Sunday, January 31, 2016

On Americanness

My university, for many reasons, feels like a High School. It is far from the massive village feel of an American Campus (no gym, no gigantic bookstore, no nothing, really). During my first week, I felt lost and hopeless, much like I did throughout High School, and I was sure I’d never make any friends. Eventually I have connected with really lovely friends, who seem to always be there to remind me the due date of an assignment or give me the best tips on how to find that one book, written by our superstar professor, that everyone needs to survive this degree.  I am incredibly grateful for the friends who are always checking up, calling and saying, “Are you feeling a little homesick? Let’s go to dinner.”

Most of my friends in France, I met in the U.S. I always saw them as a courageous, interesting bunch; I empathized with them over the grandness yet emptiness of Miami, nodding my head in agreement as I listened to their woes of being in a foreign land where things don’t work as they’re used to, There’s nowhere to go other than the beach! Everything is so expensive! Public transportation sucks! They cried out while I nodded.

With this said, my greatest disappointment in this city has been the constant American bashing I am subjected to—a first for me, as for the 15 years I’ve lived in United States, I never felt American, even when I raised my hand in a courtroom, and even when I got a shiny blue passport.  Moreover, I am rarely extended the same sympathy and support I have given to my French friends, and rather, my disappointment in regards to ignorant questions and the ridiculous situations I find myself in as an American in this city, is met with responses that I find quite rude.

One of the many, many, confusing things about my University here is the fact that despite protesting in the best way I could, I was placed in an English class. “...But I already speak English” I protested, “Mademoiselle, it is not an English class… it’s a communication class in English,” the lady in charge of it explained. In reality, what she meant by “communication” was “conversation,” as every Thursday, I spend an hour and a half of my precious time, listening to people babble on in English. My professor looks like a kind, sweet man,  and he always tries to include me in conversation even though I clearly don’t need to practice my English, but this class has irked me since the moment I set foot in it.

The first semester, we focused on “Britishness” and we communicated on what we thought was British culture. The entire class is structured by presentations and we are free to choose any topic we want: Spice Girls, Monty Python (my topic), The Royal Family. During a political discussion and before I had given away my Americanness by speaking up, I heard one of my classmates say that “Americans were like children… and they needed to be looked after by other countries, such as Canada.” Strike one.

This second semester is about “Americanness” and it is one I’ve been trying to get emotionally prepared for. Last week it was clear that nothing could prepare me for this class.

When you turn on French television, you are very likely to find familiar shows, such as Criminal Minds and The Mindy Project, in French, of course. You can’t go five minutes in a conversation without bringing up popular series such as Scandal, House of Cards, and Orange Is the New Black. When a Burger King opened in Paris, people made the line for hours, and I regularly get Pizza Hut flyers in my mail. American things have exported to France quite well, both the culture and the stereotypes, such as junk food. When people find out I’m from the U.S, their faces light up wow! La classe!  In my mind, American culture is not a foreign concept to the French; after all, there is a slight obsession with New York, the concept of entrepreneurship, and American television.

When I complained that the topics chosen by the kids in my class to describe American culture ranged from Coca-Cola, to outdated films, one of my friends commented that I should look at it from the French side, as they were victims of many clichés. Clichés are inevitable in every culture; the fact that we have an entire academic course to talk about a culture without using a single textbook or any real, tangible, information on the real and not clichéd aspects of American culture just proves this.

To Americans, France is limited to the beachy and sunny southern cities, and of course Paris. When friends and family ask me about Paris, they don’t ask me whether or not the metro smells and waiting staff is rude, they ask me if I read in cafés, if boys are good looking and gallant, if I have picnics by the Seine; surely clichés… but positive clichés, painting Parisian life with the happiest of strokes. When French friends ask me about my American lifestyle, I’m asked things like whether or not I have a gun, or if I will vote for Trump… negative clichés. So to my dear friend, I’m afraid looking at it from the other side doesn’t help much.

During class, I listened in horror at the topics being suggested, and then my professor looked at me and said, "Can you maybe talk to us about the intimate side of American Culture? like cheerleaders and..." I didn't know whether I should scream or cry or do both at the same time. American culture reduced to hollywood, cheerleaders, or the issues we are currently dealing with back at home: The Flint Water Crisis! Gun Control! 

While gun control issues seem quintessentially American, and in a way, they are, I find of the utmost disrespect to describe American culture by these issues. While in France they may be the issues getting the most exposure in the media, for us it’s a painful topic. Innocent people lose their lives every day because of gun violence, including Elementary school children at Sandy Hook, it is painful, saddening, and shameful, and should not be an indication of what the United States and our vast and diverse culture is about. I can guarantee you that no American student is yelling out in class ISLAMOPHOBIA IN FRANCE!!! RACISM!!! When asked what French culture is about.

 How about we talk about topics like:

-       Multiculturalism
-       Broadway
-       Silicon Valley and innovation
-       The rise of young talent and self-produced television shows
-       Humor
-       Cult films
-       The phenomenon of having a dozen Late Night talk shows
-       Classic American Literature (Still read today, btw)
-       The Ivy School System
-       Architecture (from the Manhattan skyscrapers to the Golden Gate Bridge)
-      Art and Graffiti Culture (You guys are familiar with Jeff Koons)
-       Vogue Magazine and American Fashion
-       Hip Hop as a subculture movement in New York City
-       Jazz
-       The American Political System

See? There are things to talk about in American culture besides sugary drinks, gun violence, and our ridiculous political candidates.

I often joke that Paris has made me more American than I’ve ever been, except it’s not a joke but entirely true. I’m not one of those I-was-born-in-Miami-but-my-parents-are-Cuban-and-I-don’t-speak-Spanish types of kids; I moved to the U.S as a teenager and had to learn, along with my very brave parents, how to fit into a country so different from our own.

I was so confused by feeling American that I didn’t apply for citizenship until I was an adult. One day, I was in the post office and overheard some people asking for a passport application, in very broken English. Stepping in to help the couple inquire about the application, I thought, “Why the hell don’t I get my citizenship?” I spoke English, I paid taxes, I was a functioning member of the society, so why not? During the citizenship ceremony where I got my certificate as America the Beautiful played on the speakers, I felt like a total phony, I had no idea what I was doing or if I could truly honor having this citizenship. It is no accident that I have spent the majority of my life immersing myself in French culture, I couldn't see a future in the U.S and I wanted to escape and see how it was elsewhere. 

Today, when I find myself homesick and wishing I could watch football with my dad (although… I’m not a huge fan, it’s the principle), and thinking we are a lot more than just old movies and stereotypes, we are independent, headstrong, hard working, self-made, we have literature! We have film! We have music! And explaining to my puzzled classmates that lots of people in U.S are just like me and emigrated there and became Americans, I start to understand what it all means. 

For the record, no, my family does not own a gun, I do speak other languages than English, and no, I will not vote for Donald Trump.

PS: Julie Delpy does a great job playing with American and French stereotypes. And for some current American culture references extending beyond the Kardashians, watch Master of None