Finding France in Broad Ripple

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It was a spur of the moment kind of thing, the sort of decision you make when life has become entirely dull and could use a douse of Indian curry powder.

Holyn and I walked nervously up to the cafe. It was connected to an iconic restaurant in the south of Broad Ripple (my neighborhood). We entered with a quiet confidence until we hit the bar. The place was nearly empty but for a few customers in the far corners of the room, and I had this sinking feeling I had misread the invitation.

Eight hours prior I was at work thinking about summer. I suddenly remember the French Social Club I always wanted to attend. So I shot a text to Holyn who agreed at once to go with me. Now, I was having a moment of panic at the thought of mistaking the location.

The French Social Club did say they usually met at Cornerstone Cafe. Maybe tonight was unusual. The bartender eyed us suspiciously while he polished a clean glass with his towel. A waitress with a black nose ring came over to inquire why we were wandering around, when at last we heard it.

“I hear them, but I don’t see them,” Holyn said, spinning around. To our astonishment we had walked right passed the long table of French-speakers. They were sitting in the restaurant at a table that was nearly full. And all at once we both felt too afraid to approach the group.

“They’re a friendly bunch,” the bartender assured us, setting the glass on the counter. “I bet they’d be fine if you joined them.”  And so with a douse of confidence, we did. Moments later, I was introducing myself in that language I love so much. We chatted and laughed with a group of total strangers and I was reminded of the sense of adventure I had when I was abroad.

In a foreign country, everything seems so new and exciting that to attend a social meet-up is really no big deal. But for some reason when one returns to her own country, the sense of adventure begins to fade and the world resumes its dull and uneventful state.

So there I was, eating fries out of a basket, feeling so excited that I was immersing myself in something new. At first the words felt slow on my tongue. Each syllable was like moving a muscle I hadn’t used in a while. But slowly it began to return and I played off of other conversations, looking at Holyn when I was at a loss for words. We met a journalist and a software designer, a neuro psychologist and a chemistry professor.

The table was a mixture of age and ethnicity: Venezuelan, Syrian, and a man I suspected was from West Africa. When a few of our new-found friends got up to smoke outside, I was reminded of my life as a student once again.

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When I studied in York England my friends and I had a small dinner party on Fat-Tuesday, or what the British call “Pancake Day”. As we cooked eggs and bacon in our friend’s apartment, one of the French girls looked over at me in the middle of our conversation. She was a beautiful woman with dark eyebrows and perfectly lined lips. I had always found her to be extremely intimidating until the week prior when she had offered to help me with my French homework.

“Do you smoke?” she asked, with a look of inquiry. I froze for a moment. No one in my life had ever asked me this. Allow me to remind you, I was a student at a Christian university back in the United States. It was a dry campus that had just legalized dancing and was flirting with the idea of mixed-gendered dormitories. But for some reason her question made me feel accepted, despite my obvious conservative background.

Smoking, where I came from, was not common among Millennials. The only time I’d ever held a cigarette was at the age of seven when my little brother and I pretended to smoke the half-used cigarette butts tossed out on the curb. We later received a serious whipping for entertaining such an idea.

I told her that I didn’t smoke and so she went out front by herself, and I realized she was looking for a smoking companion, someone to chat with as she stood outside.

__________

As I watched the couple from the French club outside the restaurant enjoy a cigarette, I felt sort of nostalgic about my time abroad. Hearing the French-speakers around me, those who were fluent and those who were stumbling over their words, created a sense of magic in the moment. As I write these words I realize I see the world much differently than most. To me every person is a character, the waitress, running around our table refilling drinks, the bartender still polishing glasses at the empty bar, and the woman sitting in the middle of our long extended table, so focused on cutting her steak she hasn’t let out a word. They’re all characters and for some reason I want to know their stories.

But I recognize not everyone perceives the world like me. To some, the couple smoking outside is just another group polluting the environment, the man who laughs so hard his food flies out of his mouth is just a rude foreigner, and the bartender who is waiting for the girl in the corner of the cafe to take notice of him, is just another guy. Perhaps they all have a story or perhaps I just have an untamed imagination of “what ifs.”

