Sunday, June 07, 2015

colliding reminiscences

This weekend, we're commemorating both the 71st anniversary of D-Day and the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, 26 years ago.

In 1986, during the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, I went to France as part of the Nacel foreign-exchange program at the behest of my French teacher, Mrs. Landgrabe. She saw potential in my French ability; I was the best student in her classes, and she didn't want to see that talent go to waste. The Nacel program isn't a simultaneous exchange: it has more of a "building cultural bridges" emphasis in that the American student lives with a French host family one year, and le correspondant français lives with the American student's family the following year (which is approximately what happened). My French, up to that point, had been purely academic in nature, i.e., unnatural, stilted, "classroom" French. A month in France, living with a family that spoke little to no English, was a trial by fire, and my French improved by leaps and bounds. By the end of that month, I was thinking in French instead of merely translating. My French Papa noted this with approval: "Tu parles plus vite; tu cherches moins les mots," he said. I don't think I'm there any longer, given my general lack of practice, but I used to be able to fool French folks into thinking I was a native speaker. Once, while hosting a French couple in the States, the husband said to me, "Parfois on oublie que vous n'êtes pas français!"—Sometimes we forget you're not French. Quite a high compliment.

One of the things I remember best about that first-ever trip to France was driving from the Nantes region, in Bretagne (Brittany), up north to Normandy. I worked arduously on a farm for ten days (great way to learn farming vocabulary), and during that time, we visited one of the plages du débarquement, the beaches where the Allied forces landed on D-Day during Operation Overlord. It was a solemn experience. According to Papa, we were technically on US soil—a gift from France to the Americans. Looking out into the waves, we could see the remains of the telephone-pole-sized wooden posts that the Germans had placed in the water as a baffle against the incoming wave of Allied troops. It was easy to imagine the war. We stood among ghosts.

Fast-forward to 1989. I was in college, spending my junior year in Europe. 1989 was an action-packed year, globally speaking: Tiananmen had happened only a few months prior to my arrival in Nice for a présession universitaire (a way to get us Yanks acclimated to the European way of running university classes; Georgetown University had us French majors all assigned to different countries to study, but we all began in Nice before dispersing); the présession happened in September; by October, I was in Fribourg, Switzerland, studying at the Université de Fribourg. A month later, the Berlin Wall suddenly opened up, then Romania imploded and the Ceausescus were put up against a wall and shot right at Christmas. Not a bad year to turn 20. I remember marveling at a lot of video: Tiananmen was impressive, mainly because of the now-iconic image of "Tank Man"; the bodies of the Ceausescus, staring sightlessly after having been shot, were a haunting sight. As for the Wall, well... I went to Berlin with some Georgetown classmates, but that's a story I've already told several times on this blog (here, for example), so I won't rehash it. 1989 was when I truly began to have a sense of the interconnection of world events. I was living with a Swiss host family while taking courses in Fribourg; my French again improved by leaps and bounds, and my knowledge of western European geography also improved. I spent Christmas with my French host family, and we watched Romania's free-fall into chaos on the family TV. By 1990, when I returned to the States, I was still young, but a bit more worldly.

It's interesting to ponder where Franco-American relations have gone since D-Day. In some ways, things have remained the same, but in other ways, that relationship has severely deteriorated. And how about post-Tiananmen China? Well, with China's recent ferry disaster, we're reminded how tightly controlled the Chinese media have always been. As I once mentioned on this blog, I tutored a Chinese student who knew nothing about Tiananmen or Tank Man before I showed him the pictures on my laptop. The Chinese government had done an effective job of wiping the past clean away, which is unfortunate.

So much for the past. Heaven only knows what lies ahead.



John (I'm not a robot) said...

Nice read. Scary how easily governments can suppress information from the citizenry. Also scary how they collect every scrap of information regarding their citizens.

Kevin Kim said...

Given the recent OPM hacking scandal, this is of particular relevance to you, I'm sure.