Friday, March 21, 2014

Stereotypical Fun

Well, when you live in a foreign get to be exposed to all sorts of fun opinions that people in that country have about where you come from. 

Of course, in particular, people have pretty polarizing opinions about the U.S. I think most people in the word either love America or hate America. It's not like, say, Canada...a country that literally no one has an opinion about.

France and the U.S. both have strong opinions about each other, which leads to some fun stereotypes on both sides. Last week, I thought it would be a good idea to teach a lesson about stereotypes that our countries have for each other. I learned some interesting things!

First, I talked about common generalizations that French people make about America (things people have commented to me about a lot!). This was the 'mythbusters' section of the lesson where I explained how true certain things are.

#1 All Americans are fat and eat very unhealthy food.
Well, France is one of the healthiest and fittest countries in the world, so this one is definitely partly true! America's fast-food and snacking culture is something that doesn't exist in France. I explained that this is a major problem in the U.S., and the obesity percentage is much higher than in their country...but that they still need to know that not EVERYONE struggles with this. I'm not going to do the math, but I'm guessing that since America's population is so much bigger, that there are actually more skinny people in America than in France ;)

It bothers me sometimes that people feel the need to tell me to my face that they think all Americans are fat (hello, I am American, thanks). I would say this is the number one thing that French people make fun of about America. While there's a lot of truth to it, they don't think about how France has serious health problems of its own (cough...smoking...cough). I had one horrible experience at my immigration doctor check-up when the doctor said to me "I know you probably think you're normal because everyone in your country is fat, but I want you to know that for girls your age in France you're actually considered 'shockingly' fat." Yep, still trying to shake off that one.

#2 All Americans are gun-crazy and America is very dangerous.
This one is almost as common as the fat jokes! I get asked a lot if I have a gun. Also, I've had several people tell me how lucky I am to be in France where I'm safe from gun violence. My favorite was when I was telling some teachers that I spent the summer in the Middle East, and one of them said "Wasn't that scary? Oh, I guess not...because America is so violent too."

So, I looked up the percentage of Americans that owned guns... only 37%. That really surprised my students! I also told them that guns are more common in the South and rural west, and they're not a big part of culture for people that are from cities like me. Also, they were surprised (and I think a little disappointed, honestly) that I've never lived in fear of getting shot. I explained to them that, yes way more Americans own guns than Europeans, and yes, there's a lot more of a problem with gun violence...but at the same time, America is big and diverse and it's not the way of life for all people. 

#3 Everything is bigger in America.
While the previous two I talked about were only partly true, I think this one is completely true. The houses, the cars, the portion sizes. Yes, everything is bigger in America. No disputes from me on this one. 

#4 Americans are loud and obnoxious.

I can see where this idea comes from, because in public French people are quiet and reserved. They also have very strict rules about politeness and protocol. So when American tourists mosey on over to France and don't know about any of these cultural norms, they come across as rude. If you ride public transportation in France, it's almost always silent. People don't want to bother other people. I think America is more like Italy or Spain, where no one's afraid to be loud in public. 

Also, whenever you enter a store or restaurant, you'd best be ready with some "Bonjour madame"s and "Au revoir, bonne journée"s, or people will hate you for not being polite. I explained to my students that this one really comes down to cultural differences, and I think they understood that.

I didn't address the last major stereotype about the U.S....that Americans are stupid, because I don't believe that one has any basis in reality. If you're stupid enough to think that entire countries are stupid (and ummm especially one with the world's biggest economy, the most Nobel prizes, the most prestigious university system, and the oldest continuous democracy), then you're the stupid one. That's all on that!

Okay, now for some good old American stereotypes about les Français! I gave groups of students some of these on little slips of paper, and their job was to explain to me how true it is/if it's completely false.

#1 France's military is cowardly and surrenders easily.

I think most people would agree that this is our most common stereotype about the French. And I admit, I don't hate a good French surrender joke. I was a little surprised to learn that they had NO IDEA that Americans joke about this. Only one student in all of my classes guessed that this was popularized by WWII.

