The French language has captured the imagination of millions of people worldwide. It’s romantic. Classy. Chic. People love the way it sounds.
It’s also a language I hated learning. There are 80 million native French speakers; and another 140 million who speak it as a second language.
French is one of the four languages that Joe-Ann Chavry speaks.
Joe-Ann is from Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean around 2,000km off the southeast coast of the African continent. She grew up speaking French, Creole and English. She studied Spanish, too.
“She’s also fluent in sarcasm,” her boyfriend Dominic adds.
I laughed. It’s not everyday one of my Skype conversations gets backfire. Feisty and funny, Joe-Ann is one of the most assertive and independent women I’ve ever met. I can always count on her to speak her mind.
“Language and accent is a big thing in Mauritius,” Joe-Ann says. “How you use French and Creole to express yourself is a clear indicator of who you are in society.
“People are aware of the white presence in Mauritius. Franco-Mauritians are rich and own all the main businesses. They don’t even speak French like the French from France. Non-whites have an amicable relationship with them, but there is a particular kind of accent and attitude that the Franco-Mauritians have. Nepotism is common. They even marry amongst themselves.”
“There’s a shitload of inbreeding,” Dominic adds.
Oh, Dominic. I only met him once for a couple of days but I feel like I’ve known him forever. I’m interviewing him next.
Skyline of Port Louis, Mauritius’ capital city. (Image courtesy of Peter Kuchar)
“Franco-Mauritians have ‘fun’ with people from other cultures,” Joe-Ann says, “But ultimately marry who they are supposed to marry. There are a lot of white South Africans coming to Mauritius and Franco-Mauritians don’t like it. There’s segregation and hierarchy even amongst the whites.”
We humans really know how to complicate our own lives, don’t we? Us, them – up, down. Oh dear Lord.
This segregation and hierarchy exists amongst the non-whites as well. Neighbouring Reunion Island is still a French colony; and Rodrigues Island, which is part of Mauritius – view Mauritians as arrogant.
L-Ermitage Beach in Reunion Island. (Image courtesy of Samuel Hoarau)
“They call us grann war,” Joe-Ann says. “The black guy who’s been called by the white person to manage all the black people.”
But Joe-Ann sees herself as flexible. She lives in Black River, which was once a fishing village where only black people lived. Little by little, Black River has become a posh area.
“You still have people living as fisherman,” Joe-Ann says. “People live in relative, not absolute, poverty. There is a gap between people who have and don’t. I see myself as a middle-class Creole person. I’m sure some people would call me arrogant. Personally, I feel more comfortable with the down to earth people, but I can get along with the white crowd.
“There’s inequality in Mauritius, but people are more accepting. The notion of the other is not suppressed. There is a difference between ethnicities in Mauritius, but it’s not vilified.”
Like many Mauritians, Joe-Ann is of French, Indian and ‘African-ish’ descent
“People like me are common,” Joe-Ann says. “You can still figure out our backgrounds by our names. In Mauritius, you see a human being and then you dig into their background.
“Thinking differently is discouraged, though. People around you will bring you back to what they know. Everything exists in this structure. In school you often get told – ‘you won’t be asked that for the exam. Don’t ask so many questions. It’s not useful.’ It’s hard for people to think differently – so you’re still a sheep.
“People have more space to be different in Australia. When I was at university in Australia, I met all kinds people that had the rebellious aspect. But most of the Aussie colleagues I worked with, still ended up following convention even though they have a more open education system.
“But one of the most interesting people I ever met was Kim. She’s a lady who worked for the circus. Her kids are performers, too. She had a hip injury and went to uni with me. She followed her own path.”
Joe-Ann wanted to do marketing and advertising since her university days. She’s achieved her goal. But she wonders if it’s what she wants to do for the rest of her life.
“Opportunities are lacking in Mauritius,” Joe-Ann says. “Agriculture and sugar cane are our biggest industries. We’ve also got tourism. We’ve marketed ourselves as a luxury destination for honeymooners. We’ve focused on sea beaches and hotels. But the offering is not as good as it should be.
Panoramic view showing Port Louis, mountain ranges and sugar cane plantations (Image courtesy of Clément Larher)
“We should focus more on food, local music and art. Although there’s no indigenous culture in Mauritius, we have a lot of food inspired by the cultures currently living here. Lots of spicy and fried stuff, which is nice. Dhal puri. All kinds of curries – both Indian and Creole. Rougaille sausage. Pork sausages. Fried noodles.”
There, there now. She’s getting me hungry. I can never resist a meal that’s fun and spicy.
Mauritius also has its own rum (Image Courtesy of Rishi Luchun)
“Mauritius feels comfortable because I grew up here,” Joe-Ann says. “But it’s still a conservative country. A gossipy society. People don’t actually care – they just want to be in your business. For family-oriented people, it’s a great place.”
But Joe-Ann is an independent woman. Her time living by herself in Melbourne further anchored her sense of self.
“We idealise Australia,” Joe-Ann says. “After Mauritian independence in 1969, when Australia was more open to immigration, there are a lot of tales of people who went to Australia and ‘made it’ there. But I wanted my experience to be my own.
“There was a big language clash when I first got to Australia. It wasn’t just the accent, but also vocabulary and how people express themselves. People also make a lot of European and Aussie references. They presume that everybody knows them.”
Joe-Ann and I hanging out in Melbourne Uni in 2010.
My experience in Australia was pretty similar. No – I didn’t know who Powderfinger, Bombers and Murdoch are. Why would I? And with so much Aussie humour based around cultural references…
“I was lost in translation,” Joe-Ann says.
Me, too. In Japan, nobody expects me to speak Japanese or understand the cultural references they are making. But that’s another story for another day.
“I felt self-conscious about speaking English,” Joe-Ann says.
“When I spoke English, I had this heavy French accent.
“So initially, I wouldn’t say anything. I felt I’m just going to babble words and sound stupid. Adjusting to English at an academic and practical level was difficult.”
Joe-Ann eventually got the hang of it, as did I. I still don’t care too much for Aussie humour, though. If I’m not laughing – it wasn’t funny…to me.
“Australia was nice,” Joe-Ann says, “but not that nice. I expected more. You earn more money, but cost of living is high. Other Mauritians have decided to stay – it just wasn’t my thing.
“My best memory was meeting people from different countries. Back then, I was a bit jaded and wanted to come back to Mauritius because I felt uncomfortable. But in hindsight, I liked that uncomfortable zone. Mauritius is closed. People will not see what I have seen and lived and met.
“I chose to come home because I was on a scholarship and had signed a bond to come back. I also didn’t feel a connection with Australia. Plus it’s difficult to stay in Australia and you have to get on all sorts of visas. It was too much of a headache. I didn’t like Australia enough to put in so much time and effort. Didn’t seem worth it.
“But still, Mauritius is not where my heart is. I still want to see more and find my ‘plot of happiness’. I will always come back to Mauritius cause it’s a place of comfort. I’m waiting for the next adventure.”
Reunion! Joe-Ann and I catching up in Tokyo after a 6 year hiatus.
Me too, Joe-Ann. Me too.
As for me – I can barely speak and understand French, let alone tell the different accents apart. But I’m glad to have so many friends scattered all over the world.
Mi casa, su casa. I’ll visit Joe-Ann in Mauritius someday. Or she’ll come visit me in Japan (again!) – or wherever else in this crazy world I go to next.
Thankfully, the world is a big enough place for all kinds of people, places and accents.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.