This semester has been a classroom. I went to France ready to learn about its language, culture, politics, history, and people. Yet, while I learned a great deal about France, some of my best lessons have been about what it means to be an American. I learned about France by going there, and I learned about the United States by leaving.
Americans have very few rules. I don’t think I realized this until I went to France, which is a more formal society than ours. Socially, societally, even grammatically, we simply have fewer rules to follow. In France, even among students just hanging out, when you arrive, you greet everyone. You go around and shake hands or kiss cheeks individually. American’s just say “hey guys,” and call it good.
We also say Hello whenever and however often we feel like, sometimes several times a day to the same people. On the other hand, Bonjour is reserved for the first time you see someone in a day, and there is no repeating. Whenever I said Bonjour to someone a second time, they would smirk and say “rebonjour.”
We also interact less formally with strangers. Being back, I feel comfortable going up to most people, friend or stranger, and cracking a joke or saying something mildly sarcastic. I once did this in France with someone I had never met before. It wasn’t offensive, I just made a joke about the quality of someone’s cooking (who is in fact a fantastic cook). But they didn’t understand. In France, I think people are more guarded with their humor among people they don’t know. At least, in my experience.
Largely because of our fluidity with rules, greetings, eating times, and humor, I find that Americans are more silly than French people. I brought this point up to my fellow IES students a few times, and they agreed. Perhaps we were an inexplicably silly cross section of the American student population, but I doubt it. I think American’s are just a bit sillier.
I also discovered the importance of individualism and identity that I hold as an American. I have written about the national unity of France, and certain laws they have passed to control the kinds of religious garments that can be worn in public. I think it is a very American reaction to reject and revile this kind of law. As an American, I believe that everyone is entitled to their individual identity, and to be and express who they want to be.
Americans are also very impatient. We have been cultivated by a society that needs its technology, services, and stores open and on all the time whenever we want. Rarely did I feel so American as on a Sunday when I was just angry that a certain store wasn’t open, or when it was hard to do things on Sunday’s because of how little public transportation there was. I can guarantee you that 24/7 store hours were not the idea of a French person.
There will of course be some things I’m going to miss. Americans don’t really care about aesthetics that much, at least certainly not as much as the French. Before going anywhere or doing anything, they make a very conscious effort to look good. Yet on the other side of the issue is the American value of acceptance. I like looking good, and I like when other people do to.
But, I also appreciate that in the United States, people put less stock in the clothes someone is wearing. I think there might actually be a little too much pressure in France to be fashionable. Looking good is great. Feeling like you have to or you won’t be as accepted is not so great. Only once in my life have I been proud of McDonalds. It was because of one of their ads I saw in France: it had several pictures of average looking people, not remarkably dressed, with a caption that read “come as you are.” In the middle of France, this advertisement was the mark of an American value.
I can list off things that make me feel more American, yet what really matters are not so much these details, but the assurance I have gained from the experience. I feel more in touch with being an American. This is not something I can explain, but a sentiment of identity (sometimes mixed equally with pride and shame) of the place where I come from.
I believe that what it feels like to come from the United States cannot be learned until one has actually come from the United States, and gone somewhere else. This part of my identity has been one of my best lessons this semester.