Journals from AUCP Marseille- Spring 2008
2008-04-28 Other cultures are harrrrd...
What do you think of when you hear the word "culture?" It's a very ambiguous term-- one that gets tossed around a lot. In my opinion, we have become desensitized to it. I know I had before I came here... Having traveled quite a bit, to each place for about three weeks max, I "looooved experiencing other cultures!"
I hadn't the foggiest idea what I was talking about.
First, a clarification. One of the most important things that being here has taught me is that yes, there are French people, and there are American people, but above all, people are just people. Ultimately it is the individual who reacts to a culture and adopts parts of it, rejects others... above all, active, individual choice is incredibly important.
That said, there are certainly cultural differences between the French and Americans. Not everyone will see them carried out in every situation. But they are certainly present, and concrete! When I came here, I had this idea of "I'm experiencing another culture! Hurray!!" Since then, though still pleasing and exciting, I have had many a moment of, "I'm experiencing another culture... um... what the heck am I supposed to do right now?!" I had never concretely experienced culture shock. Interestingly, I did experience reverse culture shock when I came back from Italy for Jan Term, but not because I had really experienced Italian culture; rather, because I had achieved an independence from America that allowed me to think about it objectively, and was therefore struck by certain things upon returning. Here, however, where I have lived for over six weeks and am getting to know much better, I have had many an incredibly frustrating moment in which I was totally at a loss for how to behave.
For example, this weekend I accidentally broke my host family's dryer. I turned the button the wrong way when there was even an arrow pointing in the direction I was supposed to have turned it. Typical. My host mom wasn't really mad, but she did say things like, "There's an arrow there! You didn't see it?" I apologized profusely, but I realized that there could be entirely different culturally acceptable ways to handle this situation from in the states. In America, one would apologize sincerely, and next, for example, perhaps make fun of oneself for having done so. Here... it is certain that an apology was necessary, but from there, what? What is the "normal" thing to do in that situation, where one has made a big and stupid mistake?
More than individual moments like that, I have found the overarching cultural value differences to be fascinating, and yeah, pretty difficult sometimes.
One of the most important is that whereas American culture values independence, the French value interdependence. My host brother is 21, but he lives with his mom, never helps with the housework and has his mom iron his underwear. In the States, once you turn 18, a popular and highly valued choice is to go far away for college. This value also means that it's incredibly rude for me to shut my door except when changing or sleeping, and that my host mom comes into my room during the day to check on things. If I leave a mug on my nightstand, it's gone when I get home. For me, that means that someone I don't really know all that well came into MY space when I wasn't here... which isn't an entirely pleasing thought. For her, that's totally normal-- I'm in the house, and therefore, I "rely" on her for certain things. In reality, I would be soooooo much happier making my own food and sitting in my room with the door closed drawing and listening to music. But, I can't do that here. Door's gotta be open, and I'd be better off in the family room. And she gets embarrassed if I help with housework.
By contrast, however, for those with whom one doesn't have an intimate relationship, there is a saying about the French that goes, "On suppose que les gens savent." This literally means, "We suppose that people know things." It sounds funny at first, and is definitely what lends itself to the French stereotype of being snobby and rude. But here, it is assumed that people get it, because explaining something is seen as insulting and patronizing. Here's an example. I needed to buy more minutes for my cell phone here (P.S. it took me about two minutes to think of the normal word for "cell phone" as opposed to "mobile phone" or "portable telephone"... ooph!). One usually buys them at the Tabacs, which are little stores that sell tobacco (hence the name), postcards, bus tickets, and other practical things like that. I went to six different Tabacs with my friend Iris. Each one told us, "Nope, we don't sell minutes for that type of phone." In the States, a store owner would have probably followed this with, "...but you can buy them at X store on Y street." Not here. Finally, we wandered all the way to the place where we had bought the phones. We asked an employee, who said, "You can do that just down the stairs and to the left." Well, down the stairs and to the left, there was about ten different cashiers all selling different things. We asked one, and she said, "Nope, further down." Finally, we found the right person. We paid for our minutes, and she handed us a receipt and miraculously and very unlike a French person, she pointed us back to the woman we had just talked to. In the states, that first woman would have said, "Ok, sweetie, go to that cashier with the long brown hair, and pay for your minutes, then bring the receipt back to me and I'll give them to you." But noooooot in France! We finally got our minutes after an hour and a half of searching. This was a very typical "American in France" story.