While I completely agree that France's performance is WWII was pretty triste, (not just the military defeat, but the Nazi collaboration that came afterwards...), I also understand how French people think this seems ridiculous. France has a long history of being one of the most powerful countries in the world, and that would not be the case if French people had always been cowardly and had a terrible military.

#2 French people don't shower often, and the women don't shave.
I HAD to include this one, because people in America ask me about this all the time! Again, like the military thing, this completely shocked the students. They assured me that they don't know anyone that doesn't shower regularly or girls that don't shave. They thought this was pretty funny! I think it's true that until relatively recently Europeans didn't shower nearly as often as Americans, but now it's pretty much evened out. I don't know where the shaving thing came from...I'm thinking maybe it was semi-true in the past or something? 

#3 French people are arrogant.

So, in the course of teaching this lesson I realized that French people and Americans both think that the other one is rude (in different ways though, I think). About half of my students agreed that French people are arrogant, and the other half didn't think that the French were more or less arrogant than people in other countries.

I want to make a distinction between being nice on the inside (which I think most French people are), and friendly on the outside (which most French people are not). Although I wouldn't describe the French as being warm and fuzzy, smiley, or particularly welcoming...that doesn't mean that on the inside they are terrible people. That cultural difference is where this stereotype comes from. Also, in France there is zero notion of American customer service.

Some of the nicest people that I've met in my life have been French! However, it has been a little difficult to live somewhere where people aren't generally super friendly.

#4 French people are chic and sophisticated. 
Finally, a positive stereotype! Most of the kids were surprised to hear that other countries think that French people are more fashionable than them (hey look...they're not arrogant, see?). So they didn't agree with this, but I 100% do!

I love French fashion!!! And it loves me. The Marissa look is in over here. In general, the clothes are more feminine and a little fancier, but still trendy and young-looking. I've done some good shopping, let me tell you. People dress much less casually here. You NEVER see adults wearing tennis shoes, t-shirts, sweatshirts, or sweatpants in public.


Just saying. 

5. French people hate Americans.

The kids denied this one about as vehemently as the no-shaving one. French teenagers think America is so cool. I don't think it's always the same story with older French people, but at least we've got one generation on our side! Even though the French don't always agree with our politics, they pretty much universally love our pop culture. Also, most French people I've talked to dream about visiting America (yes, even with all of the guns, loud people, and fatty food)  ;)

Well, to go along with this stereotype discussion I have the perfect pictures. Today at school they had a costume contest as part of a school spirit day/Mardi Gras party. And guess what the costume theme was? AMERICA! So basically, here is a visual representation of every stereotype that French people have about America.

Here's some cowgirls and 'Wild West' saloon girls. French people are a bit obsessed with the Wild West! That's where some of the gun stereotypes come from.

Oh wait, speaking of guns:

You can only actually see the guns in the first picture, but the soldier and the 'gangster'  also had them. Ironically, bringing a fake gun to school would NOT fly in the U.S. I think remember hearing about a little kid once getting suspended for just biting a pop tart into the shape of a gun at school haha.

The other biggest theme I saw were Indians and Mexicans. I was a little surprised by the Mexicans, but yes, we do have a lot of them!

And if you think that's creeping dangerously close to being a bit racist, there were several kids in full blackface and afros. I didn't get a good picture because they all started doing a conga line. It happens.

On a lighter note, yes, some minions were in attendance.

The most realistic thing I saw were basketball players, football players, and cheerleaders.

I thought these astronauts were cute!

In one of my classes we've been doing a unit on the Salem Witch Trials. I was proud to see a group of girls dress up as Salem Witches. They listened to me about something! Every teacher's dream!

But let's be honest, I think the MOST American person there was this girl:

I defied the French laws of fashion and wore a sweatshirt in public just for this occasion. What's more American than cheering for the Packers?  :)

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