Saturday, April 30, 2011

French manners

I would never date this woman, my French colleague said to himself when we first met.  I was just introducing myself to him at the time.  Apparently, my voice hurt his ears!  Although one and a half years after that, we started dating each other and four and a half years after that, he became my husband.

My French boss would have loved me, too, I am sure, if I had listened to him - he once praised me for speaking softly.

Many Westerners don't like people speak with excitement.  Americans though, show more tolerance to kids running around in public places.  They usually give understanding comments, even engage to harmless conversations, or at least genuinely happy smiles to the parents about our excited kids.  The French, however, have very little tolerance for our little monkeys.

Yesterday at this cafe inside the Paris Charles de Gaulles train station, our 4 and 2 year old kids made a woman angry.  The kids just got off a long flight from Newark to Paris, the father and I had not slept the whole time.  Thus, we sort of decided to chasing after them would cause us more.  So we let them release some of the energies while we were waiting for our food.  The kids were playing "ring a round the rosie" and I assumed the French would be like most of the Americans who would find them cute and lovely.

However, this woman didn't think so.

She was trying to read.

After failing to get me to shut our kids up by sending me signals of her annoyance, she proceeded to "Shh" at Mia and Remy, who now already sat down at the table drawing - to my credit, I succeeded to get them back to their seats, but unfortunately, they continued to speak excitingly.  Once the "shh" failed to change the situation, she muttered to her partner and pointed to other two older boys who were reading books quietly.  I assumed she was complaining to her partner that our kids were not behaving as well as the other boys.

Then the woman stood up and got ready to leave.

Trying to be a good mother, I took this opportunity to teach Mia not speak to unintended audience.  "Mia, look, the lady did not appreciate that you are making so much noise.  Could you keep your voice down, please."

She looked at the woman, turned her head to me, and said, "no, Mama, I think they are just done with eating.  They have been sitting there for a long time." True, smarty, I thought to myself.  I, too, wondered why they had not left long ago.  Seeing how busy the cafe was and how many people were waiting for seats at the door!  They too, had their own share of insensitive to other people's needs!

But I said to Mia, "Keep your voices down anyways, see, these other two boys?"  But in my defense, those other boys were a bit older.

Now I am puzzling about whether that woman was annoyed by me who obviously failed to do my job as a mother or by Mia and Remy who were speaking English loudly.  If it is the former, she knew only half of it.  The father IS French, too!  Plus, they spend 5 days a week, 10 hours per day in the daycare, don't you think they need to play rough to survive a daycare life?

"They grew up in Chinese orphanage, we just got them from China." I wished to tell her that with a big smile on my face while she walked by us on her way out.

Just so you know, we Chinese women are not that uncivilized.  Speaking gently was in fact required for all Chinese woman, among many other good manners required of us.  It was just no longer a common practice for Chinese women anymore at the time when I was brought up in 60s and 70s.   China became a very crowd country so we had to shout out loud when we talked.  I must admit though, I often speak with strong emotions, this makes me even louder than average.

My mother, however, was not brought up this way.  She was told "as a girl, you should laugh without showing your teeth, speaking with a low voice (笑不露齿, 话不高声), and speak only when spoken to." I knew that because she often said this to me when I was little.  I guess she knew that my unfeminine features would bring me trouble to get a man to marry me.

Chinese who are younger than me are a lot different now.  They do speak softly and understand this particular Chinese tradition should never have been banned along with other ones, such as footbinding!

A few minutes after this episode, I had two opposite cultural shocks at the platform while getting on the train.

After about an hour and a half wondering about the Paris train station, that French husband of mine suddenly realized we needed train tickets instead of our online ticket purchasing confirmation letter to get on the train to Lyon.  So, he said, "I am going to get the tickets now, wait here, it'll only take a minute."  Few minutes passed, he returned and said, "The automatic machine did not take my credit card, I need to go to the ticket office."  Then he disappeared in the sea of French-speaking people.  By the time I slowly moved Mia, Remy, and the luggage inside the ticket office, he was still standing in a long line behind at least 20 people.  Seeing the long line did not move an inch for a while, I said, "We will miss our train."  Fabrice consulted his watch briefly and said, "Forget it, let's get on the train now." 

Out we went and rushed to the platform.  When the four of us and our troublesome luggage made it there alive, someone was wheeled right in front of us, everyone stepped back to make room to let the woman in the wheelchair to get on the train.  We all waited at least 3 min for our turn.  That's the longest 3 mins of my life!  I was totally impressed by the French at this point since they are often very chaotic at train boarding.  Yet this did not shock me as much as the following few minutes - the woman who was assisted to slowly and carefully getting on the train now could magically get out of the wheelchair walking as fast as I did inside a moving train!

And this was not the first time I encountered this. 

Last summer, we met a guy must be at his 40s wheeled some one who looked at his 70s to the train station.  We were in a rush to get on the train but when we saw the guy approached, we stepped back.  Patiently, sympathetically, even respectfully, we waited.  The younger man cried so hard once he helped settle the older guy that tears were running down his face.  He must have been very worried about leaving the old man in the train all by him self, I thought.  Moved by man's tears, I began to worry about this old guy.  So much that I kept my eyes on him, in case he needed help.  As soon as the train left the station, the man stood up and walked about inside the train, steadily and easily, without any assistance!

Being shocked by what I discovered, I called my husband's attention, "Hey look, he can walk all by himself!" Fabrice looked at me as if he saw an idiot.  He said, "Of course he can, what is wrong?"  Well, did he forget how long we waited for our boarding because of his incapable of getting out his wheelchair?  Still puzzled by what I just found out, I asked, "How do you know that he can walk without assistance?" Fabrice said naturally, "Because no one else got on the train with him."

True, stupid I who didn't think of that!

In the US, I see people who are capable of walking use wheelchairs too, at the airport.  But Americans don't act frantically when they are boarding.  To see that chaotic French at train stations become quiet and patient immediately when they see "handicaps" was indeed shocking.

They do have good manners!

No comments:

Post a Comment