Transitions

Within three days of leaving France, this is what I’ve managed to do so far in the strange land of America:

  • Made a French couple think I was French by speaking French on the plane to Reykjavik
  • Cried five times on the plane to DC
  • Sobbed on Iszi and Pat
  • Stared at how big everything in America is
  • Inhaled my first peanut butter sandwich in seven months
  • Grabbed a box of chocolate from my mom because it had French on it
  • Felt like a snob because I eyed the pastries at Trader Joe’s in disdain…where are my pains au chocolat?
  • Drank some of Iszi’s chai frap and agreed that it tasted like America
  • Cried on Madeline
  • Winced at how loud everything in America is
  • Accidentally used French with my non-Francophone friends…at least it was just an “au revoir” that slipped out, and not something more tragic in a formal setting
  • Cried over a letter addressed to my brother in the mailbox
  • Eaten fried rice three days in a row
  • “Unpacked” by carrying everything upstairs to my bed and then moving it all to my desk or to the floor

Final Thoughts

After having sobbed on several of my friends and inhaling my first peanut butter sandwich in seven months, I’m beginning this post with a disclaimer: in all fairness, I can’t judge the TAPIF experience properly because I spent a good two months mentally checked out of the program, writing essays and poems and rewatching Parks and Rec. (Sorry, teachers, but hey, at least I did my job). Regardless, I’ll give this post my best shot—it’s going to be quite long, probably essay length, because that’s the kind of writer I am. Anyways, these 7 months in France were jam-packed with so many firsts in my life: working as an adult—and in a foreign country; living rent-free; coming out; protesting (twice); going to my first official concert; BSing public speaking without being nervous about it; watching my first play in French; making phone calls—in a foreign language—without panicking; and losing my brother.

Teaching: Right before diversity graduation last year, two of my friends said that French kids were the worst, and wow, were they not kidding. Some of the things I’ve seen the students here do would have gotten them straight-up suspended in the US. Now, I’m not saying that they’re all awful; most of the kids I encountered were quite lovely—it’s just that, in four or five classes, the students blatantly provoked and disrespected the teachers. For whatever reason, though, those ill-behaved students never directed that ire toward me—and I don’t know what it says, that they’ll willingly listen to a soft-spoken American who looks like a high schooler, but not their own trained teacher…it’s absolutely bizarre to have a class of 20+ secondes listen to you without complaint.

I’ve witnessed so many different teaching methods, including some I’d use and some that I wouldn’t go near with a ten-foot-pole. But what working in schools has really taught me is that, even in high school, teaching is just glorified babysitting. And if you have no idea what you’re doing, well, that’s fine—the students won’t have a clue that you’re just pulling words out of your mouth as you go.

French: My writing skills probably deteriorated, seeing as I only wrote emails and never got to write any essays, much to my great disappointment. (Yes, I know, I’m a nerd.) I wouldn’t say that my speaking skills improved, necessarily, but I certainly got a lot more comfortable using French, to the point that I reserved BlaBlaCars and Airbnbs with French-only speakers without hesitation. While studying abroad, I wouldn’t have done that if you’d offered to pay me. One of the Americans in Caen asked me, “How’s your French?” and I replied, “I majored in it, so fluent-ish,” but I think I can officially remove the “-ish” seeing as I’ve begun and maintained conversations in French with native speakers. And accidentally used French after being back in the US for all of a day.

Public speaking: This is going to sound really bad, but apparently I don’t mind speaking in front of people when there’s no grade at stake (or microphone standing before me). Sure, I’m still a socially awkward human being, but 6th-grade-me would’ve been so proud of BSing a lesson on Hitchcock. (Take that, 6th-grade English teacher who said that being painfully shy would hurt me later in life. Sometimes I feel like I talk purely to spite her.) However, I still hate being the center of attention: when the Claudel teachers raised their glasses to me, my first instinct was to turn around and run outside. Although…part of me can’t help but wonder if I maybe hated speaking up as a student because I didn’t want to fulfill the “smart Asian” stereotype. Yeah, 12 hours of work a week leaves you with way too much thinking time.

Hours: Please make us work more than 12. I nearly lost my mind from the boredom, watching too many TV shows (15) and working on an assortment of half-finished poems and essays.

Location: I chose Amiens because I’d spent a year abroad in the south and wanted to experience something completely different. But boy, did I have no idea how different it would be. In the future, could I see myself living in the north of France? Nope. I need sun. I nearly experienced seasonal depression because, I kid you not, from November to February there were weeks where I didn’t remember what the sun looked or felt like. Also, it’s beyond sad when you have to unpack your winter coat in late April.

