“Mercy,” proclaims the Filipino sales clerk.
“Mare-see,” repeats MB.
“What? How do you say it? Say it again?” A young girl in an apron is standing behind the sales clerk, “mercy?”
“Mare-see,” MB says with a smile.
“How do you spell it,” asks the girl.
“M-e-r-c-i,” MB says.
She looks confused and then says, “AH, ah yes…mercy!”
MB just smiles. I laugh to myself as I realize this conversation is eerily familiar. We are in Boracay Island, Philippines and have stopped to buy a bottle of water at a Starbucks (can’t get away from it, apparently). It is the friendliest Starbucks on earth. Upon entering, the eager staff asks where we are from; I respond U.S. and they are cordial, “oh yes, very good, your first trip to Boracay?” But when MB says France, they are all a-twitter with excitement.
“What’s going on?” A third attendant appears.
“He’s from France!” The sales clerk responds, pointing at MB as though he is some sort of exotic bird who has just wandered into the store.
“Ooooooooh,” says the attendant who has just entered the conversation. “I love French! Mercy! A-voir! Oh, it sounds so nice! Say something else!”
Dance, pretty bird, dance! MB looks bemused and happily accommodates the curious staffers who have now surrounded us.
In some ways, being French overseas is sort of like being a celebrity. There is still so much mystique and romance that surrounds the idea of the French. Being American is somewhat different. In Boracay Island, we ate at Obama Grill, not Sarkozy Grill. People all over the world…from Romania to Boracay Island…watch American television shows and films, wear American clothes labels, listen to American music, have opinions about American politics. American culture is everywhere and so there isn’t much novelty left in it. No one outside of the U.S. seems excited that I am American…unless they hate Americans (then they are typically over-enthusiastic).
It must be nice to be able to generate that kind of reaction simply by proclaiming your nationality; an effect that I don’t think I will ever have. Instead, I will have to satisfy myself with being cool by proxy; and take comfort in the fact that perhaps the mystique lies not just in being French, but also in the fact that no one but them can properly pronounce their language.