I studied French for 8 years in junior high, high school, and college, and honestly haven’t had much chance to use to it apart from clearing customs in 1991 Phnom Penh and on the streets of Saigon that same summer. I’ve been to France a few times in recent times, but could barely communicate.
Even so, one evening in Paris this summer I spotted this bookstore near our apartment. My kids wanted ice cream, so we went to a cafe and were waiting outside for their orders when my eye caught this:
The Librarie Opera is a bookstore and suddenly I felt drawn to go inside and see if there was anything I could read. I haven’t studied French in 28 years, but figured there must be a children’s book I could partially understand.
My family headed back to the apartment and I stayed behind to browse the shelves in the bookstore. When I stepped inside, I quickly figured out it only sold graphic novels and comics. It was perfect for this substandard French speaker!
I found some graphic travelogues by French Canadian Guy DeLisle (my friend Christine later told me he was French Canadian; I didn’t know that at the time) and started flipping through one about Pyongyang and another about Jerusalem. But when I found one about Shenzhen, I knew I’d found my book!
I thought it would take days, if not weeks, to read it, so I picked it up last week and thought I’d get a start on it. Well, by the end of the day, I had read the whole thing.
Not only that, I understood at least 75% of the story!
It resonated so much. Guy DeLisle spent three months in Shenzhen at the end of 1997/beginning of 1998. That’s exactly when I last went there. I was living in Hong Kong and returned to the US in late February 1998. So the Shenzhen he wrote about is the one I knew.
I got the jokes, and understanding them in French made them seem funnier than American jokes. I laughed when he described the hotels in China in the late 90s and how hotel rooms all looked alike back then. And the console between the beds had all these buttons and it took forever to figure out which one turned off the lights. The others? Lord only knew what they did.
We had so many similar experiences. He ate dog for the first time in Shenzhen; so did I. He thought it tasted like mutton; I thought it tasted like beef.
When he went to Guangzhou for the weekend, I totally got that, too. The one and only time I visited Guangzhou was in December 1996 and the city he described was the one I knew back then, too.
My heart raced when he spent a weekend in Hong Kong. The feeling he described walking in no-man’s-land from Shenzhen to Hong Kong was exactly what I felt when I did that so many times in the 90s. It’s so hard to describe in words, but he did so beautifully in French and with his illustrations. He felt so at ease in Hong Kong that he wrote he would have spent every weekend there if it hadn’t been so troublesome to go back and forth. Hear, hear!
He writes about his isolation in Shenzhen and the animation field in China back then. For him, going to the gym was a way to beat the loneliness. For me, swimming in Hong Kong combatted that.
The last time I went to Shenzhen, my then-husband had sent me–all of five months pregnant–over the border from Hong Kong to take his money out of the Bank of China. I went to Shenzhen with one of his mainland friends and we both walked back across the border with my then-husband’s life savings. DeLisle didn’t seem to have that kind of stress, but from his story he left Shenzhen a different person.
This book is available in an English translation and I’m curious to read it now to see what I missed in the French original. I’m also eager to read his other graphic travelogues now. Maybe next time I’m in Paris, I’ll pick up the French originals of those, too.