We left together, Holyn and I, chatting about the people we met. We passed the Jazz Kitchen were a group of Hispanic men were singing a poor rendition of Despacito. Perhaps next week we will try salsa dancing and I will again venture from my comfort zone to season my life with a little bit of cross-cultural experience.

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This is why I talk to myself in French

You know you are an odd person when you talk to yourself in French. And when you find yourself speaking French to your recently purchased used car, well you’ve probably lost all hope of sanity.

But I have to say these past two months have nearly driven me insane with the car accident and coordinating rides. Life without a car has forced me to see what its like to receive unconditional love from friends and family. But after prayerful searching — and a lot of help from my Uncle — I finally bought one. And I’ve come to name him Harry.

Tu es mon voiture,” I say as I drive to work, emphasizing the word “Mon” which tells me that this is mine. Yes this car is mine, not a rental, not a borrowed car, not a car on loan. C’est mon voiture.

I don’t really know when I started talking to myself in French. Was it during my study abroad in England when I strolled home from evening class through the cobblestone roads repeating new phrases? Was it after my time in Paris when I sort of missed being able to converse in French?

Or maybe it was during my college years when I felt so distant from God after my injury that I had to find some other way of talking to him. I remember praying in French all the time because I was so tired of repeating my request for healing in English.

“Aidez-moi, s’il vous plaît,” I would whisper during those nights I couldn’t sleep because the pain was so bad. There are some things we pray for again and again, and it seems like God cannot hear us, or he just watches from afar. So we find another manner in which to cope with the situation, merely to maintain our sanity.

Referring to a quote I posted yesterday, I’m starting see God’s sovereignty in my life. I’m learning also to better understand how the path of life he designed for me — although it is confusing sometimes — is for my good and for His glory.

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A Word On Language Barriers

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My cousin Bryan is in Washington DC for an internship with the Belgian embassy. He is part of my long lost Rwandan family most of whom reside in Europe. Even though I am entirely jealous of his opportunity in Washington, 😀 I asked him how the internship was going. He made me laugh when he said he was finally able to tell jokes in English.

This reminded me of my time in France where my knowledge of the language was stretched so thin I barely felt like myself. I remember joining a group of people on an outing to a castle called Fontainebleau, a beautiful chateau with gorgeous grounds and gardens. Here I spent an entire day with a group of complete stranger who were loosely connected to my hostess.

Most of them were British, either finishing up their student teaching or beginning a carrier in Paris. One of the girls was a French native with limited English ability. And so considering I spoke a little French, the general consensus was to speak primarily in French during out outing for the sake of the French girl. I remember finding this extremely inconvenient and most of the day I had no idea where we were going or what we were talking about — which is the unfortunate the plight of an international student. It seemed like every time I caught up with the conversation and thought of something to contribute they had already moved on to discuss something entirely new.

The only question I could answer was my name and where I was from. To this I answered perfectly. But as for what I had done during my spring break in Paris I limited vocabulary to tell of my excursions.

At one point I was walking with the group through a spacious forest where the trees stood far apart from each other, shading the open space with their branches. I found myself side by side with the French girl who didn’t speak English. She asked me what I did the day before and I told her I went to see the Basilica called Sacre Coeur — sacred heart — which is basically a church on a hill with a great view of the city. Excitedly, I went on to tell her about a man who was there playing futball. What I’d meant to say was that he was a doing stunts with a futball ball, sort of like a street performer–you can see him here on youtube. But she gave me a funny look as if I’d said the tourists were playing futball in the basilica and replied, “Hmm c’est très bizarre.” Although I’d hoped to make her laugh at the idea of this man doing soccer stunts outside the basilica she merely shook her head in confusion and I was silent.

I look back now and realize I was sort of being entitled in the way I sulked while they went on speaking French.  I really believe this experience taught me to be more understanding of non-English speakers in the U.S. Even going back to England after my time in France I had so much more grace for the non-English speakers.

Alors, dit a moi.  What is your experience with language barriers?

Revive the art of conversation

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In school I studied a vital key to communication: Writing. But as adulthood has forced me out of my shell of adolescence and I’m no longer able to hide the fact that I’m actually a really shy person, the oral elements of communication have become more important. By oral elements I mean conversation.

