In My Son’s Vans

No, I’m not going to write in response to Leave Your Shoes at the Door and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Even though the book Walk Two Moons by the great Sharon Creech jumps to my mind as soon as I read the prompt.

Even though I have some suitable material: U.S.S.R. Kenya. Harlem.

Places where, back in the mid 80s, I wondered what it would be like to be a young woman living there.

No, I’m not doing it. Besides I’ve decided to go on with my new manuscript. I even blogged about it on Monday.

Then, two days later, long after my bedtime, I read a blog post.

My Life as an Engrish to English Translator moved me to tears and was still on my mind when I woke up.

In this poignant post Elizabeth Gomez remembers of specific moments in her childhood when she had to translate for her Korean-born mother, who didn’t speak English well enough to be understood. She writes of the embarrassment and shame, of feeling ostracized because of her mother’s inability to communicate in English. A distressful event in Elizabeth’s life ultimately pushed her to stand up for her mother.

Comments poured as a follow-up to this sharply perceptive post. Many were in response to Elizabeth’s heartbreaking childhood spent between a mother, lost in translation, and an absent father and cheating husband.

My own response rose from my guts.

If you follow my blog or occasionally read my posts, you know that I also write in French because I was born and brought up in France. My husband and I moved to California with our first-born child. I took English classes in school, but truth is I learned the language here, in the States. One of my immediate goals was to speak, read and write as well as possible. Along the bumpy road, my children have had their moments of shame and embarrassment, too.

Yet, my allegiance to foreign moms is part of my DNA. Feral.

I am one of them.

They are a little bit of me.

Once in a while, first-generation children write about the challenges they experienced growing up with a mother who was so much more embarrassing, so much more visible than any other.

I understand their emotions and share their frustration and embarrassment, yet instinctive loyalty toward their mothers grows from the pit of my stomach. Yes, I always feel more for the mothers than for the children.

But Elizabeth’s post hit a new chord.

The children who tell of their childhood with a foreign-born mother are almost always women.

I happen to have three daughters and one son.

I also realized that I was initially more willing to walk in perfect strangers’ shoes than in the shoes left on my doormat.

So I took my suede boots off and jumped in my son’s Vans.

photo-97

“Here’s your ride!” My friend Joel points in the direction of the pick-up line. “Isn’t it your mother?” he asks with a laugh when I’ve remained quiet.

“I don’t think so.”

“Whatever, man.” Joel shrugs one shoulder. “See you tomorrow.”

A weight lifts from my back. The reason Joel finds my mother so freaking funny is simple. She can’t say his name properly.

“Isn’t it like ‘Noel’?” she says when I correct her.

“It’s not.”

Pourquoi?”

“Because.”

“It would make more sense,” she says. “American sounds are weird. How do they expect people who don’t know to manage?”

My mother, stuck behind a car that has abruptly stopped and then made a right, honks. I imagine what she is saying: “Ah I’d like to see them in Paris, not even using their signal.” In French, of course.

Meanwhile, Joel has reached the parking lot where his Nissan is parked. All seniors drive themselves to school, but my mother said non.

C’est fou,” she says. “A car at sixteen. What’s left to buy when they get a job?”

My mother pulls in the pick-up line. She rolls down the window.

Ça va, mon lapin?”

Mom, please, I’m not a rabbit or even a bunny.

Good news, Joel is already behind the wheel.

Bad news, Alexia, is cruising over on her longboard.

My mother steps out of the car, dangling the set of keys under my nose like it’s a freaking prize or something.

Tu conduis,” she says with a big smile.

“I’m too tired to drive.” I slid into the passenger seat and slam the door.

My mother gets back inside as Alexia zooms by. I shrink in my seat.

Tu es malade?”

“I said tired not sick.”

Tu as faim,” my mother says.

“No, I’m not hungry. Drive.”

Ça va?”

“Yes, I’m okay.”

