“Follow Your Passion”: Yay or Nay?

I’ve gotten myself into a bit of a bind. Somehow, I – notorious dilettante and former student of eleven academic departments – am teaching a course this semester on exploring careers and selecting majors for undecided freshmen and sophomores.

img_5037

Should I upload this selfie onto the Blackboard site?

And I’m concerned. Not because the syllabus needs retouching or I’m having trouble deciding which pirate version of the Myers-Briggs to administer (for what it’s worth, I’m also eyeing Buzzfeed’s “What Should Your College Major Be Based On Your Food Choices” quiz) — rather, I’m concerned about my somewhat embarrassing buy-in to that largely debunked dictum: follow your passion.

Google the phrase “follow your passion” and you’ll be swamped with results detailing why that all-pervasive piece of advice is worthless. Also, having read and critiqued career counseling theories as part of my Masters program, I get why the idea is not good counsel.

For one, self-actualization is at the tippy top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There is no question that following your passion requires a significant amount of privilege — most people prefer having access to food, water, and shelter first.

Then, there’s the argument that the advice assumes and perpetuates a Western, individualist mindset.  What about international students and other students with ethnic ties to collectivist cultures, who might legitimately prefer pursuing majors/careers which please and provide for their families?

Finally, millennials have mostly wised up (albeit resentfully) to the reality that you can’t “just get a job” with any degree anymore. Hence the jokes about liberal arts majors. (How do you get a liberal arts graduate off your porch? Pay him for the pizza.)

This "millenial falcon" is a little angry. Source

This “millennial falcon” is a little bitter. Source

Still, I cling to a deep-seated optimism about studying and pursuing what one enjoys. I understand that this perspective is a function of my privilege, but it’s also informed by my experience double majoring in a subject I love (French, deemed utterly useless) and a subject I tolerated (economics, for the sake of employability).

Five-and-a-half years later, I can barely read a supply and demand graph, whereas studying French has proven practical in ways I could never have imagined. Broadly, the subject led me to the field of international education, and I owe innumerable professional and personal contacts to a common “French connection.”

So. A part of me wants to throw caution to the wind and urge these impressionable youths to study sculpture, or philosophy, or ancient Greek — whatever fills their hearts or thrills their minds. But the last thing I want is for my propensity to romanticize to blow up in my face (or worse, in the faces of my students).

A book, wine, and cigarettes

E.g., I set up this romanticized tableau my last week in Paris. The smoke blew back in my face, and I ended up giving away the cigarettes.

Consequently, I’ll do my level best to keep my own thoughts out of the matter. After all, I’m also a believer in another cliché: that education is more about asking questions than obtaining answers. Sure, I’ll point my students to the relevant resources and theories and assessments. But it may take them a while to find their academic or professional footing, and that’s truly, deeply okay.

(In any case, for those in a rush, the Buzzfeed quiz can be done within minutes.)

~

What do you think of the advice to follow your passion? Let me know!

 

The One Lie I Always Tell

I’m about to let you in on a little secret. Though I consider myself a fairly honest person, there is one lie I always tell.

My moral compass is otherwise intact.

My moral compass is otherwise intact.

Many official documents demand the completion of a “native language” field. And, despite the fact that I was born in a Chinese-speaking environment, I always respond that my native language is English.

Let me tell you why.

~

I am what some sociologists call a 1.5 generation immigrant, indicating a person who immigrated to a foreign country before their early teens. In my case, I was born and raised in China for the first six years of my life; then, right before primary school, I immigrated to the United States with my parents.

Me in the '90s, when I was still fluent in Chinese and just learning to be 'Murican.

Me in the ’90s, when I was just learning to be ‘Murican.

I had come to the US knowing how to speak Chinese, but I had not learned how to read or write. Over the years, my command of Chinese further weakened as my parents and I communicated with each other in a patchwork of English and basic Chinese.

By third grade, I was taking out seven books a week – in English – from the local library. My fluency in English had far surpassed my previous knowledge of Chinese.

When I finally reached the age of filling out paperwork independently (a beautiful milestone in a young woman’s life), I regarded the “native language” field with confusion. Possibly, the following questions ran through my head, as they still do each time I see the field.

  • What does “native” mean? That means related to birth, right?
  • Does Chinese count as my native language if I don’t speak it well and don’t know how to read it or write in it? 
  • If I do say Chinese is my native language, will they try to contact me in Chinese?
  • If so, why don’t they use another term?

