“When you have lived in and been integrated into more than one culture, exposure to a different mindset changes your own. After that first long sojourn abroad, the true culture shock comes on your first trip back home. People ask seemingly ignorant and annoying questions. You realize that your countrymen’s knowledge of the world is limited to a mixture of TV, myths and illogical conjecture. Their prejudices seem shockingly narrow.” –Skyfrontier
I’ve been in the U.S. for 2 weeks now, and I’m still trying to make sense of it. I feel like a foreigner. Because I’m white and English is my native language, Americans assume that I’m one of them. On the street political campaigners try to solicit my support for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. At the airport, the Immigration officials direct me to the passport line for Americans. I try to protest that I’m not from the U.S., but they all seem to doubt me. At Penn, cafeteria staff express annoyance at my ineptitude with my PennCash swipe card. I blend in like the veteran students, so no one realizes that I’m new.
But my biggest challenge has been relating to people. In France, the way to tackle bureaucracy is to condescendingly challenge the interlocutor in fluent French. I tried this aggressive tactic in English last week at Penn when I faced an inept admin person in the International Student Office who was clueless about how to handle my U.S. visa. His supervisor, a motherly Indian lady, rushed out to defend him by protesting to me, “Can’t you see that he’s new here?” Her guilt trip succeeded in making me feel like crap. My self focus has made me ignorant of how other people might be going through the same transition.
My friend Andre argues in his blog Skyfrontier that the global nomadic experience engenders us with a perilous smugness as we arrogantly cling to our ‘amplified’ understanding. “In France they do things better/worse… etc.” As INSEAD nomads, we are tempted to challenge everything based on our heightened awareness and experience.
Are the Almond Croissants at Au Bon Pain up to par with those baked at Frédéric Cassel on rue Grande? Should I keep my mouth shut when American students wax enviously about pro-worker employment laws in Europe? Should I politely nod my head in agreement and confirm their thesis with tales of 6 week annual vacation leave in France, or should I ruin their fantasy with wretched stories of les perturbations on the RER D?
Alternatively should I voice support or protest when the Unites States is used as a normative example or the de facto benchmark for democracy, human rights, taxation, capital markets etc. ? Would my protests just fall on deaf ears? Who wants to know about the flexible U.K. public company listing requirements, the 10% income tax in Zug, Switzerland, universal health care in Canada, gay marriage in Spain, and other forward-looking laws which make the U.S. seem comparatively antiquated.
If food can be considered the embodiment of a nation’s civilization, perhaps we should read something into the numerous food trucks which surround UPenn and which dispense daily sustenance out the back of a kitchen on 4 wheels. In France the geography of alimentation serves a descriptive function… Laser printed signs in the INSEAD cafeteria (err, restaurant) proclaim that today’s beef comes from the Netherlands, and the Monoprix flyer proclaims that the Brie on special this week comes from Melun, and not Meaux.
In the U.S., food geography is used fancifully in an evocative manner to conjure up exotic images of distant places, never visited. “Organic Black Egyptian Licorice Tea Leaves” boasted one menu board. The last time I visited Egypt I remember tea coming only in one variety—the overly sweet sort that comes in a short glass cup topped with mint leaves. But to whom can I protest? The waiter? My fellow dinner mates who as American will likely frown at my futile objection?
As our year at INSEAD comes to an end, these questions will not remain purely academic as we face the reality of going back to work and in most cases, a more provincial existence. Get ready for the coming culture shock.