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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Ameliorating life among three time zones

Think about my world in this way: every morning I start my day by locating myself at GMT+1. I add seven hours (or six, according to the day-light saving time) to make it back home to China, and then subtract another seven hours to imagine life at Grinnell. Although Paris is located between my two homes, Guangzhou and Grinnell, I came to France a year ago assuming that my French experience would be somewhat similar to my experience in the United States. After all, France and the United States are both “western,” right? It turned out that my assumption was not quite accurate. In fact, just like the geographical location, my French experience is often somewhere between my experience in China and that in the United States.

The interaction between people is perhaps the most evident example. The American way is extremely welcoming and open even at the first-time interaction, whereas people keep their distance in French and Chinese cultures.

I recalled that in my first semester at Grinnell I had a difficult time answering the question “how are you” from acquaintances and even strangers. Coming from China, I was used to being reserved around strangers and I did not understand how my American friends could easily open up conversations with almost anyone they met. After being immersed in such an American way for two years, I was disappointed by my first interactions with the French society. I expected to be treated as a close member of my host family, while my host mom was very reserved in our interactions at the beginning. I expected to open up conversations with my French peers easily but found it extremely difficult to break into their friend circles. The French way of interaction reminded of the distance in the Chinese culture. For the French, the American way is sometimes too enthusiastic and even superficial. My host sister recounted her story of arriving in the United States, “I still cannot believe that the officer in the custom check called me sweetie! That was so strange.” My host mom later explained to me the reason of her “indifference” in the beginning: in France, they first practice personal reserve, get to know each other gradually, and finally open up and establish a long and profound relationship.

Rules and hierarchy in the three countries provide another interesting cross-cultural comparison. A strict hierarchy exists almost in every aspect in the French society—in school, in office, and at home. It is extremely difficult to explain why hierarchy persists in a society who esteems itself for its revolutionary spirit and its republican principle of liberté, équalité, fraternité. To continue my previous observation on the French education, I was surprised by the hierarchy between professors and students in the French classrooms. Most French students take notes of almost everything and occasionally ask questions, but they rarely challenge what the professor says. I found myself studying in an environment closer to that in China than in the U.S. Hierarchy comes with many unspoken rules. For instance, I have found many striking similarities between the French and the Chinese table manners—you have to pay extra attentions to rules and manners when you dine. Grabbing a piece of pizza with your hand is, perhaps, the last thing you want to do in a French or Chinese setting. After all, we all want to be classy – as the French would call it, la classe.

Throughout my year in Paris, I find myself jumping back and forth among the three cultures, but it was neither because of the time zones nor because of the languages. I enjoy listening to my American friends complaining about the French hierarchy and rules. I enjoy talking to my French friends about their love-hate relationship with the American culture. I enjoy discussing with my Chinese friends whether the French culture is closer to the Chinese one or the American one. From these explorations and discussions, I have developed my own continuum to make sense of the three cultures that I have lived with: China and the U.S. on opposite ends, and France somewhere in the middle. However, this continuum does not always work, because culture is a generalization and real life is full of exceptions. And that is what makes everyday cross-cultural experience fascinating—your daily discoveries continuously shape your perception and it will never be fixed.

I think I’m living in Paris, Guangzhou and Grinnell at the same time—or perhaps, I live somewhere else in between that I do not know of.

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