Salary: I got lucky because, for the first—and probably last time in my life—I didn’t have to pay rent. And even though I splurged on travel and presents, I actually left France with more money than I arrived with. It helps that groceries were incredibly cheap, about 20 euros/week. (Some assistants were complaining about spending 200 euros/week. Excuse my French, but what the hell were they buying…? During the months I didn’t travel, I was hard-pressed to spend 200 euros/month on the cafeteria, phone plan, laundry, food, and transportation.) Oh, and in case you were wondering, exchanging money from euros to dollars makes you feel so much richer.

The –isms: Too long. I’ll cover the racism and misogyny in a separate post.

Homesickness: I did and I didn’t want to leave France—I missed my friends and family, but I’m also going to miss essentially being paid to travel. However, most of why I didn’t want to leave France has everything to do with grief. At least over there, even if my emotional support system was back here in America, I didn’t have to deal with living in a house hollowed by my brother’s ghost, where I’m confronted with daily reminders of him. And, well…how many TAPIF assistants have to return home to a funeral?


Now for the million-dollar question: would I have renewed the contract? I honestly don’t know. Tragedy changes everything. It feels like a lifetime ago, but before December, I think I was considering working in the sun-soaked south, Martinique, or Guadeloupe. But even if I hadn’t lost Justin, I can’t say with certainty that I would’ve repeated TAPIF. Despite the immersion experience, I didn’t get to help students on a more individual level like I’d hoped to. Perhaps this was due to being the guinea pig English assistant split between two lycées for the first time; still, in many classes, it was hard to shake the impression that I was being used more as an American accent or a babysitter than as a cultural or near-peer asset.

I don’t regret my choice, though, which I suppose, in the end, is the best thing anyone can say. I’ve gotten to see so much of the world and meet so many incredible assistants (26 of them, somehow???), as well as some amazing teachers, something that would’ve never happened if I’d ended up settling for an entry-level job that I would have most likely ended up hating. Honestly, I’ve been absolutely floored by some of the kindness that some of the teachers have shown me, from Nico and Marylise inviting me to stay over on new Year’s Eve after they learned that I’d lost my brother, to Marilo offering to let me sleep over Sunday night and drive me to the train station the day I left France. Not to mention, what other job would’ve let me travel to five countries? Across France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland, I got to see 19 cities: Amiens, Lille, Brussels, Paris, Strasbourg, Lyon, Dijon, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Caen, Bayeux, Mont St-Michel, Galway, Dublin, Bray, Glendalough, Howth, Rouen, and Giverny.

(Okay, I lied, I do have one regret: not making it down to Saint-Malo, which is fine, because my one regret from Nice was not seeing Versailles. I accomplished that eventually…or 2 years later. Anyways, my point is, I’m not done with France yet. I’ll be back at some point, during another chapter of my life.)

I’m going to finally shut up and bring this post full-circle by ending with a disclaimer, too: no two TAPIF experiences will be the same. So much of it depends so much on where you’re placed (the city and the school[s]), the assistants you meet, and your expectations and attitude. I know my time here in France has changed me—but how, I can’t say, especially because my situation was so complicated. I can say, however, that I’ll be able to look back upon my time here fondly, that the seven months of my life I spent here have given me a lot of good memories that will make me smile whenever I reminisce about the struggle of being an assistant in a country with terrible bureaucracy.

Just an FYI

For anyone who cares, I’m officially back in the US! I’ve been awake since 6:29 in the morning, or 12:29am American time, and have experienced way too many emotions during my near all-nighter. Not only did I cry five times on the plane, but I also sobbed on Iszi and Pat. Anyways, after being fed freshly cooked fried rice and freshly picked cilantro, and letting you all know that I made it home in one piece, I’m getting my well-deserved sleep.

