My sociology professor would kill me if she read this post.
She’s always saying three months is not enough time to pass judgment on an entire culture, that we’re too Americanized to admit that our way might not be the best and that our arguments aren’t nuanced enough.
Of course, she’s completely right.
But alas, for I am prone to grand sweeping statements and while I shall fervently try to give nuanced accounts of our cultural differences, I fully expect my brash American-ness to peek its way out.
Bearing that in mind, allons-y.
Difference number one: Schools, or why I am proud to be a Wildcat.
In France, there is no Ivy League. Universities are free, therefore none are considered to be “better” than others. Also, professors are employees of the state and as a result have job security for life. They can never be fired.
I do not like the French university system (Grand Sweeping Statement #1). And it’s not because it flies in the face of capitalism (America: where we capitalize on our children’s futures). On the contrary, all the aforementioned aspects of the French education system provide a solid basis for arguing why it is better than that of the States.
But nobody seems proud to go to the Sorbonne. There are no school colors, no sports teams to root for even when they miss the field goal that costs you the Alamo Bowl. There is no real “campus”. And I hope you understood everything the professor said in class, because office hours and friendly after-discussion section chats are a thing of mythology. I guess when you don’t have to fight for tenure, you don’t generally need to worry about responding to students’ emails.
The French apparently find our university system shocking. Students who pay for their education become clients of the university, and they can’t imagine paying for what they believe everyone should have for free. Fair. But the idea of students evaluating professors is similarly horrifying: that is simply not our place. Our job is to go to class, do our work and try not to question the professor too much. And while a new bill in CAESAR is one of the more torturous things this world has to offer, if I am not presented with a product I find satisfactory, I can easily take my money elsewhere.
Difference number two: Religion, or why you can’t wear your yarmulke to class.
Secularism is a tricky beast. “Grosse affaire” as my professor likes to say. Oh, this one really gets the American exchange students all riled up. All religious symbols are completely forbidden in state-owned buildings which includes (drumroll please) public schools.
That’s right. No hijabs, no crosses, no yarmulkes. In France, religion is for private life. In the public sphere, they believe religion divides and offends people, and the easiest way to avoid conflict is by leaving these differences at home. There have been many circular arguments regarding this policy in my sociology class (most of which can be summed up by “But it’s just so un-American!”) but I’m not sure it’s such a bad idea.
I’m all for freedom of religion and celebrating our differences, and I genuinely enjoy learning about different belief systems. That said, it’s impossible to please everyone. Wearing a cross is one thing, but how about including Intelligent Design in school curriculum? After all, some people don’t believe in evolution. What about Muslim students who pray five times a day? Should we let them leave class? And after all that, where does it end? I don’t know. But I don’t think a country where we swear on the Bible in a court of law has the best possible handle on the separation of church and state.
Difference number three: Male/female relations, or the dubious hypocrisy of American feminism
Yes, Parisian men will blatantly stare at girls on the Metro and catcall them in the streets. Don’t talk to guys in bars, and holy restraining order, don’t give them your phone number. The rule given to us by our program: “If you kiss him, you are his girlfriend. If you kiss him twice, you’re meeting the mother the next day.”
Mindful of that, you may find it interesting (as I did) to discover that marriage rates in France are fairly low. One out of five French children is born out of wedlock. A lot of times the French, especially young people, prefer to have l’union libre: to live and sometimes raise a family together without being married. There is also a version of a civil union in France called the PACS which, though intended for homosexual couples, has ended up being widely used by heterosexual couples who don’t believe in marriage. Apparently, this stems from career-driven feminists (GSS #2).
What my professor wants to know is: how can American women be so gung-ho about equal rights, breaking glass ceilings and independence but still fantasize about the day a guy gets down on one knee in a restaurant and offers her a ring?
“If any guy tried that with me, I’d walk out of the restaurant,” she said.
Well, maybe we don’t dream of marriage anymore. Divorce rates being what they are, perhaps the sensible thing is just to marry our careers. Or maybe we’re all just secretly dying to wrap ourselves in white taffeta and fling ourselves down an aisle.
Or (perhaps more likely) maybe feminism and marriage aren’t mutually exclusive.
I used to wonder if I was born in the wrong country. Maybe if I moved to France I would find that I just fit better there. Maybe another culture had already found the answers to the all the questions I couldn’t quite figure out. And yes, I like to think being here has expanded my mind, at least somewhat.
But I am American, and I always will be. No matter how well I understand different perspectives, I will always see everything through a star spangled lens. C’est la vie.
Well, Professor Fesdjian, I did my best.