Culture Shock and Learning to Overcome - and Even Love - Your New Country's Culture
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are personal and related to my own travel experience. Most stories are based on the places I have worked and lived in, namely Creil and Paris in France, Northampton in the UK, Melbourne in Australia and New York City in the USA — Jenny Ba
"There is no man more complete than the one who has travelled a lot, changed his life and way of thinking 20 times" — Lamartine
Originally from a large town in France, I have worked and lived in England, Australia and I am currently in the U.S. I mainly travel to satisfy my thirst of new challenges and to experience a new culture. Whenever I walk down the streets, I go to a new place or I meet new people, there is always something striking me, it can either amaze me or leave me speechless. Adapting to a new culture is not as easy as it seems but it is definitely an entertaining and interesting activity to do for travelers. There is an endless list of topics to write on but here are some of the most striking ones.
Before starting, one thing should be pointed out about America: it is over the top. Everything is big! The food is big, the drinks are big, the cars are big and the houses are big.
Melting pot: French teachers always start their first class about America by saying: America is a melting pot. I do know why now. The mix of dozens of languages, cultures, color skin, accents, etc. is striking. Especially in New York! People come from everywhere in the world and interact altogether. I find this very different form Paris where you usually find at the most ten different cultures. In the U.S., it is breathtaking to listen to so many different languages, and to encounter so many varieties of food and dress codes. This is what I love the most about America, it does not matter where you are from since we are all from overseas in some way.
Show business: When coming to the U.S., we all expect to see at least one famous person, especially in New York or in Los Angeles. It actually happens more often that you can ever imagine! Movie shootings happen all the time in New York and my friends and I have already walked past a couple of movie stars, such as Ryan Reynolds, Jeff Bridges, Kate Hudson, Susan Sarandon, Wyclef Jean, etc. just to name a few. This is an exciting and such an unexpected experience! I cannot help myself lingering around movie shooting scenes anytime I see one and can easily turn into a paparazzi.
Courtesy and Manners: Manners are usually deeply established, which makes it hard to completely adjust to new ones or even wish to do so.
'La bise' or greetings: Being a French woman, I like being able to kiss people's cheeks to greet them. In France, whenever a woman says hello to her friends, family members, roommates or colleagues, she exchanges a physical contact by kissing the cheeks. Men either shake hands or kiss cheeks too. If you ever tell an American, Australian or British man that men kiss the cheeks in France, they will usually be shocked.
Customer service: in France, particularly out of Paris, the customer service is very important, the personnel has to be polite while remaining formal: they cannot chat to the customer or they will sound too familiar and unprofessional–which it is a real shame. In America, the customer service is very different, especially in shops or in any other places where customers are not expected to tip. And you always have to remember to tip in restaurants for good service - up to 20%!
At the table: Another code that I still follow is to start eating only when everyone at the table is served–it actually makes me feel uncomfortable to watch people eating when some are still waiting. In 'laid-back lands', meaning America and Australia, people follow a different rule: eat while it is hot. I have tried to mix both codes and it works pretty well in America since everyone at the table is usually served at the same time.
Eating and drinking habits: It is very easy to change these two habits especially when food is everywhere in America.
Food diversity: Until I came to New York, I had always thought that Paris was a very cosmopolitan city and that I could eat any type of food anywhere. It seemed that I was wrong. New York is amazing when it comes to food! There are so many different places everywhere that making up your mind about what to eat is a torture. Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Mexican, French, Italian, Greek, African, and American… name any type food and you can have it! The diversity is impressive; no matter your budget, restaurants and take away shops are everywhere within a walking distance.
Supersize: if you have ever watched the movie 'Back to the Future', you may have been as amazed as I was when Michael J. Fox puts a tiny pizza in the oven that then turns into a gigantic one. I have always thought the size of the final pizza was part of the fiction. It is not! A large pizza in America is huge; probably double the size of a large one in France. I was in shock when I first saw it and could not imagine people eating a whole pizza by themselves. This is definitely a great value for money as indeed in France, portions can be tiny and force you to have a 3-course meal.
Lunchtime: I was happy to find out that I would not suffer from starvation again when I came to the U.S., since lunch is an important meal just as it is in France. People in New York have proper meals; they either eat out given the variety of options or bring a salad, a sandwich, pasta or rice with meat or any left over. I enjoy wandering around my work place at lunchtime!
Dinnertime: I currently live in a residence in NYC where dinner is served from 5:30pm to 7:45pm. This is a very early dinner, as in France we usually eat around 8pm. A good point about early dinner is that you do not need to snack in between.
Drinking: In France, we mostly drink wine or spirits whenever we party. Some people drink beer but it is not the most common thing to drink. We also do not "over-drink." In the U.S., it seems that people drink less than what I expected. In the U.S., people seem to drink reasonably.
Relationships: Comparing men's behavior towards women is definitely the most entertaining cultural difference for me.
Gentleman manners: I have been shocked more than once for experiencing it myself or listening to my female friends. In my home country, gentleman manners are still very set in the customs. In the U.S., men tend to be very gentlemanly and, ladies, having a man opening a yellow taxi door for you makes you feel like being in a pink American movie. Indescribable!
