“Madame, vous pouvez me parler quelque chose en tching tchang tchong ?”
A few thoughts during my research trip to Martinique*, during which I think about difference and briefly turn to Frantz Fanon.
I arrived in Martinique with a pristinely blank notebook, several pens and a camera: this was my first fieldwork trip. I had made known that, for those exact dates, I was “on research leave”, excusing myself from meetings and marking out my absence from UCD in my diary. I was formally, therefore, on a research trip (despite being uncertain about how I was going to conduct it). It was probably a mix of over-preparation, inexperience and excitement that caused me to prepare myself by purchasing a small digital camera, topping up my stock of pens and grabbing an unused notebook from my shelf.
Before departing, new questions came to mind at every given moment. They were governed by ‘how’: how will I do that? How will I get there? How will I manage? And, of course, how will this go? I was unsure of myself, but with my notebook (which I had dutifully labelled ‘Martinique 2022’), I thought that I would join each moment together in a journal and chart my movements from one sight to another, thereby allowing my future self to locate my surroundings simply by flicking through its pages. When it came to Martinique, I only had presuppositions and others’ experiences on hand. Everything would be new to me: the landscape, the transport, the heat, the smells, the sounds – I had been told to look for sounds. And, on the first night of my time in Martinique, when I ducked under white netting to lie in bed, I made sure to listen out for the tell-tale noise of a trapped mosquito. Then, when I was satisfied that the noise was absent, I listened to the night. Beyond the balcony, whose doors had open slats that allowed the wind to pass through and ruffle the curtains, there was buzzing, chiming, croaking; voices; cars.
On my first day, it was hot. I walked to Fort-de-France, following descending roads into the city centre, and in the in-betweens of sky, the patches unobstructed by trees or cement, I saw the houses on the far side of Fort-de-France look at me. The area being mountainous, the houses climbed the side, stacked above each other. Their windows were dark, staring at me unblinkingly as the walls glinted in the sun. The air felt heavy and I moved clumsily through it, counting side streets and checking their signs as I passed them. Occasionally I asked for directions; occasionally I was offered help; and, occasionally, I ignored remarks.
This repeated itself over the next week. After a time, I thought that my clumsiness with this unfamiliar landscape had lessened somewhat. At the beginning, I was aware of my out-of-placeness on the island. My motions were disharmonious and I felt the stare of others follow me down the streets. I stood out, and I couldn’t be protected by others. I was alone in Martinique. As I retraced known paths, however, everything seemed smoother and I felt that I arrived at places faster, less encumbered by my awkward thoughts and more reliant on habit. One evening, sitting at a bench at Case-navire, a beachfront located at the feet of the Université des Antilles, I listened to people around me. Some conversations were more easily understood, the degree of familiarity changing continuously from one group of speakers to another, the intelligibility not only dependent upon the language used, the level of Creole embedded into the speech, but also by the pace and loudness - not to mention my own capabilities. I heard laughter, shrieks, basketballs, cars, waves. I had been in Martinique for a week by then.
A mother, followed by two young girls, passed by. She smiled at me, her children smiled at me, and I returned it. They were going to the showers next to the pier, and the mother was hurrying the girls along. One runs back to me, holding a bright pink inflated swimming ring in her arm. Her swimming costume is wet from the sea, her hair dripping onto the ground: she must have just left the sea water, having been urged out by her mother. The sun would set in an hour or so, and the beach would not be as warm. Sitting at the edge of a bench, my neighbours talking to a phone resting on a tripod set on the ground, I had sunk into silence, glanced at from afar but otherwise ignored, so I welcomed the smile. I wasn’t wary, though I would have been - had I been at home.
The girl grins. I lean forward, curious.
- Oui ?
- Pouvez-vous me parler quelque chose en tching tchang tchong ?
Confusion was the first emotion to take over me. My concentration was centred on this one question, a moment that silenced everything around me as I looked at this young Martinican’s face. A face that I had thought was open, warm. There were many questions that I could have thought of. Later, I would ask myself why I didn’t think of them. But, in that moment, I was at a loss. I could only see her triumphant face. Confused, I reply with the first phrase that comes to mind: "Ça veut dire quoi ?” A common one for non-native speakers like me.