Miscellaneous Moments, Part XIII

  • You know you’re in too deep with your French major when you cringe at how some people pronounce “Bonjour” in that one Beauty and the Beast song.
  • There’s nothing more entertaining than listening to American college students attempt to figure out what the flavor nature (plain) chips were: “Maybe they just threw a bunch of nature in a bag!” “Can you have chips au naturel?”
  • These past few days, so many people have been asking—in English and in French—what I want to do in the future, and I’m sure that at least one of my French professors will be delighted to hear that I automatically reply, “I’m thinking about going to grad school for a French PhD.”
  • On the train, the French guy next to me was working on a paper in English, and I desperately wanted to offer to edit it for him because my inner-writing tutor has been starved for a year.
  • In the hallway, I got stuck in one of those “Sorry I don’t know what direction you’re going in and I’m trying not to walk into you” dances, which would’ve been fine, except I didn’t know which language to apologize in. I tried to say, “Pardon” and then wondered if I should be saying, “Sorry,” so instead what came out was a mumbled “Porry.” (It’s like the time I couldn’t decide between “You’re welcome” and “No problem” at the Writing Center, what left my mouth was a muffled, “You’re problem.”)
  • Shout-out to Jt for inviting me to her house to hang out with three other teachers—they fed me rose tea, apple-walnut cake, and dark chocolate, and then we played Bandido and Uno…except I kept forgetting to say “Uno” when I had one card left.
  • I’ve finally figured out the secret to being an adult: making an official phone call to the bank, in French no less, without panicking.
  • Iv, a Spanish teacher at Claudel, asked if I liked Laon and I replied, “Ouiiiii” before finally ending in “Et non,” to which he gave me the thumbs up. I mean, the city’s got a stunning cathedral and view, but, as several teachers have told me, “It’s dead,” aka there’s nothing to do.
    • He also asked if I liked the orange Cheeto who’s somehow in charge of the US, and when Iv said “No, not at all,” he laughed and said we could be friends.
  • Isn’t it lovely when you tell R, a German teacher, that you’re leaving on the 8 before your visa expires, and she jokes that it’s good that I’m escaping while I still can, before Le Pen becomes president? And then Iv chimes in, saying she wouldn’t hesitate to throw me in French jail because, as R put it, I’m American and Asian. Yay bigoted politicians!
  • A cute waiter gave me 7 pieces of candy with my bill, and I didn’t know what to do with all of it, so I left exact change, took 5 pieces, and ran. I’m an adult.
  • I’m still thinking about that flaky, buttery, still-warm pain au chocolat I ingested before leaving Rouen. I’m going to miss French pastries so much.
    • On my way to the train station, the cutest baby with a rabbit hat and two bottom teeth waved enthusiastically at me while babbling in French gibberish.
  • Sure, an open bag of madeleines marked “Mangez-nous” (Eat us) in the middle of the staffroom might be suspicious, but I ate them anyways. Here’s to hoping that nobody wanted to poison an American savoring as much French food as she can before she leaves.
  • That awkward moment when the Claudel teachers are joking about whether or not Trump will let me back into the US and F says, “She’ll be fine, she doesn’t look Muslim.”

So Long, Claudel

Aside from Board Game Club, I spent most of Wednesday moping in post-travel blues and derping around to pass the time until 6:20, when S picked me up to take me to F’s for my farewell party. Eight out of ten of Claudel’s English teachers (I, M-L, Mg, Jt, K, and Ak) attended, and the gathering mostly consisted of conversation, laughter, and music. At one point, F’s and K’s daughters even came downstairs to listen to and laugh at the teachers who were enthusiastically singing.

We devoured little appetizers—mini-quiches, pastry things with cheese, mini-sausage rolls and radishes—and then had different kinds of cake—pineapple, orange, and chocolate—as well as mint chocolate…and all of that food ended up becoming my dinner. A few of my colleagues finally peer-pressured me into trying a delicious champagne that was probably quite dangerous, because it didn’t taste like alcohol one bit, more like ginger ale, and I absolutely would have kept drinking it if the bottle hadn’t already been emptied.

My colleagues presented me with two different gifts, making me open the package and envelope in front of them. The package turned out to be two books in French and one small history of protesting, to encourage me to keep being politically active, and the envelope contained a USB drive with 29 essential French songs, from 1947 to 2016, which I’m pretty sure is the result of me telling F that school never really teaches us about French music. (I still cannot believe that they included Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”)

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They also gave me a card signed by 8/10 of them, and K’s daughter gave me the cutest present—I love kids’ art, even if it doesn’t entirely make sense.

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Much to my alarm, M-L and someone else started chanting, “Discours! Discours!” (Speech! Speech!”) but luckily Mg came to my rescue, saying, “Arrête de la traumatisée!” (Stop traumatizing her!).

But, as I sit here and listen to the playlist they created for me, I’ll go ahead and write my speech here, even if chances are none of them will ever read it: Thank you. I genuinely enjoyed my time at Claudel, and I’m fortunate that I got to work with such understanding, lovely people, especially given my circumstances. I’m sorry if I came across as quiet and withdrawn, but that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with me—I’ve always been more of a listener than a talker. And as much as I missed being able to see the sun on a regular basis, in the end, I’m glad that I got to work with you all.

