I had no alternative; I was trapped by language.
– Amitav Ghosh, In An Antique Land
In early 2009, carrying nine school semesters of French instruction, I landed in Paris tongue-tied, immersed, inhibited by my lack of knowledge and unprepared to ask the questions I wanted answered: Do you know where I could find a phone? Do you know of a nearby hotel? Stranded near the Square Armand Trousseau in the 12th arrondissement, I needed a place to stay on a restful Sunday, a day when everything seemed closed.
I picked the hotel at 46 rue de Citeaux from a large blue sign I could see from the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, and entering, I found the narrow corridor so dark that at first I thought I’d made a mistake. A man, who spoke French with an accent, leaned out of a booth from within the limited, dim entryway. My memory reconstructs him as older, square, and overwhelming, almost bossy, in his profusion of French words.
“Bonjour,” he greeted me. I hope I was at least polite enough to say “Bonjour,” but I was jetlagged and befuddled. My initial experience of Paris was like being underwater: my senses dulled and my perceptions muddied.
“Reservation?” He must have asked, though the reconstruction of what he said is a compounded translation of language, culture, and time. I shook my head. “Would you like a room? For how long?”
It seemed like too many French words, all asking me to make decisions I was unprepared and reluctant to make. In my memory, the man was shadowed by the age of the building, the dark lighting obscuring him. He might have meant to seem catering and professional, but the quickness with which he responded left me intimidated. I felt rushed into a decision.
“One night,” I said through my haze of weariness. “How much for a room?”
“One night. Would you like a W.C.? Would you like une douche? Pas de douche?” I struggled to identify the meaning of the French une douche so that I could respond, but no memory of a translation came to mind. It seemed like a word with endless humor potential for English-speaking French learners. Based off the English connotations, I decided that I wouldn’t need une douche that night.
“40 euros for a room without une douche. 80 euros for a room with une douche.” He listed prices for me, and I picked the cheapest from his list. I had maybe one or two hundred euros in my pocket, and having expected the money to last for a week or more, I hated to spend it all in one go.
The proprietor took a key from the wall and showed me to a room.
The stairs were spiral and cramped, and I dragged my fifty-pound suitcase, like a sled, around and upwards after the man. Up and up we went. The overcast sky of the day seemed to have followed us in, and what light lined the halls little dispelled the shadows I saw. My eyes wouldn’t adjust, and I squinted as he showed me a room. The walls were barren, the room not much more than a straightjacketed mattress paired with an empty table and a towel draped over the sink.
“Does this work?” he asked.
Perplexed, I looked from the bed to the faucet, and I asked him, “Where’s the toilet?”
“Would you like a W.C. in the room?” he asked. That was what I wanted. Yes. “So you do want une douche!” He said it in a sort of ah-ha moment, the meaning of which still escaped me.
I didn’t know what he meant, but I hoped it would become clear if I agreed. On a lower floor, he let me into a second room, this one with une douche, explained the price, and left me there. Alone, I could fish out my dictionary and discover the French meaning of une douche (a shower). The homonym—and the misunderstanding of it—would become a favorite joke among my American friends. Do you want une douche? I’m not really in the mood right now, but maybe later. Do you prefer une douchein the morning or in the evening?
This hotel room, even with the extra-cost, off-white bathroom, beige shower, and toilet attached, was not like its U.S. counterpart. I had a room for the night and fourteen hours to kill until daybreak and Monday, a day of business that I looked forward to as never before.
The American group remains open; the French unit immediately creates a closed space.
– Jean Baudrillard, America
When I’m tired, I fall into a bad habit, a tendency to universalize and extrapolate a single instance as an example for all others. I’d arrived to Paris exhausted on a chilly, overcast day, and a taxi dropped me onto an overcast sidewalk. The approaching rainfall had replaced that Parisian perfume, the blonde wood I thought knew, with an overwhelming odor of ozone. Rue de Faubourg Saint-Antoine was a historic street, advertised as housing furniture makers and woodworkers, a home for craftsman, but I was met with closed shops, locked and secured by padlocks, steel security doors, and grid gates. I could only guess the meaning of the local signage, but it appeared all stores, regardless of type, were closed.