She slips her sunglasses on and soon the motor roars. Good. We’ve finally left school. I get my iPod and my earbuds; she turns the radio on. My mother is a news junkie.

“That’s good for my English,” she says.

Really? It has been a while since she moved to the US, and yet she often knocks at my door to double check the way we say this or that. I don’t have anyone to help me when I write my English essays.

I learned what a “robe” was at summer camp. Until then a robe for me was a dress. The French word for dress is robe. My mother always speaks French like we are living in a French colony or something. She also does a really embarrassing thing. She never pronounces French words used in the US with the American accent.

Café, croissant, baguette, rendezvous, corsage, boutonniere, chandelier, genre, the wine names, the cooking names, the shops that have French names… You get it.

My mother taps my knee. “Ecoute, c’est bon pour ton français.”

Besides the radio my mother likes to listen to little French songs. I’m supposed to listen to, in order to improve my French.

Traffic is jammed. My mother makes a left at the next light.

“Where are you going?”

“Surprise!”

I’m not in the mood for a surprise. Yet she pulls on a parking lot and I see a coffee place. Not a Starbucks where everyone is so well trained that nobody ever asks my mother to repeat her order. Once in a while the barista gets confused, and my mother ends up with a different order.

“That’s not what I asked,” she says.

“Try it, you might like it,” I say.

She makes faces. “Too sweet! Too big!”

Mom! I scan my surroundings. Why does she speak in English when she gets embarrassing?

Starbucks is still the safest place to get coffee for someone like my mother. But she prefers the other kind of cafés.

“Unique,” she says in her high-pitched French.

She parks in front of the unique coffee shop. The sign reads “La Crème de la Cake.” I know what’s coming next.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” she says with a frown.

“Why did you drive over then?”

“Traffic is bad. We’ll be home late. I saw a sign for this café and you need something to eat.”

“I’ll wait for you.”

“Okay. What do you prefer?”

“I don’t want anything, I told you. You want to get me something.”

She walks in and I focus on my iPod.

Within seconds my mother is out, saying something, and waving her arms and hands in the air like there is a fire or something bad happening in the coffee shop.

I jump out of the car, heart pounding. “What’s wrong?”

“You won’t believe it!” she says. “They have some petits choux à la crème.” She lowers her tone of voice and shakes her head. “It’s not really what I had in mind, but it will do. Come in with me.”

I just don’t get my mother. She likes French stuff but she doesn’t really like it. She likes to meet French people but she doesn’t really like them.

There is a message on a T-shirt that makes my mother laugh: “J’aime rien. J’suis parisien.”

Translation: “I love nothing. I’m Parisian.”

Is it that funny?

My mother introduces me to the bakers, who are not French at all. I nod and smile.

“My son was born here,” my mother says. “When he speaks English nobody believes I’m his mother, but he has an accent when he speaks French.” The bakers and my mother laugh.

Thanks, mom.

“Why did you buy so many?” I ask my mother when we get to the car.

“It’s not polite to buy less than twelve petits choux.”

She starts the engine and backs up. A pick-up truck pulls next to her.

“He could have waited,” she says. “They are always in such a hurry.”

Someone, please, make me disappear.

My mother hands me the bag of pastries. “Mange,” she says. Then, she eats one. “So-so,” she says, licking her fingers. “Not really French.”

When we exit the parking spot the truck’s driver smiles and tips his 49Niners hat.

“Ah,” my mother says. “They’re so much more courteous than the French.”

With my mother I travel through a world of “they.” I just don’t always know who “they” are.

So it’s hard for me to know where I stand, and as hard to decide when and if I should take sides.

I put my son’s Vans away, next to my suede boots. Barefoot I walk to my room. I’m tired tonight. I didn’t walk a mile and certainly not two moons, but stepping into someone else’s shoes is not comfortable.

Especially in my son’s Vans.

Even if only  for the time of a blog post.