“What does that mean?”
I didn’t know what she was asking of me, why she was asking me that. I realised that that meant that I didn’t know what she was saying. Only later would I arrive at the thought that she was using the wrong verb.
The girl’s face changes at my reply, losing the smile, and she shakes her head. Rien. She turns back to her mother. I was embarrassed and turned to my neighbours on the bench. If they had witnessed it, they showed no sign. They were still talking to their phone, and I saw that I had managed, at least, not to have an audience. Still, I felt too embarrassed to stay. People had been looking at me earlier, but the possibility of people noticing me now made me feel nervous. I didn’t want to be embarrassed further. I felt that there was no way that I would interpret people’s eyes on me as innocent that night.
It is no secret, and never a shock to me, that I would be seen as different in many of the places that I have spent time in. Furthermore, I have received these questions before, as a child and as a teenager, though I couldn’t remember when I had last - fortunately - been the recipient of this form of question as an adult. Such a question reduces the interlocutor to nothing but their difference, and I was reminded that my physical features embodied - to those around me - foreignness, and a type of foreignness that could be mocked publicly. There is no language called ‘tching tchang tchong’ in French, nor ‘ching chang chong’ in English. It is only a general term that is supposed to represent onomatopoeically the phonetics of South-East Asian languages, often grouped together as Chinese. It does so poorly, of course, but that only underlines its ability to emphasise that, to the one uttering those words, South-East Asia does not merit more than homogenising it in a superficial and demeaning manner.
In the first chapter of Peau noir, masques blancs (1952), titled ‘Le noir et le langage’, Frantz Fanon looks at racial relations between Martinicans and the metropolitan French through the lens of language. In this chapter, Fanon argues that the decision of Martinicans to speak standard, metropolitan French - despite also, at times, failing to adopt the accent perfectly - is one that represents their desire to elevate themselves, and, therefore, to remove themselves of their ‘blackness’, given that it is associated with a lack of education (as such, it also poses a material problem in that it prevents social or class mobility) and is a marker of inferiority. To point out how a Martinican’s French does not follow standard or Parisian French serves to point out an inherent inferiority, and is not an innocent comment. As demonstrated by Fanon, it is linked to a history of racism that was prevalent in science as well as in arts and culture (the latter pointed out by Said, the former exemplified by de Gobineau).
“Oui, au Noir on demande d’être bon négro ; ceci posé, le reste vient tout seul. Le faire parler petit-nègre, c’est l’attacher à son image, l’engluer, l’emprisonner, victime éternelle d’une essence, d’un apparaître dont il n’est pas le responsable.” Fanon, Frantz, Peau noire, masques blancs (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952), p. 27
“Yes, the black man is supposed to be a good nigger; once this has been laid down, the rest follows of itself. To make him talk pidgin is to fasten him to the effigy of him, to snare him, to imprison him, the eternal victim of an essence, of an appearance for which he is not responsible.” Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. by Charles Lam Markmann (London: Pluto Press, 1986), p. 35
Though Fanon’s text looks at black-white racial relations, concentrating on a French imperial context and on Martinique in particular (from where Fanon originates), the psychoanalyst admits that these “mêmes comportements se retrouvent au sein de toute race ayant été colonisée.” (Fanon, p. 20) (trans. by Markmann: “same behavior patterns obtain in every race that has been subjected to colonization.” p. 25) I do not, and could not, claim to come from a people that had been subjugated to the control of slave owners and settler colonists. However, Fanon’s short chapter on language illustrates the hierarchisation and inferiorisation that can be at play in moments such as the one I found myself to be in during my research trip.
