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Secret Life of an Expat: Work and Go

When job hunting, once I actually resort to desperate measures, something often comes along. Two or three times I have found work the day after signing up with a temp agency. This time, feeling hopeless about ever finding a job to get me out of the house, I commit to paying the 100 euro annual dues to use the American Library in Paris. Having a place to go where I can sit at a desk, plug in my computer and stay for hours on end without anyone scowling at me is something I sorely need.

I go, I pay, I set up at a round wooden table in the reading area. Then my phone rings. It’s a call about a freelance job that’ll start the next day. My first French work. Of course I say yes. For the rest of the day, I self-immerse. I listen to, read, and watch everything I can find in French because nobody’s going to speak English to me at the office.

The first day on the job, I do okay. As long as people speak clearly and directly, I understand them. But people don’t always speak that way.I do my work, but I’m frustrated that my job performance is being influenced by something I can’t control. Language comprehension. I ask questions, I re-say things to make sure I’ve understood, but there are still mishaps, miscommunications, whatnot.I feel guilty. Who am I to walk in and ask people to treat me differently, just because I want to live in their glorious country?

I become quiet and fearful, and long for the day when French will be easy.

But it gets easier, and I stop fretting as much. I survive three days on the job, then the project is done.

The next day, I go out for a drink with some francophones. We hit a bar called Le Troll. From a distance it looks like a normal bar, but when we walk in, everyone in the place is playing Go.

That old Asian game, played with black and white stones lined up on a grid.

When I was young and impressionable, my Dad told me that Go was really hard to play. I always placed it above chess in the ‘natural intelligence required’ hierarchy of board games. I don’t play chess much, and when I do, I play badly. This makes me feel stupid, but I tell myself it’s because I don’t care enough to get good at chess. Though my Dad’s words intimidate me, I always thought I would be better at Go. It seems more mathematical and I know I have math chops, even if they are dormant now.

“Learn to play Go” is on my list of things to do before I die. Or it would be if I had one.

After I tell this to M several times, a friend finds us a teacher.

We get a beginner’s board from the game cabinet and two women sit down and go over the rules. One of them, Emily, explains the rules. Really fast. In French.

And it’s Go.

I do everything I can to follow Emily’s hand movements as she explains territories and blocking and why one move is better than another.

She lays down a stone.

“There are two things you can do here. One will get you eaten, one will earn you a point.”

I think of my French work. I hear all the words, I understand most of them, I get the gist, but maybe I miss a subtlety that is even more important.

Everyone at the table looks at me. I’m holding my stone over a board of indecipherable black and white circles and I’m terrified.

My whole life I’ve considered Go a smart person’s game, and I’ve considered myself reasonably smart. If I make a wrong move, it’s a stupid move. But I don’t know what move to make. I cross my fingers and place the stone.

I put it in the wrong place.

Emily launches into an explanation of why it’s wrong, and her friend says, for the second or third time (which is reassuring because she’s a lawyer), “It’s really hard.”

I pick up the stone again and swallow down panic as I search the board for another place for it. I wish I could understand her better.

I see a possibly correct spot and put my stone there. It’s in the right place. Phew! I am so tired now that I just want the game to end before my brain explodes and they catch me. Catch me for not understanding.

So much stress.

Emily never caught on that I was foreign. Maybe it would have been different if she had. Easier. Less stressful.

French work was good. In the end, I was happy with what I did and enjoyed the challenging experience. If there is one lesson I  learned this week, both at work and on the Go board it’s this: Hiding the fact that I need help understanding will only get me more lost.