Ah Saturday. A day of relaxation and sleeping in late and…Oh wait. That’s right. I had class on Saturday morning. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The classroom was a little emptier than usual, but we still had some interesting discussions.
After class, I went to lunch and then headed to the Journées Interculturelles, hosted by Autour du Monde (the international student organization). It was held at a conference center in Nantes and was open to the public. About a week ago, I noticed on Autour du Monde’s Facebook page that they were looking for American students to represent the United States of America for the international day.
Now, about the international day, it’s a major event and is definitely the biggest event that Autour du Monde does. The community and students learn about different cultures, languages and countries. Each country has a booth and then there are presentations, dances, songs, theatre, martial arts…anything goes. Pretty much all of the countries were covered…except the United States of America.
To be fair, there aren’t many Americans here. There are big groups from other countries, but the United States is a minority. But still. Not a single American wanted or could (they may have had other things going on) represent the United States.
So, I sent an e-mail to the coordinator. I was interested in helping out, but I didn’t want to do anything big since this is already a big week for me. I’ve got a lot going on too, but I think it’s important to share what I can. It was too late for me to do a booth (and that would have been complicated with just one person), so I opted for a five minute presentation. I planned on showing a Youtube video and talking for a bit…except the conference building doesn’t have internet.
I found that out on Friday night. Late at night, I did a little research and scribbled down a speech in French. It’s better than nothing. I told myself.
At the event, I visited the booths with a friend before she had to leave. I had my name written in Arabic and in Chinese. I filled out quizzes from different countries. I watched a Vietnamese fashion show, a Chinese play, Brazilian martial arts, attended a presentation on Iran, (and pretty much every other presentation)…and I ate. A lot. Every booth had food. I tried everything (or at least everything that I could). Some foods were bright green, others were strangely shaped, but all of them tasted amazing.
The event started at two and my presentation was supposed to start at 4:50. So, I walked around for hours until it was my time to present. There was a stage, a room with the booths and a small room. I was scheduled to present in the small room (I was the last presentation), but at 4:50, it was already occupied. They were behind schedule. Really far behind schedule.
I waited and waited. Finally, at 5:45, I went into the room to present. But the event ended at 6 pm so they were starting to clean up. There weren’t many people. On the projector, I put up a photo of the American flag (my speech was on the American flag, which I thought it was a simple and interesting topic). One man saw it and approached me. “Are you from the United States?” he asked.
“Oui,” I said.
“Let me tell you something,” he began.
Oh no. He doesn’t like the United States. He disagrees with something. He’s going to argue with me. This is not good. Oh dear… I thought.
“When war broke out in my country years ago, the United States intervened. They saved me. They saved my family. I am here today, in France, because of the United States,” he said.
I asked him where he was from, but my mind was too stunned to remember what he said. I just remember that a little boy, about six or seven, came out of nowhere. He smiled, “Son, this woman is American. She is from the United States, a great country with courage. The United States is a great country. Never forget that.”
Well, shoot, what do I say to that? I was so stunned. Yes, I am American, but I didn’t save his family. Those were the brave American soldiers. I didn’t sign the orders to intervene. That was congress. I am an American citizen, that’s all. Nothing more, nothing less. But to this man? I was the representation of everything that is good in our country.
The only word to tumble out of my mouth was, “Merci.”
“Non. Merci,” he returned.
He walked away and I was left, wondering how I could give my presentation after that. But I turned to the empty chairs and realized that I might not have to. No one was coming. The other events lasted too long. No one wanted to see the last presentation of the day. Except…
The Indonesians. So, I already told you I didn’t have a booth. I didn’t have a group of Americans to hang out with. I didn’t have a place to put my stuff. I didn’t have anything. Except the kindness of others, particularly the Indonesians. I have an Indonesian friend in one of my classes and she welcomed me to their booth. I placed my stuff there and I hung out with them. When it was time for my presentation, they came and watched it.
The Germans. I have several German friends, so they came to watch my presentation. They were even kind enough to give me a picture of Germany.
Volunteers. The volunteers of Autour du Monde are usually French, although some of them were once international students themselves. I’ve been to practically every Autour du Monde event, so I know them pretty well by now.
Random people. There were a few random people there, which was good. Not everyone was there because they pitied the poor American, with whom no one wanted to do a booth!
My presentation was entirely in French. I started giving long presentations in French in high school. I don’t get nervous when I speak in English and I don’t really get nervous when I speak in French. I’m comfortable in front of an audience, but I was a little nervous about representing America in such a short period of time and about doing it in front of a group of native French speakers! I wrote my speech the night before. I was going to improvise half of it anyway. The way I look at it, I’m going to make mistakes. I make mistakes speaking English. I’m going to make mistakes speaking French. But it isn’t about being totally perfect. It’s about sharing thoughts and ideas…and I think I did that pretty well.
I explained a bit about the history of the American flag and about the symbolism of the colors and the stars. The audience was fantastic. They asked some really good questions at the end (my favorite: Do you speak English? The guy asked it as a joke), they were understanding of my American accent and they were extremely polite. I was more nervous that I would get tough questions, like what do you think of censorship in modern-day America? Where does America stand on feminist equality? If one state mirrored the economy of France, which state would it be?
Think those questions are extreme? I’ve actually been asked these questions in day to day conversations and I’ve had to respond in the most diplomatic manner. I had to be clear on what America believes (which is often divided in many parts, so I have to present all possible sides) and then I sometimes give my own opinion. These questions are always so difficult.
After the event, each country was presented with packs of cookies, candy and a certificate. The program coordinator thanked me a million times because she was really desperately searching for an American to do something…and then she handed me the cookies, candy and certificate. “Oh, I can’t…” I began.
“It’s for every country,” she insisted.
That’s when it dawned on me. I was a country. This is the benefit of representing your country by yourself…you reap the rewards. Seriously. I have cookies for the rest of my life. On the other hand, there’s a danger. You have to present all sides of your country, admitting the bad and admiring the good. Above all, you might be the only person that someone has met from your country. When they think of your country, they are going to think of you. What impression do you want them to have? One person told me yesterday, “You’re the first American I’ve ever met. Americans are really nice.”
As we cleaned up, there was music, there was dancing. We all sat down and ate dinner together. I had a wonderful time and really have to thank Autour du Monde for letting me participate, particularly with such short notice.
On a complete side note, they had pictures up from previous years. I saw a photo of an American flag and noticed it was the American booth from years ago. Look at the girl on the left. She’s wearing a West Virginia hoodie. I don’t know who she is, but maybe she’s a WVU student (or alumna now). That’s really cool to think that two WVU students from different stories, different times have come to the same place to do the same thing…represent the United States of America.
Or maybe she bought the hoodie because she thought it looked cool.