Having Julien, a student from France stay with me really challenged my definition of the word “normal.” After a few days of showing him my routine and how we live here in Baton Rouge, it became clear that our routines did not have as many overlaps as I expected. Perhaps the most significant was the fact that it is very common for teenagers to drive to school here in the United States, while driving is prohibited until the age of 18 in France. Our first drive to school together, Julien held on tightly to the handle of the passenger door as I backed out of my driveway. I looked over at him and asked him if he was feeling okay, and he explained to me that this was the first time he had ridden in a car not driven by an adult. I couldn’t help but laugh when he told me that. It was so odd for me to hear that he could not even take driver’s education until he turned 16, and here I am, responsible for the safety of myself, those around me, and knowing and obeying all traffic laws. It was crazy for me to think that something that is so routine to me was something so foreign and outrageous to his definition of normal.
As the days went by and Julien and I become closer, I grew more and more fascinated by the lack of overlap between our “normals” in little things. On a rainy day when I suggested we beat the rain by grabbing an umbrella at a Walgreens, Julien was surprised to see that American drug stores offered products beyond the pharmacy. Driving to Walmart for a late night run for some toilet paper, the same thing happened. As we pulled up to the glaring neon glow of the sign, Julien was surprised to see that the same store that housed carrots and canned goods also contained an optical shop, an electronics department and a tire center. It was odd for me to realize that a normal grocery store for me was planetary compared to the local grocery stores and bakeries that he frequented back home. To Julien, my American “normal” was, quite literally, larger than his surroundings in France--from the big box stores to my mom’s mid-size SUV. Even going to Starbucks to grab a cup of coffee, something that is a quintessential American experience for many, was something new to Julien and his friends. An ordinary experience for me was actually exciting and novel for our new friends.
viewpoint can be learned hands on with an exchange program like this one. By forming a friendship with someone who is not the same as you are, you are gaining a better understanding of their world view. You realize that the life that you lead is so different than the lives that other people live around the world, and being a part of an exchange is a way that we can celebrate our differences. I know that when I board that plane to France for the roles to flip, the world presented to me will be one that is still “normal”, just not my “normal”. Reframing normal to understand that there is more than one valid experience is a lesson that makes this program so special.