Vive les Cultural Exchanges!
As an American in France, this situation happened to me often.
"Bonjour." someone says to me.
"Bonjour." I say back clearly showing that I have an accent.
"Vous êtes Anglaise?
“Alors, vous êtes d'où?”
“Louisiane, aux Etats-Unis.”
“Ah, C'est loin!”
Yes, France and the United States are far from each other but it is an absolute necessity to go far to find a different language or country when one is an American. In Louisiana, if one drives 6 hours to the north, English is heard in Arkansas, 4 hours to the west in Texas, English, 3 hours to the East in Mississippi, English. If one multiplies all that driving time by 10, English will still be heard! To be surrounded by cultural richness in the United States, one must get on a plane.
There is a reason that when one goes to study abroad to a different country they are called an exchange student. This reason is that the student will without a doubt participate in social and cultural exchanges with those of the visiting country. These cultural exchanges in the study abroad process with help a person to break stereotypes and biases, have an open world view, and challenge and change their personal beliefs. Well, at least this was my case; let me explain.
All Americans are fat and eat at McDonalds. Many people who have not been to the U.S. think this. All French people smoke. Many Americans who have not been to France think this. The world is better place when stereotypes are proved to be wrong. In a time filled with terrorism and closed-mindedness, a study abroad opportunity gives a person a chance to have a more open, understanding world-view. People are less biased when they have actually had an experience in the country. For example, before leaving for France in 2007 many people told me to be careful because the French do not like Americans. Reality: French people do not like George Bush. Americans are welcomed (just don’t go yelling how much you love Bush and you will be okay!) I would like to thank Obama for helping all Americans to finally stop feeling embarrassed about their President!
One cannot help but compare the visiting society and government to that of their own which in effect brings one to challenge their system. If I were to break my leg today in Louisiana it would cost me thousands of dollars between medical, doctor, and therapy bills. And yes, I do have medical insurance. When I lived in France, I knew someone who had an operation and with the hospital stay, she paid a couple hundred Euros only to be reimbursed later. Now a true comparison that I can make, one of my closest friends had a baby and the hospital fee, not including the doctors, was $2400. If she did not have the money to pay at that moment, she would have had to pay $17,000 over the course of several years. Why is this important? The U.S President is trying to reform the healthcare system and after living in a country (France) where it is a person’s right not privilege to have healthcare coverage, my beliefs have been influenced to agree with those of France. I have direct examples on which to base my beliefs because I lived in a country where it was different.
Lastly, a study abroad opportunity will help someone to have an open world view. The idea of nationalism, being proud of one’s country, has continued to increase in every decade. When someone goes to live in a different country, they learn the effective and ineffective ways of the other country in comparison with their home country. For a personal example, in France, public transportation is not only for people without a vehicle. In the US, most of the time someone takes public transport because they do not have other means. The French are definitely more transport savvy than the US. Another biggie, many French people turn off the water during a shower while they are soaping their body. This makes perfect sense, why let the water run while you do not need it. However, I have not met one American who does this.
Another factor along this idea is that of recycling and how it is so common. The large glass bins on the side of the road, very practical to promote the protection of the environment. These little examples made a big impact on my life after I returned to my homeland. I learned to appreciate the differences of my culture/ country with another and then apply the good from both to my life.
Before going to France, I did not have many expectations or reservations. I think this is key because it opens your mind to learn and closes your mind from disappointment. Let me share with you the immediate impacts France and the study abroad experience had on my life and hopefully this will finally convince you of the importance of such an adventure. 1. Bought a bike and rode to my university that was always 5 kilometers from my house but where I used to drive to each day. (along with the supermarket). 2. Started recycling everything. 3. Started eating wonderful cheese and bread for dinner, which is uncommon in the US. 4. Started eating the salad after the main course. 5. Speak with every foreign person I meet knowing how it feels to be different, ignored, and away from your native country. 6. Started eating more meals outside. 7. Traded old car for a new car that consumed a lot less gas and could fit into any parking space.
These are just 6 of many ways my life changed when coming back from France to America. Today, I am more open, teachable, daring, and willing try new things. I can truly describe France without thinking of one stereotype. My beliefs are more founded in personal experience rather than hearsay and I understand a different part of the world than my own. Every person should take part in some type of cultural exchange to better them self and the world that surrounds them. I hope I have convinced you of this much.
Jamie Lynn Oplt