Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Cultural Adaptation

Cultural adaptation--it ain't easy.

 I am American to my core, subject to an American way of thinking, an American way of dressing, and an American way of living. Here in the beautiful country of France, things that I have always taken for granted are no longer givens. I know I've been here for awhile, but cultural norms are deeply ingrained, and not easily abandoned. Consider these recent interactions:

Last week a French friend commented that I am always "bien coiffée"--which roughly translates, "well groomed." She went on to attribute this characteristic to the fact that I am an American and Americans shower every day. Yes, in the States most adults DO shower daily. Its "normal" there. Its "weird" here. And seeing as I work out every morning, its a habit that I am not likely to shake any time soon!

On another day, I burst into the yarn shop, and as the shop owner approached, I announced that I was looking for embroidery floss. She smiled patiently at me and said, "Bonjour Jennifer." After two years in this country I had just broken the most basic of the shopper's rules of engagement! I don't blow this one often anymore, but suddenly, whammo, there I was being a full-fledged efficient (read: ugly) American. I slowed myself down, smiled, and answered "Bonjour Nataile. Comment ça va ?" We exchanged pleasantries, and then, eventually, we got around to the purpose of my visit.

And  then there was the time when I wanted to buy ice. We were having Mexican food for dinner, and David offered to make margaritas. The only problem is that we don't have an ice maker nor do we have ice trays. Given that I am quite familiar with the grocery store, I was certain that they did not sell bags of ice. At the risk of sounding horribly strange, I went to the woman at the seafood counter--which is always packed with crushed ice--and asked if it would be possible to buy some ice. The woman looked at me as if I were from outer space, and said, "Why would you want to buy something that is free?" She disappeared for a moment and returned with about four cups of ice in a shopping bag. I was grateful, but still curious about how I could have possibly known where to get ice without having to ask the question. There are no signs telling people that they can get free ice from the seafood section. French people just know these things. If I were French, I would know them, too. But I am an American, through and through.

Just because I am an American doesn't mean that I am not trying to adapt. I AM trying! I am trying hard! But one does not learn the intricacies of another culture in days, weeks, or months.  It takes time and intention. I know we still have a long way to go; at the same time, I can certainly see some progress after being here for two years. We never forget to weigh our vegetables in the produce section, we greet everyone when we enter the waiting room at the doctor's office, and we no longer call out to each other in public places.

As for the "intention" part--I have recently read two books that I found VERY enlightening. The first was a book about France during the renaissance, called The Serpent and the Moon. After reading that book I have an appreciation for the French's distrust of organized religion, an understanding of their seeming tolerance of infidelity, and a respect for their approach to child-rearing. The second was a book called Cultural Misunderstandings, and it was written by a French anthropologist who has lived many years in the United States. The author compares French and American cultures in several different realms, such as friendship, marriage, response to minor accidents (such as spilling red wine on a friend's white carpeting), obtaining information, and telephone etiquette. It was an easy read, and though it is over 20 years old, I found it extremely insightful.

And so we continue, like camels learning to swim. Slowly making headway into an environment that is not our own.

We carefully file away our failures and our successes, hoping that some day that which still sometimes feels foreign will finally become second nature. We walk that careful balance between holding to our heritage and giving ourselves permission to change. We learn what it means to die to ourselves on a whole new level--losing a piece of our identities along the way.

To this we have been called. Cultural adaptation. Its the toughest job I've ever loved.


  1. When you sat in my living room and shared your story/vision you talked about your cultural adaptation training. I don't know if I ever told you/thanked you for that conversation. It was life changing for me.

    I am a Filipino-American born in Japan then lived in the Philippines but grew up in California, lived in Minnesota, and now reside in Oregon. And once saved have the Christian culture to complicate things.

    Up until our conversation I had lived my entire life feeling "wrong." You helped me to see I just had different cultural experiences that shaped me.

    I'm quite okay with different. Different beats "wrong." I thank the Lord for bringing you to me that day. It was one more lie that I am free from.

    Lord bless you, Jenn!

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  3. hey this isaiah, and i really love what you wrote! our family can relate with you guys and trying to adapt to a new culture.

  4. I love these types of posts that give us a peak into what it's really like to live in France.

  5. Awesome post. I could relate to it so much having been an MK in Vienna, Austria. I hope you will continue to blog about this issue.