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.

Ring Around the City, Pockets Full of Presumptions

A couple weeks ago, I was advising groups of communication students on their marketing campaign projects. These were large, long-term projects requiring the students to ultimately present in English before a panel of professors. I helped them hone their pitches, refine their vocabulary, and brainstorm possible responses to critiques from the panel. But one group asked me an unexpected question.

The group had decided to create and promote a fictional line of lingerie accented with candy (yeah, my job is a dirty one but somebody’s gotta do it). Their target consumers would be bourgeois twenty and thirty-somethings. As part of their campaign, they planned to open a pop-up store in Paris. “So,” announced one girl, “We wanted to ask you, since you live in Paris: what’s a good area to open our store in?”

I laughed. Huh? These young men and women had resided in the Paris metropolitan area all their lives. I was an American interloper who recently got scolded by the school’s lunch monitor for keeping my hat on in the cafeteria (unfortunately, it’s considered far ruder in France to wear a hat indoors than in the US). Surely they had a better idea than me of what would work where.

gray knit hat

Seriously, lunch monitor. This hat is not a statement piece. It *is* effective protection from the cold.

Then I looked around. Six pairs of eyes were trained on me, earnestly awaiting my response.

“Um. Well. The Marais district is pretty trendy,” I recited with all the tenuous authority of an out-of-print edition of Lonely Planet. “It’s pricey, but it’s got bars and boutiques that attract a young, fashionable crowd.”

The girl and her group members nodded solemnly while she scribbled down my suggestion. “Yeah, that’s what we thought too.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. Someday I would be uncovered as a fraud, but that day had not come just yet.

~

So, what was going on? Why would a group of Paris area natives turn to me for insights about the city? In fact, that exchange with the communication students was only one in a series of incidents which would finally lead me to the epiphany diagrammed below.

Paris Périphérique

It only took me a couple of years to figure this out.

What is the périphérique? Wikipedia describes it as “a controlled-access dual-carriageway ring road” surrounding Paris. Basically, if Frankenstein’s monster chugged five gallons of Red Bull and were a highway, that highway be the périphérique and you would never, ever want to cross it.

Parisians who live within the area ringed by the highway are considered intra muros (Latin for “within walls”). Parisians who live outside it are considered — gotcha. They’re simply *not* Parisian. 

This is actually kind of a weird concept to me. I did most of my growing up in the suburbs of Boston, and if I met someone from out of state, I would nonetheless say I was from Boston. Working in New York, I also never blinked an eye at residents of the greater New York City area who self-identified as New Yorkers.

But that’s not how this town throws down. When I first met some of my classes, I would talk a bit about where I was from, then ask my students if any of them were originally from outside Paris as well. To my great surprise, the entire class would raise their hands. When I subsequently asked where they were from, the answers would be places like “Saint-Denis,” “La Corneuve,” or “Bobigny,” neighborhoods just a couple metro stops and fifteen minutes away. (My school is very close to the périphérique, on the other side of which these areas are located.) The students, however, looked genuinely perplexed to be lumped in with the intra muros Parisians when I waved my hand and clarified: “No. I mean, really outside Paris.”

~

This mental barrier also exists on the side of us intra muros, though it was only recently that I took note of it. When I brought Z to see my school, he gazed around in wonder. He didn’t recognize *anything* in the neighborhood despite growing up in the same, small administrative district. To my expression of surprise, Z shrugged defensively. “Yeah, but this is right next to the périphérique.”

His justification recalled to me past instances when I’ve heard friends in the city detail their apartment hunt. At some point, a Parisian apartment hunter would say, “The space itself isn’t bad… but it’s very close to the périphérique.” Upon these words, every listener would nod sympathetically, understanding there would be no further inquiry about that particular real estate lead.

Parisian pigeonhole

Bah, those intra muros birds and their fancy real estate! I guess we all pigeonhole ourselves sometimes.

~

Thanks to my students – most of whom cross the périphérique on a daily basis to attend class – I am gaining a deeper understanding of the surrounding suburbs (the banlieues). I had already been aware of the strained relationship between Paris and the poorer banlieues which are home to large immigrant and minority populations. In 2005, the tension ramped up to a whole other level when riots broke out across those neighborhoods in response to teens being injured in a police chase. Many of the rioters were young people with North African origins, prompting questions about French national identity and intégration which remain hotly debated to this day.

