling anyone: By deploring the imaginary bad behavior of other Americans, you think you are subtly setting yourself apart as a person of breeding and delicacy. This is the perfect mark of a boor, of course.

Behavior that puts me off:

Extending a secret handshake in my direction, although I am obviously not a frat boy, nor a Chicano, even less a gang member.

Motioning “quotation marks,” mid-air with two fingers of each hand.

(Should have their frigging fingers cut off the next time they try it.)

Sweet young things who call me “Monsieur” when they hear my last name.

I know your intentions are nice, but sorry, speak French to me if you must, or speak English. “Monsieur” means exactly “Mister” and “Sir.” I know these two words; I don’t need them translated. You are unwittingly segregating me.

Other college professors who solicitously explain to me the meaning of difficult English words, such as “malapropism”. (Comes from the French, “mal à propos”.) Don’t bother: English is mostly ungrammatical French mispronounced by Saxon peasants.

Terrorists who sabotage foie gras-producing establishments.

I am against the death penalty, but I am also flexible and willing to consider exceptions.

Like all immigrants, I have suffered from racism. Here are some examples:

Chinese waiters who maintain that their restaurant does not serve beef tendon when there are at least five Chinese families within thirty feet of me having beef tendon.

Frigging racists! Compare with the gracious behavior of Mexican waiters who, when they are sure this gringo really wants menudo – cow stomach stew – smile broadly and get me an extra helping.

Narrowly avoided a brutal and demeaning death: The Chinese restaurant manager who brought me beef brisket, after my Shanghai-reared and educated Chinese lunch companion ordered beef tendon for me.

The manager alleged that she had mispronounced the Chinese character for “tendon.”

Countless, Indian, Thai, Mexican, Chinese cooks who deliberately overspice my food, just because I am a white man.

Deep down, I know I should be tolerant. It’s their only revenge for centuries of colonialism and oppression by the White Man. In reality, I think this kind of behavior would fairly justify re-colonization.

People I shun:

English teachers who say, “No one does exactly what they want.”

If no (zero) one is not singular, what is? I took the trouble to learn English. So should they.

Anyone who says, “Mexican people,” “Jewish people,” or “international,” instead of “foreign.”

“Mexican,” “Jew” and “foreign” are not dirty words. Those who do this are liberal racists, liberal anti-Semites, and liberal xenophobes.

Almost all francophiles.

They seldom know anything true about French culture. Their love of all things French is just an indirect way to set themselves apart as more refeeened than regular folks. I am tolerant of those who are under twenty-five. Here are two vignettes to help them understand French culture and snap out of it, once for all:

Traditional French culture: I got up early, went out and shot that hare I had been keeping an eye on. I don’t have a permit and the hunting season is closed but I got it with a single shot, so, I am probably alright. On the way home, I picked up some chanterelles mushrooms in the woods, on my neighbors’ property. (They are away for two months.) At home, I made coffee, peeled some onions, and dressed the hare while preserving its blood. I fried the onions, sautéed the hare hindquarters, poured on the blood and let it simmer while I took a nap. After that, I adjusted the condiments and added the mushrooms. I let simmer some more. In the afternoon, I walked to the café and played cards with my friends. We argued about politics. Before I left, I talked dirty to the barmaid for a while, so she wouldn’t think I was cold-shouldering her. (Pour qu’elle ne soit pas vexée.) Then, home; I ate my hare with some new potatoes and a glass of my own wine. It was delicious. And to bed early.

Contemporary French culture: I am going to bed early because there is nothing good on TV. There is a two-day bridge between the General’s Holiday and the week-end. We are taking advantage of this, my wife and I, to go to our country house in the boondocks, and to relax. Only two months before my five-week summer vacation. This year, we are doing Greece. Three more years and I will be fifty-five. I will retire on my government pension. Then, I will really be able to relax.

Finally, humble pie I need to eat:

For thirty-nine years, I was asked about ten times a year, “Why do the French hate Americans?” That’s practically four hundred times. I always used to reply either, with distemper, that they did not, or with an elaborate sociological explanation about collective, shared and mutual misperceptions.

Then came the spring 2003 war against the Butcher of Baghdad and the French government lined up squarely with the Butcher, with much popular approval, I am forced to admit.

I was wrong. I have to think about a true answer to this question.

I am reading about 1942-43 Vichy France.

6 thoughts on “Life with an Accent*: Twenty-Five Unimportant Complaints From A Happy Immigrant Plus One Confession

  1. I’d just click the “Like” button if I could find it. Liberty’s friend is liberty’s friend. Thanks for what you guys do here, and I’m glad they have dictionaries online.

  2. “Then came the spring 2003 war against the Butcher of Baghdad and the French government lined up squarely with the Butcher, with much popular approval, I am forced to admit.”

    But hey, Scotsman George Galloway was tight with Saddam, too. But then you FRENCH ALWAYS got along PERFECTLY with the SCOTS (just read an popular biography of a member of the House of Stewart; consider the similarities between Jean Cauvin and John Knox; other spurious or superficial examples), and by extension, IRAQI DESPOTS.

    How is that for stereotyping?

    Good read, by the way.

  3. Kweimh3 Stereotyping if often fine for those who are well informed about the object being stereotyped. It’s a summary of complex things. Sometimes the set of complex thing on thinks one knows are really true. Obviously, when I said “the French” i meant the French polity which is a democratic entity where the leadership usually reflects widespread popular sentiment. That was essentially valid short-hand.

    You and your generation and the one before it were vaccinated early in life against the horrible disease of stereotypinitis. I know because the people doing the vaccinating were my former C students. Shake it lose. Live a little!

    • I was home schooled and my dad is politically incorrect to the max. No vaccination for me. I stereotype for real all the time. I was just enjoying over-doing it a little there.

  4. […] I am an immigrant. I immigrated into this country at 21. I was a high school dropout from France. I had no marketable skill but I knew English pretty well. I had no money. (That’s “Not any.”) I carried a small suitcase containing mostly some Navy clothing from my recent service. The Unites States did not need me.* No one had invited me except the late George and Rose-Marie McDaniel of Novato, California. (They had met me during my stint as a high school exchange student three years earlier, financed by others.) Don’t worry, I am not going to cram down your throat yet another heroic story of hard immigrant work and well deserved achievement. […]

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