Funny, She Doesn’t Look Bilingual

8 Jan

Last night, during the Republican debate, Jon Huntsman addressed Mitt Romney in Chinese.

Romney, grinning, threw his hands in the air: “I’m lost.”

He had good reason to grin.  Romney came off as your average guy.  Just one of us.

Huntsman sounded like a show-off.  I felt sorry for him.

At the end of my junior year, Meadville High School Student Council sent a few us (next year’s officers) to a leadership camp.  I think we got out of a day of school for it. The idea was to bring newly-elected student leaders from all over Northwestern Pennsylvania together for a day to network and, maybe, learn from each other.

I was our Student Council’s Lieutenant-Governor, second-in-command to a boy named Tim.  A smart and likeable football player with a full-on Animal House persona.  We represented Meadville that day.

Leadership training began with a break-the-ice game.  Introduce yourself: Tell us your name and an adjective that describes you.  Easy enough for the first person, but each subsequent player had to recite the blurbs about everyone who came before him.  Introductions and a test of memory, all in one amiable activity.

That was the year that I was in love with all things French (just before I fell in love with all things Russian) and because I was the only student in Advanced Placement French, I figured I could get away with stretching the truth to make myself more interesting:

“Hi, I’m Jenny and I’m bilingual.”

(I was not even remotely bilingual in French.  Not even close.  The most I can say in defense of my empty boasting is that I sounded (even then!) much better in French than Mitt Romney does.)

Next, it was my classmate Tim’s turn to introduce himself.  With a Mitt Romney grin, he said something forgettable about himself and then:

“. . . and this is Jenny, and she’s . . . what did you say you were, Jenny?  Oh, yeah, she’s bisexual.”

Remember, it’s high school.  This was a winning bit of wit and it stuck.  All the way down the line.  If it was funny the first time, it was freaking hilarious the fifteenth time.

In some happy retelling of this story, I am cosmopolitan beyond my years, and I grab the upperhand, by winking sassily at each repetition:

Yeah, that’s right, I’m Jenny, and I like boys and girls.  Got your interest?

But that is not a believable version for 1980, in the heart of Rick Santorum country, where there was nothing titillating to teenagers about lesbianism.

I was humiliated.  Flushed, on the verge of tears.  It’s the only thing I remember about that day.  The only thing I learned about leadership.

Back to last night’s debate.  A few things have changed since 1980.  Now, even Republican presidential candidates talk about the rights of homosexuals to form lasting relationships.  Nobody froths at the mouth.

Still, Huntsman’s Chinese went over about as well as my efforts to impress.  Americans still don’t like too much learning.  Or, maybe they just don’t like show-offs.  Or possibly both.

My day of leadership training (mercifully) did not end with a question about what I would rather be doing that day.  Watching football is always the right answer, but I would have flubbed that one too.

49 Responses to “Funny, She Doesn’t Look Bilingual”

  1. Andreas Kluth January 8, 2012 at 9:41 pm #

    What a painful memory, even vicariously. You describe it well.

    I think nobody likes a show-off, not even Europeans. But it is peculiarly American to distrust and mock learning, language skills, savoir faire, sophistication to such an extent.

    I also cringed when Huntsman did that. I’ve been wanting him to do better for half a year now, but he won’t. But I hated Romney’s reaction.

    I think the moment took all of us back to some primal high school memory of vulnerability. Sometimes we were the Huntsman in the memory, sometimes the Romney.

    • dafna January 9, 2012 at 1:15 am #

      agreed…”it is peculiarly American to distrust and mock learning, language skills, savoir faire, sophistication to such an extent.”

      i particularly dislike the fact that President Obama has to “dumb it down”, i enjoy his orating skills and am left unsatisfied with the dumbed down version of his speeches.

      of course he visits my city often, so there is a good chance i’ll get to enjoy his orating skills in person in the coming months. that would be exciting!

