|Accommodation--Who Imparts to Whom?
Institutional Hijacking of Cultural Characteristics or The Capulet and
Montague of Being a Franco-American in Fair Sinclair, Maine
By Rhea Côté Robbins
"Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
Is the law of our side if I say ay?
No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir,
but I bite my thumb, sir.
Do your quarrel, sir?
Quarrel, sir? No, sir."
I Scene I
It grows increasingly true that the obligations
of justice and love are fulfilled only if each person, contributing to
the common good, according to his/her own abilities and the needs of others,
also promotes and assists the public/private institutions, dedicated to
bettering the conditions of human life.
--GAUDIUM ET SPES PASTORAL CONSTITUTION
ON THE CHURCH IN THE MODERN WORLD
GAUDIUM ET SPES PROMULGATED BY HIS
HOLINESS, POPE PAUL VI ON DECEMBER 7, 1965
In regard to English language/culture-based
institutions, oftentimes, Franco-Americans are a classic case of being
locked in roles--the roles limiting the person--and leaving left-over energies
to be dissipated because very few roles in institutions offer fulfillment
or possibility of full expression. Crushed by institutional expectations--unable
to live out the full person or their representation of the complete self
in reference to values, beliefs, language, culture and more. The
Franco-American is expected to accommodate the institution and its expectations.
Franco-Americans. Crowned with a personal set thorns. Limited
stereotypically. Ghettoized--philosophically--by the dominant group
who would set the Francos free from themselves...[sic]
For New Year's Eve, I went to Sinclair and
Long Lake Sporting Club with friends. I was surrounded by joie
de vivre, French-speaking people--I am made aware of my lost
identities, my lost selves, the one I was not allowed to become because
I, growing up in Waterville (central Maine), had an option to choose to
become someone otherwise than who my parents were. I accommodated
the larger community surrounding my French neighborhood, turned my back
on my maman and dad, and I became someone else. (I made the choice
to walk away from myself...but I have not lost my own ways and means of
reclaiming or plugging into the cultural self anytime I choose...)
Ironically, I have had more training, earlier
training, to become the one I was meant to be--culturally French--than
who I became--a mixture of the French with the English. My early
formation was to belong to those kind of French people by whom I was surrounded
on New Year's Eve. Who I was meant to be remains because among those
most like me, my heart-being remembers and sings.
In the middle of the northern Maine woods
in Sinclair, Maine, I come face-to-face with my cultural people or the
one I was destined to be, but instead I am reminded about those I accommodated
who ridiculed me when I was eleven because I spoke an English laced with
a French accent, and they made me feel dumb. Stupid. I changed
my ways. Or, I accommodated the teachers who told us our French was
not a "real" French. Or, I laughed along to accommodate those telling
the jokes about the Frenchmen and the Frogs and the light bulbs.
Or, I accommodated the myths about the women in my neighborhood.
And I accommodated those who removed the definitions of my recipes (keeping
such meals a secret), my folk songs (by not learning them because they
were ridiculed), my folk dances (because no one ever danced a traditional
dance), and more accommodations piled on top of that. But some, enough,
were passed on to me just the same. I have enough.
Standing in line to get in the Long Lake
Sporting Club, the English of our party sends off warning bells in the
people before us. They are cautious with their speech. Watchful
of our actions. They take mental notes. I see them put on their
emotional armor. The oppressors are here! Pass the word, I
sense them to say. We make note of them as well. One of us
remarks on their Frenchness, in admiration. I see a mental bristle.
The remark, without context, could be taken as ridicule. I say something
LOUD in French. My own language. My ticket. What feels
to me as ragged remnants only, but I know I have quite a few pieces of
the remnants if I think hard enough. The young man in front of me
sighs visibly, his shoulders relax and he turns to smile at me. A
secret smile passes between us and we have CONTACT! Eyes meet.
TAKE OFF!! WE ARE AIRBORNE.
Still, I feel like a lesser version of myself--like
I can sense the missed self, the one I could be--the one with more words
and more ways of expressing myself in French. Just out of reach.
Language--verbal and body--manner of expression being lost in some graveyard
of buried selves. But...exhumable. Amazingly, because I imagine
who I would be if I were what I was destined to become. Had I chosen
not to walk away.
I imagined what I would be like if I lived
in this community:
My hair would be coiffured differently, my
manner of dress different, my view on the world different, my expressions
on what has passed around me on the global scale different, my manner of
belonging to the community different, my sense of humor different, my sexuality
and its expression different, my children and their upbringing different.
I wonder about the people about me. What are their individual struggles.
Their reasons for choosing to be who they are. Did I really have
a choice in becoming someone else? I toy with the idea. Without
this deep community support of who I could of been, would I have dared
to do differently than what I have done? My choices were made according
to the geography of my life. All those choices we make in the course
of our lifetimes about who we are and who we will be, difficult, deep choices
which effect the course and outcome of our lives. I stood on the
threshold of a restaurant and 1995 and contemplated my cultural self and
I revel in the people around me and their
sensibilities, their manner of being--their poetry of motion and expressions.
I hold my ticket for entry into this fantastical, colorful, expressive,
way of being in my deep and buried past--on my lips a few phrases in passing.
(I know these people, like anyone else, have their pains and their troubles,
but they are not known to me on this night, I can see only the bright side
for one night. I know that they have had their struggles to keep
this manner of being as well...)
I long for the depth of expression, the richness,
the variety, the empathy, the admittance to a way of living and the belonging
which comes from community-supported recognition of those things in these
people. I envy them.
Only as an outsider am I able to see more
clearly the one I was destined to become and the one I became. I
could be that way still, but I am afloat and at odds, with my French self,
with my nomadic lifestyle away from the community-supported way of being,
to becoming more of the French woman of Franco-American heritage.
I admit to the depth of my assimilations. I welcome them as myself--the
one I am. I know I am who I was meant to be. But I cannot help
but think that I could attain more of what I am.
I am a woman living between two cultures.
I count myself lucky to be able to do my own negotiations in this cultural
place. I know their cultural meaning and I know other ways as well.
I'm a cultural mix. French and English. I hear and see this
I have some community belonging in my life
in Brewer, but not as French culturally defined as I see around me this
New Year's Eve. I remember my time in Waterville when I was with
my people, the ones I go see often enough and I know where I'm standing
because of that connection. It has nothing to do with ghetto, but
neighborhoods, community, and human scale.
The line is long and the people are close.
Very close. Bodily close. The snowmobilers, Saturday night,
church-crowd, dressed-for-party goers (that's us, decked out in our finery--silk
and such) are making room for some to leave so some of us can go in.
In our party, we are four. We go in before the larger party before
us. I motion apology to the young man. No, no, go ahead, he
tells me. Laughing. We sit in the bar area while the waitress
takes our order. The menu is limited and we choose. I keep
track of the nice young man and his party with whom I've had eye contact.
We sit and talk. I am in a happy stupor--I take in the sights, sounds,
smells--sensuous and unselfconscious. Rich, eloquent. Expressive
with grace and body gestures that speak volumes. I feel at home here.
Like I don't have to explain myself as I do in other places or hold myself
in. I can be a part of the scene even if for one evening. It
is our turn to go into the dining room to eat. The young man is at
the bar. He laughs. He recognizes us as we past. He remarks
lightly on our getting to eat first. I think he knew somehow I was
there to accommodate myself. This time.
First published in Le FORUM, January 1995