Conversation: Oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas. 

With the use of texting, messaging, snapping, and social media comments, conversation has evolved radically since the days before the age of technology.

I’ve noticed that people are more likely to text or message me than to strike up a conversation in person. Quite honestly, I hate having conversations through instant messages, because there is such a loss of clarity in the mix. No facial expressions. No body language. No personality traits. And let’s face the truth, emojis hardly do the job.

I recently had a very good conversation with someone and it caused me to wonder how I learned to get over the fear of talking to new people. When did I begin using my words instead of my keyboard? I once was shy and quiet, but somewhere between high school and now, I learned the great joy and satisfaction that comes with in-person conversation.

So I want to encourage my reader to consider this post as a challenge for you to be more intentional with your communication and to seek those “in-person” conversations, where both individuals are entirely present.

Observe the following seven steps to good conversation.

 

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  1. Begin by asking questions. I recently met a guy at a laser tag outing among friends. Although we had not previously been introduced, we shared a similar social circle. I asked him how to read the score  after the game and he explained that if you are at the bottom of the screen, which I was, you probably came in last, which I did.
  2. Introduce yourself. After a few moments I introduced myself saying, “I don’t know you. What’s your name?” Yeah, I’m pretty forward with introductions, but not everyone has to be. Right away I learned his name and he learned mine which unfolded a conversation of why we hadn’t met before. I explained I was in Korea the week before when our friends met up. He explained he was out of town the week before that.
  3. Ask general questions that pertain to what you know about the person. His name was Joel and after another few moments he asked what I was doing in Korea. Keeping it simple, because most people don’t want to hear about your fantastic trip in South East Asia, I said I was visiting friends. Apparently Joel had been to China  and we made light conversation about the 13 hour flight  across the world.
  4. Try to find common ground. Joel asked what I did that allowed me a vacation to Korea, and I told him. In exchange, I asked what he did. When he said he was an ESL teacher, my mind immediately thought of my brother and sister who are both international ESL teachers. This note of information spurred him to tell me about his upcoming venture to Brazil, where he’d signed a two-year contract to teach English.
  5. Discover what they are passionate about.  I began to ask Joel what drew him to Brazil. In college his roommate was Brazilian, or from Brazil, sometimes details get lost in the art of conversation because you are trying to connect the dots and keep momentum going. I gathered that Joel was interested in teaching overseas, curious about Brazil, and really liked soccer.  I pocketed this information because I also liked soccer, but it didn’t seem like the right time to say it.
  6. Allow time for thought. In conversation the person you’re talking to is going to know if you are really interested or if you are just being polite. By now our chat had turned into an extended talk, as Joel expounded on the process of raising money for his trip to Brazil. His travel dates were unsure because his support had only covered 90% of the costs. So I decided to indulge my curiosity and ask Joel what he’d been doing up ’till now.
  7. Don’t change the subject too often. This was a natural turn in the conversation where we left the thought of Brazil and the money to be raised, and focused on the now. Joel had just finished teaching at an ESL school in Indianapolis. I was familiar with the school because my parents are International Home Stay hosts, and they hosted a student from his school. We talked about the Japanese student who lived with my family for the passed eight months. The commonalities we shared seemed to be more than we could count but the richness of our simple conversation diverged from the fact that we were both entirely present.

So what did I learn from talking with Joel?

Approach every conversation expecting to learn something new. Be curious because you may never know when your path will cross with this person again. You also don’t know what this person is going through. Maybe shifting the focus from you to them will open opportunities you never imagined. Conversation is a lost art. Let’s learn to revive it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Year’s Eve in a Congolese Church

 

I spent New Year’s eve in a Congolese church, singing about God’s faithfulness and dancing to the beat of the African drum, alongside a people with whom I share a history.

My father is Rwandan, born in the neighboring country Burundi, but he grew up in Congo, a country once known as Zaire. While he lived in Africa, Congo Kinshasa was home to my father and though he was not Congolese, he spoke Lingala, Swahili, and French.