    • jenny January 9, 2012 at 5:44 am #

      There’s a poem by William Carlos Williams that begins “The pure products of America go crazy.” It’s a confounding poem, but that line returns when I think about so many peculiarities of America.

      For instance, I’m not a fan of the American distrust of learning and sophistication, but after a couple of hours in the company of a certain type of Russian intellectual, I begin to yearn for a Budweiser and rock and roll.

  2. Christopher January 8, 2012 at 10:04 pm #

    Ta capacité d’parler français mieux que Mitt Romney est impressionnante, parce que il a vécu en France comme un missionnaire mormon pour deux ans. La capacité de parler bon français est important pour convaincre les Français de devenir mormons, n’est ce pas?

    Par conséquent, ton français serait bon si tu le parles mieux que Mitt Romney.

    Mitt Romney serait concernée qu’il y a une vidéo sur YouTube qui montre lui parlant français. Après tout, si on est un vrai Américain on doit parler seulement anglais. C’est important que le président des Etats-Unis est un vrai Américain.

    • jenny January 9, 2012 at 6:00 am #


      Somehow, responding in French (given the story I’ve just laid out about myself) doesn’t feel good.

      Anyway, the truth is that I’ve dabbled in many languages (including French), but the only one I know in a competent way is Russian. You probably noticed that I ask Paul lots of questions about French (I’m curious), but I don’t try to use it.

      Finally, I’m sure that Mitt Romney speaks French at least passably, in any event, much better than I do. I only claim to sound better than he does. I am (and this is justified boasting) a dangerously good mimic.

  3. dafna January 8, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    oh Pbbth!

    maybe my heart has shrunk, i see only humour in your story about the past 🙂 so much HS humiliation, so little room in my memory to bother.

    regarding awkward public speaking moments…. at least he didn’t say he “would like to make life better for the blahs” – Santorum. i’ve been laughing my white ass off since i heard that comment, and subsequent jokes.

    also borrowed…”what does he mean he says wants to ship the blah people back two apricots?”

    says me, “we juice and blahs have to stick together”.

    btw… there has been frothing at the mouth. perhaps you don’t consider mr. Santorum a republican presidential candidate?

    • jenny January 9, 2012 at 6:17 am #


      I have a keen memory for moments when I’ve behaved stupidly.

      Santorum. Yes, amazing stories, huh? All the more troubling to me because I grew up in Pennsylvania. And, you’re right, there is still hateful talk about gays from guys like Santorum (as I type out his name, I think about how he’s been repaid for it), but, overall, the tone (at least in public) has improved, I think.

  4. Thomas Stazyk January 9, 2012 at 12:49 am #

    I agree with Andreas.

    But what I take from your post is the similarity between the Republican debates and high school kids playing leader.

    • jenny January 9, 2012 at 6:20 am #

      That made me laugh. Please don’t make me play Michelle Bachmann.

      • Thomas Stazyk January 9, 2012 at 1:55 pm #

        You can’t be MB–you’re bilingual!

  5. Cyberquill January 9, 2012 at 6:13 am #


    • jenny January 9, 2012 at 6:28 am #

      I’m no Mitt Romney, CQ. Anyway, I’m not lost. I have google translate.

      This is just you being adorable. 🙂

      • Cyberquill January 9, 2012 at 8:37 am #

        So are you bisexual?

      • jenny January 10, 2012 at 7:23 am #

        Mr. Quill!

        Mind your C’s and Q’s!

      • Cyberquill January 11, 2012 at 9:50 am #

        I’ll respectfully take this as a yes.

      • jenny January 12, 2012 at 7:01 am #

        Hold on, CQ, I forgot to wink. 😉

  6. Paul Costopoulos January 9, 2012 at 6:50 am #

    Our politicians are a bunch of deplorable twits and I mean all of them.

    • jenny January 10, 2012 at 7:20 am #

      A hopeful sentiment from Paul Costopoulos. 🙂

  7. Andreas Kluth January 9, 2012 at 9:45 am #

    I heard, by the way, that Tim goes both ways nowadays.

