I lived in France for a year. Not your stereotypical cute-Parisian-apartment-with-a-wrought-iron-balcony-overlooking-the-Seine-and-La-Tour-Eiffel kind of France. I lived in the wops of northern France, chez les Ch’tis. Specifically in the Picardy region, in a small town called Doullens. Funnily enough, the town I landed in had a few traits that were reminiscent of my own hometown in New Zealand. Except the roads were cobblestone not gravel, their cars were Fiats and Peugeots not Toyota Hiluxs and Ford Rangers, and instead of Skellerups and Hunting and Fishing gear there were a plethora of ill fitting three piece tracksuits, denim on denim, and a whole host of bejeweled items with the odd adventurous character that would try and combine all three. It was however, small, rural, everyone knew each other, and the culture was ripe and unfiltered—much like my hometown of Ruatoria.
The first three months were painful. Every time I tried to speak French, Māori would come out. Being my first language, and then my go-to second option other than English, my brain couldn’t compute that there was a new player in the mix. This resulted in a weird hybrid mix of Frengaori, where I would chuck a “Ça va?” out to my Mum on Skype, a “Morena” to my host sister, and a super offensive “Hello” to the stuffy old French Rotarians who were of the mind that any sign I was not totally immersing myself in the French culture was an affront to their hospitality and kindness (this was in and amongst the breath testing and random drug tests we exchange students received every other weekend).
By month six, I was good to go. Gone were the stress headaches, the nervous laughter when I didn’t know what someone had said, and the full on body blushes when I mucked up their downright ridiculous numbering system (for example, to say 96 you legitimately have to say “four twenty’s sixteen | n’importe quoi”). I could now comfortably engage in conversations that didn’t have to involve talking about where I was from, how old I was, and what my dog’s name was. The rest of the year was spent doing exactly what one does on an overseas exchange, strictly abiding by Rotary’s four D’s policy, religiously attending school, and saving all my money.
The ultimate culture shock came when I arrived back in New Zealand, having lived for a year in the freezing north of France and surviving their coldest winter on record in 50 years. I arrived back to yah typical beautiful Kiwi summer, with the temp up in the high 20s, the sun shining, and the waves pounding. I had been home a few days when we went out to one of our maraes, as it was the annual Kura Reo, and we were going to support the kaupapa. It was one of the most awful and uncomfortable experiences of my life.
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As soon as we arrived I was bombarded by my aunties and uncles, nannies and papas, all wanting to know how I was, how France was, what movies did I watch on the plane—all in Māori. Every time I tried to respond, French would come out. I remember not being able to think of what the word for ‘plane’ was, in Māori, and although seemingly not a big deal, felt like the most embarrassing and shameful thing at the time. I lasted all of two minutes before going to the bathroom and completely breaking down. Like full on tears and everything. I was utterly overwhelmed by the fact that, in the space of one year, a foreign language and culture had somehow overtaken my own native language and culture.
I rationalize it in my head like this: in France it wasn’t such a big deal because no one knew me, they didn’t expect me to speak French, and they almost always were trying to speak broken English to me anyway. Coming home to your family, however, and not being able to speak the language that they taught you, that you’ve spoken your whole life, one that’s an integral part of who you are as a person, completely broke me – really upsetting stuff.
Almost three years after this traumatic episode I’ve come to realize a few things. First, learning a language is one of the most fulfilling, enlightening, and coolest things to do—I really recommend doing it. Second, a language is like a muscle, you can’t expect it to suddenly pump after months of disuse, but it will always be there, you just have to exercise it. Third, I’ve realized that no matter what happens in my life, there is no way I can ever lose my reo, te reo o Ngati Porou. Why? Mainly because I’ve made a conscious decision not to. I never want to feel like I did at that fateful Kura Reo, and I never will again. Practically, this means that not a day goes by that I don’t speak Te Reo, I can guarantee that I say the words “tote,” “kai,” and “putea” on a daily basis (usually preceded by “pass the”).