This is the second part of my language series. In part 1, I talk about my experience as a child and teenager living in Mauritius with a language identity different from most natives. I delineate the series of identity crises I subconsciously navigated while external forces continuously foisted their language ideals on me.
When I returned to Montréal to go to college in 2009 (yes, I’ve spent my life moving to and from Montréal, sue me), I decided to study French. I’d done really well in all my French classes up until then and figured that would be a decent enough path to follow. Additionally, I’d have a clean slate with no one to judge me on the way I sounded. After all, I was moving back which implied I would fall back into my place in the world, find the place where I’d belong. Could I have been more naive? Over the many years I had spent on the other end of the world, what made me Canadian or Québécois had largely disappeared. The self I thought I’d just be able to revive didn’t exist anymore. I would be still other.
I was already more than familiar with the notions of “correct” and “incorrect” language standards and there was no escaping this in Québec. In fact, Québec is quite notorious around the world for speaking, for lack of a better epithet, “incorrect” French. It’s “incorrect” because it discernibly deviates from the standard form. It’s made fun of because it sometimes fails to be understood and as such, to some, shouldn’t even qualify as French. Because of the layers of condescension it’s been inflicted with over the centuries, because its identity is always at risk of being engulfed by Anglocentrism, Québécois French is, at bottom, insecure. And from this deep-rooted insecurity stems a lot of defensiveness and anger against anything that seeks to undermine it. Français de France and English being the two main threats.
Who does Québécois French turn to when it’s imperilled? Français de France would be the logical ally, but it belittles me, highlighting all of my inadequacies. It cannot possibly be English, because it seeks to assimilate and eradicate me.
So when I moved back to Montréal, a brown girl who spoke French with a half-assed français de France accent and English with a standard North American accent, I was not about to be accepted into Québécois culture with open arms. I felt like a fraud. I thought I was going back to “my roots”, where I was from, but this did not feel any more like home than Mauritius did. If anything, I felt even more alienated because I had been uprooted from all that had been familiar and comfortable for over a decade. Here I was, once again, subjected to language malaise. I did not sound like most people around me and I couldn’t collate my life experiences thus far with the identity I expected to just slip back into.
I had previously identified français de France as the most desirable French form but in Québec, this would raise many eyebrows and yet again, make me the target of undue language identity probing. Not only did I have to seek to eliminate any indicators of Mauritianess in my accent (because of the mockery it may arouse), I now had to obviate whatever made me sound French (because it would color me fake and pretentious).
Throughout my years in Québec, my French eventually morphed into the most Québécois it had ever been. I found a new sense of linguistic identity in this accent because, after all, it was mine to have. I am Québécoise, I told myself, I am Québécoise first, despite my being Mauritian, African, brown, Anglophone. Notwithstanding all the labels I have thrust upon me. I am a Montrealer first and I owe it to this identity to sound Canadian in English and Canadian in French.
This all worked fine for a while. I fit in. I felt accepted (albeit partially, but more on that later). I learned some of Québec’s many colorful expressions and started using them unironically. I even became a staunch advocate for the Québécois identity and defended it against those who’d seek to undermine its validity. Many people would be astonished at how different I’d started to sound but to me, it made sense. I made it make sense. I am Canadian above all. This all worked fine until I decided to move back to Mauritius. I had wanted to be in Mauritius for a while, to experience life as an adult on the island, to be closer to my family and everything that felt familiar and safe. I wanted to be in Mauritius but as a Canadian woman through and through. I recognized that achieving that would be difficult but I’d finally found an identity I was content with and was not about to let go of it.
As one might expect, my return to Mauritius was met with more language ridicule.
“What is this accent?”
“I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
“Is this French?”
“Why are you speaking like this now?”
“Koz kreol ta!”
People, nay, close family members would attempt to mimic my now Québécois accent, because it’s just that easy to make fun of. It’s asking to be made fun of. I suppose that no one actually knew the identity acrobatics I’d already gone through over the course of my life before committing to this one and couldn’t possibly know how much self-doubt they would help further. It would be impossible to assert my Canadianess in Mauritius because I’d be mocked, again. I’d be made to feel phoney and disingenuous. I’d be nudged towards identifying with a sense of self and identity I could no longer relate to.
What does one make of all this? Well, I don’t know. I barely speak French anymore. I teach English for a living and it is my mother tongue, so this is how I rationalize using it over the other languages I speak. Truth is, I am just tired of going through the motions of questioning, overthinking, potentially faking my accent to sound as palatable as possible to my audience. I favor English because it’s easy, my accent ranks high enough on the spectrum of desirability, and it won’t have me spun into a brand new identity crisis.
Over the course of the last decade, I’ve learned to appreciate Québecois and Canadian culture. I am unwaveringly proud of it. I make it a point to listen to Canadian and Québécois bands. I’m excited to watch Jusqu’au déclin later today (the first Québec film to be produced as a Netflix original) because I want to stay connected to what I’ve decided is my cultural heritage. I’ve slowly started to do the same with Mauritian art – I’ve deeply enjoyed reading Nathacha Appanah and Ananda Devi in recent years and have fallen in love with ANNEGA’s music and artistry – but not with the same level of enthusiasm and vigor. Maybe it’s because, historically, I wasn’t taught to be proud of my Mauritianess. I was taught to quieten those parts of me and seek out meaning and belonging in other places.
So, I end this piece, a proud Montrealer, a proud Québécoise, a proud Canadian, above all. May I someday find the things that’ll make me feel similarly about my Mauritian identity.