Preparing for my month long exchange in France began with purchasing plane tickets, arranging accommodations and filling out lots of paperwork. Once this early planning was complete, I was left focusing on how I could prepare myself to live in another culture. I questioned what circumstances I would encounter and how I would be perceived coming from the United States. In an attempt to understand this better, I sat down and talked with my French exchange student, Julie to discuss what I should expect during this exciting adventure. What follows is our conversation...
How do most French people perceive Americans?
“Very proud of their country but not open minded to others. We think Americans don’t understand what’s happening in the rest of the world. How in school you just learn about US History and nothing else. [I later explained that I studied World History in school last year.] Often we imagine American people eating a lot and wasting a lot too.”
How has this view changed for you after being in the US?
“Well I’ve seen that people in your state are not fat, they are very healthy. I didn’t think it would be so environmental, the mentality is very different than what I thought. I really love it. People are so kind and open here. I never expected a place like Oregon to be real.”
How does school in the US differ from school in France?
“School here is much less strict, students seem more interested in their classes because they get to choose them themselves. The people in your classes listen more because the teacher let’s them feel comfortable and relaxed, students don’t feel like they need to be rebel[lious].”
What was the most surprising thing you discovered about how Americans view French people?
“I didn’t realize France had a big influence in America and many Americans wanted to go to France. We are just a little country and America is so big so I didn’t know people here think about France at all.
What do you think I will find most surprising when I’m in France?
“Maybe that it’s so traditional, like we stay a long time when we are eating. Smoking, because not many people smoke here and also the humor with sous entendu. Having dinner longer and later because French people enjoy the process of eating. La bise will be strange for you the first time, I think. Also, when we have meals we always do a toast with each person at the table and make eye contact with them. It’s very special.”
After talking with Julie, I began to realize the importance of separating stereotypes from reality. I wondered, are all Americans really close minded? Although some may consider her preconceived notion of the US as accurate, it doesn’t represent the complexity of our culture. It leaves out the most important part, which is the positive part of the United States. As our conversation continued, I realized stereotypes were almost always negative. They don’t balance both sides of a culture but emphasize what Americans don’t express our iconic pride for. In an attempt to fully embrace my experience in France, I’ve decided I’ll need to clear any stereotypes I have and start fresh. By doing this, I’ll be ready for every new adventure and can approach them with an open mind. In this way, I can return from France and spread a new perspective of this country's rich and deeply unique people. And just maybe by doing this, I can begin to reshape my stereotypes into an authentic view of all the magnificent cultures I will encounter.