Volume 18
An Online Literary Magazine
April 14, 2024


Tropical French


Nancy Penrose


The mighty Mekong. No ocean in landlocked Laos, but the River. Mother of Waters in Laotian. The heartbeat of lowland life providing fish, fertile dirt for dry-season gardens, a watery path for wooden boats called pirogues. Photo by Nancy Penrose.



ho would plunge an American ten-year old into a French lycée in southern Laos in 1963? My brain was stretched hard when my parents put me in that secondary school in the town of Paksé. They trusted I could succeed. Can't say I loved that classroom right away: the requirement to stand when le professeur entered each morning; the need to reshape my vocal tract to gargle out a French R from the back of my throat. No screens on the windows, no air conditioner for the tropical hot season. Not much felt familiar. Inside, lessons chalked on blackboard because no books. Outside, my father's driver dodged potholes of muddy orange water to bring me home from school. Where my mother waited to help me. I'd scoot up to the dining room table and open my notebook, mon cahier ,to homework.


First step: determine the assignment. Mathematics in the metric system. Story problems in hectares not acres. Calculations for rice paddies not wheat fields. Let me get the dictionary, my mother said. Ree, I had scrawled, exactly what my English-speaking brain had captured from Madame Chaume's spoken instructions. Do you think that could be riz for rice? my mother asked.


And when we had finished, if the season was right, I'd eat slices of fresh mango. The tropical fruits of Laos were a new universe to us. Back home in Oregon, there were no mangos for sale in Girod's grocery in Tigard. No pomelo or papaya. At home, we ate apples and pears and cherries from our orchard. Fresh then canned or frozen after summer harvest.


As an adult, I still love the feel of Laos in my mouth when I eat a mango or speak French. Some sixty years later, I ferret out names for the sounds I absorbed through mimicry and repetition: rising diphthongs, nasal vowels, the uvular fricative. Sounds I can still make, sounds useful today if you find yourself among the world's 320 million Francophones in countries where French is widely spoken including Benin, Burkina Faso, Canada, Monaco, Congo, Senegal, Switzerland, Haiti, the Seychelles, and, of course, France. But not so much anymore in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam—former French Indochina.


Like other Romance languages, French is rooted in vulgar Latin, the everyday language of ancient Romans. What I learned in Laos from the Parisian-born Madame Chaume had roots in 1635 with the founding of l'Académie Française. Its goal was to standardize the many 17th-century dialects into the one spoken by the elites of Paris.


French was carried to Laos by 19th-century explorers, men sent to find riches and glory for la France. They came to amass Asian colonies, symbols of European empire and power. They came to deprive competitor Britain from adding to its collection. Beginning in 1893, France corralled Lao territories into a protectorate and a colony, crammed them together with Cambodia, a bit of China, regions of Vietnam, and voilà: l'Indochine Française. According to Martin Stuart-Fox writing of the French in Laos, the acquisitions of 1893 "rounded out" French Indochina and ensured French control of the Mekong River.


The mighty Mekong. No ocean in landlocked Laos, but the River. Mother of Waters in Laotian. The heartbeat of lowland life providing fish, fertile dirt for dry-season gardens, a watery path for wooden boats called pirogues.


Indochina's colonialists felt their moral duty, their mission civilisatrice, was to spread the values of the French revolution: liberté, egalité, fraternité. This included teaching the mother tongue. For Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese, fluency in French could lead to positions in Indochinese government, success in schools, even seats in universities in France.


The French I learned in Paksé in 1963 was, therefore, a relic of empire acquired smack in the era of American imperialism in Laos. At heart was U.S. fear of Red Chinese communism. In violation of international agreements, CIA men masqueraded as civilians and conducted covert training of Lao military. There were illegal Air America flights transporting weapons to Hmong fighters in northern Laos. A blind eye to opium shipments carried on those same planes. Meanwhile, next door, the American penetration of Vietnam was going ever deeper.


The U.S. challenge in Laos was the democratic versus imperialistic conundrum: how to appear peaceful in the homeland while intervening abroad. Part of the answer was carried out by men like my father working for the United States Agency for International Development. He managed donations of rice seed, sweet potato starts, water buffalo to villagers in rural areas.


To my father, Laos was an ignorant country in need of his American agricultural know-how. At least he stuck to lessons in farming. There was that time the CIA's man in Paksé asked my father to hide a box of hand grenades in our downstairs closet.


My mother, with her 1939 Bachelor of Science degree in Home Economics from Oregon State, taught the basics, for no pay, at the Paksé Teachers College. The importance of boiling water before drinking. The principles of good nutrition, including vitamin and calorie requirements. How to make soybean milk that could improve a child's health. There were deficiencies in her classroom: no running water, no sink.


To me, Laos became home. An obedient child, I worked hard to complete my lycée tasks. Results of tests were read aloud from lowest to highest, an effective shaming technique, for I began at the bottom but centimetered my way up over time. The red ink of Madame Chaume's corrections on my homework lessened.


Daily, I was soaked in French the way the Paksé landscape was soaked in monsoon rain. Madame presented dictations, dictées, on topics like the Lao Water Festival, La Fête des Eaux, which marked the end of Buddhist Lent and the end of the rainy season. Because we had no books, each student created a dictionary, index notched into the fore edges of a flimsy cahier, tabs labeled A through Z, words and definitions entered as instructed. In my Cahier de Géographie, I used blue, yellow, and red colored pencils to labor over a hand-drawn map of the route of the Mekong from the Plateau de Tibet, through Chine, along the winding borders with Birmanie and Siam, crossing Cambodge, finishing in the bird-foot delta of Sud Viet Nam.


The privilege and power of my white American parents flowed to me. How else could I, knowing little French, join a classroom with seats filled by the children of the Lao elite? Today I ask: whom did I displace to take that seat?


Within the history of Laos, power has been wielded by Siamese kings, Lao monarchs, French colonists, Vietnamese bureaucrats, Japanese occupiers, and we American imperialists. Then, after years of war, a revolution in 1975. The country was renamed the Lao People's Democratic Republic. The Communists who came to power—are still in power—comprise the latest coalition practicing political repression and corruption.


When we returned home to Oregon in 1964, I entered the sixth grade, an oddball kid in American culture after my drenching in French, my life in Laos. My mother, so proud of what I had accomplished, didn't want me to lose the language she and my father had proved hopeless at learning. She urged me to write a letter to Madame Chaume. Madame wrote back. In line with her own mission civilisatrice of one young American, she had marked up my letter with red ink, corrected all the places where I had written an accent aigu instead of an accent grave, where my subject and verb did not agree, where I had used the masculine instead of the feminine pronoun.


I never wrote to her again.


Nancy L. Penrose is co-author of A Dream and a Chisel: Louisiana Sculptor Angela Gregory in Paris, 1925-1928, published in 2019 by the University of South Carolina Press. Her essays have appeared in Orange Blossom Review; The Ekphrastic Review; Shark Reef; Shenandoah; the collections of Travelers' Tales; and the anthology Burning Bright: Passager Celebrates 21 Years. Her publications have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and for Best of the Net. She worked for many years as a writer and editor in ocean science at the University of Washington, Seattle. More details may be found on her website at www.plumerose.net.






Home | Search | About Us | Submissions | Mailing List | Links | The Writer's Workshop