    • Thomas Stazyk January 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm #

      He studied French in college?

    • jenny January 10, 2012 at 7:52 am #

      Andreas, Tom:

      I could have used a couple of allies like you in high school.

  8. Man of Roma January 10, 2012 at 8:33 am #

    You didn’t behave stupidly, you were just a bit incautious given the jokes typical of a high school milieu. Console yourself. Here “I’m bilingual” would have brought to much more obscene jests, given also the similarity of our language to Latin.

    [Boasting my language skills? Damn, I knew it, I can’t help it! ]


    • jenny January 11, 2012 at 8:36 am #

      Good note for the Italian version of my life story. (Everybody should have an Italian version of their life story, by the way.)

      Boasting? Knock yourself out, Roma. I think it was Bear Bryant who said, “It ain’t bragging if it’s true.”

      • Man of Roma January 12, 2012 at 11:00 am #

        At any rate, whatever one is, I don’t find it right to show it too much. So I agree with the American custom. Too many people bragging here. Fortunately, we also have serious and solid people, like our new PM. Wow. I adore him! It was high time, after Berlusconi.

      • Man of Roma January 12, 2012 at 11:03 am #

        Why do I always sound enthusiastic (and silly).

      • jenny January 12, 2012 at 9:03 pm #

        Roma, I have to read up on your new PM. I haven’t been paying attention.

        As for enthusiasm (called “silliness” by some), my whole staff here at Sw&Sp regards it as one of your most endearing qualities.

  9. Terrell Finney January 10, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    Jenny: Wonderful post, and, as always, remarkably honest and perceptive. Thank you for allowing me to think back on similar events in my own past.

    • jenny January 11, 2012 at 8:37 am #

      Thanks, Terrell. Nice of you to read.

  10. Mr. Crotchety January 11, 2012 at 7:25 pm #

    If things get any worse, I might have to revisit a second language. Unfortunately, the only other language in which I was ever close to being conversational was Arabic and its best if one is not openly bilingual in that language. I talk to myself a lot.

    • jenny January 12, 2012 at 7:14 am #

      I started to write that I always wanted to speak Arabic, but once the words were on the screen, it smacked of George Costanza’s wistful “I wish I were a Civil War buff.”

      How, Mr. C, how did you come to speak Arabic?

      You won’t tell me. I’ll have to be content with the story I’ve invented.

      Happy New Year.

      • Man of Roma January 12, 2012 at 11:02 am #

        Mr C is a surprise made man. He lived long time in Morocco, if I recall well.

  11. Mr. Crotchety January 12, 2012 at 4:03 pm #

    The myth is better than the man. (I was a water engineer in Morocco, for short time MoR.) Really, I was just trying my own innuendo. Not only am I not bilingual, recently I have been forced to talk with myself. I was thinking of something like Lothar of the Hill People: “lately I have taken many short walks, by myself.” I should have stayed in my cave.

    • jenny January 12, 2012 at 9:29 pm #

      Mr. Crotchety! You are killing me. Dude, did you really think I didn’t get it? Aw, c’mon, you’re selling me short.

      I got it. I laughed. I liked it. But sometimes (believe it or not) I hold back in my responses. Besides, I wanted to hear about Arabic.

      Do you want to know how I thought to respond to your comment this morning (but resisted)? OK, here goes:

      It’s just as Woody Allen famously said: Don’t knock talking to myself, it’s conversation with someone I love.

      Am I redeemed?

      • Mr. Crotchety January 12, 2012 at 9:46 pm #

        mais oui, or as I might say in Arabic; zween sebbats

      • jenny January 13, 2012 at 7:34 am #


        As the American kids in Russia like to say these days: Spaseebs.

      • jenny January 13, 2012 at 8:12 am #

        Hold on, what the heck does that mean in Arabic?

      • Mr. Crotchety January 13, 2012 at 9:51 am #

        It means, “beautiful shoes.”

