Guest Post by Catherine Perkins
When I left the United States in February for a two month stay in France, I was very prepared. I had a bag loaded with French language resources (a dictionary, a phrase book, a traveler’s guide), and some new cold-weather clothing. Living in Florida my entire life, I’d never had much need for a heavy coat before, but I purchased a lovely blue parka just before I left.
I never once used the language books, and I ditched the parka my first week there (too flashy) in favor of a black coat. So basically, I was totally unprepared.
No matter how much research you do ahead of time, there are some cultural differences that you just can’t prepare for. Table manners, for example. Although I’d read plenty of materials beforehand about the order of meal courses, it wasn’t until I was eating dinner with French people that I realized how differently they held their silverware.
Or one time, after a long day touring Paris (almost completely on foot, mind you), my friend and I stopped for dinner at a restaurant. I ordered water immediately, and had to wait a long time before they brought it out. Once it arrived and he poured me a glass, I gulped down the entire thing in one go. My friend couldn’t have looked any more disgusted than if I’d belched at the table. Apparently sucking down a glass of water like I did (even if you’re really thirsty!) is a social faux pas. How was I to know?
But it wasn’t just etiquette. Everything about France, from the layout of the cities to the mindset of the citizens, was foreign.
When I went, I was expecting I’d have to speak French all the time; I thought I didn’t have a choice. I found that it was very much the opposite. As soon as people realized I was from America, they immediately switched languages. I didn’t have very many opportunities to practice French because everyone around me wanted to practice English! And I’m not talking about a few people here and there, either. I mean everyone: the shopkeepers, waitresses, University students, delivery boys, people selling flowers on the street.
If something like that happened in the United States — if a French person came to visit Florida — the people around him would not be taking advantage of the opportunity to practice a foreign language; they’d be demanding he speak English.
It was cultural differences like these that amazed and sometimes embarrassed me. Truly, the only way to learn about a foreign culture is to experience it firsthand. You can’t be afraid to make mistakes, because you will make mistakes regardless. You’ll discover things that you like and other things that you don’t like; some things will remind you of home and others will leave you completely lost.
Here are a few things I learned:
- If you want to experience a different culture and way of life, try not to have expectations.
- Don’t constantly compare it to what you’re used to, because no matter how much you believe that it can’t be so different, it often will be.
- You probably won’t get the same comforts you’re accustomed to (tiny refrigerators, toilet in a separate room from the sink).
- Take time to really try living as the local people do. Relax and let yourself enjoy each moment. Things will feel different, strange, and foreign, but that should be part of the fun.
Whether you travel, live in, or are moving to a foreign country, I hope you dive in and enjoy the experience of learning about a different culture.
Catherine Perkins capped off her Gap Year with a 2-1/2 month adventure in France. She’ll be heading off to Wheaton College in Massachusetts in the fall to study music and Japanese.
Thanks for sharing your story. I cannot agree more with your point about having no or low expectations.
You can learn some basics on business etiquette and manners before you go but an open and curious mind is far more productive. Most of “locals” around the world forgive mistakes foreigners make and are happy to teach the “right way” as long as you show genuine interest, respect and be non-judgmental.
French are usually perceived as arrogant but they are also very sentimental so tell them that you love them, the food, the wine, the men opening the doors for letting ladies go first, Paris as the most beautiful capital in the world…
Regarding the language I had similar experience in Japan I wanted to practice my Japanese but usually Japanese people don’t expect foreigners to speak Japanese so many times people in the street asked me in English if I needed help with directions while I was reading my map.
The most important point you made is that you cannot just copy and paste your cultural experience to somebody else, you can only share personal stories and then discover that back “home” nobody is really interested to hear things that challenge their perception, cliches, bias and prejudices.
Anne (The Happy French Expat!)
This is a wonderfull site. I’ve been spending the morning just browsing and looking for ways to improve my website and I will definately be comming back here. I have have few questions for you but I’ll ask them a bit later (just got to get through this pile of work first) – Chat Later