My trip to France with the Institute of International Studies this summer has proved to be a very memorable one. Throughout the spring semester, I was not quite sure what to expect of the forthcoming journey of one month in France, even though I had spent almost two weeks with the Literary Paris program almost two years before, I expected there to be some differences in the two experiences. I knew I would be taking intensive French classes with French professors and living on my own, whereas on the previous trip, all of my instruction was from one American teacher and we shared hotel rooms. In Orleans, people in the MSSU group would be split up into varying groups depending on their level of French and I looked forward to meeting other students from other places. I knew it would be much more immersive in culture and language and also more challenging for me as I would be living in French society rather than being a mere tourist, and for this, I was excited.
Upon arriving in France via Paris, I found it to be the beautiful, multi-dimensional, vast city that I had remembered it to be two years before and was grateful to have more chances to discover all her possibilities. I somehow found my way to the Pompidou museum of modern art, a place I had always wanted to see, and there I found a Kandinsky exhibit along with feminist inspired art. Examining the art pieces here, I spent a lot of time pondering the idea of art itself; what it meant to me, how I define it, how other people perceive it, and its effects. I remember spending a lot of time in the Minimalist section, staring at three white canvases and going through many emotions. Art and inspiration of the past and present are things that France will always offer to the world, and I find that one of her most appealing qualities. Being from Joplin, Missouri, there’s not a large, exposed artistic community and I feel that local artists or even people with any interest in it really have to struggle to find accessible platforms for artistic input or expression. Also, after viewing several documentaries on the world-wide underground graffiti community, I was quite pleased to have seen the famous graffiti art of Paris lining the streets and buildings in certain areas.
Academically, I found the classes at Universite d’Orleans to be very challenging but quite effective and helpful. The differences between the French and U.S. educational systems were quite apparent. I also thought it was strange we had coffee and smoke breaks, but that’s the French. The madness of the French final exams seemed to be quite harrowing on many students, especially some who I met at the residences. One friend had failed his exams and was studying to re-test, but also making himself manic with sleep-deprivation. Sometimes, I had the impression that we, the students in the program- almost all Americans, were giving our French professors and our host families the wrong impressions of Americans. For example, many students were very late to class almost every day, some were extremely impatient, frustrated, and mouthy, some made little attempts at communicating in French, and some were just plain rude. On the tram, groups of American students would congregate and talk so loudly with complete disregard to anyone else and I found it to be quite embarrassing.
I also became more aware of how young Americans butcher the English language and completely lack any sort of eloquence. I sympathized with those French who gave a blank stare at any question posed by some people in the Orleans group, not because they didn’t understand and speak English, but because they couldn’t understand the weird English we speak. We populate our fragmented sentences with “like”, “um”, “y’know”, and strange sayings that our generation is notoriously known for, such as, “Oh-em-jee!” (omg- oh my gosh), and in my group, “S’riously? Like, freagin’ s’riously!” Not to mention the rapidness of some girls’ high-pitched, incoherent chatter. It started to bug me to a point that I lost my cool and confronted a girl about it. I asked her why she spoke in such a strange manner and that the French probably get the wrong idea of what English should sound like. She replied that she didn’t know what I was talking about. I have always been one to really fight against stereotypes, but it seemed as if we were the epitome of every bad American generalization; loud, arrogant, dumb, and lazy. And when it came to the French, initially it seemed as if all of their bad stereotypes were also true; they spend all day greeting each other, eating, and smoking cigarettes. To my disdain, I met many people who fit the “French don’t bathe and smell really gross” stereotype, which really intrigued me. Being a bit of an obsessive-compulsive bather, I could not understand how people could go about their day smelling like dirty gym socks, but I came down with the conclusion that it’s just their culture that finds that smell acceptable, maybe it’s even desirable. I had to come up with my own reasoning as I was too afraid to ask French person of the matter. Other Americans describe the same issue in their French homes. However, this didn’t get in the way of meeting new people.
Of course, I re-learned what I have always known, that stereotypes exist out of some-sometimes very little-truth and that there are always exceptions. Many French people assumed that I was Chinese, which is something that I complain about in the U.S., yet in France it was much more prevalent, but I guess assuming most Asians are Chinese is probably a common practice in the Western world. Even the Chinese-French thought I was Chinese. When most young French persons learned that we were Americans, they said one of three things, “I love McDonalds,” “I love Coca-Cola,” or “Michael Jackson is dead!” The death of an American icon while one is not in America is strange. I remember the day I found out Michael Jackson had died I didn’t quite know what to think. I was not surrounded by the sensationalized media images of controversy or glorification, and if I had been, I didn’t notice. I thought about it and decided that I was saddened by the news. Though he had become a bizarre symbol of freak in the recent years, Michael was such a fixation in pop-culture in American society and, in my eyes, the perfect representation of my generation’s loss of Disneyland-childhood innocence in the age of new media. His death almost gave me some weird sense of cultural pride, because what could be more American than Michael Jackson?
The more I got to know my peers on this trip, the richer my understanding of others, society, and culture became. For example, I met a young man in the program who ostentatiously came off as that loud, lazy, dumb American. Through the weeks, I came to know him on a much deeper, personal level, proving himself to be a very intelligent and insightful person, and ultimately, he became one of my best friends on this trip. One thing I admired about the program is that I was constantly surrounded by diverse, energetic people who were always aiming and reaching for something more, and for me that is positive energy to feed off of. Some students had been backpacking through Europe for weeks before coming to Orleans, some were graduate students, one man was working and close to being an astronaut, and one woman had sold her house and was traveling Europe with her poodle. I found it really inspiring that all of these bright, young people on amazing life adventures had all been brought together for just a moment, and we could all feel how special it was. It was so wonderful being around others who share a joy for learning, not just French but about the world in general through experience, and a need to evolve spiritually and mentally. My favorite saying was, “Let’s go.”
I was really amazed by how much different people bonded in such a short amount of time. I feel that I have more compassion for those who are much more different than I, and even eager to know their stories and to share mine with them. I also feel more independent as a citizen of the world, and that traveling anywhere I want is an open possibility. Also, I am conscious of how I speak English now that I understand communication barriers more, and aim to speak better. My experience in Orleans will remain as a fun, mind opening, learning experience I will keep for a lifetime.
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