After the all the time I’ve spent in France, teaching French and studying French, I’ve become used to many things that surprised me in my earlier stages of study. Every once in a while, though, I’ll learn a piece of information about France that is totally new and catches me off guard.
This week, I had one of these moments. In talking to university students, we were on the subject of grandes écoles (already a strange concept to non-French citizens). I was asking students to name the different, most well-known grandes écoles. These are our equivalent to Ivy League schools. They listed the names quickly and briefly, using acronyms and single words because the names are so common and obvious to them.
There is one school out of this group that really sticks out: Polytechnique, also just called X (which I also learned this week, hence the clever title of this post). Not only is it, from what I understand, the institution for higher education relating to the sciences, but it’s also a military school, run by the Department of Defense. This hasn’t changed since the Napoleonic era when the school first got its military status. Students still are part of the military and go through basic training before starting school, although it sounds like this military link is more about maintaining the prestige of the institution rather than actually preparing students for military service. Students also participate in the televised national Independence Day parade every year. And if that weren’t enough, students are paid by the government to attend Polytechnique. Upon graduating, most are in a prime position to attend other top notch institutions for graduate degrees, and will later have privileged access to many high-ranking jobs in the military, government and research. In other words, it doesn’t get much more elite than Polytechnique.
Out of all of this information, what surprised me wasn’t the students getting paid, the government’s involvement, or the ties to the military. My conversation about Polytechnique essentially reminded me of my foreigner status. In other words, all French people know what Polytechnique is and what it means to go there. It’s moments like this that also remind me of how much American cultural background I just take for granted. I know the difference between a liberal arts college and a research institution, a four year university and a community college, etc.
Just when I think I’m figuring out the French system, I’ll learn about something new (like Polytechnique). It’s ultimately a reminder that I don’t share the cultural references and background with the general population around me. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing, but just an example of the constant negotiation required when living in a foreign country. Essentially, learning about another country’s cultural references makes me negotiate my own identity, both as an American and an American choosing to live in France. It all at once reminds me of my foreign status, helps me to understand the culture I’m living in, and makes me more aware of my own cultural background.