Why I took my French husband’s last name

March being Women’s History Month and Women’s Day having just passed, I thought I’d respond to a question I’ve been asked a few times since my marriage.

If I didn’t live in New York City, epicenter of heathens, my decision to take my husband’s last name may well have gone unnoticed. As it is, my location and my female peer group – many of whom married and kept their last names – both rendered my choice more visible and my motivation less obvious.

The truth is, for a feminist who condemned the obstacles facing French men who want to take their wives’ last names, I didn’t hesitate for a second to go down the path of “tradition.” That isn’t to say I didn’t understand arguments against the practice; rather, my personal reasons for changing my name just seemed more compelling.

Normally, I'm all for disrupting gender roles though.

Normally, I’m all for disrupting gender roles though.

~

Reason #1: Not my circus, not my monkeys

Funnily enough, my so-called traditional choice had nothing to do with either my or Z’s cultural traditions. Chinese women don’t take their husband’s last names upon marriage, and – legally – French women always keep their maiden names (though they may use their husband’s last name socially, if they want to).

This is an important point, because it means I actually broke tradition with my choice. So while some feminists argue a name change signifies the surrender of personal identity — I felt the decision only magnified my individual agency.

~

Reason #2: The center *can* hold

However, my heritage did play a role in the decision-making process. I considered that, unlike many Chinese-Americans, I have a Chinese middle name aside from an English first name. This stroke of luck freed me to make my choice without completely erasing my heritage. Had that not been the case, the calculus would have been different.

~

Reason #3: A psychic vision from childhood

This is probably the creepiest and least comprehensible reason for my name change. As a fifth grader, I was given a school project to design a heraldic coat of arms reflecting my interests and ethnicity.

Unsurprisingly, I drew books and horses to represent my hobbies (yeah, I’m basically Tina Belcher).

Very surprisingly, I drew a Chinese flag and a French flag to represent my ethnicity.

The project was completed before I ever stepped foot inside a French class or even formally learned about the country. So imagine my shock when I unearthed it after Z and I had already been together a number of years….

*Cue X-Files music*

~

Reason #4: Say my name, say my name

In the Bible, there’s this riveting story about how one tribe tested if others were from the same tribe by forcing them to pronounce the Hebrew word “shibboleth.”As a result, “shibboleth” came to mean any word used to distinguish insiders from outsiders.

When I was a kid, I wanted a totally easy, “American” name. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see my (now English-Chinese-French) name as a sort of shibboleth — one that only those closest to me would know how to pronounce.

(Sorry for the self-indulgence. I’m not even a special snowflake, just an average one).

~

Reason #5: Kick ass, take names

What can be more feminist than kicking ass and taking names? Literally taking names?!

I just take and take and take -- YAAAARGH!

I just take and take and take — YAAAARGH!

~

So maybe my decision-making process was a little more overwrought than I first suggested. Ultimately, though, people choose to take a spouse’s last name (or to hyphenate, or to create a new family name) for completely personal, inscrutable reasons. While I would encourage anyone approaching the altar to give it some thought, in my book, there is no single, “feminist” answer.

 

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 . . . . 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.

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 array of life choices can be overwhelming. Now teaching a university seminar for first-year international students, I found the quote pertinent to my 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 – some still seemed perplexed. Their confusion led me to wonder: just how different are 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 are 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 really 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.

A Typical Day in Paris je t’aime

As we near the end of another year and I collect my thoughts about returning to New York, I can’t help but remember my first experience of Paris. I wrote the below as a study abroad student during those heady days of discovering the city. Though some of the romanticism has been wrung out of me, this does take me back.

~

A Typical Day in Paris je t’aime

I don’t believe in love at first sight and Paris was no exception. Had I just been touring, I would’ve gone home and said that I loved Paris, of course. But that sort of “love” is just exaggerated enthusiasm. True love doesn’t spring from three days of voyeurism; it takes at least twenty-one.

So after three weeks and a few odd days, I find myself madly in love with her. Paris, after all, is a woman, I’ve decided — beautiful, her cold elegance tempered by her burning cigarette. The city charges every moment with the possibility of pleasure. The tiniest details and most mundane rituals can yield joy.