Fashion: I could spend the whole day analyzing how people dress. Wherever you are in the world, there is a wide range of different styles. Some can be very inspiring while others are simply indescribable.
Fashion: Coming from France, fashion has always played an important role in my life and I have always tried to respect some of the 'fashion codes'. However, it seems that these codes are not internationally spread out and many times, I happened to see what we, French people call 'une faute de goût', which translated means 'a mistake in taste'. It seems that in Australia and in America, it is common as a woman to go to work wearing a suit or a skirt with sneakers… How can this be? (many women who have to walk long distances bring their work shoes with them and change at their office). Fashion over comfort is our motto in France. Another thing that my eyes could not believe the first I experienced it was to see a few ladies wearing a shower cap on a rainy day in Manhattan. I felt the urge to sacrifice myself and to hand them my umbrella but I was too scared to offend them.
But in Manhattan especially, some people are so trendy and pretty that they seem to come out of a movie. I often give people a second look to make sure I am not walking past someone famous.
At work: In Australia, the most common dress code at work is business corporate. At rush hour, you are likely to see dozens of white collars crossing the streets. In France and in the U.S., it is mostly business casual unless you work in the Financial district.
Interaction: French people have always been stereotyped as arrogant, pretentious, impatient, whiners and so on. Unfortunately, this can be true, especially in Paris. However, this is mainly due to the way we are raised. I am not saying that French people are all of the above but they do not seem as outgoing and sociable as American or Australian people. This can be explained by the fact that some French people do not have the capability of going towards people or talking to strangers. They will either wait to be introduced or wait for the others to make the first step. In New York, I find it is pretty easy to meet people and people always seem to be interested in your culture when you come from overseas.
Conversation: In France, people speak their mind and like talking about every topic –except for money. If they are not happy about something, find your attire ugly or idea unreasonable, they'd rather be honest and say it. Overseas, people are more scared to upset others and will keep things to themselves or lie. I have learned to be very careful with what I say since my jokes or remarks can sometimes hurt, though I do not mean to.
Have your bag and body ever been checked before entering a club? I had never experienced this before coming to the U.S. It is easy to notice the war on terror's aftermath in the U.S. Security checks are everywhere! Everyone says that New York is very safe and it actually is. The City never sleeps and police patrols are always around. In France, I usually do not feel a 100% safe, especially at nighttime in stations and security checks are barely in force: you will rarely be asked to open your bag and your ID will not be checked whenever you enter a bar, unless you look very young.
Also, there is a stereotype that needs to be broken: not everyone has guns in America! Most American programs or movies show guns and I have naturally always assumed that everyone in the U.S. had a gun hidden under their underwear. As much as this thought was exciting and scary at the time for me – picturing my boss and colleagues having a gun at home, it is not true. I have not met a single person owning a gun yet!
If I asked amongst my French friends who is registered with a gym or runs a few times a week, I truly think that none of them would say they do. French people are more likely to practice a team sport and will not care much about their fitness. I remember listening to my Australian friend claiming that French men were too skinny; I kept on telling her that they were not… until I traveled out of Europe. In Australia and in America, men are definitely bigger, much bigger than Europeans! Most people between 20 and 40 go to the gym, run, or will do an activity to remain fit. Women do too, which makes you feel like you have to do something, too.
Health: How many times have I answered the question: 'Why do your French fellows always go on strike?' I am always tempted to answer back: 'Because it is our national sport!' but instead I like to list all the privileges in living in France are: 'how does 5 weeks of holidays a year, 35 hours of work a week, employment/social protection, free health services/care, free education, no car registration fee every year, etc. sound to you?' We love our rights and we want to keep them untouched. Any reform that may harm our rights is worth the fight; this is definitely a French spirit. In the U.S., the mentality is different and people accept what they have. It is hard to believe that any minor medical service puts a huge hole in your wallet. I have heard stories where people had to sell their car or fly to Thailand to get their teeth fixed!
Sustainability: In France, every household possesses at least three bins in order to recycle and re-usable bags in every supermarket have replaced plastic bags. In America, recycling is well developed too.
Practicing: Religion is a sensitive topic but it definitely has to be mentioned. In France, religion is pretty quiet and I was surprise to notice how 'loud' it was in the U.S. People in France are mainly Catholics but do not practice the religion: they only go to church a couple of times a year: on Christmas Eve and/or for Easter. In the U.S., it is exactly as expected -omnipresent. People preach in the streets, in the metro, and refer to God a lot in their normal conversations. It seems to be just a part of the culture.
Public transport: As much as I love the transportation system in Paris, I must admit that the 24/7 metro system in New York is the best invention ever. In New York, people usually travel by metro but use taxis much more and a few people seem to have a car in NY, whereas in Paris, every street is packed with cars.
Cars: Cars in France are small, especially in Paris. Streets are so narrow, parking spots are so small and the city is so condensed that most people possess the smallest cars possible. French people also love driving manual cars. In America and in Australia, cars are incredibly huge and mostly automatic.
Most places in France accept debit cards. French citizens usually have some spare money to buy their daily baguette only. In America and Australia, many bars and restaurants are "cash only." Also, French citizens rarely possess a credit card; they'd rather opt for a small monthly overdraft allowance. Overseas, paying by credit card is very common. Some people even have several credit cards!
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