Cultural Clashes after Two Weeks in the USA

This past December, I went back to the United States for Christmas—my first Christmas since 2012, and my first time back in the United States since August 2014. Although I have a fair share of American friends here in France, this was the first time that I was fully plunged back into my own country, and was completely surrounded by both American culture and the English language.

At times, it was a lot.

One of the weirdest things for me was overhearing English everywhere I went—it was stimulatingly overwhelming. Although I am to the point in French where I no longer translate the language in my head, and I can listen in on conversations, my brain obviously does this better, faster, and at a much greater capacity in English. So, it was a bit of overload on the bus ride home, in the coffee shops, and at the shopping malls.

Funnily enough, I couldn’t stop myself from saying Pardon in French to strangers on the streets. I just couldn’t get into the habit of saying Pardon Me or Excuse Me!

Pulling American dollars out of the ATM—those green pieces of paper-was weird. I’m now used to seeing an array of sizes and colors in my currency. Suddenly, I was back to one size, one color, and completely different coins. However, it was a welcomed change to be able to charge absolutely anything to my credit card or debit card without limits or repercussion.

When I first went home, it was a bit strange for me to hug everyone instead of exchanging “Bisous.” (I’m even to the point in France where I will do this with my American friends.) However interestingly enough, I come from a family where we kiss each other on the lips when greeting each other—most specifically my parents and grandparents. Although I stuck to this habit with my newly widowed grandmothers, I literally can no longer do this with my parents. It creeps me out, and so I now stick strictly to cheek kisses (bisous) or hugs instead.

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My diet, the way I eat, and my attitude about food has changed immensely. For example, I no longer drink milk. Perhaps this is a Wisconsin thing, but it was always normal to have either a glass of milk or a glass of water with lunch and/or dinner. I always had a glass of milk with pizza (mmm, so good!) It wasn’t until I moved to France that I realized this practice was kind of weird (to both French people and foreigners alike!) I quickly kicked my milk habit in France because the room-temperature milk sold directly on the shelves in France creeps me out–it always has. Plus, the milk tastes disgusting in France, so I now only drink it with my coffee and cereal. I tried drinking milk again back in the US but I seem to no longer have a liking for it (too bad!)

For lunch and dinner, I, like the vast majority of French people, now exclusively drink water at room temperature (because there is no ice) or have a glass of alcohol (more specifically, wine or beer). In the United States, people seldom order alcohol with dinner unless it’s a special occasion, and I had forgotten the luxury of ordering bottomless soda at restaurants again (Free refills don’t exist in France!)

Speaking of soda (Yes, we say soda in Wisconsin), I used to drink a lot of Diet Coke back in the US. I borderline had a serious problem. I used to go to McDonald’s once a day and buy a large fountain Diet Coke for .99 cents. Thankfully, I kicked that habit upon moving to France (but picked it right back up in the US!), for multiple reasons: France’s Coca Lite is gross, the French “Large” is the equivalent to an American “Medium”, and McDonald’s is three times more expensive in France. (Plus, in France, they don’t put ice with your drink unless you specifically ask, and sometimes the restaurant “doesn’t have any.”) WHAT!? I still haven’t gotten used to that one. I still drink the occasional can of Diet Coke here in France, but not nearly as often, and it’s nowhere near as good. I drank more Diet Coke during my two week visit in the US than I probably do in a two months in France. Partially because I LOVE Diet Coke and missed the taste, and partially because soda is such an engrained part of American culture. I was sick and disgusted by the soda towards the end of my visit.

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I used to have a TON of body image issues. I don’t remember a time between the ages of 13 (!) and 23 where I liked and was okay/comfortable with myself and with my body, and that is really, really sad. American culture engrains people (but especially, especially women and girls!) to never be satisfied with their bodies. In the United, States, I was always obsessed with calories and working out and weighing myself on the scale multiple times a day; those obsessions were praised and reinforced by my parents, friends and society. I used to obsessively count calories and beat myself up for having dessert, and that is really sad. I tied my worth and dignity as a human being with the number on the scale, and American society has always been completely okay with that.  We are a morbidly obese country with extortionate portion sizes and processed food– a country which is also simultaneously obsessed with exercise and diet fads. I noticed these comments and behaviors instantly upon arrival in the US.

However, on the other hand I will admit that the French are quick to judge what you’re eating, and will not hesitate to say something about it. Whether it be, “Oh, why are you eating something sweet before something salty,” to, “Oh, that looks like it will go straight to your waist”, to, “Oh, that wine is really terrible”, to “Why are you eating yogurt in the morning?” This is just as judgmental and annoying but in a completely different way.