When I wake up, it’s to a languorous half-light seeping in through the chinks of a metal screen. The screen, which covers sliding doors to the terrace, is retractable by twisting a dowel. Every morning is cinematic; as I retract the screen, light flows in slowly. It’s a polite guest which takes time to greet the space. With each inch of its advance, I readjust my readings of the day’s weather and temperature. Naturally, the City of Light manifests her mood through the medium of her namesake.

bedroom chambre

I take the elevator down to the lobby. During the ride, I struggle to resist primping in front of the mirror. A sign warns: “under 24 hour surveillance.”

The front door confronts me with one of Paris’s quirks. Even from inside the building, I can’t just push it to exit. As a smug act of defiance to globalized user-friendliness, many buildings require pushing a button on the wall before the door itself. After I helped a visiting Frenchwoman figure this out, I realized it was just one of the city’s slinky winks to those who know her and love her.

Out into the courtyard, past the bed of roses. Past the green gate, out onto the street. I glance to my left and voila … the Eiffel Tower rises above the treetops. Bleary-eyed, it looks like a construction crane or radio tower at this hour. Paris is not a morning girl.

Fun exercises: dodge the dog shit on the pavement. See how closely I can pass a pigeon without its flinching.

In the metro station tunnels, I wait for that moment. That one electrifying moment when everyone’s footsteps synchronize, setting the beat for a uniquely urban chanson. And I smile and I smile because the music is beautiful.

I hold my breath through the parts of the station that smell like shit.

Once on the train, I flip out a folding chair, a strapontin. If I choose to stand, I lean against the doors, knowing that they won’t open automatically behind me. When it’s my stop, I like to lift the latch while the train is still slowing, so that the doors open and I can watch the ground whizz by my feet.

Paris je t’aime.

I love your men, your women, your children. Your scarves, your coats, your darling shoes. Your cigarettes, your slang, your unkempt dogs. Your cafes, your bookshops, your boulangeries. Your patisseries. Your creperies. Your strikes. Your parks. Your bikes. Your chilly autumn nights. Your puddles of light from the restaurants humming respite from the wind and the rain in my hair in my shoes in my eyes.

When I come home, the train crawls out of the underground and takes an overpass bridge. The Eiffel Tower is a blaze of light.

She’s alive.

eiffel tower abstract

The Real Reason French Women Don’t Get Fat: Social Pressure and Beauty Norms

The Myth

Mark Twain once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” I’d like to add a fourth to that list — claims about French women.

Anyone who types the phrase “French Women” into Amazon search will instantly be presented with a list of reasons our sisters across the Atlantic are superior. According to the cheerfully colored paperbacks which constitute the search results, French women don’t get fat, feel beautiful everyday, never sleep alone, and generally glide about in clouds of effortless grace.

Out of these, the biggest lie of all is probably the one that kickstarted this whole French-women-are-superior phenomenon. In 2004, Mireille Guiliano (mouthpiece for luxury empires LVMH and Veuve Clicquot) published a book purporting to reveal the key to Gallic girls’ svelte figures. It was titled French Women Don’t Get Fat:The Secret of Eating for Pleasure.

Upon its publication, a collective gasp rose from the throats of everyone in the US with two X chromosomes. Ladies this side of the Atlantic were clamoring to discover how French women mainlined eclairs and cheese plates while still keeping trim. Guiliano’s book shot to number 1 on the bestseller list, and an insidious misconception was born: according to Guiliano, French women felt no guilt over their consumption of rich foods — they simply integrated them into a lifestyle of discriminating taste and deliberate appreciation of indulgences. 

Eva Green smoking

Popular media would have you believe that all French women are more or less cast in the mold of actress Eva Green.

While certain elements of French culture feed this idealization (no pun intended), the truth – as always – is much more complicated. Here, I’ll take a look at the reasons people believe French women don’t get fat, then posit what I think are real, sociological reins on waistlines.

~

The Kernel of Truth

Statistics, though occasionally misleading, can nonetheless shed light on the origin of this myth. While rates of obesity have climbed in France, they still hover at around 11%, the lowest in the EU and far below the US’s 35%*. France is also the only country in the EU where the average BMI of both sexes remains firmly in the “normal” range, and the only country moreover where significant numbers of women are medically underweight (5%).

