Super-Size It: I’m an American Girl

    Disregarding vague ties to my Eastern European heritage, I’ve always considered myself a culturally confused American. I am the American who compensates for her lack of heritage by soaking in her international friends’ culture. I’m the kid who’s lectured about Turkish history over lunch, who stands awkwardly as Israeli families sing in Hebrew around a menorah and who fumbles with chopsticks. I’m essentially American, but the type with boring heritage. The type whose family immigrated so long ago that all I have to show for it are some ancient Slovakian recipes and a curious last name.

    But in France, I’m different. I’ve discovered I have an American identity that is formed by popular music, fast food and personal hygiene.

    I noticed it the first weekend I spent with my French host family. We took a day trip to the remote village of Thièze and after visiting an ancient church, picking grapes in a vineyard and picnicking in the countryside, we hopped back into their dark green Peugeot minivan and my host dad turned on the radio. Nirvana’s “Rape Me,” blared through the car’s speakers and my entire family started singing along. I was on the verge of laughter until my 7-year-old host sister Flavia asked what the song meant.

    I was cornered. Even if I did explain, there was no way I could put it elegantly. And then what? Then I’d be the perverted American who listens to music about rape, laughs about it and then explains it to innocent children. I knew I wasn’t responsible for Kurt Cobain’s throaty demand to be sexually violated, but I had a vague feeling that it somehow represented American culture to my family, and, by some sick and twisted cultural transitive property, it therefore represented me. I faked incomprehension and hoped Lil’ Wayne hadn’t made it to French radio yet.

    About a month later at dinner, my 10-year-old host sister Anne-Charlotte didn’t want to eat her ratatouille and her mother got upset. By then I’d learned to listen carefully to their mealtime quarrels so I could memorize their angry French comebacks for later personal use (I can do this without seeming creepy because, as a foreign exchange student, I’m practically a fly on the wall.). I heard Anne-Charlotte say that even though she didn’t like the traditional French dish, her appetite wasn’t distasteful. She wasn’t like the Americans, she explained, who only ate McDonald’s. Suddenly, I was no longer a fly. I was an American at the dinner table who’d just been insulted.

    Her mother slammed her fork down on her plate and swung her head in Anne-Charlotte’s direction. “I don’t understand you!” she yelled as spit flew out with the furious French pronunciation of each word. “Look!” she continued, as she flung her hand in my direction. “We have an American here and she eats EVERYTHING!”

    Although their argument made me feel extremely awkward and a little bit like a black hole, I couldn’t blame Anne-Charlotte for stereotyping Americans. The McDonald’s in the centre ville of Lyon was probably the only American cuisine she’d experienced. I wasn’t upset over her generalization; just disappointed she didn’t know we also eat international cuisine, like Chipotle or Panda Express.

    I didn’t know what to say so I resorted to what I apparently do best: I ate everything on my plate.

    But it wasn’t until a week later when I was flossing my teeth and noticed that my three younger host sisters were behind me, watching with amazement, that I felt like I was in an eerie cultural aquarium. I heard some incomprehensible French discussion behind me and then finally a direct question: “What are you doing?” the 13-year-old, Laurène, asked with genuine curiosity.

    With floss lodged between my gums, I gave a cavewoman-like explanation in French (“Good … for the teeth.”) then resorted to a demonstration. She stared at me and then left to retrieve her mother. Together, the four of them lifted the tiny plastic floss box cap and pulled on the white string. “How does it come out?” Anne-Charlotte asked. More cavewoman French. Attempting to ignore their investigation, I reached for my electric toothbrush. As it began to vibrate in my mouth, their eyes lit up. “What is that?” Flavia asked. “Good for the teeth,” I said, as toothpaste foam ran down the sides of my mouth.

    The weekend of Oct. 11, I visited a friend in Aix-en-Provence and we went to a Turkish hookah and tea bar. A French guy who worked there asked us if Americans really thought that French people walked around wearing berets and carrying baguettes. “Yes,” we replied. Even if we didn’t want to admit it, we stereotype too. He shook his head, laughed and admitted we weren’t too far off about the baguettes. Then he told us about customers who’ve come to his bar, sat down on beaded pillows, smoked hookah and left thinking they’d found a true French establishment. People like that could benefit from a lesson in stereotypes. If they’d known about the berets and baguettes, they could’ve wound up in an artisanal French bakery instead.

    We also visited a photography museum in Aix-en-Provence and struck up a conversation with its two employees. The first employee forced us to guess his age (36), then asked us if we liked “High School Musical” (“No.”) and finally told us he’d seen a clip of President George W. Bush trying to pull open a locked door at a press conference. As my friend steered the conversation toward local attractions, I asked his co-worker if it was easy to meet people in a small town like Aix. Admittedly, after our new friend’s immediate connection to our American nationality with a door-retarded Bush, I had my doubts.

    “Don’t worry,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re American. We have a saying in France: between intellectuals, there is never a problem.”

    But that worried me even more. I hadn’t verbally expressed the least bit of anxiety about my nationality hindering my ability to meet French people, and as much as I’d like to be considered an intellectual, I probably speak French at a fifth-grade level.

    To be honest, sometimes I really do want to indulge in the stereotypical habits that give Americans a bad rap: I have the urge to eat McDonald’s in sweats while listening to songs about sexual pleasure, to obsessively floss and brush my teeth twice a day. And maybe this is just an inkling, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, somewhere in France, a French citizen is sitting at a cafe, beret on his head and a baguette under his arm, chain-smoking the day away.

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