Culture Shock: Causing it Now, Experiencing it Previously (in reverse), and Preventing it in the Future

Everyone says that one of the biggest things you deal with when you go abroad for any reason (studying, business, pleasure, all of the above, etc.) besides jet lag is culture shock. I’ve been lucky enough to travel more than most people in my 20 years of life (and a half, as of yesterday), but for all of those abroad adventures, I’ve had someone holding my hand through every aspect of the excursion. Preparation. Education. Packing. What to say. What not to say. When to do this. What to NEVER do. Now that I’m working with a very different program in my preparation for studying abroad, I’ve realized that People to People Student Ambassador Programs spoiled me to no end (FYI, I traveled on three trips with the program, twice in middle school, once in high school). P2P as we lovingly call it had us hold monthly meetings throughout the school year before our trips (we did our traveling in the summer) in order to allow us to get to know the other students in our delegations, get us to watch videos that taught us about the program (started by Dwight D. Eisenhower, and yes, we like Ike) and how to pack, and do activities that helped us learn about the places we were going to visit. They even issued books for us that taught us little nuances about the places we were going, including famous recipes from our destinations (Pavlova from Australia, Yakisoba from Japan, etc.). We knew that you never called your fanny pack a fanny pack in Australia (“fanny” would be the American slang equivalent to the “c” word there), and we knew that you waited until THE last possible moment to give your Japanese host family a present because they’d try to give one back if you gave it too early (I got into a present war with mine on purpose, but that’s another post). Once the “trip” started, we all traveled together, same area of the plane, same bus the whole trip, same people, same groups… It was easy.

One of the things that P2P DIDN’T prepare me so well for was REVERSE culture shock. I spent two weeks in Japan with P2P in high school. One of the things that made that trip very different from the other two was the level of cultural immersion. I went to Australia for one trip (no language barrier, very few cultural differences), and the other trip was a three week trek through four different European countries with three language shifts. It was the most time I’d spent “marinading” in a singular language and a singular culture. If you’ve never been to Japan for all that long, here’s a couple things I noticed right away… they eat fish and rice at just about every meal. I loved that. If there is a “fat” person in Japan, nine times out of ten, that person is either a foreigner or a sumo wrestler. I distinctly remember seeing ONE “fat” Japanese person the entire time I was there. You also have to understand that I’ve got a great ear for language. I’m also remarkably humble. By the end of the trip, people liked being in my “group” for shopping, because I seemed to know the things to say to get the shopkeepers to help us find things we wanted. I had stopped putting my phrase book in my purse by the end of the first week. One of the things we had learned in Japan was that you started a meal saying “itadakimasu” which means “let’s eat” or “let me start.” You ended a meal saying “gochisoosama deshita” which means “That was delicious” in a formal manner (sans “deshita” it would be “normal”). Manners were very important. You bowed at the waist when you met someone, and you did it even when you were given someone’s business card, which you accepted with both hands, and made a point of reading before putting it in your wallet (not your pocket). To say “excuse me,” you say “sumimasen.” “I’m sorry” is “gomenasai.” When you don’t speak Japanese, you’re in Japan, and you keep messing things up, gomenasai comes out of your mouth about every 30 seconds…

When our plane landed back in the USA, I grabbed my luggage, and went out into the area of the airport where our parents were waiting for us. I ran up to my Mom, hugged her and said “OKASAN! (Japanese for “mother”)” First thought, “Okay. Wrong. I’m hugging a 5’8″ white woman who speaks English and maybe snatches of German that she might still remember from high school. This is out of place.” Once we got out of the airport, she took me to Togo’s for lunch (this was before I had been diagnosed, so I could still eat sandwiches). I knew something was off when I walked inside. My first thought when I got my sandwich, sat down, and looked around was that everyone in the restaurant was a sumo wrestler. The “reinsertion” into American culture didn’t get much easier after that. Shortly after I had returned home, my friend Lindsay had invited me over to eat dinner with her family, and I swear I will remember this until the day I die… We were all sitting around her dining room table (me, Lindsay, both of her parents, and all three of her siblings), serving ourselves pizza, and I blurted out “itadakimasu,” then started eating like nothing was wrong. Her entire family was staring at me like I was crazy. Even worse, I ended my meal, said “goshisoosama deshita,” got up from the table, threw my paper plate in the trash, and walked away, followed by the dumbfounded stares of Lindsay and her family. To my mother’s mildly horrified amusement, I would bump into people (accidentally) and say “sumimasen,” then started accepting wrapped fish from the fish counter at the grocery store with both hands and a bow for the next few weeks. To this day, whenever I say “Thank you” or “I’m sorry,” I bow a little, usually just as a nod of the head, but if I’ve done something “really bad,” the bow is slightly more profound. It’s noticeable enough that I’ve been picked on for it a little. It’s a quirk. Some people close their eyes tightly when they recite something. Others tap their foot in a rhythm to remember patterns. I… bow.