As it turns out, there isn’t a tidy phrase to describe a person’s language of greatest fluency. Both “native language” and “mother tongue” presume fluency in the language of birth — a sometimes false presumption.

Linguists deploy a different but still confusing term. “L1” might refer to one’s chronologically first language or one’s language of greatest fluency.

What do I write in this little white box?

What do I write in this little white box?

I have to admit, linguistic imprecision is one of my major pet peeves. It boggles my mind that with the number of immigrants in the US, we still don’t have the words to distinguish between a native language and the language of greatest fluency.

Some might see this distinction as inconsequential, but I don’t.

If I had answered honestly in my application to grad school that my native language is Chinese, I would have been required to take the TOEFL (the Test of English as a Foreign Language), most often required of international students applying to study in the US.

The application would not have provided an area to qualify my answer, for instance, with an explanation that I am no longer fluent in my native language or have taught English professionally for years.

As a result, I did what I always do when confronted with the field.

I lied.

~

I’m going to end here with a relevant snippet from the first Pokémon movie. In that great classic, the genetically engineered Pokémon Mewtwo says, “I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”

I would make a similar argument in the case of one’s native language relative to one’s language of fluency. While the two are usually the same, sometimes they’re not.

So let’s start asking the right questions.

At least, let’s reform our forms.

So glad that the '90s - and Pokémon! - are back.

So glad that the ’90s – and Pokémon! – are back.

 

Picking from the Fig Tree: A Look at Choosing Majors in 3 Countries

In Aziz Ansari’s new TV series, Master of None, the comedian’s father dishes some hard-hitting advice to his indecisive son. He shares this cautionary Sylvia Plath quote:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. . . . I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

(Wow.)

Watching this segment, I thought – save for those lucky few who harbor a single, burning passion from the day they’re born – what young person hasn’t faced a similar dilemma? Whether choosing a college major or a career path, or deciding where to live (the question I reconsider every other year), the array of life choices are overwhelming. Since I’m teaching a university seminar for first-year international students, I found the quote pertinent to our class as well.

leaning against a barren tree

No figs here, sadly. Just a melancholy undergrad and a barren tree.

In my seminar, most of the international students are Chinese, and many were mystified by our university’s insistence on a liberal arts core curriculum. In fact, only a few had heard of the term “liberal arts” before, and – even after we thoroughly discussed it and why the core curriculum existed – some still seemed perplexed. Their confusion led me to wonder: just how different were the processes through which foreign and American undergrads choose their courses of study?

After a little research and reflection, I understand better now where the students were coming from — both literally and figuratively.

~

I think back to my own undergraduate experience and my “fig tree” problem of the period: declaring a major. I had applied to college as an undecided student, after having gone through the brochure a hundred times. When I finally arrived on campus, I thought I’d study computer science like my mom. A single introduction to Java class quickly set me straight. I then veered into economics, spending countless hours staring at mystifying graphs and figures. Eventually, I acknowledged I’d only ever be a mediocre economist at best. My final, serious attempt was French language and literature, a subject I ended up both loving and succeeding at academically. Ultimately, I graduated with a double major in economics and French, the culmination of a winding  journey which also included rest stops at the departments of English, history, art history, Asian studies, astronomy, psychology, sociology, hotel administration, and – last but not least – plant pathology.

Greedy me ended up plucking two figs after having taken a bite out of almost all the rest.

~

When I contrast my experience to the experience the  Chinese students might have had, had they gone to Chinese universities, the gulf boggles my mind. Much ink has been spilled over the feverish process by which high schoolers get into Chinese universities (the process by which they prepare for the make-or-break gao kao, China’s national higher education entrance exam) — but considerably less attention has been paid to how they choose a major if indeed they pass.

As it turns out, Chinese students usually select their major around the same time they take the gao kao. Instead of sending application packages to various schools, they complete a single form indicating which colleges they prefer and naming a few majors which sound appealing. If they’re lucky, their gao kao test scores will qualify them for one of their chosen colleges, and the college will return an offer of acceptance with one of their listed majors. The vast majority of students are then locked into the major, given the laboriousness of the procedure to change majors at most institutions.

This is akin to speculating about which figs taste best, then eating whichever one happens to fall in your lap.

