Secret Life of a Nerd Girl: It’s All in the Sauce
a blogumn by Gudrun Cram-Drach
Every person on this planet who knows what America is (including every American), has their own opinion about it what it means. There must be millions of American interpretations of what it means to be American in America, but as an American in France, I am living the paradox of being a minority representative of a pervasive majority culture.
In my French classes, one technique used to get us talking is to ask what things are like in our own countries. My former teacher Tony tended to ignore me when we got to this point. I think he assumed everybody already knew (or didn’t care) what it was like in the U.S., because they already know it from T.V.
When I switched from “extensive” to “intensive” general French, I gained 11 more hours of class a week, a new prof, and a smaller class. Four of us are American, and my teacher once lived in the U.S., so we get to talk more now. This week’s chapter is called “I Act,” and we are studying manifestations, social services, and NGOs. We listened to a song from the WWII French resistance. It was a call to arms, and that put us on the subject of national anthems. Prof Olivier, reminded us that The Star Spangled Banner is sung before all U.S. sporting events. He shuddered when he said this, like it gave him the heebie-jeebies, and then the grad student from Minnesota asked whether lavage de cerveau (brainwashing) meant the same thing in French as it did in English. It does.
During this interchange I get annoyed that what I consider a rather charming tradition is being considered dangerous propaganda, so I have to jump in. Trying not to sound snippy, I point out that the French celebrate almost every Catholic holiday there is (like Ascension, for example, the day, several weeks after Easter, when JC rises up to hang out with his dad), even though every French person I’ve discussed it with says “Pfff, they’re just days off, nobody knows what they mean—it’s tradition!” It seems to me that celebrating almost all the holidays of the religion of the rich in a country full of immigrants, while simultaneously criticizing other countries for their own traditions, is a wee bit hypocritical.
I’m not a religious, or particularly patriotic person, and I’m pleased to assume that Ascension would never be written into the U.S. federal holiday schedule. It’s unconstitutional (I think), the mere notion would cause a huge hullaballoo, and in the end the idea would be scrapped because in our version of equality we could not (openly) favor one group over another.
The Minnesotan grad student will think I’m a neo-conservative-Republican-with-American-flags-taped-to-the-side-mirrors-of-my-Hummer because I’m not disgusted to have recited the Pledge of Allegiance when I was in 3rd grade. The French will think that, by saying I find their tradition of celebrating Catholic holidays silly, what I really mean is the U.S. rocks, and France sucks, making me a gun-toting-Bush-lover. Yes, I do see the irony here. I’m judging the people I assume to be judging me. I know.
I think sometimes we come off like the littlest brother of 12 kids, jumping up and down to get his parents’ attention. I’ve heard the term imperialistic more than once. Not off the mark. I’ve also been told that American politics don’t ever really get left of center, even though we believe we are liberal. That one is irrefutable. Sometimes I get defensive and want to say, if you don’t like us, why do I see our culture everywhere?
I suppose what I’m grappling with is, here, like anywhere else in the world, I can’t control how the French see me (or my people, rather), and I can’t guess what they might expect me to be. All I can do is hope they have an open mind and are willing to look beyond preconceived notions, if they have them. And if they don’t have an open mind, well… I don’t want to be friends with them anyway.