Far frome home: A Frenchman in Asheville

Aymeric Assemat stands on a cliff over the town of Cassis in south of France.
Aymeric Assemat stands on a cliff over the town of Cassis in south of France.

I step into the plane, leaving my beloved country, my friends and family behind. It is August 12, 2015. After a day of traveling between excitement and sadness, I finally arrived in Asheville, my new home for the next 10 months.

I spent two years preparing for this project, this year abroad, and here am I, in my empty small double bedroom of Governors Hall. My huge suitcases on the ground, I look at the white walls, not really knowing what to do. I had traveled before, but living almost a year in a foreign country is different. I feel like an ant that a child separated from its group. I have lost my marks.

The first two weeks were the hardest part. I thought I spoke English, but you need more than what you learn at school and a couple episodes of “Game of Thrones” in original version to be able to have a conversation without deeply concentrating. You need time, and practice.

Since I can remember, I always wanted to speak English. Not because I like the language, but because of the opportunities offered to you when you speak English. The language is a license to travel and work all over the world.
Of course in France they teach us English at school, but if you don’t really want to learn, it’s not enough. You learn to comment on a painting or an article, but having a conversation is completely different; you can’t learn that in a classroom.

My trip to Canada was a real breakthrough in my learning of the language. Spending two months with native English speakers, I didn’t have that much choice. I needed to speak English. Two months in Canada were definitely more valuable than three years in high school, even if now I sound weird to you when I say “about”.

Having a group of international students struggling together with the language helped me a lot in the process. It’s always comforting to see you’re not the only one having issues. It’s maybe the part I like the most about being an international student — having a small international community, sharing experience with people from all over the world.

After a couple of weeks, everything became easier. I started having a rhythm in my life. Waking up, going to class, eating at Brown Hall twice a day and meeting the other international students. Studying abroad became that great experience I always dreamed about.

Since I was young, I always wanted to travel, see the world and meet people from other places and cultures. I couldn’t just stay in my hometown in the south of France while so many places were unknown to me. Since my first day at university, I have been preparing to study abroad, learning English, working hard to save money and finding a university overseas.

The choice of going to the U.S. to study was obvious to me. I wanted to go to an English speaking country to improve mastery of the language. My options were the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the United States. The U.K. is really close to France, so I decided to not apply there. Neither in Canada because I already traveled all across that country. I applied to some universities in the U.S. and Australia, and left the decision to chance.

Before my year at UNCA, I went to the United States twice — once in Alaska and once in New York City. Asheville is very different. Some people said to me Asheville is an exception. In a way, it’s true. The city is completely different than what I saw in the rest of the U.S. To me, the best thing about Asheville is its open mind. You’re not judged, whatever you do. It brings strange people, but that makes the city interesting. But to me, the city still feels really American.

When you visit a city in Europe you will get lost. A European city is an accumulation of small streets. If you take the map of my hometown, you will see it as a labyrinth, whereas American cities have been designed with a ruler. I think I prefer the labyrinth version. Getting lost in a new city is always an adventure and a good way to visit it, but I will admit that your cities are more convenient.

A thing all the exchange students said about the U.S is everything is bigger — your roads, your cars, your grocery stores and your food portions. My hometown population is around 300,000 residents whereas Asheville is around 80,000, yet Asheville is twice larger than my city. It’s really something that changes your habits. I’m used to walking to everywhere at home, but here it’s really different. It seems that American cities are built around cars.

Studying at UNCA is really different than what I’m used to. At home I spent two years studying a major called information and communication. It’s pretty much a mix between mass communication and new media. Montpellier, my hometown, counts 70,000 students separated between three universities inside the city. When you go to a lecture, you share a big auditorium with 300 to 500 students. You are anonymous and don’t really get to know your professors.

Another major difference is the way our degree is made. There is no minor, and we have to choose our major before going to college. Then you follow a fixed program for three years to get your license degree. If you fail during a year, you have to do it again. When I started college we had around 1,000 students in my major. By the third year, only about 300 remain. You have a course only once a week, but they are longer, lasting about three hours for a total of 30 hours a week, but we have less homework.

I can’t tell which system is better. I like that in the U.S. you get time to choose your major, and also you get to choose your classes and have more flexibility. I also like that your professors know you and are really helping if you need it, whereas in France you don’t get a lot of help. It’s tough but you learn how to stand on your own.

Studying abroad is an amazing experience, and I will recommend it to everyone. This year is not focusing on my scholarship, it focuses on who I am. Travelling makes you grow. You meet new people who had different experiences than you. You exchange with them, you learn from them and you teach them. I will not return to my country the same as I was when I came here.
I still have a semester left to enjoy this amazing experience.

By Aymeric Assemat
01/26/2016

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