Comments

  1. giselacarmona says:

    Love your post Evelyne, thank you! I have three teenager kids of my own… one of them, the middle one, a 16 year old son… I can definitely relate…

  2. Thank you, Gisele. I agree that all moms are embarrassing at one point or another, especially when their children are adolescents. My French thing adds to the complexity.
    Enjoy your life with your kids!

  3. I totally loves your piece :). I can somewhat relate to it. Came here in 2001. Had my 2 daughters here. The first enervation kids get stick between their foreign parents and them being American, which actually is so true because they are American. For Europeans it’s still easy to blend in…for Asians, we stand out. My daughter once asked me,” mom am I American or Indian?”… She is almost 10 now. This was few years ago. I looked at her and told her,”you are as American as any white kid in the country and you have double points because you are American and Indian too….bonus”. She didn’t get me then but that petite little girl stands for herself strong and Ames a lot of pride in being both :).. Atleast so far :).
    Cheers,
    Sonal

  4. I remember my father being embarrassed when his mother would say something about/from the “old country” (Syria). Not so much her broken English, but her problems with context or not appreciating the “American” point of view. At the same time, he wouldn’t let me say anything because I was supposed to show respect.

  5. Of all people, yes, you know what I meant through this post. I think that for my children the cultural difference is more important than the language. Even though I will keep my accent, I am not so embarrassing now! But the way I see the world is sometimes too French or too European. But when I go back to France they call me the American. So…

  6. My mother was Norwegian. She never really got the hang of English throughout her entire life and spoke it with a heavy accent. She would constantly drop Norwegian words into sentences when she couldn’t find the English one.

    I was so used to it, I didn’t fully realise until I was eleven. Eleven, the age where full embarrassment is always just around the corner. It seemed like every five minutes my face would glow scarlet as my brow leaked sweat by the pint. The sensation was usually accompanied by the burning desire for the ground to open up beneath my feet for me never to be seen again..

    A couple of friends had called round to the house and Mum started talking to them. It was only when I looked at their faces I saw they hadn’t understood a word she’d said. I was mortified.

    • Well, you certainly can relate to the post I wrote. Eleven years old sounds about the age when my kids were aware of my funny English and moreover, like Dan wrote above, of my different way of thinking due to my French upbringing. And yes, often it is through friends that we realize when we are growing up that our parents are different. My question to you would be: Did your embarrassment vanish when you were an adult? Did you then see advantages to the fact that your mother was foreign-born? Thank you so much for your comment.

  7. It’s always a pleasure to comment on a well-written post.

    Mum was mum, and I was always very proud of my Norwegian heritage. I still am. I grew out of that particular embarrassment more or less the same time my face stopped going red every time I got close to a girl I liked. Teenage years are very difficult.

    The advantages of having family abroad last a lifetime, and increase with age. We spent holidays with them and they spent holidays with us in England, It still goes on.

    Much later, when Mum was in her eighties, I accompanied her to Oslo several times before she passed away. By that time, though as sharp as a pin on other matters, she was becoming confused by language, She’d speak English to Norwegian taxi drivers and Norwegian to me. Sometimes, even her old friends in Norway couldn’t understand her. But, despite the occasional frustration, she had a good sense of humour, and hardly ever became too troubled by it.

    You can read about one of our trips here: http://pedersenslastdream.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/reflections-in-a-fjord/

  8. I love it and I can relate not as a mom but as a daughter. My mom is a German Citizen born in Africa ! Can you imagine how it feels like to go shopping downtown Paris with her? Totally love your post it also give me a glimpse of what my life as a foreingn mom in Canada will be! Thank you 🙂
    By the way my questions for the liebster award are on the blog-You can answer whenever you are ready 🙂

    • Merci Madame Gaou. I read your blog, which I like a lot. There was no blogging platform when I arrived to the States, so it’s great to read impressions from young women who are now living this experience.
      And yes, I can imagine you and your mon in Paris, all of places!
      See you on your blog. A plus tard sur votre blog.

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