Spanish French

Episode 2: Entre deux mondes (Between Two Worlds)

By Duolingo on Tue 25 June 2019

For a long time, Paris was the only place Alexia Sena considered home. But when Alexia began to wonder how she would pass down her Cameroonian heritage to her mixed-race daughter born in France, she decided to move back to Cameroon with her family in search of the identity she thought she lost.

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Transcript

Ngofeen: Alexia Sena is a Frenchwoman through and through. Her family is from Cameroon, and her African background is an undeniable part of her life. But it’s not one she ever thought much about, living in Paris… except those moments she felt people misunderstood her — she came off as so French, that she couldn’t possibly be anything else. One time a colleague said this to her at work:

Alexia: Il m’a dit : « Tu es noire, mais tu n’es pas africaine. Tu n’es pas née là-bas. Tu n’as jamais habité là-bas. Tu n’as pas d’accent. »

Ngofeen: Well, he was wrong. Because Alexia had lived in Cameroon for 10 years, from when she was 5 to when she was 15.

Alexia: En fait, j’ai un accent camerounais, mais je ne l’utilise jamais. C’est drôle, les gens ne me comprennent pas. Ils voient seulement l’extérieur et ils ne comprennent pas qu’il y a autre chose.

Ngofeen: When people got confused by her background, Alexia mainly shrugged it off. But then her daughter started to ask questions that made Alexia want to understand her connection to Cameroon. And that changed everything.

Ngofeen: Bienvenue and welcome to the Duolingo French Podcast — I’m Ngofeen Mputubwele. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories to help you improve your French listening and gain new perspectives on the world.

The storyteller will be using intermediate French and I will be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again — and we also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Ngofeen: Alexia was born to Cameroonian parents, in Paris. Her high-powered consulting job was in Paris. She met her husband in Paris. When their daughter was born, they brought her home to their apartment in Paris. On warm Sundays, they relaxed with their friends in the most Parisian way possible — on the banks of the Seine.

Alexia: Chaque dimanche, je faisais un pique-nique avec mes amis au bord de la Seine. Tout le monde apportait quelque chose à boire ou à manger : une bouteille de vin, une baguette, des chips, des fruits… Et on riait, on buvait, et on mangeait ensemble.

Ngofeen: For Alexia, Cameroon was just a yearly visit, a vacation destination, a chance to see family, some childhood memories. No more than that.

Alexia: Ma mère venait en France chaque année. Elle passait deux semaines avec moi. Et puis, tous les deux ans, j’allais en vacances là-bas, pour fêter Noël au Cameroun. Ces deux moments étaient ma seule relation avec le Cameroun.

Ngofeen: Alexia and her husband — his name is Alex — were on the same page. They gave the same Parisian upbringing to their daughter, Camille. But one day, in 2015, a conversation in their kitchen made Alexia realize that something in her daughter’s life felt incomplete.

Alexia: Il faisait encore jour, mais il était vingt heures. Il faisait chaud à Paris. Les fenêtres étaient ouvertes. Mon mari et moi avions fini de manger, mais notre fille, Camille, était toujours à table. Elle avait deux ans. Elle jouait, chantait, parlait…

Ngofeen: Alexia left the dinner table to let her husband Alex handle their daughter, who kept fussing and playing. From the kitchen, she heard them whispering and laughing together. Then she heard her husband say something unexpected to their kid.

Alexia: « Camille, tu sais, toi et moi, nous sommes camerounais. Maman, elle est française. »

Ngofeen: He said, “Camille, you know, you and I are Cameroonian. Mom is French.”

Alexia: Ils ont commencé à rire, et moi aussi. Mais, tout de suite après, je pleurais.

Ngofeen: Of course, this was a joke — because Alex is the one who’s French and white, and his main connection to Cameroon is Alexia. But at times he felt that connection more than she did.

Alexia: Moi, j’avais quitté le Cameroun en 1999, quand j’avais quinze ans. J’y retournais pour les vacances, mais pas pour y habiter. Alors maintenant, je commençais à me demander si une partie de moi n’était pas perdue : la partie camerounaise.