The address I’d been given marked a side alley, a passageway that tunneled through a building. The passageway was quiet and a peaceful respite from the street, but the blue door—structured without a handle, so that the metal overlapped—was an insurmountable obstacle toward entrance. The office corresponding to the dormitory I’d rented for a month was—like the rest of the local shops—closed, though the concept of businesses closing on Sundays was as foreign to me as the streets of Paris, and uncomprehending, I wondered why the staff hadn’t mentioned via email what they already knew to be true. They assumed that they were closed on Sundays, and this would be apparent to anyone. Didn’t all businesses close on Sundays? No, not where I was from, and though I realized my mistake, I blamed them. I experienced a nationalistic sense of pride, a conviction that since U.S. businesses were open on Sundays, they were superior. A dichotomy of nationality followed this logic: America open; France closed. Q.E.D.
More than luggage, I carried the American West in my skeleton, my muscle memory anchored in Colorado. French theorist and critic Jean Baudrillard might have described my home—in a basin at the foot of Rocky Mountains—as replete with “geological grandeur,” spacious, arid, where the youth drove fast down empty, quiet streets and the community was friendly and warm, replete with smiles.
I’d left the West Baudrillard described as having “no culture” for Paris’s heart of culture, and traded the close sunlight and open air of American plains for the close corridors and clouded skies of a Parisian winter. I’d abandoned the clean for the crowd. If Baudrillard felt insignificant and overwhelmed in the Western U.S. desert, I felt trapped in a rotisserie of worry, basted in anxiety, in an airless hotel room in Paris, alone, where cacophonous noises, like the buzz of voices, the crackle of pipes, and the creaks of footsteps, echoed dissonant in a locked room. Years before, on my first nights in Colorado, the ceaseless chirping of crickets had kept me awake the first times I heard them in chorus. I once fell asleep on a train listening a French couple’s conversation, as if the Parisian-accented French, crisp and precise, was a lullaby. Sleepless in Paris, I cracked open my notebook and calculated the number of days I would stay. I would countdown by day until my unease melted away, and I realized the numbers were a mess, nowhere near correlated with the actual number of days I spent in France.
It is proof that real differences can indeed dwell not only in large things, but in the smallest of details—in the way, for instance, that a button has been sewn on.
–Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus
I expected to never go back to that hotel, but one month later, I returned. I had enrolled in salsa dancing lessons with the hope of another sort of experiential learning. Since Paris was a global metropolitan, I expected the dancing to be some of the best. I thought I could grow my ability and at the same time meet other dancers. Though I hadn’t recognized the street name rue de Citeaux, on arrival, I discovered the dance school was next door to a familiar hotel. The location might have escaped me if I had never gone back; the Latin dance studio welcomed with a bright, warm-colored front, decorated with pictures of dancers frozen in showy moves, midair splits, dramatic dips, and flashy outfits.
Inside, the instructor introduced himself in French. “I’m Leo, and I’m from Cuba.”
He had soft dark hair, a long nose, and a long face. To me, he looked French. He spoke with a Spanish accent, which sometimes made me struggle to follow what he said. Our communications were filtered and translated several times over from his Cuban-Spanish French to my American-English French. Over the course of the semester, he would emphasize his Cuban roots—“You know, salsa was invented in Cuba.” His native culture linked to his expertise in salsa.
Of his students, by means of introduction, he wanted to know, “What is your name? Where are you from?”
We would meet as regularly as any university class, but unlike other university classes, we would be touching each other. Whether it was because he was Leo or because salsa was salsa, Leo included another question he wanted answered by us: “Are you single?” He explained: “Are you alone, without a partner, or are you together, in couple?”
It seemed like an invasive, personal question to me. Leo was not afraid to quiz those who were in relationships about their partners, such as: Where was this significant other? Does this person dance?
Did he ask these questions to make things interesting? That seemed like something Leo would do, but they were also questions conscious of the flirtatious and physical nature of partner dancing, as well as the things we carried with us into class. Like the sauce salsa, the dance is spicy, full of flavor and flirting, fun and lively, though Cuban singer Celia Cruz is famed for yelling ¡Azúcar! to bring out the sweetness in it.
