Why We’re Different and Why We’re The Same.

I’m not a fan of globalization however it has become evident to me why the United States would so forcefully assert itself on the rest of the world; our identity as American is confusing and doesn’t evoke any one convenient image.

But maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m just insecure about being American. I don’t know if apple pie is a good depiction of the United States as a whole. Baseball, maybe, but only because I can’t really think of other countries where baseball is a thing. However even now baseball feels like an archaic American symbol. Hot dogs? No. Let’s move away from food and sports. Hollywood? Sure, and it least that is getting at what being American really is; an attitude.

The only “American” thing I can think of an attitude. We can’t claim cuisine or physically demanding games or a certain clothing or a certain religion. We have them all. We have every food, every sport, every type of clothing, every religion, every thing.

I’m a little bit of a nationalist although really it goes against my beliefs. In my life I’ve held nationalistic feelings for countries that I am not a citizen of. Norway, France, Canada. In the same way that my identity as someone from New Jersey has perplexed me for years, my ability to see myself as American and feel American has only been possible because I don’t live there right now.

For the past two years I’ve lived among the French people, their complex psyches and rules and bureaucracy. My proudest days, when I move smoothly around the Parisian metro, I have two copies of all the required documents, French words come quick and easily to my tongue, my scarf doesn’t look stupid. My weakest days, when I trip on the metro steps, I accidentally speak English or mess up French words and conjugations, I get held up by endless paperwork, my outfit isn’t chic or well thought out.

I reflected on my seven months as a teacher in Angoulême during my morning class on Thursday. Because I study comparative literature, I get to take one class in English, and right now that class is 20th century American literature. There are maybe 15 people in the spacious room where we meet; all French, except me. The professor, perfectly bilingual, switches between the two languages, speaking English and French in almost equal amounts. Each meeting one of the students presents on a theme in one of the novels we’re reading. In accented English they speak rapidly and correctly, diving into literary analyses of the tragic endings to an O’Connor story.

I listen intently. I take notes on the content of their presentations, but also their English. As a language teacher and language nerd I’m fascinated by how people speak and what kinds of mistakes they make, or don’t make. 

That Thursday, I realized something greater than our grammatical divisions. The culture chasm, physically the Atlantic Ocean, appeared wide before me. After each presentation there is silence and a brief comment by the professor. And then the next presentation commences, and it finishes with the sound of pencils scratching and chairs being adjusted.

Every time, and I’ve not been able to shake the impulse, I want to clap. A French person just spoke for thirty minutes straight in a foreign language! They did a good job! Celebrate! Every presentation I’ve ever done in the United States finished with clapping; no matter how bad you fucked up, the clapping was there. You finished. Some people were actually listening and are clapping at your conclusion, for others it’s a sign to wake up from daytime reverie.

I thought about Angoulême because of what was said to me when I started that job, “You are not just teaching English. You are bringing American culture and positive reinforcement to these kids.”

The more time I spend in the French school system, and the more French students I get to know, the more French school culture has been explained to me. Watching seven year old children write in a strict cursive, on an intense paper that is a mixture of regular writing paper and graph paper, I thought was odd. 

I rarely saw stickers on highly marked tests. No “congratulations you’re improving!” or “that’s wrong but thanks for trying!” And no clapping. 

It’s not a secret that every single one of us functions differently. I know in my life I have benefitted from negative reinforcement, and been hindered by constant positivity. But the confusing gray cloud that surrounded my thoughts on that day wouldn’t go away. So I went to a party.

In an apartment near Bastille I spent an evening with a Danish person, a French person, two Americans, and an Italian person. Suddenly our similarities were the only thing that I could perceive. We played a ridiculous game, we mimed, we asked stupid questions, and of course we laughed a lot. We argued about who the most attractive celebrity man is. Or rather, we agreed (Ewan McGregor).

But then we did argue about others, and we laughed because it is very silly to argue about the physical beauty of celebrities. And so we argued about the French language, and the Spanish language, and school, and movies. And we laughed and I felt happy and foolish. Foolish for ever thinking that differences between me and the culture I live in could ever feel so vast.

I’ve wanted to be a real world hippie. No countries, no divides. Why should we argue about such silly things? Let’s be people. Let’s be friends. In those moments in that apartment near Bastille, transcending cultural and linguistic divides happened so smoothly and so sweetly.

But I can’t ignore the times I’ve felt out of place, and I can’t spend my whole life not understanding who I am or where I come from. I want to feel confident about my origins, and confident about my crazy, positive-reinforcing teaching style.

So I will go to more parties, and talk to more people. Our differences exist and our same-ness exists, and at the end of the day Ewan McGregor is still one amazing looking man.


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