Thursday, September 29, 2011

Question 3: How is the education system you are experiencing different from what you are accustomed to in the U.S.? From your perspective as a student in the U.S. how is it beneficial and disadvantageous? Consider the perspective of your host-country’s students, how is it beneficial to them? Is it unfavorable to them in any way? Talk about your perceptions of the education system and how your perceptions might be different if you came from a different background.

The French education system is worlds away from what I've experienced in the U.S. Here the student has a set curriculum in each area of study (though sometimes there are two or three options to choose between), classes are much lengthier and usually involve lots of lectures (I have one three and a half hour lecture course once a week), and the bachelors equivalent system in French universities lasts only a year. Moreover, since this university gives students a French degree it attracts many students from the surrounding islands, such as Maritius, Mayotte, Madagascar, and Rodrigues. One of my translation teachers informed my class that another big difference between Université de la Réunion and other European universities is that this university is quite poor. She said that on average a student pays 60€ a year for tuition. This makes the Université more of a public school that any higher institution I have ever heard of in the U.S. This is a dramatic contrast to the commercialization of education in the U.S. and it opens the gates of higher education to many more people. Despite these positives, this also means it suffers from some of the negatives of most public institutions. The maintenance of the buildings is terrible, some of the teachers are horrendous, and one (possibly the most) incredibly over-looked aspect is the maturity of the students. I have been to classes from all three years of the bachelor in lettres (the equivalent of English language and literature for the French) here and have seen (as well as heard from others) a remarkable difference in the maturity of the students. My third year class could be a lecture class in any university in the U.S., however the first year class I went to was more like that of a high school than anything I've experienced in college. Almost all of the students were talking and whispering when the Professor was speaking. He had to periodically stop talking and make an effort to quiet them down and at one point he said “If you don't want to be here put your head down on the desk and go to sleep, just don't talk.” While I will admit that it was one of the most boring classes I have ever gone to I was nevertheless surprised at the behavior of the students. Most people I know only think of the ridiculousness of the prices of universities in the U.S., but they forget to think about what would happen if universities were cheap enough that anyone could go. While some people do possess the money to go to college, I feel that the vast majority of students spend a lot of time, money, and effort just to get into college. After experiencing this class I find myself thankful for the college selection process and the fact that despite the flaws in our higher education system, college is seen as a goal to be attained, not just another option for when high school ends.

Question Two: Pick a friend, host family member, work colleague, classmate, or someone from your host culture. Discuss what characteristics or aspects of this person are learned or affected by their culture. Now, what characteristics are results of their personality? How are you reaching these answers?

I've been accepted to a job that works with high school kids for one week of intensive English immersion. Last week I received an e-mail about a meeting for the job. It asked if I would be able to make it to a working lunch at twelve. I replied that I could but I had a class at one-o'clock so I would have to leave then. After some confusion about the location of the meeting (it was at the Rectorat which is roughly equivalent to a department of education in the U.S.), and some trouble figuring out how to get into the building (The gates were locked and there was no one at the buzzer), I made my way to the office. On my way to the office where we were to meet I ran into (though not literally) one of the organizers and tried to explain to her in very flustered French why I was ten minutes late. She took me to the office (where only two of the five others had already arrived) and then told the head of the program that I didn't speak any French. Eventually we met the rest of our co-workers-to-be and made our way to the cafeteria. At the cafeteria I spoke with everyone and assured them that yes, I speak French, it's one of my majors and I have been studying it for more than six years. I was sitting a few chairs down from the head of the program but I was not far enough away to miss her staring at me and replying to my neighbors question of “What's wrong?” with “I don't know what to do about her, she doesn't speak French.” I understood that she was troubled because she didn't speak English, but I was irritated by the fact that I had been labeled as “Frenchless” without any say in the matter myself, so I replied to her question (which was directed to my neighbor) with a brusque “Yes, I speak it.” After the working lunch (in which no work was done), we all headed to a meeting room. At this point I was becoming quite agitated because it was 12:50 and we had eaten without actually doing any work. By the time that the two administrators of the meeting had found someone to unlock the room it was 1:05 and I needed to go to class (It was my hardest class as well, one that I would have trouble in if I missed a lecture). I nervously reminded the lady who I had e-mailed that I had a class at one and I needed to leave. She raised her eyebrows and replied with “Well that's a shame because then you really won't be able to do anything. You're sure you can't miss your class?” When I tried to explain that I had informed her in my e-mails that I would have to leave before one-o'clock and I had thought it would be a one hour lunch meeting she frowned and said “No, it's the whole afternoon. You really can't miss your class?” This second question which rang with disbelief crushed my last fortification of resistance and I acquiesced. I stayed at the meeting for another hour before fleeing to the second part of my class.

