Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving à l'étranger is Surreal By Definition

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm sitting in the teacher's room eating "rotisserie chicken" flavored potato chips and preparing lessons for tomorrow, having just finished this morning's lesson in which I was not permitted to discuss Thanksgiving because the teacher preferred I work on something more useful to my students. Which I guess is fine. But he also said Thanksgiving would be a more appropriate topic for "younger" students, which was not a thought process I was able to follow. Does he think it's like Halloween or something?

This is the second year in a row that I haven't been able to go home for Thanksgiving, or even to spend it with my family away from home.* I miss it. I'm looking forward to the slightly belated, international Thanksgiving potluck the American assistants in Brest have planned for both ourselves and the rest of the assistants, but it's just not the same as sitting down to a real Thanksgiving dinner with one's family (or even a real Thanksgiving dinner with one's friends). It's not the same when there are already Christmas decorations in all the shops instead of turkey decorations, where there won't be any way of seeing the parade or an American football game, where cranberries barely exist and no one's ever heard of pumpkin pie (or if they have, they think it's the most bizarre idea ever). I'm actually going to attempt to make one for our sort-of-Thanksgiving party tomorrow night, but I have no idea whether the bizarre variety of pumpkin I found at my supermarket is even usable for pie, and it will have to technically be a pumpkin tart, as that's the only kind of pan I have.

Anyway. I think Thanksgiving is the saddest time of the year for an American abroad. To be fair, I have yet to face my first Christmas away from home, and I won't pretend I'm looking forward to it (although I stand by the decision). But Christmas is different. Nearly all of the teachers I work with have already been asking me about what I'm going to do at Christmas, and I think I may have to start fielding awkward invitations if I don't make my travel plans soon. Everyone in the Western world understands that it's sad to be away from one's family on Christmas. Thanksgiving, meanwhile, passes unnoticed. Most non-Americans don't even understand what Thanksgiving is—many even seem to be under the impression that it's something we do instead of Christmas, or that it's somehow bigger than Christmas.Which I think is odd considering they also don't really give any thought to Thanksgiving's existence until you bring it up.

So, as an ambassador of American culture, I tried to teach a Thanksgiving lesson to some of my classes the other day—and was deeply discouraged by the experience.

I began by asking them if they had ever heard of Thanksgiving. Some had. Then I would ask what they knew about it already.

Lots of silence. “A party,” I got from some (who apparently have not learned the distinction in English between “party” and “celebration” and “holiday”, all of which are covered by the same word in French).

“Good,” I would say. “It's an American holiday. What else?”

Silence. Stares.

“Big chicken,” some said.**

At this point I probably should have realized that vocabulary alone was going to be too much of a hurdle for this to work, but I was too busy being surprised that apparently either none of them had ever had an American assistant before, or else (more likely) they had retained nothing that past assistants told them. So I pushed forward and had them read aloud some Thanksgiving facts I'd put together, consisting of an extremely simplified history and a list of traditions.

Then I tried to ask them questions about what they'd just read. Sometimes it went okay; sometimes I got silence, or wrong answers, or completely off-topic answers because they didn't understand my question and just threw something out there. More or less par for the course, although somehow I think this was worse than usual. I don't know if they were really off their game or if I just perceived it as being worse than usual because I was getting so frustrated and discouraged even before the first class was done, because I'd thought this was pretty straightforward and expected it to be really easy.

Some parts were worse than others. Case in point:

Me: Now, who were the Pilgrims?
Student: A religious group from England. (Exactly the phrasing I'd used in my super-simple text, but I'll take what I can get from these kids. He at least understood the question!)
Me: And why did they go to America?***
Student: For persecute the native peoples.****

Let me tell you, that is not an easy conversation to have across a language barrier that was looking every minute more and more like the linguistic equivalent of the Berlin Wall. I didn't get very far into it, partly because of time and partly because I didn't see the point (see previous sentence), but I did try very briefly to explain that while that definitely happened in lots of places for most of American history, the first people at Plymouth are actually a very rare example of Europeans who were able [at least initially] to get along with the local Indians... hence the first Thanksgiving. I doubt much of that was understood.

