My dad has a brother who is charismatic, funny, outgoing, pleasant to be around, and very talkative. I don’t think I’ve been with him at a restaurant where he doesn’t address the server by name. He makes everyone feel chummy and comfortable within minutes of the conversation. He genuinely enjoys talking to everyone he meets, and wants to meet everyone he can. My aunt told me while they were staying in China, he would stop people on the street and just keep saying hello until he could get someone to have a conversation with him. Ever since my first couple days here, I decided in my head that if I’m going to learn this language, I’m going to have to be Uncle Peter. I didn’t have any friends, or anyone to talk to on a regular basis-- I just needed to start talking to neighbors, clerks, bus drivers, and anyone I see.
I could think about doing that. It made sense, logically. I wanted to speak the language, and I wanted friends. But real life looks like this: I go to a park and sit on the bench to rest for a minute. A woman walks up and sits on the next bench over. We exchange greetings. I smile. She pulls out some snacks. I stand up to go. She says, “Oh, you don’t need to go because I sat down.” I say that I was just going to head home for lunch myself. I tell her “bon apetit,” and head on my way. As I walk away, all I can think is how that was such a good opportunity to get to know a neighbor and to have a good conversation. But my whole being is shouting “Code red, code red! You don’t know her. Abort. Abort!”
It doesn’t matter the language. I am an introvert. The fact the I am trying to have small talk in a foreign language only makes it more intimidating. Uncle Peter thrives off small talk. He feels great. The new friend feels great. They all come out bubbly and happy and better people. I shrink with small talk. Panic sets in, and there’s nothing in my brain to talk about. Nothing! I am an intelligent person, right? How does my brain go blank because someone I don’t know is talking to me?
I started volunteering this week at Secours Populaire Français (a charity organization). I spent the first 2 days (well, 1/2 days because I teach my online class part-time also) at headquarters going through donations, sorting and listening to the other workers, and doing my best to join in their conversations. Wed through Friday we had an open air market, where I worked at the clothing booth. People would come up and look for clothes. I just had to greet them, help direct them to where specific items of clothing were, tell them prices, and then write up a little receipt for them to take to the cashier. Side note: In my mind I kept thinking how much I’d love my students to be able to do something like that. The real-life version of what I try to create in my classroom! But, back to me. I realized by the second day of selling clothes, that I was comfortably talking to strangers!
I read a book a little while ago about being an introvert/extrovert (It was excellent--I highly recommend it to introverts and extroverts alike!). She talks about how introverts can act as extroverts in specific situations, for a specific purpose. That is what I do every day at work. Beng in France gave me a purpose to have the extrovert spill out. But it wasn’t a specific enough purpose. Yet selling clothes apparently was! I just happily went along fulfilling my little role, marveling at how much I enjoyed it.
And I’ve really enjoyed the little insights to French culture I’ve picked up along the way. One of my fellow co-workers telling a very large customer we have “des grands grands pantalons pour vous.” (very very large pants for him). And this was right after she told me all about how a teanager at the next booth over had just told her overweight granddaughter that she eats too much bread and chocolate (a problem she soothed with ice cream bars for both of them).
My moment of overwhelming popularity came when a British woman wanted to buy lotion. No one could understand her, so they all waved me over to translate. They’d been trying to sell her sunscreen, but I solved the problem! I may have broken, barely functionally fluent French. But it works. And it’s fun!