There’s a lot of racial diversity among my students, many of whom have North African heritage themselves. While some hail from wealthier or middle-class neighborhoods, a large number also commute from the poorer banlieues I mentioned. These are the students who are changing my impressions of such areas, which I had mentally associated with news images of grisly housing projects, burning cars, and disaffected youth. Fortunately, the kids I work with are bright, funny, and enthusiastic, and they take a lot of pride in their origins.

Given the lively classroom exchanges I have with them and seeing them interact with their diverse peers, I realize that the grim media reports of the banlieues do not do their populations justice. These images leave us with the impression that the problems in the banlieues run too deep to solve, and that it is impossible to reach their youth.

I now know this is not the case. While my feet are still firmly intra muros, I appreciate the lesson carried in by my students from just beyond the périphérique. 

The “swag” life of a teaching assistant

I taught my first class after two flutes of champagne.

I hadn’t intended for it to happen that way. I was at a little party organized for English professors at the school, which – for me – was simply supposed to be a chance to meet my colleagues and receive my schedule. Amid the warm chatter in French and English, I availed myself of the dessert tray, a flute of champagne, and succumbed to a refill of aforementioned flute.

But you can’t spell surprise without P-R-I-S, which, for the sake of argument, we’ll say also spells “Paris.” In any case, what happened next came as a total surprise (though at this point, I should have learned to always expect the unexpected).

Smiling over a drink

Pro tip for expats: whenever possible, enjoy a drink and smile. Your state of ignorant bliss will soon be decimated.

A professor looked at my schedule and noticed that I was assigned to one of her classes, which would be taking place that very day in twenty minutes. She asked if I would join her.

Feeling a bit bubbly on the bubbly, I chirped my assent, “Sure! I’d be delighted to observe!” (It was “observation week” for the assistants after all.)

The professor stared back blankly. ” ‘Observe?’ Oh, no, you’ll be teaching the class.”

Teaching?” I echoed in confusion, as if the word didn’t belong in my vocabulary, never mind my job title. “But… I haven’t prepared anything… I don’t have a lesson plan… I really don’t know what I can do with the students for — an hour?!”

“It’s fine,” she shrugged. “Just introduce yourself and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

“Um, okay.”

Over the ensuing twenty minutes, I sipped the last of my liquid courage and furiously racked my brain for what to do. When we got to class (an almost all male group of students pursuing their associate’s degree in information technology), I wrote the following on the front board:

  1. I moved to Paris from New York.
  2. I am Japanese-American.
  3. I studied French literature and economics in university.

Hi. I’m your English teaching assistant. I want to tell you three things about myself. First of all, I moved to Paris from New York. Secondly, I am Japanese-American. Finally, I studied French literature and economics in university. I’m also a liar because only two of these three statements are true.*

Yup. We ended up playing two truths and a lie, the icebreaker game that elicits collective groans at summer camps all across America. Nonetheless, the students had a blast trying to guess my lie**, then creating their own three statements in English. By the end of the hour, every student had had a chance to speak English, I’d gotten to know the students’ names and a bit of their backgrounds, and the professor (who’d sat and watched the entire class) conveyed that she was impressed by the level of engagement the activity inspired.

So. Big sigh of relief. Things hadn’t gone badly at all.

Thus began my experience as an English teaching assistant in France.

*For the record, I’m Chinese-American, not Japanese-American. What a give-away!

**Interesting tidbit: Since double majors are practically unheard of in France, many students thought I couldn’t have studied both subjects. However, I also had one girl insist there was no way I could have come from New York. Her reasoning? She could actually understand my English, as opposed to the babble of New Yorkers.

~

I’ve been a teaching assistant for just under a month now, and I love what I do. I work with students who are generally 19 to 22 years old and pursuing a BTS (the equivalent of an associate’s degree) in fields as diverse as international trade, tourism, communications, accounting, retail management, real estate, and IT. Sometimes I work alongside a professor in front of a class of 30+ students. Other times, I independently take a smaller group to work with which can range from 6 to 20+ students.

The students constantly surprise and impress me. Most of them live outside of Paris proper and commute over an hour to class. While there are always some who talk during class, for the most part, the students are extremely respectful. They greet me as they stream into the classroom and say “thank you” on the way out. They will not visibly ready themselves to leave as the end of the period approaches; rather, they wait to be formally dismissed (sometimes past the bell, because I can be pretty oblivious).

In return, I strive to make my lessons informative and engaging. When they turn out that way, the work is incredibly rewarding.

