Bingo à la française

Sunday, January 25, 2015 2 Permalink 3

I was initiated last night to the great Southern French tradition of Village Loto.

I wriggled, I squirmed. 20h30 is time for bed, not the time to start anything. It’s too provincial. Gambling is a sin!

But M., who has been insisting I do this for years while I have faked headaches and made up every excuse imaginable, finally won out. He drove us there, me complaining the whole way.

Et il a raison. We had a fantastic time, and for none of the expected reasons.

Here was writ large the miracle of la République: the supremely strong middle class, integration of everyone into one cohesive bingo-playing whole (veiled women playing right alongside beret-wearing old men and teachers moved by obligation to the educational system all over), and a group of young kids headed to Nîmes raising their own euros to relieve their parents of all duties for two whole weeks, in addition to the already over-the-top vacation allowances, while they saw the world.

The impressive donated prizes included a whole dried leg of very precious ham, hundreds of euros in value, as well as things I don’t quite know how to describe – random, but not to be taken lightly: A wand mixer. Facials. Coffee makers. Lots of wine. Rugby tickets. Stuffed animals. Gift certificates for butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. And lots and lots of chocolate.

I didn’t win anything, but I can tell you that my French improved vastly for hearing and speaking numbers. If you have ever learned a foreign language, then you know that both spelling and numbers are hard. Well, this was a fun way to practice.

Three things stand out for an American audience: The first is how very serious the French are about rules. There was an error at one point, and the hush that fell over the crowd of hundreds and the somber severe resolution seemed out of character with what was otherwise a night of childish games.

Second, that an article can precede any number, and it is always masculine, as in le quatorze. Some numbers also have nicknames. 1 can be called le petit and l’ace. And the number of départements, at least the most famous ones, is known by heart by many French. Everyone cheered at the bingo-call of their own département. 82! Whooohooo!!!

The third is harder to write about. It represents a whole class of racial and other kinds of stereotyping in speech which requires at least it’s own post. But for now in this instance it is that the inverse of things is sometimes called Chinois.

When used for a “null card,” a card on which no numbers have been called, that sounded inescapably racist to us. Just the idea of labeling any hand of a game with an ethnic ascription! But this is so normative that it is announced over and over from the microphone with no self-awareness at all, just as though the announcer were using any other term, like “second chance” or “double-or-nothing.”

We instinctively glanced around the room, embarrassed to see how may Chinese might have heard this offense. But here in France, it represents to them only the idea that on the other side of the world, opposite rules apply. An empty card wins, in this case.

Le Chinois. The opposite of us. Not us. The inverse. Even if in some ways it is the same as us in this room. This I chalk up again to being like living in the USA in the 1970s (if that sounds pejorative here, it certainly is not always in other posts). There is just no idea at all that saying le Chinois for a null hand might somehow also say something negative about a group of people present and participating. (Don’t even ask how they use le pédé! And no, French fries and French kiss are not quite comparable.)

When Americans accuse the French of pervasive racism, this is what they are talking about – this blatant, shamelessly offensive surface. And I see the fault, I struggle every day with this tension of inescapable meaning versus undeniable significance, but those callous, colonial-era words must also be weighed against who is in the actual seats and who is taking home the prizes. In that sense, despite the words, there is égalité. I’ve experienced that, too.