According to Guiliano, this is largely due to a more ritualized culture of eating in France. From food shopping (going to the markets multiple times per week to purchase what’s fresh and in season), to food preparation (cooking!), to actually sitting down and eating at meal times instead of snacking mindlessly — the overall culture encourages the savoring of foods, which then naturally moderates their consumption. In Giuliano’s equation, slimness is the result of controlled gastronomical enjoyment, not anxiety or fad diets.

Since I’ve previously written about my own run-ins with French eating rituals, I see where Giuliano is coming from. I even believed it myself during my first few months in France when I saw many a woman sit down to a rich meal with no mention whatsoever of dietary restrictions, weight-watching, or calorie-counting (even today, I don’t know how to pronounce the French word calorie). This was in startling contrast to the meals I’d shared with Americans, who would inevitably launch into either self-reproach or commiseration with fellow neurotics about the nutritional content of what they were about to dig into.

Carrots and ketchup

Not gonna lie — I too had a hard time overcoming dietary neuroticism. After downing a box of cookies, I’d resort to carrots and ketchup for dinner.

Still, over time, I began to notice cracks in this veneer of effortless moderation. While traditional food rituals and gourmand attitudes may be contributing factors to France’s ability to stay thin, ultimately I believe these offer only a truncated explanation.

~

The Actual Truth

In the 2013 film “Before Midnight,” French actress Julie Delpy (a director in her own right and one of my personal feminist idols) offers a frank and telling glimpse into what French women think of their bodies. Delpy’s character, a curvaceous blonde in her forties, refers to herself at one point as “a fat-assed middle-aged mom losing her hair.” Off screen, Delpy has admitted having similar insecurities, both denigrating herself and feeling denigrated by others due to her weight.

Julie Delpy Ethan Hawke

I have a huge girl crush on Julie Delpy, gah. ❤

Though Delpy looks like a goddess to me, I can’t say that I’m surprised. After spending more time in France, I began to suspect that women poked at minuscule portions not because they wished to savor every bite, but because they had a hushed horror of putting on weight.

Why hushed? I believe that – similar to how the French disdain formal exercise – they perceive it as really uncool when anyone reveals an arduous effort to stay thin. Not only are French women just as neurotic as American women about their weight, they carry the added obligation to appear as if they don’t care.

That apprehension may be muted at the dinner table, but it’s literally spelled out at the pharmacy. Whereas American pharmacies might have a “Diet and Nutrition” aisle, the equivalent in French pharmacies is just a section labeled “Skinniness” (minceur). The first time I noticed this, I was shocked. For all the efforts people made to appear as if they weren’t deliberately dieting, this observation glaringly highlighted their real priority. It wasn’t gourmet quality they cared about. It wasn’t even health. What mattered most was conforming to norms of attractiveness, which in France means really keeping down one’s weight.

Once this suspicion struck me, it wasn’t hard to find evidence in its favor. A report headlined “French women, thinnest in Europe, think they’re fat” indicated that the ideal weight in France is indeed lower than in other countries. Sadly, what isn’t any lower are rates of eating disorders. Despite a culture that shuns calorie-counting in public, about 1 to 3 percent of young French women are anorexic, while 5 percent are bulimic*.

Another sobering result of this pressure to remain waifish is the reluctance of French women to give up smoking (and its convenient powers as an appetite-suppressant). While between 1950 and 2010, the percentage of the French male population who smoked was cut in half, the percentage of female smokers increased from 20 percent to 26.5 percent. The gloomy motto one article extracted from this trend was “plutôt mourir qu’être grosse” … “better dead than fat.”

Ben and Jerrys Flavor Grave

Which is so not my personal motto. I can’t even handle the death of a Ben and Jerry’s flavor.

In summary, French women are not magical. Yes — the stats show they have greater success at staying slim, but that success comes at a cost. Far more formidable than the expense of leeks from the farmer’s market is the psychic cost of pervasive social pressure and inflexible beauty norms. I, for one, am not all too sure that the trade-off is worth it.

~

With each passing year, I like to think that I become a little more assured of my identity, a little more comfortable in my body, and a little more impervious to the insipid brand of beauty peddled by global mass media. Unfortunately, I’m not totally there yet, and neither are most women I know. As we move into the holiday season and the ensuing period of self-flagellation and magazine endorsed cleanses, my hope is that – over time, around the world – women give less weight to the Earth’s gravitational pull on their bodies and more weight to the loveliness within themselves.

