Far from home: A Frenchman in Asheville

UNC Asheville's exchange pose in the sun in front of Ramsey Library.
UNC Asheville’s exchange pose in the sun front of Ramsey Library.

Before we even put a foot in a country, we already have an idea of what the people are — how they look, what their personalities are like. I’m French, so you probably think that when I wrote this I had a glass of wine on my desk and a cigarette between my fingers, maybe even a blue-striped T-shirt, a beret and some cheese stuck between my teeth.

Stereotypes are always present in a culture. Are they good? Bad? True?
I personally find the French stereotype funny in a lot of ways but also a bit mean. I recently learned I’m supposed to be a coward and to smell bad. As if we would ship Chanel perfume all over the world without keeping some for ourselves?
Stereotypes have a part of truth in them but are often exaggerated. They are caricatures. If you know all about foreign stereotypes, those that you know the least are probably your own. Having a lot of international students here at UNC Asheville is also an opportunity for American students to receive feedback on themselves and their country.

“There is many stereotypes about Americans,” said Julia Walner, an exchange student from Austria studying law. “I expected really friendly and helpful people and wasn’t disappointed on that.”
Walner said most of her opinions on Americans came from movies and TV shows, and most of the other exchange students feel the same way. Our view of Americans is influenced by Hollywood.
“The picture I have in my head while thinking about Americans is a skinny blonde cheerleader with pom-poms and a lot of makeup,” Walner said.

Sadly, a characteristic that I heard a lot while I was interviewing people was “fat.” But it’s also exaggerated, a sort of “Super Size Me” legacy. People usually change their minds when they actually go to the U.S.
“I found them quite athletic and sporty. Maybe it’s because we are in college,” said Serena Rossi, an exchange student from England studying dance. “I think obesity is still a problem, though.”

Most exchange students said they believed Americans were friendly and welcoming before coming to the U.S.
“I knew that people were friendly in the U.S., more than in my country,” said Emma Mäntynen, a senior Finnish exchange student studying administrative sciences. “My friends told me, ‘Don’t be surprised if strangers in the grocery store start talking to you.’”

“I like that people are friendly and like to talk,” said Mirka Joro, another Finnish exchange student at UNCA. “It’s easier to make contact here.”
It appears your best quality is your openness, according to exchange students on campus. You’re welcoming, friendly and it’s easy to talk and make contact.
“Being friendly and talking to people is nice, but it can also bother me sometimes. I’m not always in the mood to talk,” Mäntynen said.

Apparently, your best quality can also be your biggest fault.
“People ask you how you are, how you feel, but they don’t really care,” Walner said.
Many exchange students from different areas reported similar experiences.
“Americans are more open, whereas in England we are more reserved. Here I can meet someone for the first time and he will tell me his whole life story,” Rossi said. “But it can be boring, because I might not be interested in their whole life story. Some things should be kept private.”

It’s really important to keep in mind different individuals with other backgrounds will think differently and have different opinions on Americans. An exchange student from South America didn’t have the same opinion about how welcoming Americans are.

“American students are kind of closed towards international students. They have their own group of friends, but they won’t let someone in easily. It’s hard to engage a proper relationship,” said Julia Rotenberg, a Brazilian exchange student studying psychology.

She said her opinion is different due to differences in her culture.
“In Brazil, it’s really common to hug people and, when we say hi, we kiss on the cheek,” Rotenberg said. “So here it’s not as intense as it is in Brazil.”

For her, the best qualities in Americans are their freedom and their independence.
“All my American friends have their own houses, they are not living with their parents anymore and they have jobs. I admire that, because it’s something completely different from where I live,” Rotenberg said. “In Brazil, most people live with their parents until they are 30 years old.”

Something that also comes up when interviewing exchange students is the lack of knowledge Americans tend to have about everything outside the U.S.
“A girl ask me if we have New Year’s Eve in Brazil, as if it was an American thing,” Rotenberg said.
This would be due to the fact that the U.S. is a huge and powerful country and is not really influenced by other countries. Being the country that influences the others makes it unnecessary to learn about other cultures and countries.
“They are stuck in a bubble, not really aware about other cultures and other countries,” Rossi said.

The most important thing to remember, though, is many of the people interviewed can picture themselves living in U.S., and that’s probably the best compliment you can have.
“I can see myself living in the U.S. Brazil is a mess sometimes; it’s dangerous. So I feel safer in the U.S.,” Rotenberg said.
Mäntynen added that she has always imagined living in the U.S. because there are greater possibilities for her here.

You can be sure all the exchange students are having a great time. If you ask me, I like the U.S. and the Americans, but I couldn’t live here the rest of my life; the wine is way too expensive.

By Aymeric Assemat

02/03/2016

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