I don’t remember the answers from the students. There were roughly nine of us: Lucie, Eriq, Aude, Alyssa, Rocío, Sandra, Christophe, Antoine, and me. Most were French students, sophomores at the university, but Rocío was Canadian—of Latin decent—and Alyssa was—like me—American.
“Do you speak any Spanish?” Leo wanted to know. I was concentrating very hard to puzzle out the meaning of his accented French. When he launched into Spanish, it took a second before I understood why I didn’t understand what he was saying.
To salsa dance without speaking Spanish was to be constantly reminded of my interloper status. Salsa was neither my culture nor my heritage; it was a space I snuck into.
Some of the other students did speak Spanish, and the class would slip in and out of languages—French, Spanish, English. The jokes and conversation were fast, engaged, and demanded full attention to keep up.
Leo had us warm up, salsa on 1, in lines behind him. He would demonstrate the step, and we would mimic him. He was smooth and slim and dynamic when he moved, wire-like and almost vibrating, jittery, caffeinated with energy, as if he was ready to spring from the floor. He moved close to the ground, danced with his entire body, and was quick to react or redirect.
To me, a dancer’s style was like a fingerprint, grounded in the build of an individual’s body and deeply linked to that person’s experiences, aesthetics, and personality. Style was built by exposure, study, ability, body type, and cultural norms. The Latin influence in my dancing might look like an identity crisis, or like the theft of something that does not belong to me, but it had also become part of my experiential background.
Leo counted the steps in French as he moved. In salsa, warm-ups almost always default to the traditionally male role, the leader’s footwork. In partner dance, the lead’s role is to guide the follow, the traditionally female role, through twists and turns and pauses and changes to beat and music. Since the roles are already presubscribed, dancers must learn each other’s parts before they can switch and subvert the roles they play. During our lessons, we would switch genders to even out the number of pairs.
That first class, I counted the steps in English in my head. It was habit, automatic, and unconsidered, but it meant that halfway through the song, I tripped up, offbeat with the rest of the class. Because I hadn’t been thinking in French, I missed Leo’s Spanish-accented French command, and my head couldn’t switch between languages fast enough for my body keep up. I stayed in step with the rest until more missteps made me realize my English translations were delaying my dancing. To solve this problem I would count in French—or Spanish—or whatever language Leo switched to.
I wasn’t alone in struggling. All the students were challenged to learn the footwork. The lesson treated the hardwood as if it were a trampoline; the footwork and body movement required translating the demonstration of Leo’s body into our own mimicry.
The lesson worked its way to a partner move. What I knew as a cross body lead, Leo called a “dile que no.” The Spanish “say no” I knew as the command for a cross body lead in Cuban Rueda de Casino dancing, which is a group partner circle dance and which happens to be the first way I learned salsa. The partner version of Rueda de Casino, simply called Casino, is considered very Cuban. Because I knew the Spanish phrases from the Rueda de Casino calls, because I knew them as body movements, I was quick to translate Leo’s Spanish phrases into steps.
I ask of the Americans only that they be Americans. I do not ask them to be intelligent, sensible, original.
– Jean Baudrillard, America
Some time in May, some of the French students and I translated our salsa class to a salsa club. We met on La Rive Gaucheat La Pachanga, which translates from Spanish to English as “the party,” but is also yet another Cuban style of dance. A long hallway led to a space divided between a bar and a dance floor that, over hours, would both fill with and be bordered by dancers. The décor sizzled in reds, yellows, and oranges, and Latin music steamed throughout the room from the speakers to the rafters to the recesses.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Eriq said in a comic tenor greeting Aude and I outside. He told me the phrase came from South Park. It surprised me to discover that Eriq, a black haired, easygoing, humorous Frenchman enjoyed South Park, a subversive, animated Colorado-based comedy T.V. show.
I told him I didn’t think that was what he wanted to copy.
He ignored me.
