Pleasing Success and Dismal Failure (and the Return of Crying)

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Today was a day of communication success and really, really frustrating communication failure. It was also a nice reminder that frustration tears are actually just a permanent condition of existing here, if you are me.

First, the success. Today at lunch, I ate around the bowl with my family. I managed to get yelled at minimally, and I understood the lunch conversation (mostly). Given that it was in Wolof, this was very exciting.

Granted, this was only possible because the conversation (a discussion about perfumed rice produced in factories) contained a lot of nouns. Nouns and adjectives are my savior, because most of them (particularly when referring to post-industrial things) are just the French word. It was possibly the most boring lunch conversation in the world, but it was the first meal conversation I’ve followed along with in the last 3 1/2 months, so I was pleased. Tiny victories!

Now, onto the failure and the tears. Today, after locking myself in my room for two hours to nap/do homework/attempt to recover from my third cold since moving here, I moved out into the living room to chat with my host dad. He, realizing that I talk pretty much only to him because his first language is French, sent me in to go socialize with the rest of my host family. Harsh, but well-intentioned and effective.

This conversation was also in Wolof, but I was able to follow along with it (mostly) because it dealt with people I know–primarily my host nieces who left a few weeks ago. A lot of it was describing silly things that the middle niece does, and since I was there for most of them I could figure out what was happening. (Did you know that people pretty much always mime along when they’re talking about children? True fact!)

This lasted right up until I tried to actually contribute to the conversation like a fully-functioning adult. I said (in French):

When we started to learn the imperative in my Wolof class, my professor asked if anyone already knew it. I said you add an “l,” which is true. He asked how I knew, and I said that it’s because everyone is always shouting at [my middle niece] “toggal!” [sit!]

Completely boring anecdote, but again, it’s the first time I’ve been able to contribute to a conversation in months. My moment of triumph was brought to a screeching halt when my middle-aged host sister said, “I didn’t understand anything you said.”

So I repeated it to her brother, with whom I had a 20-minute discussion last night. He didn’t understand.

It took a very slow third repeat for anyone to get my (not that exciting) anecdote. By that time, no one laughed, of course. My one window to demonstrate any sort of family engagement in three-and-a-half months, and it fell flat on its face. Not only was it frustrating on a failed-joke level–it was so, so hard to have people not understand my French after operating mostly in French since January.

I am proud of my French. It is one of the very few things that I’m good at that I actually had to study for (and have been doing since I was 12), and after a few months of doing pretty well it completely failed. Much like being called out for an ugly outfit that you tried with (rather than being ignored because you didn’t try), putting effort out and getting shot down sucks. It’s incredibly embarrassing, and all the more so because my immediate reaction to frustration/embarrassment is to tear up.* I am not good at hiding these sorts of things.

A few minutes after that, some family members who I do not know came in to say hi. I beat a hasty retreat, in part because I knew the conversation was going to continue in Wolof an be about people I don’t know and in part so I could go nurse my embarrassment. (Which, of course, I do by writing about my failures in a public internet forum. As you do.)

My host dad noticed me leaving and asked what happened. I said “nothing,” like the surly teenager I am and he let it drop. I’m fairly certain he’s noticed that I hide in my room if there’s new people visiting or if there’s more than a few people in any one room.

I feel like a failure as a host student, and again, that’s frustrating. By now, I should know how to arrange my body in the living room when there are guests, but I really, really don’t. I know I’m not the only one in the program to feel this, which is reassuring, but it doesn’t change the fact that I feel like I should have figured it out by now. Figuring out where on the floor to sit rather than awkwardly hiding is a corner is not a skill that should take me three months to learn, and yet that appears to be what has happened.

Two more weeks. I want to go home to a place where I don’t have hide half of my personality and all of my sense of humor due to linguistic issues/appropriateness, and right at this moment I feel (as I have, on-and-off, since I got here) like I screwed up study abroad in a way that I do not normally screw things up. And that kind of sucks.

* This is either the result of doing well in school with basically no difficulty or the drive for it. I’m still not sure which. We’re working on it.

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2 thoughts on “Pleasing Success and Dismal Failure (and the Return of Crying)

  1. I feel like screwing up in study abroad is part of the experience. I know it’s uncomfortable and it sucks, but I think when you feel uncomfortable, you’re learning a lot about a culture very different from your own. I went to France, and I often wish I went somewhere a lot more exotic and discomfiting.

    • A lot of the folks in the program seem to have come to the conclusion that this experience is probably really valuable, if not always pleasant. I think study abroad is really weird in that it’s really easy to feel like you’re failing, no matter what your experience is.

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