I think it's safe to say that I have been very lucky in my life. Days before I left for France my parents were counting out all of the countries I've been to at the ripe old age of 20. (Including France, nine) Having taken my love of other cultures and traveling and focused it into an International Relations major, I'm think we can say that it's a fact that I love this big crazy world and figuring out how all of these puzzle pieces connect to make a global community. One thing that has bothered me for years, however, are the stereotypes that pop up everywhere.
I have never been one to believe stereotypes when it comes to other nations and cultures, I am the New England liberal that chose to go to school in the South. I firmly believe that everyone deserves to define themselves based on who they are, not on who they should be. So when I was leaving for France, all of my family members and friends were giving me their 'advice' on what I should 'watch out for', 'be wary of', and 'expect' once I got to France. This advice ranged from what types of toilets to expect to how to handle myself around French men to the inevitable fact that my French would be made fun of. Even before I left and have had a chance to spend time immersed in the French way, I was angry at people for believing and reporting these stereotypes to me. While advice is always appreciated, I wanted the opportunity to make up my own mind about what the French may or may not be like. I am also very aware of the American stereotype abroad and how not many in America are what the rest of the world thinks we are. Maybe it's the traveling or maybe it's the international students that I have gotten to share a living space with during my time at Montrose, but I had had enough of these stereotypes and I refuse to let them add a different lens to how I approach France and the French people.
First things first, I guess we should narrow down what stereotypes we are talking about. I've written enough papers and lab reports (I don't want to dwell on that last one for too long...) in my time to know that you always want to define your terms first so that the audience is on the same page as the author. So French stereotypes, watch this video and we'll get on the same page with that one.
...To be fair, I've only worn this twice including today and it's because it's Skype Sunday. I don't leave the house so I don't feel the need to get all fancy and put on a nice shirt. Also, it's really cold, as I may have mentioned once or twice and my sweatshirt is warm. It also creates a wonderful topic of conversation. Every exchange student my family has hosted has also expressed their concern within the first week in America that they are worried about getting fat while there. I think by understanding how we as a people are perceived abroad really displays how silly stereotypes can be.
I was part way through this post earlier today, when I stopped for lunch. It was Martine, Richard, Clémentine, myself, and a friend of Martine's. I don't remember how we got on the topic, but suddenly Martine was asking me to confirm her statement that America has a lot of obese people. I gave a very shaky head nod; I'm under no illusions that obesity is not present in the US, but 'a lot' is pushing it, in my un-researched opinion. This sent Martine off about a story of a woman she met in Boston (which I believe she went to Boston when she was a kid. She told me about how the water on the Cape is dangerous because once she was caught in a rip tide. My vocabulary nor want of dispute at the dinner table was up to the challenge of saying that I summered on the Cape for 12 years before my grandparents sold their house, and the first time I got caught in a rip-tide was when I was about 16 and on Nantucket. I have been in that water plenty enough to know that saying the water on the Cape is dangerous is not even close to an accurate statement. Although the sharks this past summer may wish to change my mind....) who was so obese it was sort of a monstrosity. That sincerely bothered me. I may not go around shoving my nationality down the international community's throats, but I am a proud American. To assume that we are all fat when you simultaneously complain that I never eat enough food is quite hypocritical of you. Just because you saw one very obese woman in America, or you encountered a French artist wearing a beret, or a Mexican wearing a poncho does not mean you can create a blanket statement for an entire community.
Sometimes, stereotypes are true. The French love eating their baguettes. I have been blatantly checked out here more times than you would ever see in the US. The French do discuss the finer qualities of cheeses and wine. They are significantly less embarrassed about the human body than Americans are (Martine often asks me questions as I'm walking from the sale de bain to ma chambre and am only wearing a towel). They also love their coffee and tea. Their showers are weird, and they conserve everything from water to electricity. However some stereotypes are very wrong. Not once has my family laughed at my French. Once or twice the occasional waiter or cashier will switch to very broken English after I say something in French, but, for the most part, they are happy to explain and are glad you are willing to try and speak their language. Most 'customer service centered' workers are very accommodating and are curious about where I'm from and what I'm doing in Grenoble. The young Frenchmen I have met are absolutely no different from American men except for the language they speak in and what they wear. Also, I have seen one beret while in French. I think it's quite similar to wearing a 'Newsies' type hat, and generally reserved for the older generation and steadily being phased out.
I guess the whole point of this post is just that I want people to stop relying on stereotypes as viable information. If you want to know what the French, the Spanish, the Indians, or the Russians are like, go there and find out. Don't rely on second hand information that isn't necessarily based on fact. Go learn about other cultures! Don't even take stereotypes on different parts of America as fact! Go see your own country, meet the people, eat their food, participate in their favorite past times and then figure it out. Mostly, I think what we need to remember most, is that everyone is different and one person does not define an entire community.
STOP RELYING ON STEREOTYPES!!!!