I spent the past year and a half in intensive French class, in a classroom that acted as a patchwork quilt of countries. I learned the language with people who were very different from me. People who had never even seen one episode of the Daily Show or Desperate Housewives or Mad Men. People who preferred veggies to cheese and chocolate.
How the f was I ever going to find Common Ground?
Some of my fellow immigrants (the term applies loosely to me, I know this) hailed from the kind of countries where food is a luxury. And there I was with my Honda CRV and Betsey Johnston wallet. They weren’t learning French for funsies; they had to do it to get jobs, so that they could feed their families.
I have never met more beautiful, humble people. I say that without an ounce of exaggeration. Or naiveness. People suck all over. I get that. My classmates didn’t suck.
My French teacher lectured me long before the first day.
“They are not you. They are immigrants, but it’s not the same. They are refugees. You live here by choice. You’re not struggling. We have people here from everywhere. You have to be very respectful. It is not hard for you. You understand?”
I nodded when she said it but left her office defensive.Who was she to tell me that I’ve never struggled? I was raised by a single mom with five kids in a house with only one bathroom in a neighborhood where garbage bags blew down the street like tumbleweeds. Sure, I could walk to 7-11. But you should have seen the dandelions springing up from the sidewalk cracks! The chain-link fences! Those mean boys who hurled rocks and insults at us.
She was 100% correct, that’s who she was.
But it’s ok because I never offend or pretend. I break down cultural barriers by sharing Swedish Fish and asking people about themselves, then just listening. I am deeply fascinated by other places. I don’t assume. My initial inhibitions abated the first week when I realized they were JUST like ME.
They found French hard
They liked talking about cute boys and girls
They had trouble meeting people in Quebec
They struggled with the long winters
Some of the other Canadians and American classmates radiated first-world arrogance and pity:
I’ve been everywhere, so I know your culture
I know we’re all struggling here…let me throw you a quarter
Your country needs to do XYZ to be like us
Random complaint about the US job market around people who had homes with thatch roofs and dirt floors
I am over-sensitive to assholery. A few things I’ve learned about how to treat people, people from far-off lands, or different cultures, whether you’re in their land or they’re in yours.
Cultural Guidelines Abroad & At Home
1. Don’t Condescend
We’ve all met the “condescender” before. He’s the guy who introduces himself by his degree or his MENSA membership. “Howard Jones, MBA, Harvard nice to meet you.” He automatically assumes he’s the smartest in the room. Especially when he’s in a room full of people who don’t speak English very well. Because it’s only like their second or third language.
You’re probably richer, definitely more insecure, but not necessarily smarter. The sooner you realize this, the better.
A truly smart person realizes they have a lot to learn. And that they can learn from anyone.
Strike up a conversation with your Algerian cab driver. You might find out he was a doctor. Or your doorman who once worked in advertising until he got sick of selling his soul. Or the housewife next door who used to be a nurse in the army.
Or my friend Sawtan (yes, it’s pronounced kind of like Satan), a refugee who has lived all around Southeast Asia and is the most gentle soul I’ve ever known. He has no money. He left school early (around 12 – I think). But he has experiences. He speaks five languages. How many do you speak, Howard Jones, MBA?
When exploring the globe, avoid going on and on about yourself and your country. You’ll talk so much, you won’t absorb anything. Be Magellan, not Columbus. Everyone has a story. Everyone is valuable.
2. If everyone takes their shoes off, take your shoes off.
A Pakistani woman once invited The Husband and I into her home for dinner, which would be fine but she was a complete stranger. We were dropping off my sister at her friend’s house and planning to go to McDonald’s. She pleaded with us to stay.
Typical Americans, we resisted until we were inveigled by a bubbling pot of lentils. Our fear of imposition almost caused a major cultural faux-pass. She had been cooking for two-straight days.
Learn the cultural norms and abide by them. In Napal, it’s appropriate for men as friends to hold hands with each other but it’s not appropriate for couples to display affection. So in my French class, the teacher gave double-cheek kisses to everyone but the Napalese men.
One could argue that they should do the double kiss because they’re in Quebec and them’s the rules, but she made it optional. Because she understood and didn’t want to press her culture upon them. If you don’t know whether you’re making someone uncomfortable, just ask.
3. But Don’t Be That Girl
I liked you better as Gwen, Riot Grrl from Orange County, not Gwen as an Indian
who likely has never been to India
Embrace cultural norms, but don’t pretend you are that culture. I call it transcultural. I hate it when people swear they’re really French and start telling me about their 2 weeks in France and how the French people feel about the Hollande election and how I could never understand the struggles of a French person born into an American’s body.
I find this especially annoying when they’re sitting next to a person FROM FRANCE.
I find this especially annoying when the person changes cultures the. next.week. Trans-trans- cultural.
There’s nothing worse than a vanity tika on a white chick with a yoga topknot. Don’t do it. Unless you actually know/believe what it means. Nobody likes a late-nineties Gwen Stefani. (Side Note: If you have the sudden urge to comment that it’s a bindi not a tika, go ahead but I already know).
Stop trying too hard. What’s with the need to adopt a persona? I have always been that awkward American girl with the crooked tooth who talks too much when she’s nervous and who gets lost in the tiniest details. This is me.
I am not Quebecoise. But I’ll let loose the occasional “tabernac.” If you want more specific details on international travel and cultural awareness, this is your blog.
May 18, 2012 at 3:42 am
Spot-on. I live in a 3rd world country and the “Your country needs to do XYZ” remark is really bad. Worse is when First World Man assumes that my countrymen agree with him because they say nothing (when it’s really just the language barrier) and goes on and on…
May 18, 2012 at 4:52 am
Agreed. I pretty much avoid any political discussions unless it’s a person I know very well. I try to let them teach me about their culture rather than showing what I know. Also, as an American I’ve definitely got the “you need to do this…” “Americans are all so__(usually fat!)”- it instantly makes me defensive so I avoid that kind of commentary about other cultures.
May 26, 2012 at 7:19 am
I like the ‘be Majellan not Columbus’ – nifty turn of phrase! Arrogance about anything gives me the irrits and people lording over others when they have no idea of their background is the worst. It sounds as though your class was a great experience!
May 26, 2012 at 6:06 pm
Thank you! And yes, I don’t get why this is so hard for people to figure out. It was a great class and prompted me to volunteer at an organization here in Seattle that helps refugees.