Infant academoiselle reading a book

My parents chose to raise me in the US, but what if they’d stayed in China? Who knows if I would’ve even made it to university, never mind what I would’ve studied.

~

At this point, I need to try to rein in my personal biases (as well as my panic at the thought of an alternative reality where I had to take the gao kao). I have to concede that both the US approach and the Chinese approach have advantages and disadvantages.

In short, the US system allows those like me to indulge in a bit of dilletantism, in the hopes of broadening students’ perspectives, instilling certain values, and fostering creative, interdisciplinary collaborations. But this approach comes with the danger of dawdling beneath the fig tree.

Meanwhile, the Chinese system allows young people to delve deep into their specializations, without the burdensome distraction of taking classes in other subjects. Of course, the downside is that students don’t necessarily receive the lauded benefits of a liberal arts education, and they may end up studying something which no longer interests them or doesn’t suit their abilities.

It all makes me wonder: isn’t there a middle way? How do we get at the fig that’s just right for us without wasting too much time putzing around?

~

Diderot monument

Let’s turn to France, one of the centers of the Enlightenment.

Before I’m accused of viewing the French system en rose, let me just acknowledge that it has its own set of deep and troubling dysfunctions. For instance, only 50% of students in France’s public universities successfully pass their first year of study. But – if we examine only the process by which undergraduates choose their majors – we can see that they offer something of a middle way between the American and the Chinese systems.

Starting in the penultimate year of high school, French students are asked to think broadly about which discipline they’d like to pursue. Students are then split into 3 tracks: the ‘L’ track (for literary studies), the ‘ES’ track (for economics and social sciences), or the ‘S’ track (for the sciences). In general, though, the track they choose isn’t particularly limiting. It determines which version of the bac they will take (another national higher education qualification exam), but the bac isn’t widely seen as a demanding exam. As long as students get a passing score, they can enroll in public universities.

When students start university, that’s when they choose a filière or major. Generally, ‘S’ students can pick any major, including those in the arts and humanities. Meanwhile, ‘L’ and ‘ES’ students might have difficulty breaking into the sciences, but they enjoy pretty much every other option.

And if it doesn’t work out? Students can change course to a different (but related) subject after the first semester. If they want to do something which deviates more drastically, they can also decide to retake their first year.

In reality, as many as 30% of students retake the first year (including those who fail as well as those who want to change majors). Since annual tuition is only a couple hundred Euros, many can afford the option. Furthermore, since French universities grant a bachelor’s degree after only 3 years of study, retaking the first year simply puts the repeaters at 4 years, a common degree duration worldwide. It’s not a perfect system, but students largely end up studying what they want — even if they can’t take a bite out of every fig.

~

Outside of the formal education system, what I greatly admire about France is the deep-seated culture of the liberal arts. In France, being a talented engineer doesn’t exempt you from having to argue philosophy at the dinner table, and being a financial analyst doesn’t mean it’s cute to be clueless about the latest exposition at the Grand Palais. This is a society where the tradition of the “public intellectual” is still alive, even if everyone rolls their eyes each time Bernard-Henri Lévy makes a television appearance.

Maybe this is the answer to the riddle of the fig tree.

Maybe we can taste some and describe the rest in poetry.

cassis chocolat macaron

Or  we can turn the figs into giant macarons. That might also work.

Matryoshka Dolls

I don’t remember where I first learned about what I’ve come to think of as the “matryoshka doll” theory of personality. Most likely, a book introduced me to the idea by comparing a character’s personality to a set of Russian nesting dolls. The character at her oldest, wisest, most generous, and most morally developed was the largest nesting doll. But inside of that doll existed the person she was as an adolescent, as a six year old, and even as an infant.

matryoshka dolls

These.

Most of the time, the largest nesting doll was able to keep the little ones under control. But occasionally, one of the smaller dolls would slip out. This explained why people sometimes felt so small and so out of control. This also explained why, once in a while, an otherwise level-headed person could be reduced to tears over something ridiculously petty or trivial. According to this theory, we’re all walking around carrying other versions of ourselves inside. All it takes is a little twist of the waist and – pop – these other versions start acting out.

After a bit of clicking around, I found a Wikipedia article referring to this concept as “the hypostatic model of personality.” Whatever it’s called, it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently as I’ve begun teaching ESL in the afternoons. Even given a small class size with a 10 student maximum, I’ve found myself tapping into different versions of my personality in an attempt to connect with every student.