This was an exceptionally difficult confrontation for me. My entire life I have been a student and my being a student has always come before other commitments. The fact that someone, anyone, would expect me to miss school shocked me, especially since that someone worked at what is equivalent to a department of education and I had made an effort to warn her of my eminent departure (to go to class). However, these are clearly my cultural perceptions of education. It is possible that in Réunion education is less important than it is in the U.S., but from what I have learned in classes it is a symbol of status here as well as in the U.S., and therefore quite important. I think her actions strongly reflected her personality rather than her cultural beliefs, especially her assumptions about my speaking ability. In spite of my assumptions about her personality characteristics her actions can also be read through a cultural lens. Her cultural beliefs were most prevalent in the manner in which the meeting progressed. We commenced lunch roughly twenty minutes later than was planned. Although the lunch we had was a “working lunch” there was no working involved. Then when we began working (roughly an hour after we were meant to arrive) she was surprised that I would have somewhere else to be. These incidents (seen through a cultural lens) reveal why she may have responded so negatively to my effort to leave. Réunion, being part of France has many of the same conventions, one of which is the sacred lunch time. In Réunion (as in France) everything shuts down for lunch. People go home. Shops close. Lunch is eaten. Our “working lunch” was not exempt from this institution. The lateness was also characteristic of Réunion. People get to places late, I myself get everywhere late (although usually because I can't find where I'm headed). I've had two doctors appointments and one office appointment for my immigration. They were all official and I was late to all of them; no one blinked an eye. I'm learning not to stress too much about my lateness, I think that it's a culturally accepted fact here that people are late, unlike in the U.S. where being on time is set upon a pedestal. Her disbelief about my need to go to a class can also be understood from a cultural view. Despite having notified her multiple times that I would have to leave at one-o'clock she may not have registered that I would only be at the meeting for an hour. Though I consider most meetings as having a beginning and end time, I've come to realize this is a cultural behavior. End times are not something that the Réunionese tend to concern themselves with. This seems a much more practical idea than cutting a designated block of time out on a schedule and having to end a meeting even when nothing has been accomplished. The difference made by looking at this small story though cultural lenses put the actions of this woman is a much clearer perspective. These lenses veritably re-write the story. Making it about a faux-pas of a stranger in a different culture, rather than a superior bullying an underling, a theme that is sure to yield many more stories during my stay in Réunion.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Question One: Describe the perceptions of the U.S. in your host country. Are there a range of perceptions or are they general? Are they what you expected? Do host-nationals ask you about the U.S.? What do they ask? What do you think creates these perceptions?

Réunionese perceptions of the United States seem to fall into a few main categories: our money and our language, though I have had one interaction which involved who we are rather than what we posses. The single interaction that reflected more on our culture happened to be more of a joke than anything serious. I, after a few weeks of living here, decided to pursue a very cultural activity in my dorm: that of the whiteboard. The comments I received both about and on my whiteboard (besides being confused as to why there was a whiteboard on my door) were surprisingly of the same general vein as that I am used to receiving in the U.S. (therefore notes from my girl friends, dumb comments from my guy friends, and picture of penises from strangers/the dumber of my guy friends). I did however receive a few strange comments the first being a picture of a girls face and the words “Do the pretty girl rock,” and the second being “OMG I'm beautiful!” This second comment was a huge surprise, mainly because when the writer began writing it I happened to hear him and then watched him through the peephole of the door. The perpetrator of these comments happened to be my neighbor from across the hall. I found this strange because after talking with him a few times he didn't seem to be the kind of person to write rude things on someone's door, especially someone he had only had a few short conversations with. After having talked with him more I discovered that his Réunionese friend (he is from Madagascar) wrote the first comment. He owned up to the second comment but claimed it was because he wanted to write on my whiteboard rather than actually having anything to say to me. I believe him, but the fact remains that the first thing that someone from another country decided to write on my whiteboard (knowing I was from the U.S.) was “OMG I'm beautiful!” indicating, if nothing else, that we are perceived as superficial (even if they claim it's unconscious).

Our language: English seems to be a valued commodity in non-anglophone countries, or at least this one. In my first month here more than twenty people have told me they wanted to speak to me to better their English. I work in elementary schools teaching English to school children, and may potentially work in a high school doing the same. A girl I've become friends with who is from Mayotte told me that in her high school English was a required language. It's relatively common here to be asked if you're willing to get paid to speak English with someone's son or daughter. In fact, English is such a commodity here that I feel like it's something I posses rather than a part of who I am. This has opened an entirely new way in which to see my native language. Before coming here I would never have considered English as something I owned, but after seeing another culture's reaction to my language I've come to feel like it's another product that the U.S. has made marketable.

Our money: Most people I've met in my life are not rich, they do not see themselves as rich and they do not spend money like I expect a rich person would. I perceive “rich” as a sort of wealth that allows one to buy almost anything pretty much whenever. I don't ever expect to actually meet anyone that is would consider rich (though perhaps my chances are a little higher than most other people's because I go to Willamette University and I'm sure that some people have parents who can pay the exorbitant price tag). But since the U.S. is so big and seems to wield so much international power people from other countries think everybody and anybody from the U.S. is rich. The most outstanding example of this is that I've managed to run into was when I started chatting up a nice lady at the supermarket who was giving out samples of cheese. I was looking for provolone for a provolone-proscuitto-fig-jam sandwich (yum!), and she seemed to know something about cheese. In the process of figuring out that provolone was not sold in stores (pun!), she learned that I was from the U.S. At the end of our chat she insisted that I wait for her while she got me a pare-soleil, at the time I had no idea what it was she was getting but I was willing to find out. She returned with a sun shade, that thing that people put behind the windshield of their car in a useless effort to keep from baking alive when they get inside it (though I sound rather sarcastic about the overall benefits of sun shades I will definitely be taking mine back with me and using it at every possible occasion in order to boast about getting it from a nice lady in Réunion). I tried to explain to her that I didn't have a car and therefore wouldn't really be able to use it. She replied by telling me that my not having a car wasn't a problem, I could just buy one. After trying a few times to explain that I wouldn't be able to buy a car here even if I wanted to I was defeated by the certainty of her perception. Despite being outmaneuvered on the subject of my bank account I was able to conclude that conversation one sun shade richer and with a clearer concept of how the U.S. is viewed by some Réunionese.