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Lingala is what I heard the night of New Year’s eve from a host of African Christians praising God in their own tongue and in their own form of worship, through dance and song. I danced too, awkwardly I suppose, but freely and without hesitation. I listened to the French songs and sang to the best of my limited French ability. They also sang songs in Swahili jumping and waving their hands, so I mimicked the phrases and thought about this language my Grandparents spoke, two African individuals of my own bloodline whom I never really got to know.

The service was wonderfully long and continued through the night until the  New Year came. “You are from Ethiopia?” the Pastor asked, putting me on the spot in front of the whole congregation. “No” I replied naturally. “Well, they say the most beautiful women come from Ethiopia. You must have some African heritage in you.” I didn’t know whether I should be offended or flattered, nor did I know quite how to respond.

People ask me if I am Ethiopian all the time, especially if they are from India, East Africa, or sometimes the Middle East. “I am from America, but my father is from Africa,” I explained later when the women approached me and asked again. They said no more, but accepted me as a sister, a cousin, a daughter. And I felt as if I was part of some special club using the origin of my Father as a token of membership.

For some reason, though I’m not sure why, I am drawn to African people, mostly from Sub-Saharan  Africa. Maybe because I seek an identity, or maybe because I am biracial and constantly searching for a people group to call my own. But most of the time I think it’s because they always accept my big curly hair. 🙂

Happy New Year.  Bonne Année.

Why I Talk Like a White Girl

I spent fall break in Alexandria visiting my cousins with my brother and sister. As we drove through the city with my cousins, who are both black, the Uber driver, also black, kept looking at us in the rear-view mirror. Finally when our conversation died down in the back seat, he spoke up.

“Where Y’all from?” he said. His voice cloaked in that deep Virginian accent.

We told him we hailed from the Midwest and were visiting DC for the weekend.

“Okay,” he replied, “It’s just. . . y’all talk so strange.”

He went on to say that when he’d heard my cousin over the phone, he arrived in his Uber car looking for a group of white people.

“I had to do a double take to make sure y’alls was really black. Sounds like I’m drivin a bunch of white folks.”

He was laughing as he said this because to him it was so outlandish that a group of black youth were talking like white folks.  We laughed too because we know our accent is odd considering how we look.

It’s problematic sometimes, being black and talking white. What’s hard about it? Relating to black people. Well at least in my case.

Is it just me or do they look at me funny because I don’t speak like them?

What’s annoying is when people ask me if I speak Ebonics.

“Can you talk like, you know, a real black person.”

Again with the word “real,” it confuses me.

“You mean do I use African American Vernacular?”

“Yeah you know . . . like gettin your sass on and all.”

“Hell no.”

Let me note that black people never ask me this. It’s just my white friends who are curious about my background. #understandable

I use to feel bad because I couldn’t speak Ebonics. It was just another thing that removed me from the black community. But I had to ask myself if it was something people should assume about me.

“Oh your black, so can you dance like Will Smith?”

“Hell no.”

I suppose this was something they could assume. As a kid I assumed all Chinese could do Karate, all Hispanics could dance Salsa, and all Indians liked super spicy food.

Assumptions can be easily replaced with curiosity. #CuriosityIsKey

“So I’m curious, why don’t you speak like most people in the black community?”

This is a question I would be happy to answer, because it gives off a vibe that the one posing the question is eager to learn. This approach puts me in a comfortable position. Otherwise my explanation of why I don’t talk a certain way comes out in a more defensive manner.

Why do I talk like a white girl? Well, first of all I don’t. What I speak is Standard American English, a dialect that is linguistically equal to Ebonics. It is what my mother and father speak and the dialect of almost everyone around me.

My parents understand that society deems this variety of English as more educated than others and therefore as kids we were not allowed to use African American Vernacular.

Imagine if society didn’t demean certain varieties of English. Imagine if all dialect and varieties were societally equal. Communication is the purpose of language, so there is no ethical values in using one variety.

For the record, I love hearing people speak Ebonics. It intrigues me in how it combines words, removing suffixes and adding prefixes. I’m fascinated by the rise and fall of the speech patterns. It makes me envy the ability some have to code-switch and therefore comfortably communicate with two different people groups. So, yes, though I can’t speak it, I recognize Ebonics as a valuable means of communication.