~

In many ways, I have a very easy class to work with. Most of the students range in age from their late teens to early twenties, so they’re used to being in a classroom environment. In addition, no two students come from the same country, which means I don’t have to wrestle with side chatter in a language other than English.

My biggest challenge is trying to meet the differing expectations of such a diverse group. Some students want to get through as much of the workbook as possible and learn as much new grammar or vocabulary as possible. Others want to dispense with the book entirely and simply jabber about everything under the sun. Still others are just trying to make it through the afternoon — the evening and New York City nightlife is what really interests them.

And perhaps this is the mark of a newbie teacher, but I want all of them to get what they want.

Who do you need me to be?

Who do you need me to be? Just let me dig through my wigs…

I want all of them to get what they want, and I want to be the teacher who delivers what they want. That’s the unvarnished and slightly embarrassing truth. Even though I realize I’m striving towards an impossible end, I nonetheless hope that each of them will leave – in some measure – satisfied.

I would love to satisfy the sweet, wide-eyed teenager who volunteers  all the answers. There is a part of me that has been in her shoes.

The totally lost and timid student: she recalls a part of me as well.

The haughty twenty-year-old with a hangover staring at her phone throughout class? Actually, I’ve been there too.

And I can easily imagine myself in circumstances similar to the forty-year old taking a break from work to travel and to study abroad.

following footsteps

Are you coming this way too?

Of course, I haven’t been in the exact shoes of any of these individuals; I can’t really know what they think or feel. Still, I try to relate and to adapt classroom activities accordingly.

At the end of the day, the proof of my efforts has been coming back to me in the form of student evaluations.

“The class was OK,” wrote some.

“It was good,” wrote others.

And then there was that one note. “Even though she is a new teacher, she has much capacities.”

(When I read that one, every version of me smiled.)

My Father’s ESL Teacher

During one of my breaks in college, while rummaging through boxes in my parents’ home, I made a surprising discovery. On the back of what looked to be a scrap piece of paper, I found a short text written by my father. It had been written for an ESL class he took in the ’90s, shortly after we moved to the US.

I could only guess what the writing prompt had been. Perhaps, “Write about regret.”

In the text, my father narrated the story of how child-me had asked my parents for piano lessons. Apparently, many of my Chinese-American peers at the time were already learning piano. Given our family’s precarious finances, however, he’d had to say “no.” He wrote about how deeply sad he’d felt denying his child.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but the text contradicted my own vague recollections. I’d always had the idea that it was my parents who had pushed me to take lessons, and that it was who had stubbornly refused. What I remember for sure is my dad’s proud statement on the topic. “You’re different from the other immigrant children.”

Had his pride been a guise? — I wondered, after reading the text. Like flocking birds, other incidents suddenly converged in my memory.

What about the time I was 6 and expressed admiration for my classmate’s white, patent leather shoes? My dad had sniffed derisively, “You can hardly move around in those things.” My admiration had then turned to the girl’s smooth, unmarked skin. At the time, to my great embarrassment, my own limbs were covered in raw scrapes and old scabs.

My dad had simply shrugged. “Who wants a perfect looking daughter?”

Scabbed and wearing frills

Don’t let the frills fool you. See if you can spot the scab.

~

The name of my father’s ESL teacher was Robert. I remember this because my dad frequently talked about him after class.

Robert, frankly, seemed like a saint to me. How could he deal with my father’s halting English and endless questions about vocabulary and grammar? Eventually, my family moved and my father stopped taking ESL. I became his de facto authority on English, even though – as I got older – I resented the never-ending task of editing my dad’s every email, his every cover letter as he applied for job after job.

Teenage me sulked, sighed, and outright shouted at my dad for his errors. He never seemed to get it right. To all the abuse, my dad simply responded, “Your English is so good.” The more impatient I was, the more convinced he was of my competence.

The prouder he grew.

I was nothing like Robert. From time to time, my dad wondered aloud what his former ESL teacher was up to.

~

I’m now in training to become an English teacher to speakers of other languages. My course (called the CELTA) finishes at the end of May. As part of my training, I teach an adult class once a week, and – while the pressure can be intense since I am observed and graded – I have to say it is a whole new kind of pleasure.

