23 March 2013

"La France. Le pays du fromage." - Culture Shock 101

The Local University Library - (that I've never stepped foot in)

 
             While living in France as a student, I was asked to write a paper for a sociology class describing my personal experience of French culture and comparing it to my experience of American culture. It had to be written in French and I am no Victor Hugo. My great opening line was, "La France. Le pays du fromage, des baguettes, et des cigarettes." France. The country of cheese, bread, and cigarettes. I never let my husband (then-boyfriend) read the whole thing because it was terribly embarrassing, but he did manage to get a glimpse of that first line once and has been teasing me about it ever since.
              When I wrote that paper, I remember thinking that I'd gotten over the worst of the culture shock at that point and was pretty well adjusted to my new environment. Nine months as a student in a foreign country pretty much makes you an expert, right? Those steps of culture shock that they tell you about in that mandatory pre-study abroad seminar on campus? Well, I thought I'd  passed them all with flying colors:




The "Honeymoon" Phase


For me, this was characterized by eating chocolate croissants pretty much everyday and daydreaming about that hunky French guy who hardly spoke English. By the way, he's my husband now :). I also spent a large part of this time hanging out with other American exchange students.



Frustration/Feeling Stuck Phase
a.k.a The "I just want a freakin' jar of real peanut butter," phase

These were the toilets in the woman's restroom at my university.  Yep... You have to squat.

The language abilities just weren't there yet. I had a lot of acquaintances, but no one that I'd known long enough to consider a friend. I also didn't know how to cook anything, because a lot of food ingredients are different (I'll post on that later), and finding good Mexican food was difficult. After a solid 3 months of filling out paperwork, I had my bank account, a phone, tons of random insurance policies, and an internet connection - yet all of these things were super crappy. I didn't want to go home, but I was really frustrated and couldn't see how things would get better. 



The "Acceptance" Phase


Towards the end of my year abroad I remember feeling that I had fully arrived to this point. The French people were wonderful. The circle of people I could count on was expanding. Communication became more fluent, and the reasoning behind the French way of thinking became more clear. In a few months I would be going home, and I realized I would really miss the people here.




What They Don't Tell You


You see that little man face planting it? This is how you will feel some/most days for a couple of months.


Moving to a different country for a short time period (2 years or less) is entirely different than moving to a different country with the intention to stay there for the rest of your life. When you come as a foreign exchange student you are exotic, world educated, and can maybe charm a few people with your little american accent. When you come for a longer period of time, you are an immigrant. You are a burden for employers tax-wise, your diplomas and job experience count for nothing, and you get really sick of being misunderstood all the time. You have wonderful new friends and get attached, but realize that they will never replace the old.

It's easy to arrive at the "acceptance" phase at the end of a study abroad experience, because, hey, you're going home in a few months. This makes putting up with the bull crap a lot easier and gives you time to sorrowfully reflect on the fact that you will no longer be surrounded by all those delicious pastries in a few months. Moving to another country, with the intention of staying there your entire life is a whole different experience.

In my experience, the only way to get over this is to stopping trying to find replacements in the new country for what you had before in America. Accept that you're starting everything over. Learning to do things the French way will be hard, and you may feel like an idiot while trying, but you'll end up saving yourself from turning into a bitter ex-pat.

Example: I spent a really long time trying to cook the same way I do in America. This resulted in lots of tears and several months of eating cereal for dinner after abandoning the attempt. The ingredients and brands here are often different. So get a French cookbook or ask a French friend for a good recipe, but most importantly accept that you're starting over. This is the secret to a happy transition.

I'm not saying you should give up on ever making a real American cheesecake again, or that you should do anything that might diminish your American charm, but learning how they do things here will save you a lot of time and money.

For anyone who's lived in a foreign country, can you relate? Any tips for people in the feeling "stuck" phase?

2 comments:

  1. Oh goodness, I can totally relate. My "pre-abroad seminar" identified the phases of homesickness as 1) Honeymoon 2) Horror 3) Humor 4) Home. I can pick experiences in foreign countries that have fit all four of these. Sometimes arriving at the "home" (as in you consider your new country like home) phase is really difficult.. and sometimes "horror" lasts a lot longer than you hoped it would. I found it best to always keep looking ahead to "humor" and trying to make myself laugh at each situation. Culture shock is just that- a huge shock, but that doesn't mean you can't laugh at it!

    Great post :)

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  2. Peanut butter!!!!!!!!! I can definitely relate. Why all the love for nutella and none for peanut butter? I miss all things peanut butter.

    On an equally serious note, I agree with trying to maintain your old ways and trying to embrace doing things differently. I completely conquer on the cooking front and I found baking frustrating, but I also discovered some things turned out better. Bonus! I also gave up on finding a gym like the one I loved at home, it's not as much part of the culture here, so I'll get my sweat on differently instead of getting bummed because I can't find what I had.

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