Similarly, French culture includes a lot more hierarchies. The most obvious example I can think of is the professor-student relationship here. It depends on the professor, but there's one prof here who I don't have who is the epitome of a French professor. One often hears stories of students raising their hands in class and saying, "I don't agree, because..." Their cases may be well thought out, but the professor is always shocked. It's not so much a sentiment of, "You insubordinate little punk!" but rather that the professor has established credentials, and on this subject, they do know a lot more. For a twenty year-old American student to disagree with them is... well, very American. On our midterms next week, it has been specified that, "Though your opinion is important, it's not important in this class. Your midterm will test your comprehension of the material that has been presented. Answers that are off topic or include too much personal opinion cannot be graded."
Our "Cultural Patterns" professor talked today about this and how American schools involve a lot of "ego stroking." Because of those hierarchies, there sure isn't any of that here! I've seen this lack of encouragement a lot at my internship. The dance professor will stop the music and say to the shyest girl in the class, "But Shaima, what are you doing there?! That's not it at all!" The theatre professor, when a little boy has to be told to be quiet multiple times, will say, "Claude, you're annoying me!" in a very stern tone of voice. As a camp counselor, I would NEVERRRRRR say something like that to one of my kids! The idea is horrifying to me, and being present for something like that makes me bristle. When the four-year-olds learned the song I taught them in ENGLISH last week when none of them speak a word of the language, I was all smiles and saying, "Great job you guys, that was pretty difficult!" while the teacher, as if nothing had happened, just got up and moved on to the next activity. I sit there thinking, "But! But! But these kids need encouragement in order to develop good self-confidence, and without that they'll be ripped apart when they get to middle school, and then..." But that's just not how it's done here.
Other cultural tidbits:
- Eating something and walking at the same time isn't very French at all. You eat, enjoy the food, talk about the quality of the food and where one can buy good ingredients like that for good prices; and then you walk very purposefully to where you are going. Likewise, the idea of something "To Go" is around, but not common. And it's IMPOSSIBLE to find coffee to go, because who wouldn't want to sit on the terrace of the cafe and enjoy their coffee?! This is actually a value I like very much. Life's too short. Enjoy what you're doing without trying to do so much at once!
- On a similar note, food is VERY important here. The French are protesting with all their might against the incorporation of GMOs into their diets, and many people here eat only organic food. Meals involve multiple courses each time. A typical order is soup, main dish with bread, salad, dessert and cheese. Portions aren't as large as in the US, therefore. Also, during the meal, as I mentioned above, you talk about food. Why the sauce works with the fish, which vegetable would go better than the broccoli that's being served, where to buy the best broccoli, what variety of bread is the best... it never ends. And as you who know me well can imagine, I LOVE IT.
So... I knew there would be differences like this. What I didn't know is how concretely they would affect me. In each moment like those described in the example, what is going on doesn't fit with my framing of the world. My immediate thoughts aren't, "Ohhhh, the French culture is so interesting!" but rather something along the lines of, "Why would that person do something like that?!" In moments of culture shock, one isn't enlightened right away. You have to get through the confusion, bewilderment, discomfort and shock first. I love learning about this culture, but I hadn't expected that the learning part would come after so much fright and confusion!
All in all, however, that's the adventure, isn't it? And what is life if not one big adventure? The moments of clarity and understanding that come after situations like this are some of the most rewarding I have ever experienced. And for that, I am grateful, eager, and curious.