Battling the Blues with Transatlantic Laughter

Over the last few years, I’ve pretty much lived the idiom: “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Bouncing between Greater Boston, New York, and Paris, I can attest that fond-growing is by far my most consistent cardio workout. After some initial elation at returning to New York at the end of a long Parisian winter and crappy bout of melancholia, I find myself – surprise! – occasionally longing again for the highlights of the Hexagon.

Though I’m happy to be where I am, the symptoms of withdrawal are familiar — crossing my eyes when scrolling through web feeds so I can’t see photos of France posted by expat bloggers, fingering necklaces with delicate Eiffel Tower charms in trendy accessories boutiques, perking up my ears at the lilt of the French language, whether overheard in the subway or the streets of New York … All this adopted-homesickness, coupled with having to maintain a long distance relationship, isn’t exactly fun.

Ironically, though, fun is the antidote to this well-known stage of reverse culture shock. Putting myself out there, overcoming social inertia, and facing life with humor I’ve found is the best way to cope.

reindeer skype

Battling the blues with transatlantic laughter.

With that in mind, I’m taking some time today to just laugh at the French language. Since reading Mallarmé isn’t helping me to feel any better about the distance, I’ll rant about some ways French – commonly thought of as the language of love – is downright silly instead.

~

1) French people sometimes speak like children in a conservative ’50s household.

If you took French in secondary school, you probably remember those textbooks with pictures of people in single-color sweaters, light wash jeans, and white sneakers. In reality, the French haven’t dressed this way for some twenty odd years, but the surprising thing is, they sometimes speak as if they were still living in this imaginary idyll.

Take the pseudo-expletive, “mince!” This is pretty much the equivalent of “darn” in American English (i.e. a very tame word), but it’s used with surprising frequency in everyday French. Besides its Leave it to Beaver propriety, what really makes it goofy is the fact that it also means “skinny,” “thin,” or “slim.” Thus, I always have to choke back a laugh whenever Z stubs his toe and cries out what sounds to me like “skinny!”

That same whiff of childishness surrounds another popular French exclamation: “nickel!” The name of this metal is uttered to mean “super!” “great!” or “awesome!” While I can clearly see the evolution of its meaning from the metal, to an adjective meaning “spotless” and “impeccable,” to a general expression of approval — by golly, gee whiz! I still can’t quite shake the idea that its usage would be better limited to those under the age of five.

~

2) They clean with serpillières.

Speaking of ’50s households, one of the few times I tried to do a thorough cleaning of our apartment in Paris, Z and I got into a fight over this ridiculous word.

French maid with knife

I could never be a French maid — housework makes me want to commit violence.

As I despairingly looked upon a dirty kitchen floor, I asked Z for a mop.

“What’s a mop?” he asked.

“You know, to wipe the floor.”

He returned with an old rag. “Here you go.”

I gaped at the sad shred of cloth he had handed me and – blanching at the prospect of wiping the floor on my hands and knees – snapped like a true diva, “I asked for a mop!”

“That is a mop,” he insisted heatedly. “It’s a serpillière. Here, I’ll prove it to you. It’s in the dictionary!”

It turns out the source of our confusion was a sloppy translation. In fact, the French rarely use mops. The closest tool they have is a broom handle with a single rag attached to the bottom, and the word serpillière can refer either to this broom-handle-with-rag (an approximation of a “mop”), OR simply to the rag itself (no broom handle necessary). A bit of linguistic laziness can thus mean the difference between getting one’s hands dirty and my preferred method of cleaning: just prodding at stuff with a very long stick.

~

3) They use Verlan, also known as French pig Latin.

I remember when, as a preteen, I first learned how to say things in pig Latin. My insufferability instantly shot up as I went around shouting, “ELLO-HAY! An-cay ou-yay understand-way e-may?!” Fortunately for all involved, I quickly tired of this little trick and reverted back to normal speech within a few hours.

Well, the French learned verlan, their version of pig Latin — and they just never reverted back. Verlan is so incorporated into the language now that no one bats an eye if you express gratitude with a “ci-mer” instead of “merci.” Even hardened criminals love this wordplay. You’ll find the phrase “f*ck les keufs” articulated in the graffiti of downtrodden neighborhoods, conveying disdainful threats to the police through a curious mishmash of English and verlan.

