My International Identity: French School In Tunisia

[Image description: close photograph of sequins inside a kaleidoscope; overlapping circles of blurry, brightly-coloured light.]  ok, shawna / Creative Commons

[Image description: close photograph of sequins inside a kaleidoscope; overlapping circles of blurry, brightly-coloured light.]

ok, shawna / Creative Commons

Given the deterioration of the Tunisian educational system, my parents proposed that I should sit an exam to try to get into a French middle school. My cousins and my mother’s friends strongly recommended the French educational system, considered among the best in Tunisia. Tunisia has a 3-tier system of education: public schools (where most Tunisian students go), private Tunisian schools, and international foreign schools (French, Canadian, American, etc.) in which students of all nationalities can enroll.

At first the whole idea of attending a French school, with all the prestige and praise that would bring, thrilled 12-year-old me. Being enrolled in a western educational system is a mark of wealth and luxury (though my parents are just government employees, they try their best to pay for my school fees). Besides, the French high school diploma is internationally recognized, unlike the Tunisian one, and therefore offers incredible career opportunities in the future. It was with this enthusiasm and motivation that I studied for the highly competitive examination process. That same year, I was also preparing for another hyper-selective Tunisian exam, to attend a Tunisian pilot school (in French, concours d’entrée aux collèges pilotes). Pilot educational institutions are considered the best schools in Tunisia, academically speaking, since they tend to have the most qualified teachers and brilliant, hand-picked students.

The physical and psychological pressure was intense. I wanted to succeed in both tests, hoping to achieve a feeling of accomplishment and self-confidence I never had during my early teenage years. I studied so hard, and my parents provided the best possible environment, supporting me emotionally all throughout this rough journey.

Eventually, my hard work and my parents’ efforts paid off. I got into the pilot school that I wanted, and also ensured a spot in the French school - to my greatest joy and my parents’ pride. Once the initial excitement had subsided, my parents asked me to choose between going to the pilot school and attending the French one.

It was a very hard choice to make, given that most of my friends got into the pilot school, so it was difficult for me to leave them. Besides, I was nervous and afraid of the unknown. In fact, I didn’t get a very good impression when I first visited the French school to sit the exam. Everybody around me was speaking French, and the students didn’t have a uniform, unlike in Tunisian schools where wearing smocks is mandatory. I felt a bit out of place. However, I ended up choosing to go to the French school, because I love adventures and setting challenges for myself.

During the summer holidays, I didn’t think or stress at all about my first year in my new school, since I’m used to changing schools (I attended five different primary schools). Instead, I read many books and focused on writing in French, so that I wouldn’t be behind the other kids (most of whom were native French speakers).

The summer holidays ended and I began preparing myself for the new school year. I was enthusiastic and had very high expectations, and though that I would adapt and make new friends within the first week. However, it did not go as well as I had hoped, and reality hit me pretty hard. My first weeks were a complete disaster - an intense cultural collision. I tried to socialize with people, but everybody was distant and just gave me weird looks in response.  I didn’t like anything about my new school. I felt like a foreigner among my peers, even though most us were the same nationality. Everybody around me spoke French, even outside of class. Girls were wearing mini shorts and skirts, which had been prohibited in my previous school, as it is in all other Tunisian schools. Girls and boys were cuddling and kissing, which seemed shocking and outrageous to me. Back then, I felt as if I was losing all my points of reference and being cut off from my roots. I was lonely; I had no friends to talk to during breaks and no-one to sit with for lunch.

I sought refuge in the school library, which quickly became my favourite place in school. It still is. In the library, among the books, I never felt lonely. On the contrary - I found a way to resist this European cultural invasion and preserve my own culture and identity. I devoured Arabic books, one after another, with a certain pride and a sense a victory. For me, reading Arabic books was another way of saying, “nah, you’re not going to kill my identity and force me to adopt your stupid European one!”

However, my resistance didn’t last long. As time went on, I started to sound more like all these fancy “Frenchies”: I started speaking French most of the time, even at home, without realizing it, and laughing at French humor that I had never found funny before.

All these transformations scared me, and I felt like I was losing control of my own identity and the person that I wanted to become. It was frustrating going to school every day and feeling lost in the crowds of students. So, I figured that resistance, in my case, was futile, and decided to open myself up to this new set of minds and cultures to find my place and identity among them. It couldn’t be all bad.

I became interested in French history. History was my favorite subject in seventh grade, because my teacher realized that I was lost and lonely, and tried his best to help me with the transition. As I got to know new people from different cultural backgrounds (not only Tunisian and European but also African and Asian), I learned to appreciate cultural diversity and I became more aware of the beauty and value of my own Tunisian culture. However, this didn’t stop me from calling into question some principles, traditions, and customs from my own culture, and rejecting some aspects from other cultures if they ran counter to my convictions.

Aside from French, I was able to learn other foreign languages such as English and Spanish. By the age of 15, I became fluent in 3 languages including my native language of Arabic. I developed a lifelong love for languages and writing, which pushed me to choose Spanish and intensive Arabic courses (generally reserved for students who love and have a good knowledge in Arabic, and which we call the international option of the French baccalaureate). These Arabic classes (6 hours per week) helped to reinforce my Arab identity, and also showed me the beauty of my language and culture. So, I reconnected with my roots and never again felt like I was the victim of the European cultural invasion. English and Spanish classes were pure joy for me. In fact, in these foreign languages classes, we also study aspects of foreign cultures and traditions and discuss them together as a class. Being confronted with all these different cultures made me aware of diversity’s beauty, so I became less judgmental, and more open-minded, objective and cosmopolitan. Throughout my studies, I discovered many beautiful things about foreign cultures and met amazing people from different cultural backgrounds.

This year marks my fifth year in a French school, and I couldn’t be more grateful for this incredible journey. During these five years, I pieced together my own identity through exposure to elements of different cultures, without denying my own cultural background. I’ve learned to accept others without trying to change them, and to see their differences as an opportunity to discover and learn new things. My most outstanding achievement during this experience has been to break cultural boundaries between myself and others, and learn that being human is universal.

Tharwa Boulifi is a 17-year old Tunisian freelancer. She loves reading, writing and singing. She is an award-winning writer (2018 Youth Journalism contest).You can find her writings in Womensenews, igeneration youth magazine, the Riveter, Huffpost Maghreb, fbomb blog, Youth Radio, and Teen Vogue. You can follow her on Twitter.