I’ve become very interested in the cultural divide between French and Americans: how we perceive each other stereotypically and how that plays out in daily life. French people are lazy and hostile, Americans are stupid and self-absorbed, blah blah blah.
I often get asked where I’m from: the UK? Australia? The Netherlands?, as my accent in French is difficult to place. When I reply that I’m American, I’ve noticed that a lot of cultural baggage–most of it not positive–becomes attached to me. Upon hearing my response, the French person usually grimaces slightly–maybe even giving me a subtle look of pity. Then there’s a flash of wonder that we managed to have that back-and-forth tout en français.
As unsettling as this reaction to America can be, I understand why it happens: I read the news and I see some of the shouty, insensitive tourists my country exports. I get it. It’s okay. I’m happy to make an effort to show you that we’re not all flag-waving, gun-toting prudish monsters.
At the same time, I’ve also seen a lot of the French stereotypes playing out in real time. Do I think the French are actually lazy? No, but I can certainly see where the notion could come from as I wait 5 minutes for one cashier to stop gossiping with another. Do I think all French people are rude? No, but I have, in fact, nearly been reduced to crying in a grocery store.
The fact is, stereotypes exist for a reason. Each culture has its own rules and expectations, most of which are deeply (and, arguably, unconsciously) embedded in its people from early childhood onwards. When traveling in a different country, with its different set of rules, it’s pretty likely that we’ll break at least one of them during our stay. And thus stereotypes are born–not always to judge another culture, but sometimes to re-emphasize one’s own.
But what can you do? We’re all a product of our cultures, like it or not. For an expat, there’s a fine line to walk between conforming to your host culture and losing your identity. Most of us end up in between: even if outwardly we speak a different language or wear certain clothes, there will always be parts of us that are irrevocably from our own culture. How we make friends, how we communicate, how we fall in love, how we raise our children. We can try to learn all new ways, but I’m not certain we can 100% succeed in that. Besides, what’s the fun in that?