It’s raining a little, the thick fog covers everything a few thousand feet beyond the Charles de Gaul Airport, and it’s freezing cold here. Famished. I’m starving. I procure a coffee and a croissant, delicious and much needed after my night flight from Reykjavik, Iceland. Standards might’ve been too high. No sleep on the airplane. This backpack must way two-hundred pounds. I should’ve brushed up on my French. Mass of people. Bustle. How do I get to my train? I wonder if they’ll hate me if they recognize my accent? I’ll ask someone for help anyway. I’m actually in France.
This summer, I had the opportunity to spend the month of June in the French city of Lille as a study abroad participant in an immersion program through UAS. During that time, I was able to take frequent trips to Belgium, make an abundance of new friendships, learn a bit of the culture and a great deal of the language, but most importantly, I learned what it means to be a global citizen.
Two semesters of French class and plenty of advice from friends and family isn’t near enough to prepare you for living abroad in Europe. Maybe spending twenty-two days in Iceland before my summer program in Lille dampened the culture shock, but none-the-less, it is impossible for anyone not to be a fish out of water when studying abroad. With that in mind, the best advice may be simply, “Expect nothing and use the wise digression that you were blessed with.”
While abroad, I learned that there is no book, no article, and no advice that can quite properly equip you as well as simply being adventurous while not being an idiot. And while the differences between being a global citizen and tourist are remarkably vast, it is immeasurably simple to become lax and fall into the generalization of a “stupid American,” that has cultivated distain between both French and US citizens.
Over the course of the month, these are the observations I made from other students and the points that I attempted to abide by to glean the fullest possible cultural experience.
You are an intruder. As a foreigner, there is a fine line between guest and unwanted stranger. In another person’s home, you abide to their wishes and rules. You are respectful. You respect their traditions and beliefs, and show an interest in them. You respect their differences.
As a global citizen, you have an obligation to take interest in the differences and similarities that create other cultures. From the first, you begin as an intruder. We earn our places as global citizens by respect and interest.
Don’t be afraid to speak the native language. While I find it extremely enjoyable to attempt to communicate brokenly, I found many students wary and nervous to fail while communicating with locals. This apprehension, of course, is understandable. However, we have to also understand that it is sign of disrespect to simply expect a person to speak in their non-native tongue to a stranger. Often, a French person will not mind speaking in English, provided that you greet them accordingly and respectfully. More often than not, if you attempt to speak French, they will ask which language you prefer and adjust to match your lingual skill.
Foreigners are humans too. Obvious, yes, but to what extent do we really recognize this as truth? The differences that separate a French person from an American are far slighter than we recognize. What we call strange and separating differences are simply cultural traits that we don’t fully understand. If we take the time to excavate and perceive these traits, it is surprising to find that we are really more similar than recognized.
Don’t judge anything against what you are accustomed too. Different cultures are going to be different. Difference is not wrong; differences are just different. Cultivating stigmas only creates separation and distaste, widening cultural gaps. Being open minded allows for not only an authentic cultural experience, but is a sign of respect and concern for fellow human beings.
I am a person who values authenticity and genuineness. When I arrived at the Charles de Gaul airport for my month long immersion program, I understood that I was a stranger and an invader of the French culture. With that cognizance, I assumed humility, and attempted to maintain it. We should be proud of our cultures; where we are from molds who we are.
As university students, we have a unique opportunity to explore other cultures and learn from our experiences a respect for fellow people and the aspects of their culture that has shaped them. If we refuse to assume humility, we chose to spite those cultures and are so crass as to claim superiority. There are less that separates us as people than we might recognize. Seek out those aspects of culture that separate us and learn to respect.