My shame, when I was younger, came from the laughter that would ensue as I was mocked for an inferiority signalled by my skin colour and other physical features, perhaps my eyes or my nose. Regardless of any better understanding that came from experience, I was again mainly confused in the face of a question that was so blatantly not innocent, as well as devoid of literal meaning (I repeat that the girl did not actually name a language). I asked, “What does that mean?”. I was expressing my confusion, despite knowing that I had not heard incorrectly, despite knowing that this was not new to me. Perhaps, though, my own ‘almost-standard’ French accent – which does not hold longer than the first few sentences I say – seemed to portray me differently; perhaps, to the girl’s ears, I may have been a Frenchwoman and therefore not the foreigner-with-clumsy-French that she had been targeting. Would her own embarrassment at her failed joke (I did not deliver my response in “tching tchang tchong”, nor with a “tching tchang tchong” accent) only be possible at the hands of someone who could pass as French? And if I hadn’t been a long-term French learner, what then? If I didn’t speak French at all?
As I walked home, I imagined a different response. Instead of giving a short reply, I would have asked questions or created a conversation that could have taken on the following shape:
- What language are you talking about?
- Why are you asking me that, and not the people sitting next to me?
- Is this okay to ask?
I wished, as I walked, that I had drawn out those moments and made them into something else, something that would prevent the same question from appearing again in the future. For a while later, I felt guilty, as if I should have seized the opportunity and educated someone on the error of their ways… I don’t think, however, that this emerged from a deep sense of responsibility. Recently, I have come across research into the notion of care and how we form, and act upon, our emotional ties with each other.
In my research on ‘home’ in migrant writing, more specifically in the context of one’s return to their homeland, I have been struck by the ways in which feelings of dissonance and difference appear in relation to my chosen topic. And, as evidenced by this post, I have concentrated on the ostracising and belittling effects of expressing difference, a heightened awareness of which certainly comes from my own background. Questions such as “How am I meant to fit in? To react?” have often been on my mind. When reading fiction, questions about what is being said in the text often arise, and they have also influenced my perception of the world: when I turn to that moment in Case-navire, I started by looking at what was being expressed in the young girl’s question. Again, though, I revisit the first steps and I find myself asking, “How should I react?”
I am constantly asking myself how I should react to situations, and I feel that this is applicable to my research: I couldn’t ignore the place of emotion and care upon which my work is founded. Any mention of ‘home’ of course brings forward notions such as shelter, but the wider sense of home also concerns care and relationality (along with many other concepts, of course), meaning that the subject matter of my research pertains to care. Furthermore, many of the questions that I form whilst reading Dany Laferrière, Anna Moï (the two writers I concentrate on in my PhD) and others concern how I – or a reader – may react or feel.
Part of my research is grounded in something as simple as the emotions that are incited in me by the text, which were then developed further through other reading and thought. Nevertheless, how we respond to works of literature, as well as other art forms, is grounded both in emotion and action. By feeling, we are asked to look at how we feel and what we can do in response to it. This opens up possibility despite any feelings of inertia that we may have felt, maybe in the same way as my guilt over not having responded differently to a question, and it invites us to react. In the context of losing and searching for ‘home’, which is the subject matter of my research, I have so many questions: how is a home made, and how do we deal with feelings of loss due to exile? Can we feel at home again, and with whom or with what?
*A brief note on French overseas territory
Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Saint Martin and Saint Barthélemy form the French Caribbean, constituting French territory in the Americas. Prior to 2016, the status of Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana would have differed from the others in the region: they were “départements et regions d’outre mer” as opposed to “collectivités territoriales”. Though both types of territory are a part of France, the relative autonomies of the departments, in relation to metropolitan France, differ from the relative autonomies of the territorial collectives. However, from 2016, Martinique and French Guiana have become unique collectives (“collectivités uniques”) that exercise the rights of French departments and regions (https://www.vie-publique.fr/fiches/20148-les-collectivites-territoriales-de-martinique-et-de-guyane). As a result, the Assembly of Martinique and the Assembly of French Guiana were created. Nevertheless, the Martinicans follow metropolitan education systems, laws (with the ability to depart from them according to their circumstances) and the “common ideal of liberty, equality and fraternity” (“un idéal commun de liberté, d’égalité et de fraternité”, https://www.vie-publique.fr/eclairage/19622-outre-mer-des-statuts-de-plus-en-plus-differencies).