Ngofeen: What made it worse was that Alexia realized that Camille, who is biracial, was bound to wonder about her Cameroonian side… and Alexia would not be equipped to help her daughter understand it. It made her sad enough to cry. And she knew something had to change.

Alexia: J’étais triste pour ma fille. Elle était métisse, alors elle était aussi noire et africaine. Je voulais l’aider à comprendre cette partie de son identité. J’ai pensé : les gens vont lui poser des questions sur son identité camerounaise. Qu’est-ce qu’elle va leur répondre ? Je pleurais parce que je devais lui apprendre des choses que je ne connaissais pas, ou que je ne connaissais plus.

Ngofeen: Alexia once had a deep connection to Cameroon. In 1989, when she was five years old, her mom made a life-changing decision to move back there. In the blink of an eye, they traded their little Parisian apartment for the coastal city of Douala, a metropolis in the south of Cameroon.

Alexia: C’était un choc. Le bruit, le chaos, la chaleur. Douala était une ville bruyante, chaotique. Nous habitions chez ma grand-mère, dans une concession familiale. Il y avait plusieurs maisons avec une grande cour au milieu. Toute la famille habitait là — des oncles, des tantes, des cousins et des cousines. Je ne connaissais personne.

Ngofeen: Alexia was five years old and it was a struggle to fit in. In addition to her grandma, she was surrounded by aunts, cousins and family friends. Some of them would speak to her in Bakoko, one of the local languages, but she couldn’t answer them at first. Eventually, she learned the language.

Alexia: Au Cameroun, j’avais une grande famille, bruyante et différente. Tout le monde me parlait et me regardait tout le temps. Il me semblait que pour eux, j’étais une petite « blanche » qui ne savait rien faire.

Ngofeen: Une petite blanche, or a little white girl, who didn’t know how to do anything. That’s how Alexia thought her family saw her, which meant she wasn’t black enough, not Cameroonian enough.

Ngofeen: Ten years later in 1999, Alexia’s mother sent her back to France. She never moved back to Cameroon. And as she grew up, those years in Douala became far less important than creating a full-fledged life for herself in France.

Alexia: J’adorais la culture française, et cette culture est devenue la mienne.

Ngofeen: Alexia succeeded. Fifteen years later, she had a great life in Paris.

Alexia: J’ai fait des études de commerce. Ensuite, j’ai travaillé dans la finance. C’était intéressant et bien payé. J’habitais avec mon mari, Alex. Nous attendions un bébé. J’avais beaucoup d’amis que j’avais rencontrés au lycée ou à l’université. Je ne parlais pas souvent avec les gens du Cameroun. Je n’avais pas d’amis de la diaspora africaine en France. C’était ma vie, et j’étais heureuse.

Ngofeen: Alexia’s husband was white and French, and in some ways he was more interested in Cameroon than Alexia was — the culture, the language, the food. Every other Christmas, they’d go there together.

Alexia: Alex était amoureux du Cameroun. Avant, il connaissait l’Afrique seulement grâce au football. Maintenant, il chantait l’hymne national en regardant les matchs. Quand on allait au Cameroun, il apprenait les expressions locales. Il goûtait tous les plats. Il achetait de la nourriture dans la rue. Et il n’avait pas peur d’être malade !

Ngofeen: At home in Paris, it was Alex who followed the news and politics in Cameroon. The local elections, the music scene, the soccer teams.

Alexia: Sa famille, ma famille, nos amis — tout le monde disait : « Il est noir, tu es blanche. Il est camerounais, tu es parisienne. » Et on riait ! On riait beaucoup !

Ngofeen: Until that one day in 2015, when Alexia was doing the dishes in her kitchen… and that joke that had made her laugh so much in the past suddenly brought her to tears.

Alexia: Après ce jour-là, tout a changé. Quand Alex a dit à notre fille, « Maman, elle est française », eh bien, j’ai arrêté de rire. Je me suis dit : maintenant, je suis mère. Alors cette histoire n’est plus seulement la mienne.

Ngofeen: And now there might be consequences for her daughter. What could she pass on to her? When she became pregnant with a second child, Alexia decided to rethink her priorities. The time was ripe for a change.

