Thursday, September 28, 2006


The fates of Your Humble Narrator and Le Cordon Bleu seem to be on a collision course (ha-- course! get it?).

I was told by Madame H, a Korean lady who works as a French/Korean interpreter for Le Cordon Bleu a couple floors upstairs from where I teach, that a Frenchman (et oui-- un Français, bon sang!) was looking to take English classes and that he would probably want to start at Level 1, the level I currently teach.

I met this request with some befuddlement: most of the French people I know speak anywhere from passable to excellent English (my expat colleagues all agreed on this point). I seriously doubted this guy was a Level 1, so I told Madame H that I wanted to interview him to be sure of his level.

I met J-P and Madame H on the second floor, and we began chatting in French right away. J-P wasn't what I expected: having seen a few of the Cordon Bleu chefs hanging outside our building for a smoke break, I was sure that J-P would turn out to be a 20-something horndog looking for an excuse to scope the chicks. Not so: J-P's either in his late 40s or early 50s; he sports a mustache, beefy hands, and a rather large gut. He's also pretty short. Given what I know about Korean women, this combination of unsavory traits will likely be a turn-on for many of them: I've seen far too many gorgeous Korean girls on the arms of fugly-ass Western guys to believe otherwise. Not being totally Korean myself, I didn't ask J-P whether he was married and what his ulterior motives for taking the class were. Besides, Madame H was right there with us, and her French is quite good. I doubt I could have slipped the question past her.

J-P was unable to answer many basic questions in English; in fact, he preferred to revert to French to express himself during our interview. All the same, I had the impression that his English was higher than Level 1, and I told him so. He politely insisted on starting at Level 1, citing a reason similar to my own reason for wanting to restart my Korean language education at a low level: he was keen to patch up the holes in his knowledge and acquire a decent English base before moving on to the more challenging levels. I couldn't argue with that. He is, however, going to start in Week 5, which means he'll need to do quite a bit of catch-up work.

In describing the paltry level of his English, J-P startled me by using a phrase I hadn't heard in a while: "c'est du petit-nègre," which as you might guess is a racist term that originally referred to the "imperfect" French spoken by black people in places like Haiti or other French colonies. Apparently, many French folks (including black French folks) no longer find the term that racist, and an online reference I just consulted claims that the word nègre can even be a term of pride, especially when used by French-speaking black folks (cf. la négritude). I suppose that's similar to an English phrase like "'Sup, nigga" --which I could never say to a black man, but which black folks can freely use on each other. In any case, I was startled by J-P's utterance, but he never blinked.

[Aside: it's interesting to think about the racial politics involved when a lily-white guy like Quentin Tarantino, who has a marvelous ear for black dialogue, writes a script like "Pulp Fiction," which is shot through with epithets meant to be uttered by black actors. Samuel Jackson apparently had no trouble with saying his lines, and neither did the tremendous Ving Rhames. Spike Lee, on the other hand, has publicly frowned upon Tarantino's liberal use of the N-word in his movie scripts.]

Questions of dicey colloquialisms aside, I'm hoping that J-P's presence in the 7:50am class will cause a stir. One of the girls in that class is a French major; she and her friend sit with me on Tuesdays for an hour-long French free-talk session. I hope this girl realizes that the gods have plopped a rotund, middle-aged opportunity in her lap: the chance to speak French with an honest-to-Cthulu Frenchman! J-P's a Cordon Bleu chef and therefore busy as hell, but if I were that student, I'd want to carpe this diem. (Apologies to all the Latin scholars out there.)

The upshot for me-- what I'm hoping for, anyway-- is a chance at getting some free Cordon Bleu food out of all this. And that, I think, is why the cosmos placed me at Smoo.


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