Reflections On French, American (And Mexican) Patriotism On Bastille Day
Print Friendly and PDF

Earlier: “East Into The Sunset“ by Andrew Morrison—A Must Read At The Dusk Of The American Nation

When I was 10 years old, my family and I moved to Paris, France. My father was based out of the American embassy in Paris.

My mother had gone to boarding school in Switzerland and she believed total immersion in a foreign language was the best way to learn. (Another story.)

When we first arrived in Paris, I remember hearing about the American School in Paris, the Bilingual School in Paris and at least one other school that took Americans who did not speak French. Instead, my mother shopped around for a French school to put us in. Because my elder brother was 12, many French schools did not want him. The older you get the harder it is to learn a foreign language, and 12 appeared to be some sort of cutoff for them. However, my mother persevered and found a French boarding school called LErmitage à Maisons Laffitte, a boarding school northwest of Paris that would take three American boys.

I still remember the first day of class. I was dropped off at some sort of administrator‘s office. She grabbed me by the hand and walked me across campus to a classroom. We entered a classroom with about 30 students inside. The teacher (professeur) stopped what she was doing while the administrator said to her “Wa wa wa wa wa.“ The teacher responded with more “wa wa wa wa wa“ (imagine how teachers talk with Charlie Brown in Peanuts). About three students raised their hands. The administrator looked over at one, and, still holding me by the hand, walked me over and sat me down next to her. The girl of my age turned to me and said in perfect English, “Just copy everything I do.“ I was furnished with an ink cartridge pen and a notebook. I started copying every word she wrote word for word, funny accent for funny accent. The girl turned out to be named Helene and she had lived in Virginia up until the age of five. By the time I was to leave the boarding school three years later, she was beginning to forget her English while I had become rather fluent in French.

That first time out in the playground was awkward. I was completely out of place. I was attacked almost immediately by the class bully. Only, he wasn‘t a very good bully, I beat him up. I can no longer remember whether it was the next recess or the next day, but the bully decided to show me some judo moves. However, each time he tried to trip me up, I saw what he was trying to do and took a little step backwards causing him to miss. Each time he missed he said “merde.“ I did not know what that meant, but this boarding school had students go home for weekends and that first weekend I asked my non–French speaking father what “Merde“ meant “‘Shit,‘ son, it means ‘shit.‘“ They say you always learn the bad words in a foreign language first and that proved to be true for me.

The first year was hard. There were two English students in my class, and I immediately gravitated towards them. I heard them speaking English together and it seemed like a natural fit. However, after a while in those first months, they regarded me as a third wheel and told me to go make my own friends. In a way, it was a blessing because it further forced me to interact with the French.

I can remember wrestling around with an Algerian student. He may have had a learning disability, I don‘t know. I do remember grabbing his arm and being astounded. He had a bicep like a man. Keep in mind I was 10. The Algerian may have been held back a year or two, but still, it was like he was starting to go through puberty already.

It wasn‘t easy at first, but we persevered. My mother didn‘t stop with French at boarding school. She found some English woman who gave us French lessons on weekends. I had to learn about grammar, which I never took in an American school: the past perfect, the imperative and all this stuff I had never heard of before. It probably did help me years later when I joined the Border Patrol and had to learn “BP Spanish.“

One of my first experiences out of the border patrol academy was chasing a Mexican smuggler back into the Rio Grande right next to the Hidalgo Port of Entry. The Mexican turned and yelled at me “Chinga tu madre!“ I knew that “tu“ meant your and “madre“ meant mother... I sort of figured out what “chinga“ meant at that point too. You really do learn the bad words in a foreign language first.

If going to French boarding school and being tutored in French wasn‘t enough, we were sent off to summer camp too. You would start to believe our parents didn‘t love us too much after reading this and my younger brother did believe we were traumatized by it.

Ironically, by the time we left, my younger brother tested out as number one in his class. I didn‘t know it till we were adults, but this upset Gallic pride enough that the principal came to his class to see why the American boy beat out everyone.

After three years, my father was transferred back to the United States. Actually, we were initially only supposed to stay two, but for some reason in the secret life of adults, he was able to extend.

That final year in France I came down with depression. I suppose it happens to a lot of teenagers and I was barely a teen, but I kept saying to myself that everything would be better when we got back to the States.

After three years and a few months living in France as a child, being saturated in French culture, I still felt myself to be an American.

My parents had rented out our house in Maryland and we returned to the same house. You would think that it would be easier to return to America, but in many ways it wasn‘t. Part of the problem was expectations. We expected it to be easier. However, now, puberty was starting to kick in I was going into a public middle school, my elder brother into freshman year of high school.

I was leaving a boarding school where we had one main teacher and the same classroom, in which the teachers rotated in and out during recess. Now, I was in a school that seemed immense by comparison and where I had to spend my first recesses figuring out where my next class was.

Whereas in grade school in France, I was bullied by being physically attacked, now in middle school I didn‘t get into fights but I was ridiculed for wearing funny clothes. “Who the hell wears corduroy pants? We can hear you walking before we see you.“

I wound up being a bit of a hermit during that first year or so back in the United States, but I never felt that I was not American. I can remember in middle school one of the teachers asking about our immigrant stories. After all, we are a nation of immigrants, aren‘t we? Some of the students raised their hands to tell of their Italian or German ancestors coming through Ellis Island. I didn‘t have such a “cool“ immigrant story. I found out through my parents that I was a Mayflower Descendant and that my family on both sides had been in the States since colonial times. However, no one wanted to hear about that. They wanted to hear about the kid whose parents or grandparents were relatively recent arrivals. I shut my mouth and quietly went about my business.

