Imagine if people were products, packaged with those little white tags that assure you, quite authoritatively, that this thing in front of you is indeed what you think it is (“Window wiper”, “Card holder”, or just “Lamp”).
If we were packaged and presented to the world, what would our tag say?
I imagine ours would say things like “American”, “Indian”, “French”, and the like.
It tells you more than just your nationality, or your race, or your ethnicity. Being tagged “American” is almost enough for people to figure out what culture you are exposed to, your possible political views, what language you speak, whether you are likely to be religious, and most of all, what life opportunities you might have been given. Which is why I imagine we probably have to change tags quite a few times throughout our lives.
When I was in Malaysia, my tag would most definitely have said “Chinese”. Being “Chinese” meant a few things for me. Other than the super obvious, like being able to speak at least a chinese dialect, there’re also the more political significances, such as being more likely to vote a certain way, and going to a certain type of school where things are taught a certain way, and having to figure out other ways to getting things done because certain privileges are not going to be given to me.
When I was in the United States, my tag damn proudly said “Malaysian”. I swear I’ve never felt more Malaysian in my life than when I was in college! What does that tag afford me? Being awed at by people who find Malaysia “exotic”, not being able to work for pay outside of campus, having to remain an observer and not a participant during elections, and not being eligible for some of the fellowships and scholarships that the school keeps telling me about by email.
Now that I am in France, amongst a group of 71 other people, 68 of whom are Americans, my tag now reluctantly says “American”. Who would’ve thought? Now I am American. People here talk to me as though I know America so well, as though I represent the American culture. But I’ve only been in America for 2.5 years!
This is not a tag I am happy with, but it’s a tag I’m stuck with.
On our second night in France, I was walking around with a large group of these people from my program, and when you have a large group of 20-year-old Americans, alcohol is inevitable. We all sat down around a loooong table in a pub, and people started drinking. Perhaps it’s ’cause I didn’t order anything and hence was unmistakably sober, but I was incredibly, incredibly embarrassed to be part of that group. They did everything possible to confirm the stereotype of the Ugly American — loud, drunk, rude, not giving a shit about people around.
That was a week ago.
Today, the Ugly American tag has come and hit me square in the face. We went into a cell phone shop to get cell phones and prepaid cards to use for the semester. We spoke to the man in broken, halting French. He asked me if we were American, and I said yes. (OHMYGOD! Did I just say I was American? Gasp!) I said we weren’t sure which pre-paid plan to get, he pointed to a poster on the wall and said, “Just go there and look.”
Then he disappeared. Or at least we thought he did, until we heard him talking and realized that he was sitting on the other side of the desk, talking on the phone. He was talking about “bois du café”, drinking coffee. What asshole talks on the phone like that when there are customers waiting?!
After waiting for some time, my friend went, “Monsieur, s’il vous plait….” (“Sir, if you please….”). Little fucker looked at us and said, “Des cartes prepayée? Je n’en ai plus.” (Prepaid cards? I don’t have any left.) And continued talking on the phone.
So we left the shop. Went into another one, but the plan was too expensive. So we decided to go back to the original shop to ask if they would have it tomorrow. There was another guy there, who greeted us and motioned for us to go over to him. We asked if they would have prepaid cards tomorrow, and the dude looked all surprised and went, “Mais nous les avons maintenant!” (But we have them right now!) Oh really?
And as he patiently listened to us as we haltingly explained what we wanted, his asshole colleague, that World No.1 Prick, went past him and said, completely without bothering to lower his voice, “Ils sont Américains euh!” (They’re Americans uh!)
Quite the asshole. He knew we understood french, and he had made no effort at all to avoid us hearing his comment.
This is when being American does not help things at all. Though when I told my host family about this later, my host mom said “Il y a des idiots partout!” (There are idiots everywhere!)
Anyway. Will talk about my winter break in California and my first week in France very soon. Have pictures and all, but I’ve been really tired from the intensive orientation program and a lot of walking and the jet lag.
So, I’m in France. Despite this little French snob, everyone and everything has been wonderful.
We spent last week, our very first week here, touring and visiting different castles.
I can’t believe I’m finally here! After two semesters of researching and choosing and applying and waiting and applying again! This is how happy I am to be here.
So. I’m in France, I now have a new cell phone, and things are going well. Au revoir!