Alexia: Ma fille ne parlera jamais bakoko. Je me suis demandé : qu’est-ce que je vais pouvoir donner à cette enfant ? Et comment je vais pouvoir lui donner ce que moi, j’ai perdu ? Alors Alex et moi, nous avons décidé de partir vivre au Cameroun pendant un an.

Ngofeen: You heard right, they decided to move to Cameroon.

Ngofeen: Alexia’s family life in Cameroon began in May 2017, when she and her husband Alex landed in Douala with their suitcases and two kids in tow. Their son Antoine was six months old, and their daughter Camille was four. Alexia’s mom greeted them at the airport and drove them to their new apartment.

Alexia: Une nouvelle vie commençait. Je cherchais une réponse à cette question : qui suis-je ? Je voulais comprendre mon identité camerounaise pour pouvoir la partager avec mes enfants.

Ngofeen: Alexia really wanted to show her family, and herself, that she could belong in Cameroon. She made new friends, looked for work and sent her kids to school. She tried her best to fit in. And she could… until she spoke.

Alexia: Au début, les Camerounais voyaient que j’étais noire. Ils pensaient que j’étais camerounaise. Mais, quand je commençais à parler, ils entendaient que je ne parlais pas comme eux, que je ne les comprenais pas, et que je ne venais pas vraiment du Cameroun.

Ngofeen: Alexia couldn’t help but remember the feeling she had of not fitting in when she first arrived there from France as a kid. Now, she was back and she kept making small mistakes, missing social cues, and it would always ruin her day.

Alexia: Je n’étais pas comme eux. J’étais différente. Et c’était difficile. Je faisais des erreurs : mes questions étaient toujours trop directes, je riais trop fort, je n’étais pas habillée correctement.

Ngofeen: Alexia became increasingly frustrated by this constant feeling of getting “lost in translation” in her own country. But from frustration came inspiration. Alexia decided to write about her experience of being caught between two worlds. She’d confront this question of identity, and what she wanted to pass along.

Alexia: J’ai écrit un texte qui s’appelle « Pourquoi les Camerounais ne disent jamais bonjour. » Je l’ai enregistré en audio sur mon téléphone.

Ngofeen: Alexia’s husband thought her essay was so good, he convinced her to record it and send it to the radio station. They called, and just like that, Alexia had a job as a radio essayist.

Alexia: Le jour d’après, j’étais chroniqueuse dans une émission radio. L’animateur s’appelait Didier. Il était très professionnel, très sérieux. Tous les soirs, je lui envoyais mon article, et tous les matins je le lisais à la radio.

Ngofeen: Alexia shared her experiences of being a French-Cameroonian foreigner on Didier’s morning show. Things that happened to her, that surprised her as a Frenchwoman. It was a chance to express and process the unease she felt. Gender roles. Money. Nothing was taboo.

Alexia: À la radio, je parlais de plein de choses. Par exemple, leurs idées sur le mariage. Pour les Camerounais, être marié c’est très important. Les choses commencent à changer, mais au Cameroun, ils disent souvent que les femmes « cherchent le mariage ». Les hommes sauvent les femmes. En se mariant, les hommes donnent aux femmes un statut et de l’honneur.

Ngofeen: Being on the radio was wonderful, but in everyday interactions, Alexia still found herself unable to quite connect with people in person — to feel like she belonged.

Alexia: Je me sentais toujours entre deux mondes. En général, j’étais assez camerounaise pour comprendre les mots que les gens me disaient, mais je n’étais pas assez camerounaise pour comprendre les mots qu’ils ne disaient pas.

Ngofeen: For example, there was a strange moment with her boss, Didier, and another colleague, Ludo. They had gone to a local shack by the side of the road for some beignets after work. Beignets are fried donut holes often served with beans.

Alexia: C’était un endroit très populaire. Tout le monde pouvait venir manger des beignets, avec de la bouillie de maïs et des haricots rouges à l’huile… mmm!

