February 26, 2008

Reverse Culture Shock

Print More

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to be back in the good old US of A. There were some things that I just missed too much after having spent a semester in Paris — peanut butter, reliable Wi-Fi access and fixed shower heads, just to name a few. But upon my return I was shocked at the alienation I felt from my own country and some of its more bizarre cultural institutions.

Had I really become European in five short months, disdainful of all things that label us as big bad obnoxious Americans? No, not exactly. But it did give me enough distance to make a few (constructively) critical comments, which I will attempt to impart with the least amount of cultural snobbery possible.

The Lunch Hour: On a recent Tuesday afternoon I called around to see if anyone was available on campus to have lunch. I received a myriad of valid yet disturbing excuses such as, “I have lab/class/section from 9 a.m. straight through 6 p.m. with only a half hour break at 3 p.m.,” or “I got three hours of sleep last night and still didn’t finish a problem set that’s due in an hour so no time for lunch.” These basically translated as, “Are you kidding me, I have way more important things to do than eat.”

Excuse me for sounding obtuse, but there are arguably three things we need on this earth to survive as a species, and they are food, shelter and warmth. Shelter could even be up for debate, but there is no denying the fact that without food we die.

So what happened to the ritual known as the “meal?” There’s something wrong in a society when people aren’t eating the available food, unless they’re on a hunger strike to protest for all the people who lack this luxury. I understand that the pressure cooker of Cornell is partly at fault, but if we all weren’t so hell-bent on taking 21 credits a semester and getting into Harvard Law, we might just be able to partake in this essential cross-cultural activity.

At the rate we’re going, by the time we’re making tons of money and are able to afford taking leisurely lunch breaks in expensive restaurants, we’ll have long forgotten what lunch actually means! In Paris, the lunch hour is for eating — you will find Parisians flooding the cafes and restaurants to enjoy one of life’s simplest pleasures. So take a freakin’ half-hour break to refuel, be social, and I guarantee you that the warpath to success will be waiting right where you left it.

Vilification of Smokers: This is a hard one to argue, since the evidence strongly suggests that smoking causes all kinds of health problems that can lead to an untimely and unpleasant death. However, most people would agree that every individual has the right to decide what he or she does with her body. If smoking is an activity that an individual understands will have a negative impact on health and still continues to puff away because it is enjoyable, then one should be able to do it without feeling ostracized from the rest of the community. In France, they’ll look at you funny if you DON’T smoke.

If I learned one thing while being abroad, it is that Everything Is Relative (for instance, the French think we’re nuts for letting our citizens carry around guns and kill each other willy-nilly). So let’s not go legislating morality on this particular point when our own dangerous policies might warrant addressing.

Underage and Dangerous: This is possibly the most bizarre rule that I have had to re-adjust to after returning from a country with much more leniently alcohol laws. I will not rehash the various arguments for why the drinking age should be lowered in the US; you’ve heard them all before. I will say, however, that I find it horribly unfair that Cornell students under 21 cannot even enter a bar in Collegetown. As a friend who also recently returned from abroad argued, since when did bars simply become filling stations for alcohol? What happened to the bar as a social institution? It’s bad enough that the law dictates who can and cannot drink, but to make it additionally difficult for a group of friends whose members fall on both side of this arbitrary age minimum to socialize together … c’est pas possible.

I realize that this article is treading dangerously close to becoming a kvetch session about my reverse-culture shock; I must admit, however, that there are some things in America that I welcome back with open arms. As much as I loved the French three-sip cafés, it sure does feel good to have a nice big cup of drip coffee to sip on during a 50 minute lecture, which flies by compared to the three-hour class lengths I never fully acclimated to in Paris. And we actually have class on a regular basis! No striking here (and a good thing too, for the tuition we’re paying).

When all said and done, it feels good to be back on my own turf. But after my experience abroad, I’m looking at Cornell through a different lens, one which will ultimately prove invaluable.