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.