The culture shock of being a French exchange student in America

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Clara Catel, Reporter

Imagine that you have lived all your life in the same country. Then, one day, you decide to go abroad for a year, to a country you know nothing about, and whose culture is different.

That’s what I decided to do this year.

I am from France, and I am in America for the rest of the year. So I’ll let you imagine how enormous the culture shock was for me when I arrived. Ever since I came here, I have noticed even the slightest differences between the United States and my homeland. But the first and biggest difference I’ve seen so far is the people. 

Compared to France, the people here are extremely caring and welcoming. I don’t know if they are particularly nice to me because I am a foreigner, but the gap between the two countries is still glaring.

On the first day of my arrival, for example, when I was just getting off the plane at the airport (so I’ll let you imagine how deplorable my appearance was), a young woman stopped me and said, “Oh my god, you are so pretty! And I love your outfit!”

I was left speechless. And this situation has happened several times since I’ve been here.

In France, a situation like that never happens. People there (especially girls), when they think that you are pretty, just look at you badly and raise their eyebrows when you walk past them. Men, on the other hand, whistle at you when they think you are good enough for them.

Of course there are some exceptions, but it is still very rare. Never has a situation like this happened since I have been living here. And it’s the same with cashiers, for example. Even if it may seem very futile, I assure you that for someone who comes from France, the difference is enormous.

The first time I went to a store, I was so surprised when the lady greeted me with a big smile and said: “Hello, I hope you are doing great! How was your day ?”

Because in France, cashiers barely look you in the eyes when they throw you a dry “Hello,” before asking you the amount of your purchase and moving on to the next customer. I don’t know if I’ve always been unlucky in France and ran into the worst cashiers, but what is certain is that this is nothing like France.

Since my arrival, I have only had positive experiences with people. Believe me, it feels good to replace people in a bad mood on their way to work in the metro with smiling people, looking happy to do what they are doing.

Of course, I’m not trying to portray the French as embittered and rude people; I love my country, I am proud of it, and living in France has a lot of positive points. It is very far from being terrible. I know that in writing this, I will probably push the cliché of “the French are just mean and rude,” but this is my point of view, and I can assure you, I don’t miss French people at all.

The second difference is school. For two reasons. First, the schedules; here, students are ending school at 2pm every day and start at 8am. They can also choose which subjects they want to study.

In France, it’s very different: we have a different schedule for every day in a week. This means that we don’t study the same subjects every day, and our schedules may vary from day to day. Unfortunately for us, the average start time is 8am, and we often end at 5pm.

We don’t get to choose the subjects we want to study either, and they are the same for everyone. French, math, science, physics-chemistry, history-geography, English, technology, economic and social sciences, sport, and Spanish/Italian/German. No journalism or theater classes.

Also, we are staying with the same classmates all year long, every class period, every day.

In France, there is no room for laughing.”

The teachers are also quite different. I have noticed that the teachers here develop a kind of relationship with their students. They take the time to talk with them every day, which, in my opinion, makes the lessons much more interesting. You can tell in the way they teach that they love their job.

In France, there is no room for laughing. Teachers just teach and that’s it. And it is in your interest to understand the course because the teacher will not go on explaining to you again what you are having difficulty with.

The academic level is also much harder there. The program is much more busy, and the tests are more numerous. The reason why the program is so heavy is supposedly so “the students can learn more and faster so that they can succeed in their lives.”

But I noticed that here, with a program half as busy, the students are not dumber; to be honest, they even seem more “happy” because the workload is less intense, so they have more freedom and free time to hang out with their friends, to practice activities, etc.

The second reason the school is different is the dress style. It seems like in America, students don’t really care about how they dress when they go to school.

I was completely confused on my first day of class here, when I noticed that my classmates were pretty much all wearing Crocs, with just jeans and t-shirts.

I must admit that I felt very different this day, because in France school rhymes with fashion show – make-up, hairstyle, handbags and fancy outfits are customary. Never, I say never, would anybody come to class in Crocs.

Despite all that, this has an advantage, because in France, the dress code does not exist. At least in theory. For example, the girls are free to dress as they want, as long as it remains what is considered appropriate. We are free to wear as many crop tops, skirts or shorts as we want.

The irony in this situation is that the weather is much colder in France than here. And despite that, I dress less warmly there. It is for this reason that I was dress-coded several times during my stay here. For me, it’s normal to come to class with crop tops or strapless tops on, so it took me a bit of time to get used to that.

Finally, the third and last difference that I could see, as weird as it may sound, is the food: I’m not gonna lie, I’m having a hard time getting used to the way Americans eat. For real. It seems like here fast food dominates all other kinds of cuisine.

Everything is very- let’s say- Americanized.

I have been to restaurants that are claiming to be Italian or Thai several times, and I can assure you the food there is more American than anything else. I have rarely had the chance to eat vegetables since I came here, and for me it’s hard to understand how people are not weary of always eating unhealthy food. I think food is one of the only things I really miss in France.

Also, Americans eat at all hours of the day; there is not really a specific time for meals. In France, each meal is at a specific time.

Breakfast is between 7 am and 9 am, meals are between 12 am and 2 pm, and dinner is between 7 pm and 9 pm. We never eat between meals. The day I arrived, I was very surprised when, out of the airport, around 5pm, my host family took me to eat at a fast food restaurant.

In the end, everything is extremely different here, and it will take me a little longer to get used to all the American habits. But I know one thing for sure – even if it seems a little bit harsh, I’ve had so many positive experiences here that I don’t miss France at all.

I feel like coming here was the best decision of my life!