        I’m just off my game these days. I have this damn new book to read. It’s bringing up all kinds of issues. I can’t concentrate. I feel like a total loser. I don’t have enough time to write decent comments. What’s more, the neighbors dog died. You know the one that barked all the f’ing time? I’m losing that Crotchety feeling. I just stare into space, thinking about Tim Tebow.

      • jenny January 14, 2012 at 6:07 am #

        Mr. C,

        You feel like a total loser? How do you think I feel? I had never even heard of Tim Tebow until you mentioned him (and I googled). Now, suddenly, he’s everywhere. It seems I’m the only person in America who hasn’t been staring into space, thinking about him. Where the hell have I been?

        And that’s not the first time this has happened. Recently, I’ve heard more talk in the news about that damn Hadron Collider, the large one. I can’t take it seriously. It just makes me laugh.

        As for that new book you’re reading, the one that’s bringing up issues, well, we should talk about it. As soon as the initial “Hurrah!” phase is over.

        Now, good news on the language front: You said “beautiful shoes,” and that splendid image captured my imagination. I’m thinking of introducing it as a cheerful opening (or closing) salutation.

        Also, when I asked you what the heck that meant, I remembered a joke that I had forgotten since leaving Utah:

        You know what “Heck” is, don’t you? It’s where Mormons go for taking Gol’s name in vain.

        Cheers, Mr. C, and beautiful shoes to you!

      • Andreas Kluth January 14, 2012 at 9:09 am #

        The “hurrah” phase is over. You can talk about it.

        zween sabbats to you.

  12. dafna January 15, 2012 at 1:50 am #

    wait a minute… the only way i found out about tebow is because the 13 year olds are FB ing about him. i googled also.

    but dis the Hadron Collider?! what’s so funny about that?

    off to google “Gol” 😉

    zween sabbats to all. useful in any occasion.

    • jenny January 15, 2012 at 8:31 am #

      Gol, it dawns on me now that zween sabbats might also be an exclamation of delight or surprise, as in:

      Zween sabbats! You guys are swell for playing along!

      Mr. C: I’m teachable. I studied Tebow yesterday. Pretty amazing cultural phenomenon. Say, have you ever heard of this guy Tom Brady?

      Andreas: You sure? It’s a never-ending parade of positive, all these reviews of your book. Aren’t you yearning for someone to be outraged?

      Dafna: I was introduced to the H.C. (and its comic potential) in comments here.

      • Andreas Kluth January 15, 2012 at 9:08 am #

        Well, yes, and I thought that should be you and Mr C. Nobody does outrage the way you do.

      • mr. crotchety January 15, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

        OK. I’m done reading.

        I have a list.

        Where do we go? Richards pub?

      • Richard January 18, 2012 at 6:03 am #

        B****r! Another opportunity missed.

      • jenny January 18, 2012 at 8:11 am #


        As Woody Allen says: “80% of success is showing up.”

        If you hadn’t gone missing, we might have had an out-and-out bidding war.

        Now I’m feeling guilty for scooping you. Guilt, you know . . . the gift that keeps on giving.

    • Andreas Kluth January 15, 2012 at 10:25 pm #

      You could guest post it here on Sprezzatura, as its own post, perhaps?

  13. mr. crotchety January 15, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

    Richard’s, I mean. (I dropped an apostrophe on neighbor’s the other day, too.)

    • jenny January 16, 2012 at 7:40 am #

      Mr. Crotchety has a list! That’s impossibly intriguing.

      Richard would be thrilled, I’m sure. And, Andreas is right: At every Sw&Sp staff meeting somebody suggests a Mr. Crotchety guest appearance. We’ve just been waiting for the right project.

      So, OK, Mr. C, I like both locations, for different reasons. You decide. I’m down with it either way.

      • jenny January 16, 2012 at 7:59 am #

        For submissions (book reviews, stories that take place at Cracker Barrel, expressions of admiration that are too treacly to appear in open comments):

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