⪧ We left our life in New York City to make a new one in Provence ⪦

April 22, 2010

The Inferior American.

I've had several conversations in the past week hovering around the topic.

First, it is language.

It started for me as a graduate student in England. My disapproving tutor handed me back the first drafts of my very first essay with the words, "Let's focus on the grammar first, then I'll have a look at the content. Sentences do not end with a preposition. Split infinitives remain unacceptable." Indeed.

A friend of mine from Oxford, who is both British and French, was visiting New York this week. We laughed when she remarked that we don't really speak the same language. "Americans don't actually use the present perfect much, do they?"

I taught English when I first moved to France and I realized that, before that point, I didn't even know the name of that tense (although I did use it). The "present perfect", for a quick a review, is that verb tense that hovers between the present and the past. We should use it with words (or ideas) like "yet", "already", "just" and "never": Have you seen that one movie? (yet) Oh yes, I have seen it. (already) In fact, I've just seen it. (yesterday) Oh, I haven't. I've never seen a film in my life. (Not the simple past: did you see that movie? Yes, I did. I just saw it...). Americans, as Lucy pointed out, have this way of just dropping the tense altogether and opting for the more simple (and firmly-fixed) past tense.

Many of my French students agreed with Lucy's idea that she and I speak different languages. They would tell me, "Oh good, we have an American instructor today. I want to learn American." Or alternatively: "OH NO! She speaks American not English!".

American the language. I love it.

It is quite similar to the way the French regard the Québécois...they certainly don't speak French according to many Frenchies.

It is tied up in class too. I've written before about how surprising the heavy emphasis on class was in France for me (and in England, but I expected that more, being in Oxford). Then I realized why. At our roots, Americans are often from some of the lowest rungs of whatever society from which we originated. Not directly, of course. Yet, it remains: so many of us are immigrants or a form of 'immigrant:' people who often shed class distinctions by leaving. And so, we are a huge melting pot of yokels, even if to ourselves, there are deep distinctions. Sure, we've construed our own system of class, but it is really just about money - so anomalous to the class system of Europe - where money is often the first bad sign when it comes to class.

There was a small reprise for me during my three years in Paris. When Obama was elected, I recounted how I was immediately regarded differently by the French - from one day to the next. He even saved me from a close call in the dark byways near Gare du Nord. This is one case where American inferiority has been granted breather. Long after American papers have been finding fault, French papers continue to revel in his glories (health care #1, which, according to the French, is a barbaric situation in this country of ours).

But the American as inferior remains. I'm pretty sure that most of my American counterparts in Euro-foreign lands would agree. The yoke is shared. I just like when Xavier tells fellow French-folk that he is married to an American and their first question/concern is: "Aren't you scared she is going to get fat?"


Jill said...

Great post Em. I've been watching a documentary on the history of New York, which is really just the history of America on a smaller scale. We really are all immigrants in one way or another, but I love that 'melting pot' distinction. It's makes us who we are, language and all.

Rosie said...

What happened to the good ole American "you gotta have heart!"? It is interesting to note what people of any nationality put value on, isn't it!

Emilie said...

Oh yes, Mama - you are right on. There are plenty of reasons to love us, according to me...that is why some of this is so perplexing!

D1Warbler said...

I agree with Rosie. We may be "yokels" to some over the pond and elsewhere, but we are the most generous "yokels" in the world -- both with our coin and with our lives! Perhaps that goes back to the fact that "farm folk" everywhere -- which is the class that most of us came from -- were always helping each other. Heck -- that's what I love about the Mid-west in this country. Those values still survive -- and in great abundance -- along with a propensity toward friendliness.

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