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.