Last year, when I studied abroad in France, I expected a homecoming of sorts.
French-Canadians are quite proud of their culture. However, there tends to be a subliminal message ushered from generation to generation that France is still the old country. France is still adorned in luxury, Versailles its crowning jewel; it is the aloof pinnacle of sophistication.
For all my ancestors, France was home, if only for a time.
Yet when I arrived and began speaking with people there, I felt alienated. I had no special connection and there was no familiarity to be found. People were not taken with my last name. There were no signs of recognition, no sentiment of reunion.
My Quebecois expressions were shunned, and any detection of a non-native Parisian accent led to being ignored — or worse, laughed at. For so many years I studied French to connect with that lost part of me. I told my host mom when I initially arrived that I was considering living there someday. She turned to look at me incredulously and told me, “I don’t think you should do that.”
Why? In her words, “You’re French-Canadian.”
Clearly, too much time had been spent in the New World and so any familial bonds, in their eyes, had dissolved. I was just another stranger.
At this point, I decided to lean more into my true heritage. But, even now I wonder: what is a French-Canadian? I want to ask my ancestors that question, and I want to know if it’s already too late for me since I am writing this in English. I want them to hear me, to hear my case, and to decide for me who I am. Have too many winters passed?
My family is completely French-Canadian, with no exceptions on either side. It is filled with names like Roche and Louis and Jacques, with men and women with dark hair and fair skin like fresh snow. Their eyelids tend to droop tenderly at the edges, and their noses tend to be more proud and prominent.
My grandparents were all from Canada. They came from simple farms and overcomplicated, large families (my father had 54 first cousins). When my grandparents moved to the United States, they moved to a factory town for work and became part of the diaspora.
At home, my grandparents used French for different purposes. For my father, French was a secret language only his parents shared. It was spoken in short quips and hushed tones. For my mother, it was used more often, although she and her sister tended to respond in English. It became clear during their adolescence that speaking any French at public school was somehow wrong, and that perpetrators would be punished accordingly. My aunt was forced to repeat kindergarten and during middle school, my mother was back-handed in the face with a thick, hard-covered dictionary, courtesy of an English-speaking nun. On multiple occasions, their knuckles were rapped, the wood cracking so loud that the classroom was disconcerted into a timid silence. They were forced to assimilate.
When I was born, I was not taught a lick of French.
I formally learned French in high school and college. I attended classes, poured over toppling mountains of books, diligently listened to French music for hours, practiced and honed my speaking at every opportunity. However, nothing could ever teach me my grandparents’ accent. My grandparents don’t speak with a modern Quebecois accent; they speak with an older Acadian accent. While similar, there are distinct linguistic and auditory differences that are difficult to replicate. When they die, their antiquated language will die with them.
My mother is still subconsciously ashamed of her heritage. Rural French-Canadians have a reputation, or at least they used to, of being rough — alcoholics and drug-users.
My own family lineage is full of poor potato farmers who placed zero value on education. By middle school, many had left to work full time in the potato and tobacco fields or to fell lumber in the dense sylvans of the glacial north.
What my mother doesn’t acknowledge or perhaps doesn’t understand is the oppression French-Canadians have faced. Where she sees weakness, I see resilience. Our ancestors survived the perilous journey over the Atlantic, they survived a war that should have stayed back in Europe, and they suffered through the Great Upheaval where families and friends were ripped apart violently. They endured forced sterilizations in Vermont and even harassment from the KKK. Yet, we are a stocky breed and we persist against all odds.
I want to know if my ancestors feel indignant at being seen by my mother only in half-shadow and then cast aside. But I also want them to know that I’m carrying the ceinture fléchée; I’ve tied it firmly around my waist as I continue to move forward, with them, for them, because of them.
I still make pâté chinois, my grandmother makes tourtière. Our holiday house is filled with the sweet aroma of ployes, tarte au sucre, and bûche de noël. I still tap my feet and link arms with my younger sister when I play a quadrille on Spotify. My heart still aches upon hearing C’est la belle Francoise. I still tell and translate our stories of oral tradition, from the “Chasse-Galerie” to the “Loup-Garou.” I have even picked up Quebecois vocabulary and phrases, which I try to use as often as I can. I am the raconteur of my family.
But I also want mes aieux to know I’m angry. I feel I am too American to be French-Canadian, and too French-Canadian to be American. I’m angry because I am the sole individual in my family, outside of those in Canada, who still speaks even a little French.
Hundreds of years of tradition and wisdom, lost in a few strokes of the tongue — yet, it means a lifetime of searching for me.
Why didn’t my school teach me about the Great Upheaval? Why did I have to dig through Google to find historical figures like Léo Major? Why do we in America rejoice at posters that declare sentiments such as those along the lines of: “If you’re reading this in English, thank a soldier”? I wonder what my 11th great grandmother, the first French child born in New France in 1620, would think upon hearing demands of “speak English, you’re in America.” I wonder if their children would have been kept in cages too.
Whenever I have the time during the winter season, I go walking in the woods. There, the world is shrouded by a white veil. I like to believe that I’m piercing it, that I’m walking through a portal made of maple and pine to the past. I lose myself in thought as I meander, my boots sinking in the deep snow. I try to imagine a shack is just up ahead, in a snowbank, with lumberjacks making tire d’erable. Gossamery smoke is twirling and rising from the chimney, enticingly dissipating into the arctic breeze. It briefly coils and curls a faint wispy finger, beckoning me forward, only to dematerialize with the rest of the apparition. At other times, I dream there’s a cabin with a fire gently roaring inside, filled with all of my forebears. I walk in, not even needing to knock, and they know me. They even smile.
But the vision always melts away as soon as we try to speak; I don’t let the fantasy go beyond that. Alone in the quiet, I atone by pausing and listening. I listen for a whisper, an affirmation riding the wind which blows southward towards me. Je me souviens.
Written by Caroline Castonguay, Bangor Metro.