Saturday, October 25, 2014

On My American Identity

The first two articles that came up on Google search when I typed "what does it mean to be American" were from The New York Times and Slate. Both of them discuss the racial tensions in the U.S.--lots of "us vs. them" statements flying about, with the "them" being immigrants.

Sure. On a broader scale, it's probably important to consider how the great melting pot actually melts. I'm not unaffected by this aspect of America's identity. The most obvious way I relate is through my mother. She moved to the U.S. from Brazil when she was in her 20's. I grew up with her accent, "unfamiliar" food, and nuanced differences in holiday traditions. I say with confidence that the influence of my mother's cultural background on my life has made it a richer, wider one.

But maybe that's not the most influential part of my being American.

In August, I created "The American Tag," a video on my YouTube channel that is based off of "The British Tag." A tag is a set of questions that YouTubers are welcome to answer in the form of a video. Questions in the British tag include, "Favourite part of your roast?" and "What would your pub be called?" and "Marmite?" I replaced these questions respectively with "Favorite Thanksgiving dish?" and "What would your mom & pop restaurant be called?" and "Capitalism?" (You can find the full video here: The American Tag).

I don't think the American tag video gives a holistic view of what it means to be American, especially since it is based off of the British tag--not that the British tag is in any way a comprehensive look into British identity, either. And yet I think these videos tap into something that has to do with cultural identity. Generalizations, perhaps?

One of the benefits of living abroad is that it gives a person perspective. Alice Kaplan, in her wonderful book, Dreaming In French, describes how each woman's year-long stint in Paris had lasting effects on Jackie Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. "Whitney Walton, in her history of American students in France, defines the generation of 1960s and '70s students abroad as critics, not so much of the country they were studying, but of their own home." I think the tendency to scrutinize one's own home when one is abroad transpired not just in the '60s and '70s, but is a wide-spread tendency for any perceptive person living in a foreign place.

Especially if that person has two European flatmates who enjoy having kitchen-table conversations. I treasure the moments Raphaela, Alessandro and I get the chance to sit down, drink our coffee, and chat. One night Alessandro and Raphaela compared German and Italian stereotypes, and asked me for my input. What do Americans think of the Italians? Germans? Let me speak on behalf of 316.1 million minds. I will tell you what we think! Then I got curious. "What do Europeans think of Americans?" In so many words, the reply was: Americans are fun-loving and self-centered.

I'd heard this stereotype before and I wasn't too bothered. It only stung in a later conversation when I didn't know the name of some infamous city in Israel and my stereotype was painfully applicable. So I should read the World section of the news. So I should read the news.

To be fair, the United States of America is huge. A hefty chunk of Europe can fit inside Texas alone. I'm not suggesting I should remain willfully ignorant of the outside world, but I think the world should cut Americans some slack. No, I cannot correctly label all European countries on a map. (My geographical comprehension of Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Asia, or South America is not impressive, either). But world, can you correctly label all 50 U.S. states on a map? Capitals? (Good for you if you can).

A week or two after the Israel incident, my flatmates and I were discussing Raphaela's trip to California. She'll be there for two weeks on a road trip. I suggested that she go to In 'n Out Burger, because it's the best fast food I've ever had. Alessandro made fun of me. The best fast food? How can fast food be good?

I got really defensive. I'm not even a particular fan of fast food. I like it, sure. But when Alessandro challenged this aspect of American culture, I went all: Alright, Italian boy. Give us Americans this one thing. We created fast food culture, and therefore we have the right to argue when a particular fast food company excels in what it does.

Okay, alright, he said.

After a couple of minutes, I added: In 'n Out Burger is special, because it's regional to California. I can't get it in the northeast. So, it's a treat.

Let's go back to YouTube for a sec. Tags. There's a Canada tag already established on the Interwebs, and my all-time favorite YouTuber, Ron Lit, happens to live in Canada and happened to do this tag last week. (Watch her video here: Ron Lit's Canada Tag video). The last question in the Canada tag is along the lines of "What does Canadian identity mean to you?" Ron explains that she feels uncomfortable with the idea of a national identity, but she definitely relates to several community identities, like her Toronto one, for example.

This makes a lot of sense to me. When I think of things that are quote unquote American, I think of Dunkin' Donuts, diners, and the highway. Most other American things I relate to are in fact specific to where I grew up, which is the American northeast. I've lived in Vermont, Connecticut, and upstate New York, and have spent more than one day in every northeastern state. I can compare my Vermont identity to my Connecticut one, and I can compare those to my upstate New York one. It can get that specific. What I'm proud or nostalgic of are a collection of these identities, which manifest in the following things: autumn, apple picking, farmers markets, contra dancing, maple syrup, snow, New England architecture, what constitutes a town, mud season, humid summers, the Atlantic ocean, and ice cream shops.

Identity is community-based. It is experience-based. My America is very different from an Arizonian's America. I can acknowledge broader American identity questions, like the us vs. them immigrant melting pot question. I can even relate to it on some level. But that's not the first thing I think of when I say "I am American." Being in Europe, I think of the things I miss from home, like drip coffee*, 24-hour supermarkets, easily accessible black beans, large trash bins, the informality of coffee shops**...but I mostly miss the specific places I patron, and the specific people I feel comfortable with. My places and my people. That's the community I identify with. When I say I'm American, that's the America I'm part of.

*I bought a drip coffee maker! DRIP COFFEE ANYTIME I WANT! It was worth every euro.
**Caf├ęs in Europe are super great; don't get me wrong. I love them in ways I can't love coffee shops back home. But at a coffee shop, I can order my coffee at the counter. I can pick a table and sit there for hours and bring my laptop, books...I can sprawl all my work out on the table and camp there for however long it takes to finish whatever work I'm working on. And I can go back to the counter and order another muffin if I get hungry later. I can go chat to people I haven't seen in a while, because at this coffee shop, at any one time I know at least 3 or 4 people who are in it. I miss the familiarity.

