Well, my too-relaxing final ten days in Angers have come to a close, and I'm off to the airport to fly home. I have a habit of going through possible scenarios, so that I'm prepared for any situation. I feel totally prepared for departure, and leaving doesn't intimidate me one bit. But arriving... that still hasn't sunk in yet. I know where I'm meeting my parents, and I know my basic schedule over the next few days, but I'm not prepared for how being home will feel. I'm ready to deal with the physical part of being home, but the mental part? I'm not quite there.
At the end of my exchange year in Russia (2005-2006) I filled out a sort of questionnaire that I'd written, to try to prepare myself for reverse culture shock. When you move to a foreign country, you experience a short honeymoon period where you love everything and everything's interesting, then you fall into culture shock, where you miss everything about home, feel out of place, and can literally get sick from the unease of living in a different cultural context. However, with preparation, culture shock doesn't have to be too bad.
When you go home, you follow the same type of pattern: everything's great for a while, and then you crash into reverse culture shock. It's often worse than culture shock, since you don't expect it. No one thinks that they'll be ill at ease at home, but it happens. After coming back from Russia, I wanted to throttle a grocery store cashier because of the way she bagged our groceries (she put one or two items in each bag, but in Russia I was used to stuffing bags as full as possible, since they cost money too). Reverse culture shock takes you by surprise, and it's a strange thing. It is my theory that the exchange student can prepare him or herself for reverse culture shock by examining their time abroad, trying to anticipate what differences they'll see, and reflecting on their personal culture. So that's what I do.
Questions for the departing study-abroader
As I leave, what am I thinking?
I'm trying to answer the question, "Would I want to live in France again?" I love France for a lot of reasons: I love the history, the way towns feel, I love seeing France. I like the food, although since I have a budget it usually comes from my own kitchen. I really liked singing in the cathedral choir, and I like most of the people I met. However, there's a side of French culture that's somehow dark, and after only a few months it started to grate on me. I miss seeing people talk loudly in the streets. I miss people giving compliments, even to strangers. I miss seeing people wearing ultra-casual clothes. I miss smiling at, and being smiled at by, strangers (the French reaction to a stranger's smile is to wonder what's wrong with their appearance). I miss a lot of things about American culture, and although I got by, I'm not sure if I'd want to "get by" full time.
What did I get out of this year?
I can understand French as well as I understand English, I've learned how to cook a lot of stuff, I've learned a lot about myself and what I want (however cheesy that sounds), and I've gotten very good at filling dead time, thanks to my light course load.
How will life be different at home?
I'll be a lot busier! I was so frustrated by the French university system, since the courses were too easy (although whether this is due to the faults of the system or my own merit, I don't know), there was almost no homework (the system for sure), and almost no extracurricular activities. I couldn't work, I lived off-campus (there is no on-campus option), and social opportunities were limited. At home, I'll be back to my wonderful 30-hour days and sleep-deprived nights, and I can't wait! [Note: when, six months from now, I'm complaining about having a lot of homework and barely enough time for the five choirs I'm in, remind my how happy I should be.]
How am I different as a result of living in a(nother) different culture?
I think that while I was in Russia, most of what I noticed was what was different. Now, I tend to notice why things are different.
How good of a traveler am I?
I'm an excellent traveler. I can navigate airports, train stations, and subway and bus networks without a problem. I can follow a map, if there's good signage and I have some time to study it. However, talented though I may be, I have terrible travel luck. I've had something go wrong on nearly every trip. Thankfully, it's gotten to the point where I find it all hilarious and I somehow look forward to seeing what'll go wrong next! If nothing else, it'll make a good story for the blog :)
Describe France in exactly 25 words.
Centuries of history bring natural pride, but also fear of frightening and confusing change. It takes the heart time to modernize. Lots of bread, wine.
What aspects of France would I like America to adopt?
The French are good at remembering to bring their reusable bags to the grocery store. There are still lots of little, independent stores. There are farmers' markets all year round, not just in the summer (however, the climate easily permits this). People spend a longer time to eat a smaller amount of food, since life isn't as rushed. There's a high speed rail network that's on time 99% of the time (however, the country's smaller and the tickets cost a lot, so there are downsides).
What aspects of America would I like France to adopt?
People are very business minded. When there's a problem, people instantly start seeking a solution. Grocery stores and pharmacies are open on Sundays and at night. Milk is sold in large containers. You can buy sour pickles. People smile at each other a lot, and are more overt with their feelings, which are often very welcoming and warm. Public transportation and cell phones are more reasonably priced. There are lots of comedies and kids' movies made. And don't get me started on the educational system... I would choose America's any day.
What can be done to improve the image of Americans abroad?
I recently saw a commercial for a new morning TV slot of the "best of" American reality TV: the channel was advertising shows like "Elimidate" and "the Bachelorette" as the "best of" American TV! America is built on business, and exporting our media is certainly profitable. However, the rest of the world doesn't realize that a lot of what they're getting is considered junk on our side of the Atlantic. People think that Americans are stupid, egocentric, crass and vulgar. Given the media we share, this isn't surprising. The only European films that become "mainstream" in the States are the artsy type, like American independent films. If we tried to share only the good sides of American culture, maybe the good would be believed.
Another, more difficult problem is the difference in cultures. If Americans go abroad and act like Americans, they won't be received well. Europeans just aren't as open and extroverted in public. If you come to Europe and try to blend into the woodwork and turn on the ultra-polite side of your personality all the time, you're on the right track. Europeans don't realize that Americans are boisterous because of culture rather than rudeness, and Americans don't realize that when they try to be friendly in this way they're making matters worse.
What are the most striking aspects of culture I noticed, both good and bad?
Good: Humor is a lot more intellectual. Getting in a clever, cutting remark is still a respected talent, the sign of a quick mind.
Bad: People are very self-conscious, and it rubs off. After living in France for a while, you really do start to worry more about the way people see you.
What will I miss the most?
Whether people realize it or not, they're a lot more in touch with history here. America is very focused on the future, whereas France is more strongly rooted in the past. Neither's bad, and I won't mind the American mindset, but it's nice to feel a stronger connection to history.
My favorite to figure out: How many miles have I traveled, as the bird flies?
I rounded up by about 75 miles, and got... 25,000 miles. Or about 40,000 kilometers, for any metric readers. Pretty impressive! Of course, I actually covered more distance, since trains and planes don't go in perfectly straight lines. And that's only the big trips.
The cool thing is that, by adding this to the miles traveled during my year in Russia (about 30,000) I figured out that I've traveled as far as the circumference of the earth... more than twice :)
So all in all, am I glad to be heading home?