Studying Abroad: Escaping My Cultural Bubble

Thirty-three states and five countries later, my childhood memories of traveling are fondly marked by the crossing of state lines from my home in the Twin Cities suburbs to Grandma’s house outside of Chicago to my family’s cottage in Northern Michigan. My family always stopped at a tiny cheese shop near the border of Wisconsin and Grandma often made my favorite dish of porcupine meatballs. I took my first plane ride at the age of five and, later, visited New Jersey and New York City for the first time. The familiarity of road trips, homecooked meals, and time spent with family defined my American cultural upbringing.

My middle school and high school years included trips gradually expanding across the country, from Washington, D.C. to Florida to New Orleans. With each new part of the country I visited, my passion for traveling grew. I was lucky to be raised in a family that traveled often, always encouraging me to try new things. When I received acceptance into my dream school in Colorado, I didn’t think twice about moving over a thousand miles away.

Statues at Cafe Beignet in New Orleans

While I had never traveled outside of the country, between school trips to Springfield and D.C. to service trips in impoverished parts of Virginia, Michigan and North Dakota to outdoor trips in Colorado’s backcountry, I never felt like I was missing anything. I wanted to see more countries and planned on going abroad someday, but didn’t feel any rush to do so. Each new part of the U.S. I visited brought a new experience with it, and my time in Colorado introduced me to hiking, backpacking and skiing along with a new appreciation for the outdoors.

My first time backpacking, my body still had not fully adjusted to Colorado’s high elevation, I fell within the first thirty minutes of hiking due to the uneven weight of a forty-something-pound bag on my back, and I consistently walked far behind the rest of my group. However, the incredible mountain views made the trip worth it as I experienced the beauty of nature by immersing myself in it.

Views from Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, CO

Enter France: I signed up for a study abroad program through my school to live in Tours, France for a semester and study French language and culture. I didn’t put too much thought into that specific program; I just figured that since I had studied French language throughout high school, it would be a good way for me to improve my skills and learn more about the culture. In the least cliché way possible, I didn’t realize what a life-changing experience my time in France would be.

A few months ago, while attending a training session for a job working with international students, the presenter showed us an image of a fishbowl as an example of culture shock and the challenges that come with adapting to a new culture. She talked about how the fish in water represents how immersed people become in their own culture, often unaware of anything else around them. More than anything we discussed in that training session, this image stuck out to me as it reminded me so much of myself a few months ago.

Before leaving to study abroad, I absolutely lived in my own cultural fishbowl: preoccupied with U.S. politics, culture and the happenings of my own country. I would hear about major world events, but for the most part, I was oblivious to anything that didn’t directly affect my home. I left the U.S. on inauguration day, and all the news I followed leading up to my departure revolved around Obama’s last days in office, the protests around the country and predictions about the Trump administration’s first steps.

A plane wing over the clouds and a setting sun.
Views from my plane ride to France

Upon my arrival in France, I was shocked to learn that the country had a big election coming up, with a Trump-esque far-right candidate threatening to win. I hadn’t even heard the name Marine le Pen until arriving in France. My classes in Tours covered France’s political system, major issues/viewpoints for each party, and the backgrounds of the top presidential candidates. I learned a lot, but simultaneously felt ignorant for failing to research politics in France until I began living there.

In addition to my political culture shock, I hadn’t realized how accustomed I had grown to American culture until I experienced French culture. After traveling from the East Coast to the South and living in the Midwest and the West, I felt like I had diverse experiences in each of these places and that it would be difficult to find many cultural similarities between, say, Kansas and San Francisco. I didn’t take aspects of culture such as mealtimes, restaurant norms and lifestyle habits into consideration since the American norms for those were so ingrained into my own practices that I barely noticed them.

The cultural differences in food stood out most to me—in addition to an average dinner time of 8 p.m. and leisurely service at restaurants where patrons have to request the check, the French seemed to place a lot of value on food and the importance of sharing food. Most schools and businesses gave at least an hour for lunch, so for the first time in years, I took the time to enjoy my meals. Having a less hectic schedule while abroad allowed me to sit and eat without stressing about where I had to be next. Dinners with my host mom lasted at least half an hour, and we would sit and talk about our days over the meal without either of us rushing to finish. Her fantastic ratatouille, salmon and fresh bread and cheese only improved the appeal of these meals.

A charcuterie platter at a restaurant in Tours

My friends and I enjoyed several dinners out at restaurants that lasted at least two hours, but these dinners never felt overly lengthy. Multiple courses allowed us to try a variety of foods, and since French restaurants don’t provide take-out boxes, we tried to finish everything on our plate to show our appreciation for the quality of the food. Having to ask for the check prolonged our meals, but it felt so refreshing to not be rushed out of a restaurant. Although I didn’t always know the French words for certain menu descriptions, I found myself ordering random dishes anyway, willing to try something despite not knowing all the ingredients. In my four months in France, I did not eat a single bad meal.

Food became communal, a way to spend time with people important to me. I hadn’t realized how busy of a culture I lived in, with a constant go go go mentality, until I entered one without that added stress. People worked less and interacted more—not to say that no one was stressed or busy, but work and leisure had a clear separation between them. When the workday ended, people spent time with their families or friends. It took full immersion within French culture for me to realize the benefits of this lifestyle.

I didn’t fully realize it at the beginning of my time abroad, but I had to disregard a lot of my inherent cultural values to fully experience and appreciate French culture. Late mealtimes allowed me to enjoy snacks from the plethora of bakeries I passed on my daily walk home, prolonged meals gave me time to catch up with the people in my life, and not having access to a car provided me with a view of Tours that I would not have gotten from behind the wheel. I relied on my own two feet to transport me everywhere in town, and public transportation to travel elsewhere.

Restaurants and shops in Place Plumereau in Tours

Entering a new culture with a language that I had only studied in the U.S. was scary, and frustrating at times, but overall rewarding. It took some time to adjust, but after I grew accustomed to the cultural norms and began to adapt my own practices to fit them, I felt more at place. Studying abroad gave me the opportunity to live the kind of lifestyle I would never have experienced in the U.S., along with increasing my awareness of the events around me.

After returning home, I have grown more conscious of my own cultural practices rather than blindly adhering to our cultural norms. I follow French news sites on Facebook so I can read about current events. France showed me a new way of living, a new worldview, and all it took was going to one new country. Here’s to more new experiences and cultures in South America this summer.

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