Ngofeen: They went there together often, and every time, the same thing happened: Didier would pay for the beignets. It made Alexia uneasy, because she had enough money for this. There was an assumption that bothered her, and she thought it had to do with her gender.

Alexia: Un jour, avant de partir, j’ai mis mon argent sur la table, comme si j’étais en France.

Ngofeen: After laying her money on the table to pay the bill, the atmosphere changed dramatically.

Alexia: J’ai senti immédiatement quelque chose de bizarre. Il y avait un problème. Ludo regardait par terre. Didier me regardait, moi. Rien d’autre, juste ce regard sérieux.

Ngofeen: Alexia sensed she had crossed a line.

Alexia: Puis, Didier m’a dit : « Tu es vraiment une blanche, hein ? Tu es une blanche, tu n’es toujours pas d’ici. »

Ngofeen: “You’re still white,” he told her. This may not be different from the kinds of jokes Didier would make to Alexia on-air, but here in this personal exchange between co-workers, it had a different edge.

Alexia: Il a continué : « Tu viens manger des beignets avec moi, et tu paies ? Tu paies pour un vieil homme comme moi ! » Ludo me regardait, il disait non de la tête.

Ngofeen: Then the men started to laugh.

Alexia: Je n’étais jamais sûre de moi. Mes actions, mes mots, tout pouvait être un problème.

Ngofeen: After several months, Alexia was forced to wonder whether coming to Cameroon was the right thing to do. But her feelings changed one afternoon when her daughter came home from school. Camille went to her bedroom, and Alexia followed her.

Alexia: Quand je suis entrée, elle chantait joyeusement.

Ngofeen: At the sound of the song, Alexia burst into tears.

Alexia: Ma fille m’a dit : « Maman ? Pourquoi tu pleures ? »

Ngofeen: Her daughter was singing a popular children’s song, a cultural touchstone. All Cameroonian children can sing it. Alexia herself learned it in school in Cameroon. She hadn’t heard it in years.

Alexia: « Amina » c’est une chanson que tous les enfants camerounais chantent, depuis des générations. Personne ne comprend vraiment les paroles de la chanson, mais c’est une chanson importante dans la culture camerounaise. Et ma fille, la petite Parisienne métisse, était en train de la chanter aussi, avec joie, en riant !

Ngofeen: Soon they were singing together.

Alexia: Je ne pouvais plus m’arrêter de pleurer et je riais, aussi. Camille m’a dit qu’elle voulait apprendre la chanson à son père.

Ngofeen: Alexia looked at her daughter and realized that Camille was thriving.

Alexia: Tous les matins, ma fille montait sur sa moto-taxi. Elle connaissait toutes les chansons camerounaises et nigérianes. Et, elle pouvait changer son accent. Camille portait vraiment le Cameroun en elle.

Ngofeen: A few months later, Alexia and her family were back in their Parisian apartment. Back on French time, and all the French ways of dressing, eating, and communicating.

Alexia: Pour moi, c’était mieux à Paris. Mais le Cameroun me manquait. Pour la première fois de ma vie peut-être, je me sentais Française et Camerounaise. Je suis de deux mondes. Je suis les deux, en même temps. Une fusion.

Ngofeen: Alexia Sena is a writer based in France.

We’d love to know what you thought of this episode! Send us an email with your feedback at podcast@duolingo.com. And if you liked the story, please share it! You can find the audio and a transcript of each episode at podcast.duolingo.com. You can also subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app so you never miss an episode. Duolingo is the world's leading language learning platform, and the #1 education app, with over 300 million users worldwide. Duolingo believes in making education free, fun and accessible to everyone. To join, download the app today, or find out more at duolingo.com. I’m your host, Ngofeen Mputubwele — à la prochaine !

Credits

This episode includes recordings from Santiboada, Merou Sympa, Mr_Aldem, Z3HOM, ceen, kyles, harryScary, Emile, VincePest11, TyroneW, under the Creative Commons Attribution License.

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Author & Narrator: Alexia Sena
Script Editor: Natacha Ruck
Senior Editor: Julia Scott
Sound Designer: Martine Chaussard
Mixing & Mastering Engineer: Luis Gil
Executive Producer: Martina Castro