One day in class, I decided to play a game of Pictionary, a word game where team members take turns drawing pictures to represent a word while the other members guess what he or she is trying to convey. It can get challenging, such as when we play a round with eyes closed, or drawing with the left hand. The students generally enjoy it and it’s a good way for them to learn vocabulary.
So for Thanksgiving, I gave them words such as “Pilgrim,” “turkey,” and “mashed potatoes.” I gave one last word to one of my serious Secondes (equivalent to an American sophomore). He hardly thought for a second, and proceeded to draw an enormous round circle on the board. He attached a miniscule circle on the top, two small lines sticking out from the bottom, and two small lines sticking out from the side. To the right of the picture he added a hamburger and a soft drink.
“AMERICAN!” twenty-two voices yelled. Then twenty-two pairs of eyes, plus those of our artist, turned towards me and the room erupted into giggles.
It had taken them less than 10 seconds to guess.
I smiled and shook my head as they continued to laugh at the rotund representation of “American” on the chalkboard, and the artist continued to draw, adding a baseball cap and a handgun to his masterpiece. The class was rolling on the floor by the time the bell rang.
What stereotypes do young French kids have of Americans? On the first days of classes, I told them to tell me some of their images of Americans. An awkward silence followed.
“You can be honest; you won’t offend me,” I said. Several hands immediately shot into the air. While some of their stereotypes sounded familiar- “zey have guns, zey work hard, zey live in huge houses, and love Coca-Cola,” – some of them were quite surprising: “Life in America, it iz like ze film ‘American Pie’” one of my juniors blurted out.
That one definitely made me slap my forehead harder than usual.
Another student surprised me by insisting that “zere is a war between ze East Coast and ze West Coast gangs of motorcycles,” and others complimented my country: “Zey are very friendly, handsome and beautiful, the style and fashion is so great, and ze are so smart because zere is Harvard.” And in general, they always mention American television, music and movies as their favorites.
I take it all with a smile. And sometimes I play it up. One day an economics teacher offered me a drink at the “bar,” the counter in our teacher’s lounge where we can get coffee or soda. I said “sure,” and right away the philosophy teacher whipped out a Coke. “For the American!” he cried and the group of ten or so teachers laughed hysterically. I grabbed it right away and forced a huge American accent into my response in French: “Well of course, what else?”
And finally, in one of my favorite moments in France, a young seven-year-old informed me that “My dad said that I can’t drink soda, because Americans, they drink lots of soda, and they get really faaaaaaaat!”
Sigh. And a smile.