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October 11, 2012

Building the French connection

Cultural run-ins abroad can lead to thoughtful consideration of stereotypes, preconceptions.

“Pourquoi les Américains n’aiment pas les musulmans?” he asked. Why don’t Americans like Muslims?

It was a week after riots broke out across the Middle East in response to the “Innocence of Muslims” video. I was sitting with some of my friends on the bank of the Seine near Notre Dame having a disgustingly stereotypical French picnic. A cheerfully drunken man sat down next to us and began alternating between asking why Americans hate Muslims, professing his own universal acceptance of people of all nations and creeds, and trying to convince me to give him my number.

Through the course of the conversation, we found out he was a young French-Tunisian named Faez whose claims to universal tolerance were made somewhat doubtful by his insistence that blacks were untrustworthy and that a Jewish conspiracy was running the U.S. government. Left to the near impossible task of convincing a man bigoted against the world that all Americans were not bigoted against him, we ended up sounding like over-eager middle school students giving presentations about diversity in America: People in the United States don’t hate Muslims. We tolerate and accept all different kinds of people, and that’s what makes America a great country. I described the United States as a boiled-down version of what I wished it were, because there is no simple description that can encapsulate a nation of 300 million people. At a time when Americans are taking great care to emphasize their differences, it is sometimes difficult for me to grapple with being immediately categorized, placed into a box with a stamp reading “Américaine.”

Being an American in a foreign country always carries with it cultural or political significance, and being the oft-clichéd ‘American in Paris’ is no exception.

You carry on your back the weight of the French identity crisis, as many Parisians continue to struggle with the decades-old inundation of American stores, culture, and politics. (My favorite example of the French coverage of American politics was a magazine cover with a picture of Romney and the legend “Romney l’extraterrestre,” Romney, alien, though whether it was political commentary or Enquirer-esque pulp remains unknown.)

The French have a love–hate relationship with American culture: They may look down upon it, but someone —ok, make that many someones­—must be eating at the country’s 857 McDonalds. Americans must also contend with the legacy of the millions of American tourists who came before us. Most American tourists are nice people, but most visible are those who become loudly and embarrassingly drunk in public or expect everyone in France to speak English.

Americans, too, make dangerous assumptions about the French and about Paris. The Paris that many Americans imagine is grossly idealized, closer to the Epcot version than the actual thing. Though I loved Midnight in Paris, the recent Woody Allen film about a man whose life is changed by visiting 1920s Paris, it only perpetuated the view of Paris as a magical city that will fix your problems. Paris is not a magical city, and chances are that if you come to Paris with problems, you will leave with them.

In fact, being in a foreign country can often exacerbate these pre-existing conditions. My sense of self-confidence has certainly not been helped by my occasional inability to communicate in a language I have been studying for eight years. Such blows to my ego often occur in the morning as I stumble into a coffee shop, bleary-eyed and caffeine deprived, only to have the cashier open her mouth and emit a series of incomprehensible syllables that I can only suppose are French. This can be frustrating, but c’est la vie, n’est-ce pas?

On the bright side, Paris has many charms, which, at times, even include the people who live there. The famed rudeness of Frenchmen is exaggerated; they are really no more toxic than New Yorkers. Though I have met my fair share of snobby people who sneer at my American accent, I have also met very kind ones, eager to include me in their activities. A man at the information desk in Chambord went above and beyond the call of duty in helping my friend and I get back to Blois. His kindness was only outstripped by the motherly restaurant owner who told my group that we reminded her of her adult children and gave us dessert on the house. Even Faez and his friends seemed like well-meaning people, albeit people with a worldview that fundamentally conflicted with my own.

Though I had about as much success convincing Faez that Americans don’t hate Muslims as he did convincing me that the U.S. government was responsible for the “Innocence of Muslims” video, the encounter was informative for me, and hopefully for Faez as well. I was surprised that I generally liked him and his friends, despite their general bigotry and views about Americans. It was Muslim anti-American sentiment in a context where there were no riots or attacks, only people whose names I knew and who had nothing but goodwill for me personally. Such experiences are a powerful incentive to go abroad.

Furthermore, being forced to confront negative stereotypes of ourselves, to have to defend where we come from and who we are, is not necessarily a bad thing; nor is going somewhere and not always liking what you see. Our presence gives America—a looming cultural and political force in France and elsewhere—human faces. (Whether this is a good or bad thing probably depends upon how much you fit the stereotype of a drunken American college student.) Reality is often more complicated and more interesting than our preconceptions, and France, with its racial tensions, American stores, and socialism, is no exception.

Maya Fraser is a third-year in the College majoring in sociology. 

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