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My relationship with food, exercise, and my body is so much better and so much healthier now, and has been since I moved to France. I directly correlate that with the French / European lifestyle. I ride the city bikes to the train station every morning, I have to walk 20 minutes to and from work; I do all of my errands on foot. I don’t guilt myself for not going to the gym– for choosing relaxation or heck, going to a bar, over going to the gym. I belong to my old gym’s Facebook page, and I see this ALL. THE. TIME. And it drives me nuts. On Thanksgiving, for example, I only saw posts from instructors and fellow gym-goers stating, “DON’T OVERINDULGE OR FEEL GUILTY FOR HAVING PIE– COME TO THE GYM FOR 3 HOURS! THEN YOU’RE ALLOWED TO EAT!” I used to feed into that stuff, and now I find it appalling. Now don’t get me wrong, I love gyms in America, and I miss them. The exercise culture in the United States is so much superior to France’s. But at least in France, after enjoying a nice meal, it isn’t followed by guilt-tripping comments about needing to go to the gym, or about how one should not have eaten this or that. A lot of this directly related to portion sizes— they’re just smaller in France!

With that being said, meal times took some adjusting. In France, we eat dinner between 8:00 PM and 10:00 PM. Before dinner, we always have apéro, or hors d’oeuvres. In the United States, we eat between 5:00-6:30 PM. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different. American meals also include piling all the food onto one plate, whereas in France, we eat one thing at a time (First a soup, then a meat, then a salad, then the cheese/bread, and finally dessert– and yes, there is always dessert!) However, dessert for the French can include fruit or yogurt, or perhaps a pudding. I am totally supportive of that, but the American in me still needs to have my yogurt in the morning (much to the horror of the French, who wouldn’t dream of such a thing.)

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Another thing I didn’t miss was the politicsoh, the politics. After the attacks in Paris I was really touched that everyone was so concerned, but so, so disheartened by the sweeping generalizations about Muslims. Don’t get me wrong– France is a surprisingly racist country, but there is a lot of skewed, misinformed, unintentional biased xenophobia about Islam amongst Americans in the United States. I have many Muslim students and give private lessons to mostly families of the Islamic faith, so to constantly hear “All-Muslims-are-ISIS-terrorists” was angering, because it’s just not true (hashtag check your privilege.)

Finally, little things took some readjusting to: Using 12-hour times instead of 24-hour/military times (my phone and computer are now on the 24-hour schedule); writing the date like mm/dd/yy instead of dd/mm/yy, as I am now used to; using Fahrenheit instead of Celsius (my weather app is now in Celsius), and Miles instead of Kilometers (MapMyRun uses Km); always needing an ID or being consistently carded in bars/restaurants.

But there were SO many other things I’ve missed about the Land of Convenience— going to the grocery store at ANY time of day, drive-thru EVERYTHING– banks, dry-cleaning, pharmacy… NONE of these exist in France. I missed driving, and I’ve missed just being able to be unapologetically, unexplainably, myself. I missed being surrounded by my friends, my family, and my culture. I missed celebrating Christmas the way I knew how– gift exchanges with my cousins, eating and drinking all day long, listening to Christmas music on the radio and seeing all the light displays on the houses. I missed the American niceness and the trust that our culture has amongst one another; no one is under the assumption that everything is going to be stolen or pick pocketed. People here genuinely want to help each other. I missed TV, I missed everything being open all the time and on Sundays, I missed the fresh, cigarette-less air– because it feels like EVERYONE smokes in France from the age of 15. I missed American schools and teaching styles and I missed having clean, accessible, free public restrooms. I missed having my groceries bagged and having more than one person at the bank or the post office or the check-out line. I missed big cars and American customer service and the lack of pointless, never-ending, bureaucratic paperwork.

I could go on, and on, and on about what I love and miss about each country; about each home, but I won’t. These are just the things that came to mind– things that I encountered during my two weeks back. The truth is, I don’t think there will ever be the best of both worlds when it comes to being an American in France.

What kinds of positive or negative differences have you encountered after returning home from a long trip/stay abroad?

Bisous,

Dana

17 thoughts on “Cultural Clashes after Two Weeks in the USA

  1. Loved reading your observations!
    I’m planning a trip back to Canada in the summer and your post gets me wondering what my impressions of it will be after two years in Spain without a visit back. I’m sure having to use a car, rather than cycling or walking, will be one of the major differences for me!

