I can’t explain my country.

As a foreigner here in France, I am constantly asked to explain how life is in the United States. Do you have this in America? Is it legal to do that? What do Americans think about this?

Just as most Americans have no idea how small European nations are, most Europeans have no idea how large the United States is (17 times larger than France). And therefore, they have little understanding that I cannot speak for all Americans, nor do I even know what life is like in other parts of the country. I try to explain democrats vs. republicans… liberals vs. conservatives… that in fact, the country is divided into two. I try to explain the different regions, with their own accents, histories and cultures: New England, the Deep South, the Midwest, etc. I try to explain that each state can make their own laws regarding various issues ranging from speed limits to marriage.

Yet my students were still amazed that I had never been to Washington, D.C. They assume the government has centralized everything – as all roads lead to Paris in France. They couldn’t believe the drinking age was 21, yet joining the military was possible at 18. Getting a driver’s license couldn’t possibly be that cheap (more than 1,000 € here), nor could university be that expensive (I don’t even want to tell you how cheap it is here because you will cry).

Even David is still fascinated by these differences. Last month he heard about a woman in Virginia who was sent to jail for throwing a party for her 16 year-old son and his friends. Her crime was supplying them with beer. She is now serving a 27 month sentence, reduced from eight years. We watched The Untouchables recently and he constantly wondered why in the world Prohibition ever happened. To the average Frenchman who drinks wine every single day, banning alcohol for (what seems like) no reason is beyond ridiculous. And the fact that dry counties still exist throughout the Bible Belt is just too much to take in.

Equally ridiculous are the censorship laws regarding nudity. Remember Janet Jackson and the Superbowl? Scenes like that can be viewed at virtually any time of the day on French television. Skin care products frequently feature topless women and a lot of French women (of any age) sunbathe topless. Even the former franc notes featured a topless Marianne!

Spiegel reported last week that a German children’s book would not be published in the United States because of nudity. Take a look at the offending illustration. Did you spot the “nudity”???

I get tired of trying to explain how religious and conservative the U.S. government still is and that is the reason for these ridiculous laws. Europeans still don’t believe that there is a “Separation of Church & State” when In God We Trust is written all over the money. Or that alcohol could be classified as a drug, just like heroine or cocaine. Or that a cartoon drawing of an art gallery could be considered as nudity. But why would they when I can’t even convince them that France is smaller than the state of Texas?

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  • cedricrcarrion

    Hi,Sorry this has got nothing to do with your comment (Very interesting though as I love Le Tour…) But could not find the link “Contact us”I am a french guy who leave in Chambery, I am with an english girl (She is a medical doctor in Chamvery Hospital) How are you getting there in Annecy, hope you both enjoy life now that we ve got the sun … At last. Don’t worry this summer is definitely not a tipical one, it is usually drier and warmer…Please let me know !Kind regardsCédric R Carrioncedricrcarrion@yahoo.fr

  • cedricrcarrion

    Hi,
    Sorry this has got nothing to do with your comment (Very interesting though as I love Le Tour…) But could not find the link “Contact us”
    I am a french guy who leave in Chambery, I am with an english girl (She is a medical doctor in Chamvery Hospital)

    How are you getting there in Annecy, hope you both enjoy life now that we ve got the sun … At last. Don’t worry this summer is definitely not a tipical one, it is usually drier and warmer…

    Please let me know !
    Kind regards
    Cédric R Carrion
    cedricrcarrion@yahoo.fr

  • dw

    But on the other hand France has a lot of things that wouldn’t make sense to Americans. Though I do agree that the children’s book picture is ridiculous. No wonder 15 year old boys are obsessed with nudity… they’ve never seen any before!

  • dw

    But on the other hand France has a lot of things that wouldn’t make sense to Americans.
    Though I do agree that the children’s book picture is ridiculous. No wonder 15 year old boys are obsessed with nudity… they’ve never seen any before!

  • Melissa

    Completely relate. When I was living in Paris for a semester, the Iraq war had just gotten underway, and EVERYONE wanted to hear what I, as an American, had to say about it. They’re often surprised to discover that many Americans were not actually insisting on calling French fries “freedom fries.” The misconceptions from both ends can be pretty striking.

  • Melissa

    Completely relate. When I was living in Paris for a semester, the Iraq war had just gotten underway, and EVERYONE wanted to hear what I, as an American, had to say about it. They’re often surprised to discover that many Americans were not actually insisting on calling French fries “freedom fries.” The misconceptions from both ends can be pretty striking.

  • ColourMeCrazy

    I feel for you – it can’t be easy having to explain being American everytime you meet some bigotted person who doesn’t realise how diverse the US is.

  • ColourMeCrazy

    I feel for you – it can’t be easy having to explain being American everytime you meet some bigotted person who doesn’t realise how diverse the US is.

  • DestinationMetz

    That’s true, I always feel so inadequete when I’m not an expert on Australia. Like the population of certain areas, I have no idea. Or once I was asked what a female sheep was called and I said “well I think it’s an ewe but we just call it a sheep” and I was criticised for not knowing! Also because I’m Australian I’m automatically supposed to know the complete filmography of Peter Weir.

  • DestinationMetz

    That’s true, I always feel so inadequete when I’m not an expert on Australia. Like the population of certain areas, I have no idea. Or once I was asked what a female sheep was called and I said “well I think it’s an ewe but we just call it a sheep” and I was criticised for not knowing! Also because I’m Australian I’m automatically supposed to know the complete filmography of Peter Weir.

  • Mateo

    Bien intéressant tes commentaires…. en fait je pense qu’une partie des Français et des citoyens US se ressemblent: ils partagent cette même fierté nationale exagérée et de ce fait ont à considérer le monde en deux parties: la partie “normale” (i.e. chez eux) et le reste. Beaucoup de Français, à l’instar de nombreux citoyens US, ont aussi une vision teintée de superpuissance: intervenir là où il le faut, influencer, protéger les intérêtes, etc…. Le problème pour la France, c’est que son influence est pour l’essentiel chose du passé.
    Vivant entre l’Amérique et l’Europe, j’ai aussi souvent eu à faire face à de drôles de questions, mais la palme d’or revient, je crois, à une Française que j’avais rencontré à NY et qui était persuadée que l’Immigration Officer à l’aéroport avait fait semblant de ne pas comprendre le Français. J’ai vraiment dû expliquer beaucoup de choses pour qu’elle finisse par croire que le Français n’est plus une langue aussi universelle…..
    Amicalement

  • Mateo

    Bien intéressant tes commentaires…. en fait je pense qu’une partie des Français et des citoyens US se ressemblent: ils partagent cette même fierté nationale exagérée et de ce fait ont à considérer le monde en deux parties: la partie “normale” (i.e. chez eux) et le reste. Beaucoup de Français, à l’instar de nombreux citoyens US, ont aussi une vision teintée de superpuissance: intervenir là où il le faut, influencer, protéger les intérêtes, etc…. Le problème pour la France, c’est que son influence est pour l’essentiel chose du passé.
    Vivant entre l’Amérique et l’Europe, j’ai aussi souvent eu à faire face à de drôles de questions, mais la palme d’or revient, je crois, à une Française que j’avais rencontré à NY et qui était persuadée que l’Immigration Officer à l’aéroport avait fait semblant de ne pas comprendre le Français. J’ai vraiment dû expliquer beaucoup de choses pour qu’elle finisse par croire que le Français n’est plus une langue aussi universelle…..
    Amicalement

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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