The Little American
That’s what some people here in France fondly call my two-and-a-half-year-old son.
But for a long time, I doubted he was very American at all.
Although I’m American, and although he’s visited the US a few times, he was born in a hospital in Paris, the city that’s been his home ever since. And as for me, the American parent, I’ve spent most of my adult life in the City of Light. I still have a strong American accent, and nothing can tear me away from English-language books, movies, TV shows, and general pop culture — not to mention keeping up with my family and friends in the US on the daily. But our lives mostly follow a more Parisian rhythm.
We go food shopping or stop by the bi-weekly market every day. My son goes to daycare a few afternoons a week, like most kids here do. He plays in parks that have sandboxes but no swings. Every day, we go to the boulangerie for our baguette and the boulangère gives him a chouquette, a little piece of baked choux pastry with enormous sugar sprinkles on top. No peanut butter crackers here.
I speak to him in English, and we read and watch things in my native language, too. But while he’s bilingual, my son mostly talks in what’s called his “majority language”, the language most people around him speak: French. It’s adorable to hear him repeat phrases he’s heard from adults, like C’est pas possible! (“It simply won’t do!”) or a calm, methodically intoned Alors… (“So…”) when he’s doing something that requires concentration. His English vocabulary is also impressive, but his conversation skills aren’t quite as refined yet.
Despite all of this, though, some Americanisms have crept through.
He loves Elmo as much as iconic French characters for the same age group, like Oui-Oui and Petit Ours Brun.
He can’t get enough of hard, snack-sized pretzels or pretzel sticks, which aren’t a particularly French thing.
He gets excited about bagels, which warms my New Jersey-born heart…even if no bagel here is even remotely comparable to a bona fide New Jersey one.
But maybe the moments he seems most American to me — and probably to anyone else in earshot — is when he uses one of these three vocabulary terms: “Oh crap!”, “kids”, and “Oh my God!”
I’m a bit sheepish about him knowing the first one. Luckily, he doesn’t say it often. And luckily, it’s so particularly American that not many French people easily recognize it — especially because, instead of the expected pronunciation, my son says, “Oh cwap!”. Also luckily, it seems stifling my instinctive bursts of “Oh fuck!” has paid off: He’s only said that once, and that was repeating it just after he’d heard it. So maybe I dodged a bullet. Especially because most French people, even those who don’t speak a word of English, do recognize that word.
“Kids” is probably the most surprising word in my son’s American vocabulary. I do say it a lot, but I’m also sure he hears the French equivalent quite often, too. Only, I’ve come to realize that this might just be the thing: French people tend to specify gender. This is partially because they’re a very precise bunch (my French husband was horrified that I didn’t know specific words for varieties of what look like daisies — apparently, differentiating between the large and small kinds is de rigueur in French). And I think it’s probably also due to their very language having genders. In any case, it seems more common to hear a French parent describe a kid passing by as either un (petit) garçon (“a (little) boy”) or une (petite) fille (“a (little) girl”) rather than, simply, un enfant (a child/kid).
It’s funny: When I put it that way, it almost makes using the term “kid” a sort of pro gender equality gesture — an unexpected bonus. But I don’t think my son is thinking that way (although hopefully he will). It could simply be that the word is easier to say than enfant and certainly shorter than specifying the gender of said child. Whatever the case, for now, little children (even ones his own age) are “babies”, and older children are “kids”. It’s caused some confusion, like the other day when two siblings of a kid in his daycare group opened the door for him. “Merci, kids”, my son said, walking by. Later, we passed them on our way out: “Au revoir, kids.” They looked at him blankly.
I’m not sure if I should correct him — because, after all, there’s not really anything to correct. Whatever the case, whenever it happens, I have to try my hardest not to crack up. For some reason, an image always pops into my mind: Steve Buscemi on “30 Rock,” pretending to be a young person, dressed and looking ridiculous and saying, “How do you do, fellow kids?”
Of the three most “American” things my son says, “Oh my God” is probably the most problematic. For one thing, it sounds like he — and probably I — are a walking cliché. For most Americans, the typical French person says Sacré bleu and Oh là là! (while the second one is actually pretty accurate, the first one isn’t). For the French, the typical American says “Oh my God!” Not only is it often true; for them, the phrase also captures something about our attitude. Americans are generally considered overly expressive, which, for the French, can often be perceived as fake. So there’s my little American son occasionally letting out an “Oh my God!” (or, as he tends to say it, “Oh by Gob!”) when he’s impressed or shocked by something, just proving the stereotype.
The funny thing is, it’s not a phrase I say often. In fact, while I’m not a strict Christian in just about any sense, I try to make an effort not to say it, due to that whole “Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain” thing. Plus, as you’ve probably surmised, I’m more likely to say “Oh crap!” in those situations, anyway….
I think my son probably learned it by watching shows like “America’s Got Talent”, “American Ninja Warrior”, or even just internet clip shows and the like. Whatever the case, its meaning and effect are very clear to him. What isn’t so clear, and what makes the phrase even more troublesome for me, is who God is.
Many of us adults struggle with a similar question, but in my son’s case, I literally mean he has never really heard about God. As I said, I’m not a strict Christian, and neither is my husband. Our parents weren’t, either. In fact, I grew up with one Catholic parent, and one Jewish one, both of whom were super open-minded and let us enjoy their traditions and choose our beliefs. And yet, I don’t remember not knowing about God or Jesus on some level.
We have tried to explain things in some ways — whether with a picture book about the Nativity, or with simple details whenever he looks curiously up at the crucifix that our apartment’s former owner left above our door. But it doesn’t seem to stick. On the other hand, thanks to my brother and sister-in-law’s decorating taste and my mom’s religious beliefs, he does somehow recognize Buddha. I guess I get it: A brightly colored tapestry or strikingly sculpted head is visually more impressive than a small wooden cross with a small metal man on it any day. Still, we should probably get on this whole God/Jesus thing.
Sometimes there are other characteristics that I attribute to my son’s American-ness: Being loud, not caring about set meal times (a French obsession), not being afraid to cry in public. But those are just toddler things.