On Being a Cultural Ambassador

It boggles the mind but is true: my position as an English Teaching Assistant in France has officially ended. As I reflect back on the school year, there’s one topic I realize hasn’t been given its due — what it’s like to serve as a “cultural ambassador” of sorts for the good old US of A.

When I applied for the Teaching Assistant Program in France, this was an aspect of the job description that gave me pause. I was certain that I could handle instructing English, but “sharing my culture”? I was a bit less confident.

Could I “share” my culture in a less than superficial way? Was I allowed to share negative aspects of it? What did “my culture” mean anyway: my individual perspective or some nationally recognized narrative about the US?

Would I even be credible as a representative American?

Me with apple pie

I thought walking around with apple pie might help my case.

It turns out I needn’t have worried. Over the course of the school year, there have been plenty of opportunities for cultural exchange. The students were surprisingly receptive to my whackadoodle lesson plans, from singing Katy Perry in unison (picture a classroom of French youth screaming “make’em go oh oh oh!” — ’cause that happened) to analyzing conflict resolution techniques in The Avengers.

Still, it wasn’t all pop stars and superheroes. Here are some of the cultural challenges I dealt with while teaching, and how I smashed them with Thor’s hammer (or else fumbled awkwardly through).

~

Challenge 1: Student reticence

Reticent. Taciturn. Laconic. Terse. I could go on, but it appeared my students couldn’t. In general, French young adults are even more hesitant to participate in class than their American counterparts. This is largely due to an educational model which favors lecture-style teaching and insists that teachers are infallible and thus unquestionable.

The idea that the teacher has all the answers and the students have none obviously isn’t very conducive to fostering discussion. But getting the students to speak was my job. What to do? I thought of all the great American teachers I’d had. They were never simply lecturers but also warm conversationalists who treated students as equals.

I tried to apply this highly un-French model to my classes. But first, I had to convince the students that contrary to what they’d been led to believe, they had as much to contribute as I did. To this end, I prepared a lesson which involved looking at images from the graphic design blog Paris vs New York — then discussing stereotypes of the two cities, France and the US.

NYC vs Paris, yes and non

One student argued this stereotype was accurate because I smiled more than the French teachers. Immediately after making this point, a grumpy teacher poked his head in to make sure we were in the right classroom. The students burst into laughter. “See?”

It worked. Once they realized I had only half the answers and they had the other half, they were more likely to participate. This lesson – given early in the school year – set the tone for a much more discussion-based method of learning than they were used to.

~

Challenge 2: One-sided “debates”

I quickly discovered that some teachers loved leading débats but their definition of “debate” differed from my own. Some would propose a controversial topic only to  guide all the arguments back to their own personal conclusion (a facet of the teacher-knows-best mentality I described above).

The week after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a teacher asked me to speak to her class about it. I actually thought it would be a good idea to address this horrifying and tragic event with the students. Specifically, she requested that I lead the discussion in the form of a debate about gun control in the US.

Though I have very strong feelings on the topic, I tried not to give any indication of my opinion. At first, I simply elicited reactions from the students, many of whom were confused about why people would want to own guns at all (civilian gun ownership in France is extremely restricted). The teacher, who stayed in the room, nodded enthusiastically at these responses. From time to time, she interjected regarding American policy, “Yes, it’s horrible!”

Seeing as the “debate” wasn’t moving, I tried to push the students to at least consider the other side. Why might people want to own guns? I asked. What negative consequences do people think may result if gun ownership were prohibited or severely restricted?

It was at this point that the conversation could have gotten complex and interesting, but unfortunately, it didn’t. When one lone student started speaking about people protecting themselves, the teacher quickly shut him down. Feeling bad for him, I finally broke my silence to come to his defense — the defense of an argument I didn’t even agree with! The teacher stared wide-eyed as I talked about concerns about criminality, the Second Amendment, and historical precedent.

When the bell finally rang, I was left feeling conflicted. On the one hand, I hadn’t enjoyed making arguments for a viewpoint which I found distasteful days after a national tragedy. On the other hand, my discomfort was assuaged by the fact that I had managed to voice an opinion common to many Americans. There was some merit in that, wasn’t there? After all, advancing understanding of American culture – which all its diverse and difficult aspects – had been one of my goals.

angry pacifist at occupy wall st

America, how do I explain you?

~

Challenge 3: The “French Exception” mindset

France — fields of lavender in the countryside, ornate monuments in the Capital, haute cuisine, a plush social safety net, and the birthplace of some of the most brilliant artists, writers, and thinkers in human history… How do they do it? Even the French don’t know. Here’s where the nebulous concept of “French exceptionalism” comes in.

Everyone’s familiar with the stereotype that the French are snooty and supercilious. Well, let’s dismantle that right now. Generally, if you’re friendly and considerate, attempt a few words of the language, and don’t stand in the middle of the street snapping photos of pastry displays (guilty as charged), you’ll get no Franco-flak.

Nonetheless, it seems the idea of French exceptionalism is woven into the national psyche in some way. I encountered this mindset during a lesson when I assisted a teacher in leading another débat about “copycat tourism” — that is, when one country builds a “copy” of another country’s famous monument to attract tourists (think Las Vegas or Disney World Epcot Theme Park).

copycat vegas eiffel tower

Indulging in some copycat tourism in Vegas. Whateeeevs.

