During my ten weeks of study abroad and missions in Paris this summer, I encountered a few instances of “culture shock”. I think many Americans travel to Europe expecting similar cultural values and norms—after all, if you are white, and they are white, how much could be different between you? Right? (The answer is obviously no.)
We think as developed nations they share similar perspectives on morality, politics, even consumerism. We see their cathedrals and expect Christianity to be as pervasive to society there as it is in our own “Bible Belt”. That perception for many, however, is shattered once they land in the foreign airport!
After all, if you are white, and they are white, how much could be different between you? Right?
Europeans differ from Americans, and more specifically, Parisians differ from Texans. Having studied Europe as an International Studies major, I can say my basic framework for understanding French culture didn’t leave me completely naive. Anyone who has spent time abroad would probably agree a gap exists between reading about culture in books and experiencing it with your own eyes.
I could tell you so many stories about “culture shock” with regards to witnessing pick-pocketing, urban poverty, some very public displays of affection (and once breastfeeding) on the metro. I could also explain differences in family structure and dynamics, attitude towards life and God, meal times, and views about education, but what surprised me the most about Parisians was seeing the well-known “Coconut Metaphor” in nearly every person I met.
The Coconut Metaphor refers to this idea that the French have a very tough exterior, which takes time and patience to break through, and sweet interior full of passion, loyalty, and emotion.
In my early days of being in Paris, I was very put off by the aloofness I perceived in everyone around me. Living in this great big city keeps you in a close proximity to hundreds of people at all times. You stand two inches apart on the metro, you pass dozens on the street after you get off at your bus stop, stand in an elevator with a neighbor from say, the eighth floor—people are everywhere, all the time.And yet, as a native Texan, an Aggie always walking around with a smile on my face, a girl who relishes spontaneous conversations at the student center, and who holds doors for others, I struggled with the apparent cold indifference I felt all around me.
I am a product of the friendly, relational South, and this urban setting wore on my emotions. Some days, I took it personally, and selfishly assumed that in my direct contact with shop owners and waiters, their coldness came as a product of their total disdain for my American identity (dramatic, I know. Women, right?)
Fortunately, as relationships grew with my Parisian friends at the wonderful church I attended, and I felt the deep love and hospitality of my French host family, I began to view these random people with more objectivity. As my knowledge grew, I saw the French attitude not as inherently rude, but simply an exterior that isn’t always indicative of the interior. The tough exterior didn’t reveal what they felt or thought about me. They could have been completely happy or they may have been terribly sad.
Rather than view the French attitude with contempt, I gradually began to see it with compassion and the knowledge that I couldn’t see the full picture.
In my French language classes this summer, we learned Parisians commonly struggle with issues like isolationism and depression— more so than many other cities in Europe. In fact, France has the highest levels of depression in Europe. Rather than view the French attitude with contempt, I gradually began to see it with compassion and the knowledge that I couldn’t see the full picture.
While I am certainly not insinuating every Parisian around me struggled with that urban, post-modern isolation, this new awareness that this might be a contributing factor to, and also result of, the Parisian attitude allowed me to view these random people around me as much more than a hollow coconut shell, and instead as a real person, with a real heart and real emotions.
We are the same. We are all humans created with deep needs and desires. Our outward expressions are certainly different. If I had said “Howdy” to a man on the street, he may have assumed I was crazy, or may have taken it as an invitation. Fortunately, I never took that opportunity to find out! The understanding I gained and the new perception I formulated has proved invaluable. This made my last weeks in Paris more enjoyable and helped me feel less foreign.
I have deep gratitude for the friendliness of the South, but I realized that here, we may have the opposite problem. The French may be coconuts, but we may have the issue of sweet and friendly exteriors that seem deceptively easy to break through, paired with broken interiors that many don’t see.
Exteriors don’t always reveal the heart of a person.
The sorority girl in the line at Starbucks may smile and make a comment about the new specialty drink, but she could be weeping on the inside from something tragic that happened the night before. Yes, that is her business, and my desire would not be that she flaunted this business to the world, or to me, a stranger she had just met. My concern is in how I view her.
I see happy, thriving people all around me. They laugh loudly, for they are American. They smile and say Howdy, for they are Aggies. It wasn’t my first instinct to look beyond exteriors in Paris, and I realized that it isn’t my first instinct to look beyond exteriors here either.
A tough exterior doesn’t mean the person is rude or hateful. A sweet exterior doesn’t mean the person has joy inside. I am grateful for the struggle I had in understanding the French attitude. Through it, I recognized I had a flawed, simplistic system of observation and perception. My study abroad experience with Veritas Abroad served as a great tool in expanding my lens in how I view the people around me.
Tara Glasener, an International Studies major at Texas A&M University, studied abroad and served through international missions with Veritas Christian Study Abroad in Paris, France this summer. To read more student stories, please visit our student testimonials page. To earn college credit while serving an international community, apply with Veritas today.
*The deadline to apply for Veritas in Paris, France Spring 2015 is October 15. Apply now!