Holden Caulfield had it easy

Rye_catcherI often wake up in the wee hours of the morning.  I hate lying in bed stewing, so when I woke up at 2 AM the other night, I took a couple of books and went to the hotel lobby to read.  About 4 AM, I’m minding my own business, nose buried in a book about the early 21st century in China, when this kid walks up to me out of nowhere, says “Trouble sleeping?” (in English), and takes a seat.  We spent the next three hours talking about his life as a Chinese teenager, his dream of studying in America, iPhone apps that you use if you live in a country where the government blocks Facebook and Twitter, whether or not there are really criminals filling the streets of New York (depends on the neighborhood), the size of American refrigerators (about 4 times the size of my refrigerator in Paris), whether or not it’s true that in America, you could get married in a park if you felt like it (you most certainly could), and the like.

It would be tempting to turn this into an essay about the universality of the teenaged experience, but I’m not sure that that would be quite right.  In fact, his experience in China sounded different from any American teenager’s experience I’ve ever heard of.  For example: the kid in question (he will go nameless, for reasons that will become clear) wanted to know if I would let my son have a girlfriend.  Wouldn’t his parents let him have a girlfriend, I asked?  Turns out he tried to have a girlfriend last year.  His teacher saw them holding hands and called both of their sets of parents in to the school.  The two kids stood there for three hours while their parents and teachers lectured them on the importance of focusing on school, while tears rolled down the girl’s face.

He goes to an elite high school.  The students get three days off a year.  Not three months–not three weeks–three days.  The competition to get in to the school is quite intense.  He graduated from there, but didn’t do as well as he had hoped on his TOEFL and ACT.  When his test scores came in, his father told him that he was ashamed–he is not what his father was looking for in a son.

The kid is really, really determined to study in America.  While all of his friends from the elite three-days-off-a-year high school have gone off to Chinese colleges, he is taking a gap year to try to improve his test scores—in fact, he is in the hotel because he has come to Beijing to take an intensive TOEFL prep course.  We sat and went through the iPhone app that he uses to memorize English words–he has an amazing vocabulary.  At some point in all of this, I said that “When you come to America, you’re going to see that…”  He interrupted me frantically.  “You can’t say that–no one must hear you say that.”  Then I realized how quietly he’d been talking…

If you’re French, and didn’t major in American literature, and therefore didn’t get the cultural reference in the title of this post: Holden Caulfield is the protagonist of Catcher in the rye, the prototypical novel of teenage angst in the US.  Here are some vocabulary items from the French Wikipédie article on Catcher in the rye:

Il constitue l’une des œuvres les plus célèbres du XXe siècle et un classique de la littérature, à ce titre enseigné dans les écoles aux États-Unis et au Canada, bien qu’il ait été critiqué en raison de certains des thèmes abordés (prostitution, décrochage scolaire, obsession de la sexualité) et du niveau de langue (langage familier et souvent injurieux).

  • à ce titre: in this capacity, as such, in this respect
  • bien que + subjunctive: we already knew that bien que means “although” or “even though,” but this illustrates something I wasn’t aware of: that bien que has to be followed by the subjunctive.  I must have gotten this wrong a thousand times this summer…
  • décrochage scolaire:  dropping out of school.  Décrochage itself has many meanings related to unhooking, uncoupling, or disengagement.
  • injurieux: abusive, insulting; if talking about a reputation: injurious.

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