Again, this was a completely one-sided debate. I was surprised at how fiercely defensive the students were of French monuments and aspects of their cultural heritage in general. No one could replicate the beautiful artifacts of France (and other European countries), they insisted. No one should replicate them.

That’s an understandable way to feel, I replied. But could anyone think of a single reason why copycat tourism could be advantageous or attractive?

Crickets.

“Has anyone been to Vegas?” I asked.

“Yes!” squealed one girl. “It was amazing!” We all laughed.

“Okay, so you had fun. But did the entertainment in Vegas take away from the historical beauty of Paris?” I probed. “Do you think someone who sees the Eiffel Tower in Vegas would no longer wish to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris? Isn’t it possible that a tourist in Vegas would wonder what Paris was really like and want to come here even more?”

The students were silent as they reflected.

“Who’s been to Disney World Paris?” I inquired.

“I love Disney World,” shouted another girl. “I go there every month!”

“Great!” I responded. “But you know that Disney World is a famous American attraction right? Do you think it’s really so bad to have a ‘copy’ of it here?”

Ultimately, the students and I were able to put together a balanced list of the advantages and disadvantages of copycat tourism. Again – though my personal view actually aligned with that of my students – I was glad to have been able to push them to see the other side. Perhaps it was okay for others to mimic France a little. And perhaps France had done a little mimicking of its own.

~

Today, I am writing from the United States. I’m happy to report that I have accepted  a job offer as an International Student Advisor at a university in New York City. Though I am a little sad to have left the City of Light, I’m also excited to move on to this next chapter of my life. I look forward to continuing to help international students adjust to American culture, and more specifically, life in the Big Apple.

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20 thoughts on “On Being a Cultural Ambassador

  1. oh my goodness, Steff! I LOVE this entry!!! So great to hear about your interactions with your students – I’m sure they’ll definitely miss you. It’s hard to prefer lecture-style to discussion :p

  2. Did you ever discuss U.S./French cultural differences in terms of classroom behavior/ideology – in both learner and teacher roles? Do you think the French teacher was aware of where you were going (or not going) with the gun discussion? It’s hard to be a cultural ambassador on many levels!

    • Hi Raul. No, we didn’t really discuss differences in educational ideology — just some basic differences in the high school or university systems. I was careful not to venture into that territory with my students because I was working with French colleagues and didn’t want to undermine the way they were used to doing things! I did have some conversations with my colleagues however – about the rigorous national tests that teachers must undergo in France to become licensed. In general, the entire profession of teaching is very structured and there isn’t a whole lot of experimentation with pedagogy.

  3. It’s nice to find this blog randomly while searching topics about Asian social interactions..

    There’s a non-profit I work for that explores this quite a bit through entertainment. I’d love it if you’d take a look at what we do! We have a branch in NY. If you’re ever here please let me know, in September we have a concert but through the year we continue to tackle the questions we face as Asian-Americans.

  4. Stephanie, I just stumbled upon your blog and ended up reading all of your posts because I found your stories and your writing style so captivating. I, too, moved to Paris last fall from New York (UWS high five!) and I resonate with a lot of your hiccups in adjusting to French life.

    I hope you had an incredible experience and that you continue to blog about your life in New York. I am in Paris for another four years and I hope that I will be brave enough to share my experiences along the way as you have.

    • Hey there fellow pond jumper! Wow, Paris for four more years? Bon courage! I’m sure you’ll become much more adept at navigating hiccup-y situations but there will always be those facets of the Parisian lifestyle that amuse, frustrate, and just plain bewilder us. I find blogging to be a really useful way to deal and I hope you do get around to sharing your adventures!

  5. Yes, Yes! What an awesome reflection post, Steff! I’m glad you had a great experience 🙂 Looking forward to reading your new posts.

  6. It is a great post! I randomly came across to your blog and I think it will help me a lot! I’m currently trying to write an essay about being a cultural ambassdor and I’m def in need of help. I’m also trying to get the scholarship of Fulbright. I would like to get your opinion about it more if you have time. Great blog

  7. Hello! I am applying to a few schools as a TEFL certified individual and came across your post. What program did you go through? Could you offer any advice or assistance? Thanks!

    • Hi Andrea, I only went through the CELTA program after already having taught abroad, and it was through a school called Teaching House. Afterwards, since I wasn’t looking to go abroad again, I just applied to a handful of ESL schools in New York City. I eventually landed a job but only for the busy summer season. Later, I was employed by a university as a one-on-one tutor for international students.

      Everyone’s paths look different. If you’re looking to teach abroad, you might want to look at Dave’s ESL Cafe or ask your TEFL certification program for other resources.

      Best of luck!

  8. “Reticent. Taciturn. Laconic. Terse. I could go on, but it appeared my students couldn’t. In general, French young adults are even more hesitant to participate in class than their American counterparts. This is largely due to an educational model which favors lecture-style teaching and insists that teachers are infallible and thus unquestionable.”

    I had never seen France’s educational ‘system’ so well summarized! As a french assistant in Austria, I am perceiving the difference of attitude between austrian and french pupils on a daily basis. I wish our french system wasn’t so locked up, and that the teachers weren’t so distant from there pupils. Especially because I tend to unconsciously replicate this pattern with my students! Like, instinctevely expecting rather quiet classes, or considering I cannot (or rather should’nt) fail in any way as a teacher.

    • Excellent point — it’s a great deal of pressure on the instructor too! I don’t know much about the Austrian educational system but do you find the relationships between instructors and students are more relaxed / less hierarchical?

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