How rewarding? Well, my salary only covers a few coffee dates per week but I’m really paid in experiences like this:

  • While teaching about the U.S. presidential elections, getting to listen to young French people argue over which candidate is more likely to raise taxes on the wealthy. Then hearing a student tell the professor it was the best class they’d had all year.
  • During a discussion of stereotypes of New York City, having multiple male students vie to explain a scene from Sex and the City.
  • Having a group of girls shout “Hiiii Steff!” as I walk past them in the hall, then burst into giggles when I smile back at them (’cause, you know, I’m usually addressed as “Madame”).

And – thanks to my students – my “French” is improving too. Did you know that the word “swag” is used (albeit a bit ironically, with an accompanying snicker) to indicate a cool or hip appearance/style?

Swag

As if I didn’t just define “swag” for you.

So that’s a peek inside the life of one humble civil servant. Until next time, gentle reader.

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Found

When I loaded the web address of this newly created  blog, WordPress’s default message inadvertently gave me the idea for the title of this first post: “Nothing Found.” For most of the year following my college graduation, this described the state of drifting restlessness in which I found — or rather, didn’t manage to find — myself. While my peers continued on to graduate or professional school, or otherwise ascended the rungs of corporate ladders, I struggled with transforming A’s in the classroom to A-Job. The challenge? Finding one with a major in French.

If this story sounds familiar, here’s the twist: I also majored in economics. Mixing Moliere and monetary policy, Sarraute and statistics, I thought I could feed both soul and wallet. I had spent two summers interning in finance and was set up to be hired into a cushy position as a financial analyst upon graduation. Then I studied abroad in Paris the fall of my senior year, and my pecuniary aspirations melted like so many nympheas on a Monet canvas.

Giverny

Show me the green: monetary policies or Monet paintings?

It wasn’t even a fair fight. I met the city and she wooed me. I met my boyfriend, Z, and he wooed me (I might also have been guilty of some reciprocal wooing). That semester, I finally let the syllabus take a back seat to my surroundings. From dizzying evening promenades with Z, to cooking meals with the retired yoga instructor who hosted me in her apartment, and countless solitary strolls … my experiences cemented my relationships within the city and my relationship with the city itself (or “herself”, as I came to think of Paris). After having moved six or seven times in my life, I unexpectedly came to feel at home abroad.

Despite my growing attachment, I knew that I couldn’t stay without finding work. I started to wonder: was it possible? As an adolescent, I’d dreamt of being a teacher abroad. It was a vision I’d had all through secondary school, daydreaming through class. It had also seemed a naively romantic reverie, the kind that called for a reality check. As a result, in college, I studied something “useful” in addition to literature, accepting that work with numbers was more valuable than work with letters. My parents, assured of my pragmatism, sent me abroad as a once-in-a-lifetime experience before expecting me to settle into a gainful career at home.

But I started to waver.

I had heard of a program which placed Americans in French schools as teaching assistants — the Teaching Assistant Program in France, sponsored by the French Ministry of Education — but I had let the deadline slip by. Though it sounded interesting, I still felt I owed the corporate route a shot.

After graduation, I struggled to find a job which would be renumerative and which would satisfy my interests. While visiting Z in Paris the summer after graduation, I even interviewed at a few French companies. Initially promising leads turned into dead ends as company after company declined to sponsor a work visa for me. I returned to the States and continued interviewing.

Graduation

Graduating college was cool.
Being unemployed was not.

Finally, that fall, I moved to New York City for a job as a project manager at a large, international translation company. My parents were ecstatic, and I thought it would be a terrific fit for my background in language and business studies. I couldn’t have been more wrong; the intense sales and price pressure of treating language as a commodity quickly grew intolerable. Despite overseeing some quality translation projects, I left the position after a mere three months. During this time, I decided to stop denying the direction I really wanted to take. I applied for the Teaching Assistant Program for the 2012-2013 school year.

Wall St. Bull

At some point, you have to stop feeding yourself bull.

~

Last week, I received an e-mail that addressed me as “Dear Future Teaching Assistant.” It informed me that I was accepted as an English teaching assistant in the Paris school district for the 2012-2013 school year. I would be teaching middle school and/or high school.

~

Where am I now? I am still in New York. I am temping as an administrative assistant at a recruiting company located on Wall Street. I like to joke that “I work on Wall Street” (to the chagrin of my mother, who is still making a valiant effort to come to terms with the fact that I will never be an investment banker). I am living on the Upper West Side and trying to take daily walks in Central Park. I am rubbing the petals of cherry blossoms between my fingers, enjoying the change of seasons and the warmth of spring. Come fall, an ocean will separate me from this amazing city, another place I have come to treasure.

But I like where I am now because I like where I am going. I don’t know my ultimate destination, but — nothing ventured, nothing found.