I love this bizarre transformation of the French language. I especially like to imagine the equivalent situation playing out in the US, perhaps on an episode of Cops. As burly police officers bear down on some hooligan, I like to picture the offender yelling out obscenities in pig Latin. “UCK-FAY OU-YAY!” he’d cry indignantly. “UUUUUCK-FAY OUUUUU-YAY!”

~

 4) Atypique (“atypical”) is used as a euphemism for ugly.

I was able to add this sardonic gem to my vocabulary while following the French reality show La Belle et ses Princes Presque Charmants (literally “The Beauty and Her Prince Almost-Charmings”). The show rips off an old American series called Average Joe, which pitted a team of fratty hunks against a team of “average Joes” (guys whose looks were somewhat less breathtaking) for the attentions of a conventionally hot chick. In the French version, I kept hearing members of the team of hunks referring to their less comely opponents as having physiques atypiques or “atypical physiques.” Confused, I turned to Z: “Don’t they mean physiques typiques, since their opponents are supposed to be average looking?”

“No,” explained Z, “They’re making fun of them for their bodies.”

“But their bodies are just average,” I argued. “I thought that was the whole point of the show.”

“Yeah, but atypique here means they’re not good looking,” shrugged Z.

I groaned. Of course. No way the contemporary French population would have missed an opportunity to invert their words.

physique atypique

Nothing atypical here, besides maybe a higher-than-average tolerance for public humiliation.

~

5)   There’s no translation for “rolling one’s eyes.”

Now that I’m putting together this list, I’m glad to be inside a country where I can express exasperation with a satisfying eyeroll. This tried and true outlet for my inner petulant child simply does not exist in France. It took me a while to pick up on this subtle difference; after all, the French are so great at complaining vehemently, the fact that I had never once seen nor read of someone rolling their eyes just didn’t enter my consciousness.

I finally wised up while reading some trashy, French internet forums. Unlike in American forums, when people got snarky with one another, there was no mention of eyerolling. Thinking I’d just missed something obvious, I casually asked Z how one would write “eyeroll” in French. When my query was met with radio silence, something clicked inside my mind.

“WAIT A MINUTE. YOU GUYS DON’T ROLL YOUR EYES!” I shouted accusingly.

“Well, we kinda do.”

Supposedly, there is an approximation of eyerolling in French, which is expressed through the phrase: lever les yeux au ciel (literally, “to raise one’s eyes to the sky”). While this gesture is closely related, it is most definitely not the same. For one, the French version contains an implicit appeal to a higher power, which is not necessarily true of the good ol’ eyeroll. Moreover – as I discovered after several minutes of rigorous, scientific personal experimentation – my American upbringing had made it almost impossible for me to simply raise my eyes, without giving them a quick tour of the backs of my eye sockets.

I guess that’s just how I roll.

~

These are some of my annoyances with the French tongue. Feel free to share yours!

The Accidental Patriot

This July 4th found Z and I wandering around New York, passing street after street of houses and storefronts bearing American flags and proud displays of red, white, and blue. This festive atmosphere got me thinking: What did patriotism – defined as “the devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country” – mean in our respective nations?

July Fourth Brooklyn Greenpoint

I take patriotism very seriously.

Unlike admitting your gluten-intolerance or tendency to binge watch Game of Thrones, professing your patriotism won’t garner you any respect among twenty-somethings in coastal cities today. Nonetheless, it’s true: I take a lot of pride in my national identity. Though “patriotic” hasn’t always been an adjective I would use to describe myself, I’ve finally made peace with this sometimes loaded term. As is often the case, France is to thank for this development — France, with a little help from the Netherlands.

~

Across the street from Rembrandt’s former house in Amsterdam is a convivial restaurant and pub. In May, as Z and I sat at one of the dark, wooden tables, Z pushed aside his mug of Heineken to glance at his watch.

“It’s almost 8 o’clock,” he remarked. “There’s supposed to be a couple minutes of silence soon.”

“Why?” I inquired from my happy tourist stupor, which had been steadily nursed by a glass of red wine.

“Today is Commemoration Day in the Netherlands for those who died in World War II. There’s a ceremony starting at Dam Square.”

I looked around. Waiters flew by with teetering plates while the jabber of customers blended into a single drone of contentment. “I don’t think we’ll see anything about that in here,” I shrugged.