I was less concerned about that, though, than about the fact that I had an inordinately hard time getting them to understand the most fundamental part of the lesson: what Thanksgiving is all about. “Guys, it's right there in the name of the holiday,” I whined at one group. “Just think about the word.”

Part of the problem, I think, is that there doesn't seem to be a direct translation for “thankful” or “grateful” that has quite the right connotation, which makes it hard to explain the concept of “giving thanks”. Most of them seemed to think it had something to do with saying thank you to people for various things. It was hard to get them to understand the idea of just being thankful in general or of being thankful FOR something, but not necessarily TO someone. More than one interpreted the story of the First Thanksgiving as the Pilgrims inviting the Indians to a meal to thank them for their help. I thought that was interesting, and I told them that it was probably true, but there was more to it than that. But even with further prompting they mostly didn't get past that to the idea of being “thankful” for the things one has and the good in one's life. Nor did they seem to really understand it when I tried to explain.

I hadn't anticipated that, and I've been thinking about ways to make it more clear if I do this lesson again (although it now doesn't look as though I'll be doing it again this week). I suppose I'm thankful that my students are forcing me to think about things in new ways and find new ways of communicating ideas that have always just been to me. I'm learning more about both languages, and it will, hopefully, make me a better teacher and a better writer.

I'd be more thankful, though, if I thought I was succeeding when I try to teach them. The group I had this morning could hardly answer any of my questions when I tried to review what we worked on last week, even when they had the article in front of them. And they had to be prompted none too kindly to take out the article in the first place.

Seriously, though: I'm a 22 year old American girl who was able to move to France within four months of finishing college. I live here rent-free, surrounded by kindness and patience, and I have a low-key, pretty easy job that's sometimes even fun (even if it's extremely depressing at other times) and that pays me like twice what I currently need to live comfortably. I have a degree from one of the best colleges in the US, the full support of my family, and friends both near and far. I don't know where I'm going to be six months from now or what I'm going to do there, but I'm okay with that, because every detour I take--or even plan to take--in life seems to lead to another, and they've all been pretty awesome so far. I am immensely thankful for all of that, and if there's a part of me that wishes I were sitting on the porch of a North Carolina beach house with my sister, anticipating our mom's cooking this afternoon, I think it's a pretty small part in comparison to the part that makes me feel like a total jackass whenever I complain about anything at all.

* And I'm hesitant to say to myself, “Well, I'll be home next year...”, because I'm pretty sure that's what I thought at this time last year.
** That was from the groups that at least try to speak English; from a third that spends most of its time speaking French to each other and offering French words to me as answers instead of English ones, I got turkey... but in French. And when I translated and wrote “turkey” on the board, they all laughed and said “Turkey is a country.” “Yes, Turkey is a country,” I said. “It's also a big bird that we eat.”
*** I was really trying to stress the concept of religious freedom, partly because they were having so many comprehension issues generally and partly because I think it's an issue that's never occurred to most young people growing up in an extremely secularized country where somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of the religious population is Catholic. The next biggest group, which is under 10 percent, is Muslim. Protestant Christians? Somewhere around 3 percent, along with Jews. So not only are people of non-Christian religious persuasions exotic, but the idea of different kinds of Christians fighting with each other is almost totally beyond the experience of the average French person. They might stumble across it in a history book or in reading about some faraway place (like America?). So “religious freedom” took some explaining for reasons I'm not sure are entirely linguistic, and it clearly does not carry the same resonance that I think it does for most Americans.
**** I'm not sure if he understood what was going on enough to try to be clever/difficult or if he just got confused because my history lesson included a statement about the Pilgrims being persecuted and also a note about how Thanksgiving is sometimes criticized because the traditional narrative totally ignores the injustice and brutality that characterized most colonial-era relations between whites and Natives. (It was phrased better than that.) It's almost funny that he might have stumbled upon that remark by accident. But not really.

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