    1. yes!! those things are so weird at first (but so, so nice at the same time!) Good luck with your trip back and thanks for reading (as always!) 🙂

  2. LOVE THIS! And yes, like Anne, I also thought the all-English all the time was one of the weirdest things each time I returned home! I found it SO distracting; it’s so much easier to focus on the people I’m with in France because it’s so easy to tune out a foreign language! But seriously, this so perfectly summed up so much about coming home after a long time out of the country!

  3. I completely relate to most of this! (except the soda and the milk – I was raised on rice and almond milk. Oh, California!) I think I’m most looking forward to clean, cigarette-less air! Once I ate yogurt in the morning and got some weird looks. I agree that most people don’t seem to be so obsessed with doing extreme diets or exercising to make up for something they ate in the same way that Americans are, like you described, but it does seem like people are quicker to judge others on their weight – there’s not much acceptance of different body types that I’ve seen, and I’m always a little shocked when someone I consider a nice person is quick to call someone fat (even when they’re really not!) Getting carded always surprises me, and when apartments are listed in square feet, I have no idea how big they are!

  4. I feel like this brought up a lot of the feelings I had (and still have) from my stints abroad and returning home.

    There are so many things I miss about France — although it’s less acute than it was before — but the lack of convenience is not one of those things! 🙂

    I feel like both the French and Americans have their own body issues but deal with them differently. I do feel like maybe there’s less guilt in France, but more criticism, if that makes sense? Hard to explain, but I know that there is a lot of pressure in France to be skinnier but in a different way. But I think we Americans can be a little less aware of it, especially being adults in France. Maybe there’s less pressure in France as an adult? I’m not sure.

    ANYWAY, so interesting to read! 🙂

    1. I’m glad I’m not alone when it comes to the reverse culture shock- and I totally agree with you and the others who have commented– less guilt, more criticism! The best reply I’ve been able to make is stating that at least my Diet Coke is only hurting me, where as so-and-so’s second hand cigarette smoke hurts all of us! 🙂 That shut that person right up.

      You’re totally right about being skinny as well. I feel like French women steer away from weights and toning for fear of being bulky, when in reality it does just the opposite. I’ve never been so thankful to be American and know how to exercise! bisous!

  5. I’m surprised by your thoughts on the diet/body image stuff. I feel like French women are constantly going on about whatever diet they’re on, and worse, they’re happy to critique what others are eating too. I used to have a colleague who would pick up stuff I bought that she wasn’t familiar with, eg sweet Thai chilli sauce, and read off how much sugar/salt/fat was in it in a disapproving tone. Exercise, They’re not so into, it’s true.

    1. You’re totally right. In my defense, I don’t have many French female friends, and the ones I do are quite forward thinking or bigger themselves! 🙂 Perhaps I use my “selective foreign hearing”

      How rude that your colleague did that! I just cannot be asked to care anymore- at least my Diet Coke only hurts me, unlike my companions second-hand cigarette smoke, right!? (That’s always my defense!)

  6. The high school I worked at always had yogurt for the students every morning for breakfast among other things…. My host mom often ate it for breakfast as well.

  7. You have captured so many essential differences between France and North American cultures – not sure what to add! I agree the ‘pardon’ habit is a hard one to break and I find myself automatically speaking French to strangers when travelling just about anywhere now.As for the dietary habits – you are right about everything being better balanced in France. But, like you, I cannot conceive of breakfast without yogurt!

    1. Glad that I’m not the only one who has problems with “Pardon!” I also do the SAME thing in foreign countries– speak French! Glad we both have yogurt in the mornings!

  8. Dana, I’m surprised you could drink soda when you got home. I quit the stuff and now when I try to drink it, all I taste is chemicals…it’s horrible. I pretty much agree with everything you said. Spot on! One difference I noticed though is that the general niceness of the people is determined by the size of the city in France. As the city or town gets smaller, the people get nicer. I also agree with Anne, above. I also miss hearing French every day! Great post, as always!!!

    1. Karen, I hope I can one day get to that point! And yes I totally agree! People in the north of France are generally pretty kind… but you definitely notice the small town charm as opposed to big cities! In a way, I think that is pretty universal…

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

  9. Being overstimulated by all the English is the number one thing I noticed as well!! I recently went to NYC and it seemed like everyone I passed was speaking a different language: it was SO REFRESHING !! It took a few months but I’m used to all the English now…but that may (weirdly) be the thing I miss most about France.

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