Au revoir, Rouen (et à plus tard, la France)

Following the French mindset of Labor Day even though I’m now officially unemployed, I mostly spent my final day of frolicking through France inside, wrapped in my jacket. (Everything was closed, anyways, something I learned the hard way when I was studying in Nice three years ago.)

At one point, I ventured outside, went NOPE, and promptly returned indoors. (In my defense, it’s still so cold in northern France that I had to unpack my winter jacket…I’m going to burn alive in Richmond.) Eventually, though, the sun showed its face, and enticed by the promise of warmth, I moseyed on down to the Côte Sainte-Catherine.

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Though the hike up the hill was nothing compared to Howth, an easy 30 minutes up a verdant slope, I swear I’m going to have legs of steel by the time I leave France. Anyways, my Airbnb host didn’t exaggerate a bit: the panoramic view of Rouen and La Seine was utterly captivating. With the sun pouring down on the river, turning its waters a gleaming emerald-teal, the scenery looked like something out of a storybook–or one of those overpriced city guides full of photographs.

There at the top of the hill, as I attempted to keep my hair from flying all over my face, I experienced the fickleness of Norman weather: as the sun shone down over the city, rain began to pelt everyone, and the wind picked up to the point that my nose froze and I was afraid of climbing down for fear of being blown away like a dandelion seed.

Five minutes later, everything returned to normal. Normandy. Anyways, fun fact: in 1892, Monet himself sat upon the côte to paint the city–for all you Monet nerds like Madeline, look up his piece Vue générale de Rouen!

The day ended with me trying not to laugh when Pepito the cat rubbed his back along a set of wooden frames, causing them to topple over and scaring both himself and me. If there’s anything I’ve learned about Europe, it’s that it’s full of wonderful surprises, and despite all the racist men (we’ll get into that later, that’s a whole other post), I’m going to miss being able to hop onto a train and zip off to explore any city I want…and being able to drink in the sight of a city through a window from my bed. (Seriously, look at the view from my Airbnb.)

 

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Gazing at Giverny

Still half-asleep, I boarded the 7:12 train to Giverny, arriving 41 minutes later at the small town of Vernon. Then, with nothing but the occasional cow, horse, car, and bike for company, I began my 1 hour 9 minute, 3.3 mile trek across the Seine, through the peaceful countryside, to Monet’s gardens. I admit I screamed a little–albeit very quietly–at the sight of the sun gleaming over looming, rolling hills lining the horizon beyond the river.

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The reason I forced myself out of bed at 6:10am was in the hopes of avoiding the tourists–and while I can say I was one of the first people in line for tickets, I was sadly not one of the first people to enter the gardens.

Squeezing past an unnecessary amount of tourist groups, I made the fortunate choice of entering Monet’s house first. Inside, every room was a vivid combination of functional and brightly photogenic, and security guards notwithstanding, part of me was tempted to become a squatter there.

Outside, as a horde of tourist groups queued to enter the house, I drank in a rainbow of flowers set up against a backdrop of green. At some point, while strolling past a series of pastel tulips, I may or may not have cried over the gardens/the reality of taking my final trip in France. Move along now, nothing to see here except an emotional French major crying over flowers for her wives Iszi and Madeline.

Trying to take the paths less traveled by tourists, I finally reached the famed water lily pond with the green bridges, and the sight took my breath away. The entire garden–house, lake, and flowers–is actually a lot larger than you’d expect it to be, and I spent a good three hours marveling over the beautiful riot of colors, various hues that should have clashed but somehow managed to blend seamlessly together.

Mercifully, the rain stayed away until I finished lunch and boarded the Navette bus back to Vernon, which I suppose I could have explored, but instead I returned to Rouen, where I’m going to sleep for 10 million years. Why do I choose 7am trains to save money, again?

 

Rambling through Rouen

One delayed train, one cancelled bus, one re-delayed train, one 4-hour bus ride, one short nap, and one train later, I finally arrived in Rouen, the capital of Normandy. Although my legs nearly gave out during the steep climb to my Airbnb, the descent was much easier, and getting to see the typical Rouen-style architecture–the maisons à colombage (timbering)–was well worth it.

Before I fangirled over the ridiculously picturesque houses, I popped into the Abbatiale Saint-Ouen, fawned over the Église Saint-Maclou (but couldn’t go in because of a wedding), and gazed at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen.

Since SNCF had doomed me to arrive 2 hours late, I then wandered aimlessly through the city, drinking in all the colorful, timbered houses. (Am I the only one who thinks Beauty and the Beast modeled its houses after this city?)