Three others—Christophe, Lucie, and Sandra—trickled in to join us. Out of everyone in our salsa class, I most wanted to be friends with Lucie and Sandra. Both were petite, dark-haired Frenchwomen with round faces. They looked nice; they looked like me. But one flaw of partner dancing is rarely getting time with other women, so I was never quite able to turn my wish into reality. Instead, I would know Eriq best, not because he the best dancer, or the nicest, but because he was the most vocal with languages. In addition to French, Spanish, and English, he told me he was learning Russian, which challenged him as the first language he’d tackled that used a different alphabet. If I were to compare Eriq and I, I would seem closed and Eriq—with his enviable talent for languages—open.
“What are you having to drink?” Eriq asked.
The price of entry, the eight Euro cover, included a drink, and Eriq and Christophe ordered piña coladas, the national drink of Puerto Rico, all night long. I didn’t know how the cocktail was viewed in France, but the suburban U.S. culture I came from called the cocktail girly. This meant that women were encouraged and expected to like sweet, flavored drinks, while men were meant to eschew so-called frills in favor of tart, sour, bitter, or stout drinks that tasted like alcohol. So when the Frenchmen drank sweet all night, it entertained me by being subversive of my cultural norms.
I ordered a margarita, which I considered a gender-neutral drink. I think Eriq might have disapproved of it as too biting in taste. As we sipped, I regretted not ordering what they had—because it seemed fun and festive and fitting for the location, though I don’t particularly like piña coladas.
Eriq took it upon himself—I think because either he found it amusing or because it was his way of including me—to try to coax people to speak English with me.
Sandra flat out refused; I found her refusal endearing.
“English is the language of the future,” Eriq said to her in an attempt to lure her into practicing.
“That’s Chinese,” I told him.
“It doesn’t sound as pretty,” he said.
Eriq seemed to love to poke fun at people. Later, I remember Sandra making a hand gesture and yelling at him, “tu te fous de ma gueule!”
Again, we shared our hometowns. Christophe was from an island off the coast of Madagascar. Sandra was from Tarbes near Toulouse and recommended visiting it. The hometowns were supposed to be a doorway to an abbreviatedunderstanding of each other. We could match each other to home cultures, if that would help us get to know each other as people, though we’d done it before, at the start of our salsa class, and then all forgotten.
When we danced, Christophe wanted to dance with me and dance with me and dance with me. I don’t remember his style of dance. Aude danced in a style that seemed jazz influenced to me, as if she had come from another dance background and crossed into salsa, but not lost her initial style. Eriq seemed tap-influenced, not as if he had taken lessons, but as if he were trying to pretend he was not dancing at all and instead, moved his feet in a sort of cool, effortless shuffle.
I wanted to switch partners between dances so I could experience more styles of salsa. Maybe that was openness. I had been taught a particular etiquette for partner dancing at venues: no more than two dances with the same partner, decline rarely, and if you do decline, sit out the entire dance. But good dancers like to dance with other good dancers, friends prefer to dance with friends, and couples might not want to dance with anyone else. There’s no reason why that etiquette would transfer to other dancers in the U.S., let alone to Paris, and as far as I knew, it didn’t translate to anywhere in Latin America.
At the end of the night, our class group left the bar together. Salsa music faded to echoes in my ears as we returned to nearly empty streets. Eriq teased Sandra that she could window shop for lingerie on our way toward the metro.
When we passed a bike stand, Eriq told me what remains one of my favorite jokes about the bikes for rent in Paris: “Velib is a great way to get around town, if you’re not afraid to die.”
We said goodbye—as was then stylish—with the Italian ciao.
It is a marvel that we should have accepted the separateness of our two worlds and seen no incongruity in their juxtaposition.
– V.S. Naipul, An Area of Darkness
Toward the end of the semester, Alyssa, the other American in the salsa class, had a problem with one of the moves we were learning. It was a partner move demonstrated by Leo, and the move ended with the lead pulling the follow’s rear into his crotch.
Leo might be the sort of person who—within reason—would bend over and stick his butt against another dancer without hesitation. He had long limbs, and when he danced, he exaggerated his movements so that his body seemed to extend. He was a career dancer, a lifetime artist.
