ExCat: Kuching my heart, Paris my home

Living in a foreign country might sound hard at first, especially at the thought of adjusting yourself to the new environment. My first few months in France were spent living with my in-laws while waiting for our flat and we were like a chicken talking to a duck at the beginning. But it had its advantages too as she really made great efforts to teach me the language. Born in Kuching to an Iban father and a Bidayuh mother, I was already able to speak both languages though in reality, I spoke local Malay most of the time at home. But when it came to French, I learned quickly – my mother-in-law talking with my father-in-law standing near her making different facial expressions trying to explain what my mother-in-law was trying to say, and moi, amazed saying “Oui” (which means “Yes”) all the time.

When I was in Form 5 at St Teresa’s, I had joined this penpal club, IYS (International Youth Service) with my other classmates, which cost only two ringgit at that time to join. You could choose between penpals from a few countries and I chose Italy, US and France. I received my first letter from France one month later and that’s how I got to know my Michel. I was so excited because he was my first penpal. During our days, there was no internet, of course, only snail mail (every 2 weeks I received a letter from him) for years until we met in 1985 for the first time. Finally I went to France in 1986 for a holiday and it was on our afternoon sightseeing trip on a bateau mouche (open excursion boat with a view of the city from along the river Seine) that he said, he fell in love with me. For me, it’s true…Paris is the city of love and romance. We got married in 1988 and I have been living in France since then.

The kissing on the cheek was a confusing thing at first. I was taught to kiss four times on the cheeks, left to right or right to left depending on which cheek the person puts forward to you. Strangely, that’s for people you don’t know or for acquaintances, whereas if it’s family or someone you know well, one time on each cheek is good enough. I still get lipstick stains on my cheeks each time from my mother-in-law, and it really stays! It becomes a routine – this cheek-kissing thing – because, when we see each other, she will kiss me on my cheeks and a few hours later, before leaving the house with her “au revoir”, the cheek kissing continues.

As Michel is working for an airline, I have been lucky to be able to go back to Kuching every year. Each time during our holiday in Kuching, Michel will go for Malay mee goreng (without chili s’il vous plait) while my daughter, Aurélie loves cooking chicken curry and son, Jean-Christophe, who loves spicy food, will savour non-stop kolok mee soup or nasi lemak.

But gradually, it was no problem adapting myself to the local cultures. Honestly, I love France. I love French cuisine. I love their wines. The French adore their cheese and moi aussi!

Born in Kuching, Jenny Fabrici speaks both Iban and Bidayuh, thanks to her parents who come from KampungSagah, Bau and Sri Aman respectively.

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