There is a common held theory amongst anthropologists that one must immerse oneself in another culture to truly be able to understand your own. In the small city of Grenoble, France, I began my cultural immersion.
Immersion; it’s a word that is used frequently when describing someone’s time abroad. But what does it really mean? To me, it sounds as simple as sinking into a warm bath. Yet I found this element the most challenging. To immerse oneself requires understanding. It requires active observation of how another society functions. It is learning anew, and considering the questions: What is important? What is appropriate? How long can one take for lunch? (apparently “a long time”). France is not a world away from the society I grew up with in the UK, and yet I found this rendered my immersion even more challenging in parts. There is a sense that things will be more or less the same, and this only highlighted my own ignorance of what “culture” meant. Learning to appropriate one’s behaviour to a national identity based on years of history, conflicts and politics is far more intricate than anticipated
Integration; for me this differs from immersion in that integration lies only with the people of a culture. It is important to us as humans not only to integrate at home, but also abroad; this idea is commonly reduced to the notion of “fitting in”. Ultimately, wherever one is in the world, one looks for the same things in another: love, kindness, acceptance, laughter. We will always seek companionship. I quickly realised that feeling as though people are alien to you simply because they speak another language is a barrier which exists only in your mind. I was struck when, during my first lecture, a girl arriving late sat next to me and timidly asked what she had missed. Upon learning that I was (clearly) not French she was quick to be self-deprecating, stating that my French was far better than her English. It became apparent to me that we are all trying to impress each other. In short, we are all intimidated by one another and seek the approval that what we are doing
is right, both in the finer points of our grammatical accuracy in a language, and in our larger life choices.
So what was the big reveal? When my friends ask me the dreaded question “so how was France?” I still do not know what they look for as an answer. Something soul-altering? Did I understand more about my own culture? Absolutely. Learning about a new one makes you question the reasons for your own actions. But the biggest lesson I learned was that national identity is a construct. Nations are man made. Humanity is not.