American Culture

27th January 2006, Comments 0 comments

Five years ago, F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat in immigrant parlance) in Gay Paree with two suitcases, a good bit of training in anthropology (but little else) and zero French, I decided to take some time to get used to my new surroundings before starting the dreaded job hunt.

So, within a week of landing at CDG, I found myself enrolled in a month-long French 'immersion' class at a language school near the Arc de Triomphe.


I didn't gain much in the way of real-life conversation skills that first month, but I sure could conjugate a mean verb by the time it was over (merci, Bescherelle) and, best of all, I met a few other expatriates there who eventually became good friends.

With them, I spent most of my time over the next few months covering every single centimeter of Paris on foot. We went to museums, we shopped, we met for coffee in every quaint little sidewalk café from the Avenue des Gobelins to the Champs Elysées.

In short, I was a professional tourist. And it was bliss.

After a while, though, I got bored. I spent a good bit of my time wondering what in the world to do with myself, career-wise, as the plans I had for my life in America had been somewhat derailed by my emigration.

I assessed my transferable skills; the outlook, I'm sad to say, was a bit bleak.

Being a non-French speaker with a non-French diploma meant that, basically, what was transferable amounted to this: I was a native English speaker in a city where everyone — and I do mean everyone — needed to learn English.


So…I did what nearly every Anglophone expatriate in France does at some point: I got a TEFL certification and began teaching English to Parisian business folk.

One thing led to another with that first job and soon I was asked by a local university to teach a course in "American Culture" to French students. No syllabus, no course outline, nothing — I was to design the course and teach it.

These kids needed a course on an Anglo topic in English and, according to the responsable of the school's language department, me being a university-degree'ed, TEFL-certified American with a background in cultural anthropology (and working papers!) gave me the necessary expertise to do it.

Didn't it?

At first my students were shy, but after a few weeks they began to open up, ask questions and even to tease their teacher (the usual joke being that the course title, "American Culture", was an oxymoron).


I have to say I was thrilled. In general, I found them to be bright, respectful, and eager to learn. I was glad that I had decided to tackle some of the more complicated aspects of American life on my syllabus, such as our electoral college, the (non) separation of church and state, racial relations, and the death penalty, among other things.

As none of them had ever lived (and most had never had the opportunity to even visit) the states, I didn't expect them to start with a broad knowledge of these topics.

However, I was constantly amazed at what they thought they already 'knew' about life in America — some of it being a good bit unrealistic and far-fetched (we all have beautifully decorated and huge inner-city apartments, for example) — and I often wondered where they got their ideas.

So, one day, I asked. The response? 'Friends'

Of course.

There you have it. American television, exported and dubbed. And they all, almost without exception, knew most of the episodes by heart.

So that's where they were getting their ideas about life in the United States, an American sitcom. I don't know why I was surprised.

Because once — when the French hubby-to-be and I had known each other only a month or so — my mom had a gallbladder attack, necessitating an emergency surgery and an extension of my visit home.

I remember trying to explain to him why I would be out of town a few more days than expected, but for the life of me could not find a good way to convey the word gallbladder.

Neither of us had a bilingual dictionary on hand at the moment, and I couldn't act it out (as we were on the phone), so I tried my best to remember the organ's functions and location. Finally, it clicked.

"Ahhhh, now I understand…” he said. “Zat is where zey shot J.R.!"

Of course.

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30 January 2006

Copyright Expatica

Subject: Living in France, blog

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