by Suzanne Stluka
As I prepare to lead a group of New School students on a trip to France, I’m reminded of my own first visit abroad. I was 16 years old, and I signed up with an international agency to spend three weeks that summer in France. We would spend one week in Paris getting acclimated to the country and seeing some sights, and then we’d travel to a two-week homestay with our French host families.
During our week in Paris, my new friends and I visited local cafés and boulangeries, went to museums, and basically soaked in the vibrancy of a new culture. By that time, I had had three years of French in junior high and high school, so I knew a lot of “textbook” French, but I had never had the chance to use it “in real life.” That first week, I got to use a lot of the language I had practiced: buying croissants and Metro tickets, asking for directions to the post office, and navigating my way through an unfamiliar city. But I was just starting to see the deeper aspects of French culture that I really couldn’t learn back in the U.S.
That week was my first experience with a French strike. For the French, a strike is as normal as a breakdown of a Metro escalator is for Washingtonians: it happens all the time, and you just learn to work around it. The French believe strongly in social justice, and feel that the strike is their rightful way to express their displeasure with a situation in their country, whether or not it achieves the change they seek. While people from other cultures may not understand the point of a French strike, it is a deeply important part of French culture.
So all the language-learning I did in my French classes at school was important and valuable, but the truest part of my education came once I was immersed in their culture, seeing firsthand how others lived.
The cultural immersion deepened as I departed Paris for my homestay. Each of the students in my group stayed with a family in a rural part of France, near Le Mans. Apparently, the homestay coordinator was a bit desperate for host families, and my homestay ended up being two weeks on a pig farm. The plumbing was primitive, the food was unlike what I was used to, the family spoke no English, and there were no neighbors for miles. Compared to my comfortable suburban home in Fairfax County, it was quite a culture shock.
Culture is a soup that we are swimming in; we know it’s there because it’s all around us, but it’s constantly changing, being stirred up by new ingredients that are added. How do you characterize a soup to someone who hasn’t tasted it? You can tell them what the ingredients are, and compare it to other soups they may have tried, and even describe its color, flavor, texture, and consistency with the words you have in your vocabulary, but they really can’t understand what you mean until they’ve actually tasted it themselves. And THAT is the value of a study-abroad experience, particularly one with a homestay component.
I had to learn how to interact–with real, live human beings–entirely in a language that I had previously only used in a classroom. I had to advocate for myself when I realized that my host family had no other children near my age, and make arrangements to spend some time with another host family nearby. I saw how a certain set of people–people completely unlike myself and my family in many ways–lived, every day, and realized that although their ways were different from what I knew, they were not wrong. And that is a very important concept, particularly in our politically divided society.
I came back from that trip not with any particular love for pigs or for farming life, but with an appreciation that the world was bigger than the comfortable suburb I knew. And I could not have absorbed that just from reading a book, or even from talking with someone. Some things can only be learned through direct experience.
A French friend of mine once told me how they could spot Americans a mile away, even if they weren’t wearing “fanny packs” and cameras around their necks:
Americans take up a lot of space.
Americans always wear sneakers.
Are those cultural stereotypes of the U.S.? Sure. Are they right? Not exactly, but they have enough truth in them to be recognizable. But the best way my friend could find out for herself was to actually come here and experience our culture, and draw her own conclusions.
I can’t wait to see France through my students’ eyes on this trip, as they begin what will hopefully be a lifelong journey through the different cultural soups that surround us all, wherever we are.