11 December 2013

The big (and) easy

I discovered this enormous coffee mug in a U.S. hotel room this week.

My post's title has nothing to do with New Orleans (for which The Big Easy is a frequent nickname). Instead, big (and) easy is the most apt characterization I can come up with right now, for my family's impressions of U.S. life after 2 1/2 French years.  Life is BIG and life is EASY here.  U.S streets, freeway lanes, grocery store aisles, ovens, refrigerators, even the toilet paper rolls seem very big.  Driving and riding is easy; I don't stop at toll booths (the new ones in WA state automatically take a picture and deduct my toll) nor is the car slowing and speeding up with the constant shifting at the countless traffic roundabouts on French roads.  I now drive along wide American allées in an extremely comfortable and automatic shift German sedan (in a model redesigned for the U.S. market, yes, to be bigger and wider).  I can steer with one hand, and if I want to make a phone call, I simply say CALL HOME to the steering wheel which connect to the phone in my purse.  My children's first impressions have been less about the big and easy, but more about how easy-friendly everyone seems.  School administrative staff and sports coaches welcomed them with practically open arms, kids they don't even think they know are waving to them from the streets, and grocery clerks chitchat with us and already know we've returned from France. On the other hand, I'm having a hard time getting used to no bises (cheek kisses), particularly from my kids' friends.  In France, I was ALWAYS greeted with two cheek kisses by the boys' friends (not to mention all of their sports' teammates and the teammates' parents), but now I'm not sure I'd get much eye contact with some if I wasn't so insistent on hugging the kids I haven't seen in two years.

Right now, my family has the opportunity to view our society from an almost outsider's perspective. I try to introduce a similar perspective to my students, particularly those who have not had the experience of visiting or living in another society.  It's one way to begin recognizing the ways in which social context affects people's behaviors, beliefs and attitudes.  Like in France, where we discovered the cultural penchant for languid meal times and parties, we learned a lot about French attitudes towards the use of time.  In the U.S. we are seeing lots of bigness and ease and that colors how the people in this society think and behave. Seeing the ways in which context influences society also shows us that no society is perfect and no way of living is the best way.  For example, those leisurely French meals, in restaurants especially, were often very expensive ones with painfully slow and inattentive service.  In the U.S. where we've been in the car a lot in the short time we've been here (it's the first time in my teenagers' lives that they are being driven to school daily), we are noticing that we are using our bodies much less than we had to in France.  I have hardly walked anywhere and definitely not laden with bags.  Baggers/clerks or I wheel my grocery bags out and lift them into my car's trunk and then I drive them home and carry them just a few meters from the driveway to the house.  There has been none of the complicated and physically-demanding routine of dropping grocery bags off on an old, old street, to the ground floor of an old, old apartment building and then circling around to get on the one-way ring road to my tiny parking space into which I had to do some precision car handling before schlepping bags up three flights of stairs and then fitting everything into a narrow refrigerator.  Now, I have to actually create opportunities to get daily exercise instead of getting them as part of my daily routine. One son also recognized that he was slipping into the American all day snacking habit, with all those chips and crackers and other manufactured 'foods' that come in much bigger and more convenient packages than in France.  Luckily for us because of our experience abroad, we can choose from several different behavioral patterns and customs that might better suit us or that we like, even if they don't quite fit the social context in which we now live.  We did this in France after many months of baguettes and croissants, by adding protein to our breakfasts, U.S. style, while here we can try countering the big and easy U.S. tendency to eat all the time with the French pattern of just a single small goûter (a light snack around 16:00 or 17:00, after school) and an entrée (a small appetizer) followed by a late dinner.  And there is that nightly glass of wine....but come to think of it, I enjoyed that even before I went to France.

06 December 2013


The tributes to Nelson Mandela and his lifelong fight for social equality offer a good opportunity to speak briefly about race and racism as I have observed it in the months up to my recent departure from France.   This fall, accusations of racist comments made by and about government officials and politicians have been widely reported in the French press (see "Racisme en France: Un écran de fumée de PS, selon Copé". Nov. 19, 2013, Le Monde) and coincidentally, in Italy as well ("Italian politician compares black minister..." Aug. 26, 2013, The Guardian).  Our personal experiences suggest that these are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.  We have heard many such comments from the mouths of French residents of all backgrounds in our nearly 2 1/2 years in France.  My children speak of rampant racist talk at their French public school from teachers and students alike, directed particularly towards French of Muslim or African backgrounds, while we certainly heard our share of ethnocentric comments about Americans, often derogatory, sometimes complimentary.  (In some circles, our foreign presence seemed to render social status.)   While not expressly racist, homophobic comments too were not uncommon, especially on the sports' fields.

From our U.S. West Coast perspective, where overt comments reflecting racism, ethnocentrism and homophobia are generally unacceptable even though these -isms and phobias continue to manifest themselves in racist, ethnocentrist and homophobic practices, the French expressions shocked us every time.  Those coming from politicians seemed outrageous and inexcusable, yet it's hard to know how to interpret the racist talk, especially in a country where race is officially ignored and its use in government records and census-taking is prohibited.  It's not like the South Africa of Mandela's youth and young adulthood where the racist talk was clearly coupled with official racist practices that kept the minority whites in power.  In regards to France, one might ask, is this all just a bunch of big talk (and to what ends), or do the French walk their racist talk, promoting the privilege of those who have the right background and skin color?  Officially, there is no racism, not in France, not in the U.S. for that matter either, but we can look at who is represented at the top of our most powerful institutions to see that minority populations (by race, but also by ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation) are not represented in numbers consistent with their representation in national populations; in France we would expect to see more African and Muslim representation while in the U.S. it is African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans who are particularly underrepresented.  (Interestingly, in both France and Italy, it is the singular presence of female black government ministers which seems to have upset the old social order and triggered the recent racist comments.)  Looking at the numbers at the top is only one way to see evidence of racism though; as my sociology students learn, institutional racism can be subtly built into social structures.  Here it helps to consider the opportunity structures in societies because it is through these that we see representation at the top.  What are the opportunities for access, to good schools, for example, or to social networks (that is, to people with connections)?  What are the implications for good health outcomes (and thus better outcomes on other indicators) for certain communities that perhaps live in unsafe, unsanitary, and crowded conditions?  And who lives in these communities?  Many months ago, I wrote about the ways in which doors close, for women and for immigrants. (See Une porte fermée, March 2013.)  Race too opens and closes doors, even in societies where race officially doesn't even exist. Unfortunately, when the doors do open, the few who manage to get access to seats of power and privilege among the traditional officeholders are still not well-protected from racist treatment and remarks.  Thus, Mandela's quest for racial equality, in his own country and elsewhere, continues.