Later on in college, I had a class where one of the instructors was of Polish descent. He had worked in New York City with a bunch of Polish cab drivers. He said that many of the Polish cab drivers were very disparaging of America and were just looking to make a bunch of money and return to Poland as soon as they could. This particular college professor had spent time in Poland and understood the Polish complaints about America being all about money and having no soul. I understood where they were coming from.

I had seen the French and how patriotic they could be. I can remember going to Versailles on Bastille Day to see them turn on the fountains. Supposedly, they didn‘t usually turn on the fountains  because they drew so much water from the Parisian water supply. They shot off fireworks just like we did on the 4th. The French teachers taught that France, not the Wright Brothers, pioneered the first flight. (That claim is highly debatable). We were taught that the French invented tennis and soccer and just about any sport worth having. The French were bitter over having lost World War II, or at least the first part of it. Parisians could be very rude to American tourists who didn‘t realize how proud Parisians were of their culture.

The French could rail against Hollywood and shallow American culture on the one hand, then happily go off to see those same Hollywood movies on the weekends. Paris, especially then, had movie theaters all over the place and the French loved to attend them. American movies tended to dominate, but I can also remember seeing Lawrence of Arabia on a screen about five stories high in an old opera house off the Champs Elysées. (If you ever see Lawrence of Arabia, that‘s the way to do it. It truly brings out the vastness of the desert. Supposedly, the modern version you get on DVD has the view whittled down so as to fit on a smaller monitor.)

In college, one of our professors once had the class of around forty or fifty of us each tell their “immigrant“ story. I was in the back of the class and the last to go. Again, it seemed that everyone had a grandparent of some sort who had arrived in the U.S. during the 20th century. The next to the last person to go claimed he didn‘t really know where his ancestry was from and brushed off the professor‘s query. When it was my turn, I proudly (if somewhat foolishly) said that I was a WASP, my parents were both WASPs and my ancestry could be traced back to colonial times. Whereas before the professor had been complimentary towards everyone else in the class, instead, she acted aghast. “It‘s bad enough that you call yourself a WASP, but to call your parents WASPs too?“ I was mystified. It took me a while to understand later on that there are people who have only ever heard the term WASP as a pejorative. Originally, it stood for Wealthy Anglo Saxon Protestant, but later it morphed to White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, which is sort of redundant in the latter case. Actually, after getting the DNA back and finding that I‘m slightly more Scottish than English, I guess you could say I‘m Celtic Anglo-Saxon Protestant, a CASK?

With that background in mind, and joining the Border Patrol, I had a different perspective in mind. I worked with some very hardworking Mexican-American Agents, some of whom had even naturalized as US citizens. I also worked with some terrible slugs who were Mexican-American. It takes all types. The same for the white Agents. In fact, one of the most racist white Agents I knew was also one of the laziest. He eventually left for the Air Marshals.

Undeniably, most of the corruption is among the Hispanic Agents. CBP seems to rejoice when they are able to find a corrupt white Agent.

Anyway, a few years back, I was listening to NPR. They were going to El Paso and interviewing the parents of a professor. Liberal reporter Steve Innskeep had a conversation with the father, who had immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the 1950s:

RUDOLFO TRONCOSO: I‘m 100 percent Mexican.

INSKEEP: A hundred percent Mexican.

RUDOLFO TRONCOSO: Yes, si, 110 percent.

INSKEEP: Are you a citizen of the United States?

RUDOLFO TRONCOSO: Yeah, unfortunately.

[Troncoso Family Finds Success On U.S. Side Of Border With Mexico, by Steve Inskeep, March 24, 2014]

I understand what Rudolfo Troncoso is saying in a way that I don‘t think the average American does. As an American, we are fed a steady diet of how everyone is coming to the United States because they love the Bill of Rights and love America. Tell me, are Afghans fleeing to Great Britain doing so because of the Magna Carta? The average Central American coming to the U.S. understands nothing of the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights. They understand that America is wealthier and might offer more security. That‘s it. And, perhaps more importantly, they don‘t stop loving their home countries the moment they cross the border and see their first McDonald‘s.

I can recall encountering a guy in Buffalo who fixed up houses and rented them out often for Section 8 housing. He told me he had one client who was either from Somalia or Kenya. He said the Kenyan had immigrated to the United States with two of his wives and a whole slew of children. One wife had to stay in Michigan and then sneak over to Buffalo to stay with the rest of the family. Refugees qualify for government handouts, so, they were receiving Section 8 housing as well as welfare. The Kenyan was getting so much money that he was building his dream home back in Kenya. Far from being afraid of returning, he was looking forward to it.

As Americans, we fool ourselves that five years spent watching Univision, speaking Spanish at home and often speaking Spanish at work too will somehow make an adult into an American patriot.

Patriotism is something different and not always easily defined. I can be mad at my government, angry with many of my fellow citizens, but still receive a tremor of pride seeing the Stars and Stripes lifted up during a Fourth of July parade or a Veteran‘s Day remembrance. I doubt Señor Troncoso will ever feel that way about America no matter how many years he spends in the hills outside El Paso.

I reflect on this today on Bastille Day because as a child growing up in France I learned to love France. I would say that three years to a child is longer than five years to an adult. Yet, we will let an adult immigrant to the United States spend a mere five years here and then naturalize as a U.S. citizen and we will pretend that the new immigrant adult is every bit as loyal to America as someone whose family has been in the United States for ten generations.

So, this evening I will say “Vive la France!“ I will look back nostalgically on learning to ski in the French Alps and laughing at Louis de Funès movies, and wonder where I put my Asterix and Obelix books.

But, as much as I love France, I will not fool myself that I am French.

Retired Federal Agent Andrew Morrison [Email him] is the author of East Into The Sunset: Memories of Patrolling in the Rio Grande Valley at the Turn of the Century

Print Friendly and PDF