The students hail from Venezuela, Turkey, Japan, Tajikistan, and every corner of the world. They range in age from college students to retirees. Their motivations for studying English are just as varied. From a professor in sports economics wanting to bolster his research skills, to a girl learning to sing pop songs … I am frankly amazed at all the reasons folks give up 2 1/2 hours on a weeknight to better their English.

I try to picture my dad’s ESL class. His classmates. Robert.

My eyes follow the arc of desks and rest on my dad himself. And I finally see him through Robert’s eyes: a young man (unemployed, terrified) … with a kid and a wife trying to make it in a whole new world.

It is then I realize — there is no language on Earth that can carry my gratitude.

Introversion and Culture (Or, That Time I Built a Fort in my Boyfriend’s Apartment)

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t an introvert. Interacting with others never came easily to me. Nonetheless, over time, I’ve learned how to fake it, e.g. how to make a compelling speech in front of an audience (thank you, high school Speech and Debate); how to exude warmth towards customers (thank you, tech support job in college); and how to muster good humor when meeting people socially (thank you, red wine).

I guess I’ve improved enough at projecting a comfortable persona that some might not even believe I still struggle. On a recent Friday at the office, when I admitted I’d be staying home that night “just me and my introverted self,” my colleagues snorted, “You’re definitely not an introvert.”

Crawling into a hole

Actually, yeah — I could stay in my woman cave forever if I didn’t have to work…

While the rewards are great, performing socially is tasking, and I haven’t always been as capable. When I first joined Speech and Debate, one of the more experienced club members noticed my tendency to avoid eye contact, so he blocked me in a corridor until I could meet and hold his gaze. (We stood in that corridor quite a while.)

Nowadays, I would have no issues entering a staring contest, but I still require lots of alone time. This even applies to time away from those closest to me. For instance, when living in Z’s studio apartment a couple years ago, I built a “fort” out of clothing and chairs just to have some personal space for the day. I wasn’t the least bit upset — just needed a private area to read a book and have some snacks.

Friends under a virtual tree

Adolescent me loved escaping into online games. I could look fabulous in a corset, while wearing pajamas in real life!

Some might find these tendencies off-putting, but they’re part of who I am. Introversion is a spectrum; of course there are going to be people who fall towards the ends. Given my own nature, I have a great deal of empathy for international students coming from countries that view introverted behaviors as the norm. Arriving in the US where extroversion is glorified as well as materially rewarded, these students have a tough cultural adjustment to make.

I am thinking specifically of the students in the English support program I work for, most of whom are Chinese or Indian. Though they come from privileged families, many were brought up in a way that they don’t seem self-confident by American standards. They’re often hesitant to speak up in class, though class participation is a major part of their grade. They may shy away from chatting with professors, though relationships with professors can be key to later internships and recommendation letters. For many, career fairs are particularly nerve-wracking — not only because of the language barrier, but also because they were taught never to boast about their accomplishments. Some, having been raised to keep their problems private, are even afraid to speak with us advisors.

A couple of incidents I’ve witnessed highlight how drastic these cultural differences can be. Once, a female student came to me in tears because her professor had made remarks to her that she saw as harsh or impatient. She didn’t understand why the professor seemed not to like her — she was quiet and got good grades, facts which had always endeared her to teachers in her home country.

The other incident involved a taciturn young man who was almost removed from his professor’s class. He hadn’t been misbehaving in the traditional sense; it was just that his silence in class “creeped out” the professor. The professor insisted that the student either go to counseling (a huge no-no in the student’s culture), or not come back to class. Though the young man was eventually reinstated, it was an incredibly frustrating ordeal.

~

Situations like the above are hard to advise in, because there’s not necessarily a party that’s right or wrong. I am also loathe to make international students feel that the values they grew up with are at all inferior. Still, the fact is that they chose to study in the US, where – for better or worse – a certain amount of sociability and self-promotion are critical to success. And so I give students what tips I know to  mimic these traits … ways to approach a professor, clubs they could join to make friends, how to deliver a presentation …

Introvert

I would never have thought I could advise anybody about how to appear less introverted.

Final thoughts before I go. First, culture is not monolithic (there are introverted Americans and extroverted Chinese). Secondly, the differences between individuals will always be greater than the differences between groups (in any large sample of international students from the same country, there will be immense variation in personalities). These things said, we can’t be blind to the fact that culture plays an enormous role in shaping behaviors.

Fortunately, new behaviors can be learned and new cultures adapted to. After all, none of us can stay in our forts forever.

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.