At any rate. You might be thinking, “So you picked up Japanese habits. How does this relate to culture shock and France?” Culture shock wasn’t in anyone’s vocabulary if you were a P2P Student Ambassador. You understood just about everything necessary for survival no matter where you were going. I obviously do not have such a luxury this time… For not having culture essentially handed to me to prepare me for my escapade in a foreign country, I’m doing a wonderful job finding it on my own. I’ve been working on adding things to my inspiration page here, most of which I’ve found through the Twitter accounts I’ve mentioned there on the first EDIT to the post (circa 11 juin). I now know that the whole American idea of “I don’t eat anything green” does not fly in France. Not a problem for me, I try everything so long as I’m certain I’m not going to make myself sick (and not in a Lamb Vindaloo too spicy way). This worried me initially because “I don’t eat anything made with gluten.” Thankfully, because I wear a Medic Alert bracelet, I’ve been formally diagnosed, and I’M ACTUALLY SICK AND NOT JUST PICKY, I will be heard. Hopefully. Another shift: in America, the customer is king. I have sent a meal back to the kitchen before because it had been prepared with gluten, when I specifically said that I couldn’t eat it. Oddly enough, that was in a McDonald’s. I politely told the manager the problem. He apologized to me, then told the fry cook while I was in earshot. Then this interaction happened…


Manager: “This was supposed to be made without the bun, she ordered it without one.”
Fry Cook: “Who the F*%$ doesn’t eat the bun?!” 
Me: “People who are allergic to them. If this is an inconvenience to you, I’ll gladly eat the bun, then wait around and personally vomit on your shoes so you see exactly why I ordered it without one.”

That kind of sass does not fly in France. Sadly. I mean. from the Fry Cook, it would. From me, it would not. The customer is NOT king in France. That’s okay. I found these cards that I can, should, and will print out and carry with me while I’m abroad. Granted, I can say everything on them, but the garçons will be busy, so it’ll be easier for me to just hand them one, and they can help me out. Should I get the feeling that my order was misheard, (from what I’ve gathered) I’m supposedly expected to apologize for the inconvenience, pay for a meal that I most likely will not consume, and leave. Definitely odd, but if that’s how it goes, that’s what I have to do. If you’re reading this, and you know I’m wrong, PLEASE leave a comment and tell me how I’m supposed to act. It’ll be best for me to go to a pretty decent number of restaurants right when I settle in and find my cantine or my “usual place” where they understand my problem, and treat me well, then go there all the time.
So that’s part of the prevention of culture shock and me fitting in. In my preparation for fitting in when I’m in Paris, I’ve managed to start experiencing a kind of… inadvertent… premature… outside-in culture shock… Trying to fit a large concept in to small words doesn’t always work. I feel as though I’ve vomited $3 words with no point… I digress. Allow me to try again. In my effort to wear scarves with every outfit, and use accessories to bring color to my clothing instead of wearing tie-dye every day like I used to, I’ve managed to make myself look a little… out of place in certain situations, and it’s garnered me some interesting attention. I’ve definitely noticed that just about forcing myself to wear jeans most days instead of shorts makes me look a step above most of the people I see around town. I don’t wear haute couture (meaning cher) at all, but I look a cut above presentable most days lately. It’s not getting to my head, and I don’t think myself better than les ariérées or the general public, but I do take a little bit of delight in how I look in comparison to others sometimes. By “look,” I mean general appearance of dress, not necessarily my body type, my features, or even my face. 
Yesterday, my mom took me et mon copain out for dinner and a movie for what we call my “merry un-birthday (my half birthday).” We went to a barbecue chain in town that my mom and her coworkers had been to for lunch that day. She said that it wasn’t very expensive, but it was a lot of food, and it filled you up, which was very true. Mom was still full from her lunch and only had a drink. Because it was my merry un-birthday, I was dressed up a little more than my now “standard” t-shirt, scarf, jeans, and flats. I was wearing black jeans, heels, a fancier scarf, and a bit of a fancier top. I’d spent a bit more time on my hair than usual as well. Remember, this was a barbecue joint, but we were going to the movies later. Maybe I was a little overdressed for the dinner venue, but not for the movies. So. Once we got our food and sat down, I noticed that pretty much everyone in the restaurant had given me the “once over” with a sort of “lady you crazy” look on his or her face. I’ll try to recreate the picture for you now. The restaurant was filled with people. There was a line out the door by the time we sat down. Two outfits caught my eye in particular. A lavender velour track suit (because it was on a woman UNDER 60, under 30 actually), and a tucked in blue gingham shirt with jeans and a belt with large buckle (because I had kind of expected to see more outfits like this). Most people that were there as customers were dressed in dingy t-shirts and ripped jeans, many with children dressed similarly. That should sum up how I felt. One person was severely under dressed. One was over dressed. The rest were… underwhelmingly dressed. They all looked at me like I was the crazy person. The look they were giving me was a look I would expect someone to give a person dressed like the one in this photo… 

…if she were a spectator at an Iditarod dog race (that’s in Alaska, if you didn’t know) and that’s seriously all she brought to wear. I think the saddest thing is that I actually like this dress. Without the veil and cardigan, of course. I think what initially upset me the most when I realized all the “attention” I was getting was the fact that they weren’t necessarily looking at me because they thought I looked GOOD or BETTER than they did, it was only because I looked DIFFERENT and it wasn’t what they were used to seeing.
All things said and done, I’m interested to see exactly what I’m going to be like when I come home after my stay in Paris is over. As for now… I don’t mind forcing people to look at me thinking “lady you crazy.” In reality, this lady is so remarkably stylish, people around here don’t have brains capable of computing the level of style that I walk around displaying every day.

Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es. –Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

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