Whatever Alyssa might have said in French, it sounded like “I don’t like this” to me. Her face showed both her distaste for the move and the awkwardness she felt.
Leo stopped the class.
“In Latin America, a Latina woman would respond to this move like this,” he said, or at least, that was the gist of what he said. He might have referred to his imaginary female example as “une vraie Cubaine,” a real Cuban woman. Whatever he said, he might have felt limited by language because he demonstrated the expected response of said Latina woman. To do so, he bent his knees and stuck out his rear and cheered on the moment. “Yeah, let’s go.” His arms pumped and lassoed, and he acted out enjoyment. That point made, he straightened and continued. “It’s not arousing.” He demonstrated the male’s lead move again. “It doesn’t do anything. You’re too busy counting.”
Alyssa looked awkward, shaken, and embarrassed, but there was also frustration and anger in the ruddy tint of her pale cheeks. She shook her head and stuck to her point, even when it was uncomfortable for her to do so.
Leo responded with incredulity, disbelief, and denial. To him, her objection seemed unreasonable, unfounded, and prudish.
Alyssa didn’t understand how he could fail to see her perspective. Her home university was the University of California, Berkeley, and as someone born in Berkeley, I expected a thoughtful, progressive argument from her. But I don’t remember how Alyssa explained what she thought of the move, if she called it invasive or uncomfortable. From a U.S. cultural viewpoint, the partner move could be seen as using the female as an object for male sexual stimulation and gratification, and even if her partner didn’t feel it, another observer might. In other words, maybe because she perceived the move as linked to female objectification, the move threatened Alyssa’s perception of herself, and by refusing to dance that way, she was trying to retain control over the meaning of her body.
Leo didn’t appear to understand how someone might want personal space in a partner dance. He couldn’t understand how Alyssa could fail to be convinced by him. He waited for her to come around to his way of thinking and the dance culture he considered normative.
But Alyssa was stuck. She couldn’t change her standpoint on the move.
Instinctually, I wanted to reconcile the divide between the two, to smooth the hurt arguments, and to propose a compromise, but even my English vocabulary was at a loss for the words to comfort her or console him. I could see her perspective, I could see his, but I could see no means of reconciling them. Their arguments waxed circular, unresolved and separate, and grew more incompatible by the moment.
Some of the moves I remember best from Leo are not salsa at all, but bachata, a romantic partner dance that originated in the Dominican Republic. For a dance that—to me—often seemed more sexually suggestive than salsa, when learning bachata from Leo, I don’t remember it as sensual.
Dancers who are immersed in the dance community can forget that other people have other intentions or interpretations of the community’s signs. It surprised me once at home in Denver when strange men directed offensively lewd comments to women in performance costumes outside a salsa conference. The women—who had dressed to show their love of dance and their cultural heritage—were subjected to gross misinterpretation from men foreign to social dancing. Even when security was called, the building’s guards did not fully grasp the problem. Their home culture blinded them. It was with years of dance experience that I dislocate myself enough from Alyssa’s cultural context to perceive Leo’s conception of salsa.
The salsa class had reached a standstill in cultural negotiations. We stood in stillness, awkwardness and disharmonious. Two opposing viewpoints had met and expressed their reasoning, and no apparent middle ground had appeared.
As dancers, the class could only pause for so long. We weren’t, after all, in Cuba or in the U.S.; we were salsa dancing in Paris. The majority of the students were from a French cultural context, and the French students wanted to learn. According to my memory, it was Aude who sided with Leo and elected to learn the move. She shrugged off the dispute and moved our class forward. Alyssa resisted, Leo stuck with his move, and my discomfort over their disagreement would persist through the rest of the lesson. It would follow me to my apartment in Paris, home, and into stories to my Anglophone friends as I turned the moment over and tried to force two diverging views to reconcile. The tangled, conflicting ideas came from two places I passed between, a dominant, Puritan-influenced U.S. culture and a hyphenated Latin U.S. culture, and while I could not accept their separateness, I could not untangle the knot and show the overlap.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.