Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
“AAaaaAAaHHhhh Max, you have been growing so much since th th the last time I have seen you!”
Who this woman was, I did not really know. I was given the basic information on the drive up to New York by my Dad. We were meeting his aunt who is in town from Israel and staying at his second cousin’s house in Midtown. That was all the information I was given. Whenever I’m thrown with the obligatory, “oh you’ve grown up so much blah blah blah,” I usually just uncomfortably smile and say something meaningless like, “Oh, uh, it’s great to see you too!” Unbeknownst to me, the people I was meeting saw right through my attempt at politeness and became (strangely) upset.
“What... you do not remember me? Do you not care about me or your family?!”
My father’s aunt aggressively spurted this jewel out in my general direction when I met her for the first time last year. This is what I get confronted with from my extended family members.
Sometimes when I speak, people mistake what I say for sarcasm. I’m only being sarcastic like 70% of the time. That’s a joke. You laugh now. Many people tell me that my voice just always sounds like I’m being sarcastic and condescending but honestly, I don’t mean it to be. It’s just the way I speak. Yes, I realize that sometimes the tone of my voice can give whatever I’m saying a bad connotation but it usually isn’t on purpose. It’s the difference between a “Yeah!” and a “yeah.” The people close to me have been able to adapt and understand when I’m being sarcastic or not but people that I don’t know very well usually hate me for it. Especially if they don’t speak English very well.
My Dad’s family was originally from Morocco and when Morocco gained it’s independence many jews thought that the rest of the non-Jewish population would start religiously persecuting them. My Dad’s family decided to move away from their home. For the most part they went to three different places; the wealthy ones went to live in France, the middle class members of the family made the journey to Canada, and the more adventurous and, well, poor ones made the move to Israel. My Dad’s parents were part of the group that moved to Canada, making him a first generation Canadian citizen. Almost all of his family members speak French and Hebrew. Those are the common languages that connect everyone.
Because of the family splitting up, I know very few of my paternal relatives. My Dad has many relatives that live in Montreal and the surrounding areas but close to none of them speak distinguishable English. They all speak French and through just being around them I’ve learned a few words but I have nothing close to what people would call conversational skills. Many of the older people in my family have a more traditional French accent and I’m able to catch a few words every now and then. The younger generations, like the people between me and my Dad have a much stronger Québécois accent. In my professional opinion, it just sounds like a grosser, more sloppy version of traditional French. I cannot understand the Quebec French for my life.
In the essay If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me What Is? James Baldwin claims that, “one may speak the same language, but in such a way that one’s antecedents are revealed, or (one hopes) hidden.” If an average French person from, say, Paris, were to hear any of my Israeli or Moroccan relatives speak French they would probably subconsciously begin to judge them. Generally, French speakers from France tend to look down on those with dialects from any African country or even the Canadian dialect. Hearing me attempt to speak French, any posh Frenchman would assume that I’m just an uneducated American snob. They would never think that I came from a long line of French speakers. I think Mr. Baldwin is trying to tell us that the way you speak directly causes you to be stereotyped.
Every time I see my grandmother she greets me with, “Bonjour mon cheri! Blah blah blah uh huh huh!” That’s my poor interpretation of her proceeding to speak French to me. I always reply with, “I’m sorry, what did you say?” Once she realizes that I haven’t learned French since the last time I saw her she’ll say something like,
“So, uh uh uh, m m max how is your schooling? Are you doctor yet?” They aren’t stereotypically Jewish in most ways but they pretty much define the stereotype that every Jewish parent/grandparent wants their child to be a doctor, lawyer, or accountant. When I reply to her I’m usually trying to be sarcastic so I’ll say something like, “No, I failed out of school a month ago.” This kind of thing never goes over well with her because of the language barrier and her inability to understand comedic genius. Anyone that knows me would have been able to tell by the inflection in my voice that I wasn’t serious about failing out of school. This misunderstanding is partly my fault because I know her English isn’t that great but, I mean, she’s been living in an predominantly English speaking country for about 50 years and she hasn’t picked up anything other than the basics.
Since my family lives all over the world, they’re dialect for some of the common languages can make it seem like they might as well be speaking whatever distant language they also speak. This makes it difficult for me to understand whats going on when I’m around them. On the other end, they don’t understand the way I speak very well so it’s kind of a lose-lose situation for us all. My Dad’s family thinks I have a stupid American accent. Lots of the ones that speak decent English usually avoid talking to me because I guess they can’t handle hearing how I speak. But it’s a fair trade off because speaking slow enough for them to understand can be straining after a while.
Seeing that side of my family always makes me feel like an outsider. I have a feeling I always will feel like an outsider until I take the time to learn every language my entire family speaks. Even then I’ll probably still have the feeling because of the culture gap. Knowing myself, I’ll most likely waste the time I could be using to learn French or Hebrew by like, reading about useless things on Wikipedia or something. My point is that even though we share a blood line, it means nothing with no communication. And it’s made even worse with massive amounts of sarcasm induced misunderstandings.