Here, have some pictures:

Natalie carving Jacqueline-o-lantern

Finished product!

Funnily enough, I hadn't ever made a jack-o-lantern before last week when Natalie and I made one for English Society's Fright Night. English Society played The Nightmare Before Christmas and Psycho for unsuspecting French students. Lots of candy, plus Jacqueline, made the event quite festive.

Monday, October 6, 2014

It's Been A Month

I didn't realize how much time it would take to get settled in Nice. This time last year I moved into a townhouse with three other Hartwick students I didn't know very well, and yet I don't remember the transition being as difficult as this one. Difficult has a negative connotation; it's been challenging adapting to my new home.

Of course, last year, even though my living situation was new, I still had the advantage. I knew how things at Hartwick work. I still had my friends, my professors. I had new classes, but I knew how to tackle school work. I understood the town of Oneonta--I knew where to shop, where to eat, where to have fun. I already had a bank account, a library card, a student ID card, a mailbox, a mailing address. Most importantly, I already had a history.

A history in Nice? Not so much. It's been exciting to get to know the city. I like that part: walking around neighborhoods, finding secret gems, figuring out where I can purchase black beans in a country that has no idea what to do with such a legume. I like going out and getting a sense of the nightlife. I like spending time with new acquaintances, opening up, and forming new friendships. I like taking a new route home after school, weaving through unfamiliar streets, learning the city by heart with footsteps and orientation.

The paperwork, the bureaucratic BS, the establishing official presence, is annoying. And in France, it takes five extra steps. I'm not sure if it is outright xenophobia, or a symptom of not being from the place (and therefore automatic exclusion from insider information), or if everyone, including the French, must put up with the disorganized, backwards way of doing things. Becoming official has taken more time than I'd prefer, and it wouldn't be so bad if there was an end in sight. But instead one thing after another gets added to the list.

Maybe this is what a world without homework is like. At school, I could check off everything on my to-do list in a week, maximum. And then I'd make a new checklist. Here, tasks are clumped together, lists have footnotes and bullet points--in fact, it is one cohesive mess, The List. It will never end.

So I might as well go to the beach. Drink a beer. Take a break.

You probably want to know about my apartment, my flatmates, and my job.

I live in a central part of town--a fifteen minute walk to the beach, a ten minute walk to the old town (the winding pedestrian area), and a ten minute walk to Jean Medicine, the commercial shopping street. I go to a Carrefour express around the corner of my apartment to get supplementary items for meals, but my big grocery shop is a twenty minute walk to the Lidl, a German discount supermarket, similar to Aldi. I'm also very close to the tram, Place Garibaldi, the modern art museum, and a large library (with an unfortunately limited selection of anglophone works).

My flat is small, but has just enough space for my two flatmates and me. We have separate bedrooms, and a communal bathroom and kitchen (without an oven! It's a travesty!). The bathtub has a curtain and a small sitting ledge, but of course has the typically-French hand-held shower head. My room has a view of some other apartment buildings and a church that has very loud bells that wake me up in the morning. I have a nice closet with shelves for my books (and my clothes).

My bedroom window

My flatmates are Alessandro and Raphaela. Alessandro is from northern Italy and he studies geography at the university in Nice. He is working toward becoming an engineer. He is very friendly, funny, and upbeat. He speaks Italian, French, English, Portuguese, and some Spanish. He wants to practice his English with me, which I don't mind, but doesn't do my French any favors.

Raphaela is from Freiburg, Germany. She is training to become a doctor and is doing a practicum at the hospital near our flat. She is also friendly, as well as being down-to-earth, and fun-loving. She speaks German, French and English. We speak a lot of English in the house...

Here is a picture of us before we went out this past weekend

I'm in Nice to teach English. My official title is lectrice, which is comparable to adjunct. I teach two different levels of English for two different departments--LCE and LEA. LCE students focus on language, literature, and translation, whereas LEA students focus on other topics (like business or law) and take English to supplement their degree. In the LCE classes, we do oral comprehension and oral expression. Basically, for the first half of class I play a clip of audio, like an NPR story for example, and then the students have to fill in a worksheet. For the second half of class we do discussions, role-plays, and presentations. The students give presentations related to a specific topic, i.e. ads in newspapers and magazines. The LEA classes are presentation-based. My level 1 LEA students present on Holidays and Tourism, and my level 2 LEA students choose journal articles (written in English) to summarize and dissect with the class.

It's fairly straightforward. Because I was recently a student, I have a good sense of what to anticipate from my students--or, rather, what tricks they are willing to play to get out of doing work. It's been an insightful experience, working from the other perspective. I don't tolerate BS and am not afraid to call students out when they misbehave. I have noticed the attitude toward students here is different from what I've experienced in the States. It's common in the US to baby undergraduates, and often teachers can get into trouble with the administration if parents call in and complain. Here, it's okay to fail students. 


I have definitely been enjoying myself; don't get me wrong. Nice is a great city, my new friends are great, I get on well with my flatmates, my work keeps me busy (I presume it'll get more interesting as the semester progresses). I'm seeing new places and doing cool things, like hiking in the Alps and making day trips to nearby beach-towns, like Monaco. I haven't been doing as much reading or writing as I'd prefer--I still need to finish Dreaming In French by Alice Kaplan, and these blog posts make up most of what I've written. I'm playing Dungeons and Dragons on Sunday nights in a campaign with friends back home (they Skype me in), and I'm slowly working through a friend's fantasy novel to give her suggestions (it's not that her work is slow; it's me).

This is my mass Nice update. More musings, Nice-related or not, coming soon.