It turned out I was wrong. As the clock approached eight, the waitstaff scurried back towards the bar; one employee flipped on the TV. When the hour struck, all chatter within the restaurant evaporated into silence, and every head turned to watch the televised procession of the King and Queen across Dam Square.

After one hundred and twenty seconds, a blare of trumpets over the speakers finally broke this reverent hush. Immediately, waiters resumed their perpetual bustle, and Dutch diners faced their table companions once again.

Dutch Coronation Bakery

Monarchy never looked so delicious. (Visible signs of patriotism were everywhere in Amsterdam.)

~

This brief but intense interlude won Z’s admiration. “That was really impressive how everyone stopped to pay their respect,” he mused. “I wish we were more patriotic in France…”

Z’s rueful statement surprised me, but on second thought, I recalled that I’d never seen any noteworthy display of patriotism in France. Though I’ve previously written about “French exceptionalism” (the idea that the country is unique and perhaps even superior in a global context), it suddenly struck me that the French weren’t really an outwardly patriotic people.

This fact isn’t as glaringly obvious as one would think. After all, Paris in particular is so steeped in history, culture, and tourist traps that the very fact of its existence seems a testament to love of country.

Monet 14 Juillet

Monet’s depiction of Bastille Day in Paris is  misleading —  the only place you’ll see this many French flags is a European football stadium.

When I voiced that, actually, I had never seen a private residence fly the French flag, Z wondered aloud if only state buildings had the legal right to display them. After some quick Googling proved that suggestion wrong, he conceded, “Okay. I guess only the government displays them because no one else wants to.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I think displaying the flag means you support the Far Right.”

My thoughts rushed to the 2012 presidential election in the US and the controversy over which candidate wore a flag pin more often. Though a similar zeal for displaying the flag can be found among conservatives in the States, fortunately, the rest of us are still able to wield this powerful symbol without fear of being branded an unsavory extremist. After all, the flag was supposed to represent all Americans, not just a subset of the population.

I turned back to Z and insisted heatedly, “You should fly the flag! It’s your flag too — don’t let the Far Right take ownership of it. Aren’t you proud of being French?”

I went on to describe a few instances when I took part in flag-waving.

Z regarded me skeptically, finally interjecting, “Wow, they must’ve really brainwashed you over there.”

“They did not.” I was defensive. “I mean, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance when we were little and had to learn to sing the national anthem — but that was it.”

Z’s eyes widened with horror. “They made you recite a pledge to your country? And sing the national anthem? When you were children?”

“Yeah,” I affirmed, confused. “I mean, it’s not a big deal is it? Don’t they do that in every country?”

“No way.” Z shook his head. “We didn’t do that. That’s total brainwashing.”

“Oh.” I fell silent.

Admittedly, upon reflection, such practices could seem – well – creepybut apparently they had been rather effective. Not only do Americans not have compunctions about flying the flag, I also thought to myself that, under certain circumstances, Americans have an incredibly strong sense of national unity. (Hear me out.)

I recalled the nights after 9/11, when everyone in my neighborhood flooded outside to hold candlelight vigils. Even as a middle schooler, I’d felt touched by the sudden closeness of my diverse little suburb. I also thought back to the nights when President Obama was elected and when Bin Laden’s death was confirmed. I had barged into the streets with seemingly the rest of my town and watched people high-five strangers, whoop spontaneously, smile deliriously…

It was highly unlikely such reactions could have occurred on a national scale in France, I realized.

It was also in France – after learning of the Newtown shooting, Hurricane Sandy, and the Boston Marathon bombing – that I became aware of how sorely I missed that sense of American unity. There were no vigils, no acknowledgment from neighbors, riders on the metro, or most of my colleagues. Though this was completely understandable, it was also isolating.

And that’s how I grasped Z’s point. Brainwashing or no, I was patriotic.

~

Patriotism doesn’t mean I think the US is doing everything right. It doesn’t even mean I think it’s doing some of the basic things right.

But my protestations don’t disqualify me from patriotism. In fact, it’s crucial that they cannot disqualify me from patriotism.

On July 4th, as I led Z through the decked out streets of New York, I felt particularly grateful for this fact. The American flag had not yet been lost to any one group — as far as I could see.

American Flag Sunglasses

And thanks to these shades, I could see pretty far.

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.