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On Rue du Gros Horloge, I climbed the bell tower for a history lesson on clocks and a panoramic view of the city, nearly having a heart attack when the bells rung in the room above my head.

Back on one of Rouen’s most famous pedestrian streets, a colorful display of macarons lured me into a pâtisserie, and I ended up purchasing two tiny ones, lemon and lychee-raspberry. The second one, though. Oh my god. I’ve been ruined.

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I savored my macarons outside the Église Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc, at what I thought was a peaceful little park, but as it turns out, some dad explained to his kid that it was where they burned Joan of Arc. Whoops?

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After I wandered along the banks of the Seine and consumed the most delicious Pad Thai for dinner, Pepito, the cat who rules over my Airbnb, started complaining because he was hungry, but I couldn’t for the life of me find his food. I felt so awful, I texted M, who came back and then immediately left to buy him croquettes…and he started screaming the instant the door closed behind her. Poor guy. Hopefully M comes back soon with his food.

 

What Happens in Class, Doesn’t Stay in Class X

  • While playing Mafia with a group of students, one of the Mafia looked at his partner and asked, “T’es Mafia?” (Are you Mafia?) I felt so bad for laughing because he’d given himself away, but the rest of the class lost it too, so at least my laughter was kind of justified.
  • I can confirm that French teenagers are exactly like American ones: the Hangman word was “B _ _ _,” and one student muttered, “bite” (pronounced like “beet,” French slang for a certain male body part), and the entire class started giggling.
  • While I was grading oral presentations, numerous kids said that the solution to Trump’s wall would be to build a virtual wall, complete with lasers, fingerprinting, and drones. Who the hell is teaching these French students such dirty lies? I’ll find you. And then I’ll fight you. (This question is rhetorical, I’m about 99% sure that it’s Ml.)
  • Highlight of my assistant career: while playing Mafia, the students were voting for someone to kill, and one kid shouted, “Trump!” My job here is done. There’s nothing more to teach them.
  • Right before my lesson on Hitchcock with Jn, he gave the students a brief vocab quiz, which consisted of English-French translations and vice versa for words related to crime. One kid sitting at the front of the room, where I was standing, tried whispering to me in French, “What’s English for ‘mugshot’?” Hon, even if I knew the word, there’s no way I’d help you cheat on a ten-word vocab quiz.
  • I asked a class to guess how much I paid to go to college for one year, and they started at $1000. These poor, innocent children, so blissfully unaware of American student debt. (Their faces when I told them that R-MC tuition is $38,000/year were priceless.)
  • My favorite part about teaching fluent terminales is that you can be as salty as you want about a certain bigoted Cheeto, and they’ll all laugh because they too share your burning hatred of him.
  • There’s nothing more amusing than teaching French kids about American foods and witnessing their expressions of pure horror when they see pictures of chicken and waffles, or PB&Js.
  • Me: “What’s the capital city of Virginia?”
    • Student: “New York!”
  • Jt: “Would you like to go to the Richmond Folk Festival in Virginia?”
    • Student: “Yes, to discover the culture of England.”
  • Since a class was excitedly chanting, “Let us sing!” Jt found a version of “Let It Go” with the lyrics, and one boy buried his face in his hands and started moaning like it was the worst moment of his life.
  • Six months after I started working, students still ask teachers, “Will her presentation be in French?”
  • S: “You’ve discovered how to get absolute silence in the classroom! Ask a question, and no one talks.”
  • It’s kind of heartwarming when a student brags to his friends in the hallway, “On a l’assistante!” (We get the assistant!)
  • During my last day at Méchain, one student told me, “Good luck with living in Trump’s America.” Thanks, kid, we’re all going to need it.
  • That moment of amused sadness when you’re reviewing Scattergories answers, and for the “celebrities” category, one kid announces, “Marine Le Pen!”
  • Probably one of my favorite parts of this year was watching a group of secondes who’d never had a Reese’s exclaim with wonder, “C’est trop bon!”
  • Jt invented a fantastic system for discouraging students from speaking French during her class: having them act out the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene. And I know this is mostly due to fragile masculinity, but it’s pure beauty watching two guys uncomfortably and awkwardly act it out.

P.S. The end of TAPIF went out with a whimper: I was supposed to have my last-ever class today, but not a single student showed up. Walking out of the classroom, even if it was an empty one, was bittersweet. Well, I’m free now and don’t have to work again until late July, so… I’m taking one last trip this weekend, and then attending a farewell party organized by the Claudel teachers on Wednesday evening. For the moment, I’m celebrating the end of TAPIF by eating the Reese’s that I was going to give to my students this afternoon.