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In loving memory of the culture I grew up with

 It has been approximately three months (approximately 90 days, approximately 2160 hours) since I’ve last seen my family. But hey, who’s counting?

Since I was dropped off for my pre-orientation program (shout out to my Project BUILD family) on August 12th, I’ve encountered a variety of obstacles that have prevented me from seeing my family for Fall Break or Family Weekend‒namely the 558 miles that lie between us. While I’ve spent the longest duration away from my family relishing in the tomfoolery of college—from spending hours pooled over textbooks in Perkins to spending hours throwing it back on the Shooters dance floor—I can’t deny the moments of sorrow that arise from being so far away from home. I’ve had my fair share of crying sessions over Facetime with my mom. I’ve had moments where I longed for the comforts of home cooking or a shower without strange stains. Yet, those moments pale in comparison to my swelling fear of losing the culture I grew up with.

The Wulff-Andersen household is a bilingual household—one that served as an intersection between my mother’s Québécois roots and brother and the American surroundings we found ourselves in (with the occasional sprinkle of my father’s Danish origins, though that’s besides the point). Some nights we’d indulge in the wonders of Costco-sized tubs of beef and takeout from Texas Roadhouse; other nights my mother would serve delicacies like bœuf bourguignon or pâté chinois. Some mornings we’d watch Caillou or Toupie et Binou; other mornings we’d watch Handy Manny or Little Einsteins. I was raised to understand the intricacies of the Quiet Revolution, the Québécois Separatist Movement and the domineering influence of the Catholic Church. I spent my summer, winter and spring vacations with my grandparents and cousins in Lévis. Naturally, I should be secure in my connection with French Canadian culture, but I’m not.

I blame my tenuous relationship with the French language. Technically, French is my first language, evident in how I spent much of my toddler years babbling the words to Frère Jacques and complaining about having to “faire dodo.” Yet, with the way I butcher the language now, you’d think I learned it from a brief fling with the Miraculous Ladybug. From the first step into my preschool classroom, I abandoned my loyalty to French, choosing instead to align myself with the temptations of the English language. As I continued to further delve into academia, friends and extracurriculars, spending more and more time away from my francophone home, I began to lose touch with the language I was reared on. I became lazy, preferring to reply to my mother in English when she asked me “Comment ça va?” or relying in terse “oui ou non” answers when telephoning my grandparents. Speaking in French became more of a chore than a necessity.

The differences between past, present and future tense soon began to blend together and the conjugations that came effortlessly to me as a little girl soon became more difficult to apply. I began to forget basic vocabulary words that I’d been using for my whole life. With each passing year, I struggled to hold conversations for the same length I could the summer before. Plans of teaching my mother’s tongue to my children were disappearing in thin air. After all, how can I preserve my family’s French culture and language within my descendants if I can’t even bother to preserve it within myself? And if I lose touch with my culture and language altogether, what does this mean for my relationships with my extended family? With my home away from home? With my own mother?

College was supposed to be the panacea to my troubles. I had ensured to register for French in the fall semester in order to rebuild the linguistic foundation necessary to retain my French fluency. I told myself I would Facetime my grandparents and cousins every week to showcase my improvement and to maintain my Québéc dialect, despite my enrollment in a “France French” course. I told myself I would take advantage of Duke’s large international background by regularly communicating with students from Côte d’Ivoire, France, Haiti and beyond. I told myself that part of the college experience would be to reconnect with the pieces of my culture, and in turn myself, that I lost during my childhood and adolescent years.

I did end up checking all of the boxes. I Facetimed my grandparents and cousins frequently to give them updates on my college life. I have an A in French class right now and find myself rapidly grasping the content. I’ve met students from Paris, Nice, Montreal and Yamoussoukro. I even have a French group chat going. Yet, I’m left feeling even more unsatisfied and disconnected than before I left for university. It feels like the harder I try to grab onto my French roots, the faster they slip away from me. Being away from my hearth and my mom certainly isn’t helping, as I’m not around to hear the buzz of the Télé-Québéc or to hear the soft hums of my mother’s singing. That’s the issue: I’m not around, and I haven’t been “around” for a long time. 

Coming to terms with my maturation means coming to terms with the fact that I’m growing apart from the way I connected with Québéc as a young girl. As I continue my journey into university and the adult world, I’m going to be pulled away from the family and atmosphere that raised me. Therefore, I’m going to have to learn how to connect with my culture in new ways. I’m going to have to adapt so that my children don’t lose the wonderful opportunity I was given to be exposed to French Canada and its delightful intricacies. Perhaps I’ll date a francophone man or research Canadian linguistic divisions. Perhaps I’ll move to Montreal or have my mother pass on her language to my kids. Regardless, the time for mourning my cultural loss is over. It’s time to usher in a new relationship, one between Québéc and a constantly changing me. 

Viktoria Wulff-Andersen is a Trinity first-year. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.

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