Who knew Pepé Le Pew was French?

2 Oct

The past few days have got me thinking about cultural differences.  I’ll always believe that people are people everywhere, but the little differences tickle or baffle me at times.  Here are a few reflections.

Last night, I went out with a few French friends.  The topic of stereotypes came up as it inevitably does when young intelligent men and women from different parts of the world start talking and drinking at the same time.  Somehow the character of Pepé Le Pew from Looney Tunes came up, and I was amazed to find out that none of them know that he is supposed to be French.  They’d grown up watching the show in French, so all of the characters spoke French.  They didn’t think that any of the characters represented nationalities, and this revelation appalled them all.  In their mock outrage, they even suggested encouraging the French government to make a statement of severe disapproval.

The entire conversation revealed some interesting stereotypes.  These representatives of French culture (at least regarding my generation), when asked what most French people think of American women, said that we’re seen as promiscuous (the same goes for men, with the added characteristic of being overly-macho in an unintelligent way).  The Americans in the conversation (including myself) shared that we’ve grown up hearing that French women never shave and that French men are very romantic (but also overly forward and often womanizing) and that all French people in general are arrogant.  This revelation was also amusing to my French comrades because they think that Italian men are the womanizing bunch among Europeans and that French men don’t deserve being characterized as romantic because they’re too lazy.

Another cultural exchange I have experienced of late has been a little less jovial.  Having recently traveled home for about 3 weeks (and to Thailand for a week before that, where I drank plenty of Thai beer and ate food so good I almost can’t bear to think about it), I’ve eaten a LOT of good food over the past few months.  Thus, upon returning to China, I was evidently noticeably plumper (though not by my roommate – bless his heart, he’s such a sweetie with those little white lies).  Almost every one of my Chinese colleagues and students, upon seeing me for the first time in over a month, remarked that I looked rested, happy, and fatter than usual.  I replied to their comments a bit coldly the first few times, but I eventually noticed the happy, sugary tones with which this compliment was delivered each time.  Finally, I asked a group of my students, all women, what a comment like that usually connotes, and they say that this kind of exchange between women is usually friendly rather than malicious and even a compliment at times.

It’s fascinating to me that such a vast difference in reactions to such a comment exists between cultures.  I would say that Americans are much more obsessed with image and perceived societal expectations regarding weight than the Chinese, but that’s simply not true.  Many Chinese women are very concerned with image, especially looking wealthy and/or trendy.  So many Chinese women are naturally small and thin, yet great concern over weight (especially by the smaller percentage of Chinese women that happen to be above the size 4) still exists and affects women psychologically.  However, being called a little fatter than usual by an acquaintance doesn’t seem to make them want to strangle someone.

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