This is the third of my “Advent Calendar” Christmas ornament posts. For some background information about this project and why I’m challenging myself to complete it, see here.
I’m a Frenglish-Canadian.
You see, I was raised with two first languages, and have never been quite sure which box to check for “mother tongue” on official forms. I have a very English first name and a very French last name and have consequently had my name impressively mangled by both English and French speakers over the years. One French co-worker called me “Jane” for the two years I worked with her, because she just could not wrap her speech centers around “Jen”.
I’ve never been comfortable defining a spot for myself along the language continuum. In Quebec, you’re Francophone or Anglophone, and your social world will change according to your label. You read The Gazette, or Le Journal de Montreal. You either went to McGill or to UdeM. You spent Saturday nights at the bars on Crescent Street, or on Rue Saint-Denis. There were some who crossed into foreign territory, of course – it’s not as though there were language guards at the doors – but those people were definitely in the minority.
As a kid, I never really understood that there was an unspoken divide. We spoke French with Mom’s side of the family, and English with Dad’s side. It was English at home for the most part, but from kindergarten onward, I was in a French Immersion program, speaking French half the day. We didn’t just have French class, we had classes in French. Maybe one year, history and ecology would be in French, with math and music in English, and the next year it would change.
I didn’t feel like an Anglo, but I didn’t feel quite French either. That lack of specific language identity never bothered me until I got a little older and get a taste of bullying and language discrimination. I know, right? White girl in Canada, who am I to talk about discrimination? But when you’re walking to the city pool with your sister and a friend, and some French kids no bigger or badder than yourselves throw gravel at you because you’re speaking English, and tell you to “Go home, fucking English”*, what else can you call it?
The kids were idiots, obviously, and we ignored them and continued on to the swimming pool. I wasn’t traumatized by the event and I’m not crippled by it now. But it stayed with me. Every time I ask myself whether I’m Anglo or Franco, I remember sting of the gravel and the bite of their words. I’m both, and I’m neither. I can never remember the French word for peacock or the English word for pamplemousse. I stumble over the gendered nouns of French, and yet I’ll “put my coat” or “pass the vacuum” and not see a damn thing wrong with what I’m saying, despite the funny looks I get. My accent comes out when I drink, and when I’m really mad, or watching hockey, I curse in French.
I’m just going to define myself with my made-up “Frenglish-Canadian” and if you don’t like it, you can piss off, câlisse.
*One, I was home. Two, they insulted us in English. If you’re going to insult me, do it right.