Discovering the US – Identity, Metric System, Driving.

I am not myself anymore.

I almost became schizophrenic. My husband’s former roommate was named Smith. The cable TV and phone subscriptions were in his name. The caller ID that appeared to others announced ‘Smith’. Therefore all the cold calls from telemarketing companies were easily identifiable. They would always start by ‘Hello Mrs. Smith”. After the first few calls which surprised me, I would just play around with them and take all kinds of heavy accents pretending that I didn’t speak English well enough to understand their annoying speech.

More permanent is the fact that one of my many given names is Minh. In Europe it is common in some families to have two or three middle names. When the consulate gave me my immigrant visa, they had no space to write Minh since the space is planned for a typical American person who has only one middle name. The last letter, the H, was truncated and all you could read was ‘Mini’. When the driving license service established my license in Virginia, instead of looking at the first page of my passport where my name is well written in full, they copied the visa page. My very official driving license, valid for ten years, bears the wrong name! Calling me ‘mini’ is nice but after breaking my back one week before the move and gaining a good 16 pounds due to the lack of exercise, I was not exactly ‘mini’ when I arrived in Virginia.

Metric system

When I shop, to find the price per kilo, which is my reference, I have to double every price because everything is stated in pounds. But the pound is no half a kilo here, it would be too easy, it only 450 grams. Once doubled, prices seem very expensive.

I have to remember a few basics: 1 gallon (3.78 liters) = 4 quarters (1 quart = almost 1 liter) and there are 2 pints in a quarter and 2 cups (cups) in a pint. So for those who have followed a “cup” is a little less than 250 grams and there are 16 ounces per pound. Instead of pinch, ounce, pound, quart, gallon, etc. it is so much easier to go 10, 100, 1000 grams or liters. The U.S. is one of only three countries in the world (others are Liberia and Burma) who has not adopted the metric system – why?!

And what about Celsius versus Fahrenheit? This is a tricky matter, not only for the climate but more importantly for bakers. When we travel with the Foreign Service sometimes the house is equipped with American appliances in Fahrenheit and sometimes not! We all need a conversion table near the oven.

Driving everywhere

We kept Anna and Lisa two friends of ours kids overnight. Anna was surprised to not find our daughter at 7:00 AM the next morning.

– “Where is she?” she asked with great concern.

– “Gone to school!” I replied.

– “On foot?!? ” she exclaimed indignantly.

I explained that her middle school bus was less than 100 meters (300 feet) away. This did not seem to convince her – a good mom would have driven her child and polluted the air to avoid the poor little girl a mere 2-minute walk.

Around 7:30 AM, when it was time for Anna, her little sister Lisa, and our son to leave for primary school, I started to walk with them. Anna thought we were probably going to get The Car. We had not walked for a minute yet when Anna exclaimed “you do not have a car?!” I replied that I had one but not for 500 meters (about 1/3 of a mile), thus less than ten minutes by foot.

“But my satchel is very heavy,” she grimaced. Without playing her game, I told her that it was the end of the school year and that teachers did not ask satchels to be full therefore they should not be heavy. I concluded by something like ‘a small walk is good for your health’. I think that these friends will not want to sleep at our home the night before a school day again!

Discovering the US – School matters

Arlington is a county and not a city (some counties are re-divided into cities) which has about 200,000 inhabitants (57% white, 21% Hispanic, 10% Asian, 9% Black) from of 128 countries speaking 105 languages. This is a true “melting pot”, perfect for a Foreign Service kid.

When we arrived in Arlington, there were 18,200 students, including about 4,000 who followed the English for Speakers of Other Languages/High Intensity Language Training (ESOL/HILT). Our daughter and son were raised in English but in the French system so they were first placed in ESOL/HILT. The integration efforts and many resources deployed are so intense that the Arlington county schools rate in the top 1% of the country.

Middle School Matters

Our daughter commented that it was great to learn in Virginia because the pupils were disciplined, more so than in France, and respected their teachers. I discovered that an elementary school teacher started his/her career at about $ 40,000 in the Arlington County while in France it is barely $ 27,000 (about 22,000 euros). Low pay for teachers is a well-known fact in France and does not help them earn the respect they deserve.

Another difference is that if a student performs well s/he will get into advanced classes, potentially even following 8th grade level math for example while being in 7th grade. It is a great idea until it becomes too much pressure and competition and discrimination. In 6th grade the math program was very similar than in France and our daughter was following so well that the teacher recommended her for an advanced level, even 8th grade level when she passed in 7th grade. Then she changed school (we moved after the summer) and the program changed. It was all about fractions which are not at all taught the same on either side of the Atlantic. In France we use decimals which reads easier than fractions (0.5 versus ½ and this one is very easy). Just like when someone who has an accent is often looked upon as if they were not that clever, the math teacher started to treat our daughter as a retarded person because she could not be in advanced math, even less in 8th grade level but had to settle for 7th grade level while in 7th grade and it was probably bad for her statistics!

I was surprised to learn that my daughter had cooking and sewing classes, known as Family And Consumer Science (FACS) in middle school since these classes have been dropped from the French curriculum in the 1970s. They have been dropped from the general curriculum followed by students who are supposed to graduate and study further. These classes are still given to students following a more manual or technical curriculum.

I was even more surprised when in ‘sex’ class, instead of talking about genitals, menstruation or other needed topics they dared make that hour about fellatio!!! In 7th grade! I was out of breath. I ran to my knowledgeable neighbor and asked who I was supposed to complain to: teacher, headmaster? She frowned and flatly answered ‘Bill Clinton’. Whaaat?! Apparently, according to the survey made after the annoying facts happened, A-student middle school girls had been talked into performing fellatio on their classmates because, you see ‘it’s not sex’. The school had thus decided to advance the class a few grades to prevent this from happening again.

Primary School Matters

Our son’s first teacher was called Ms. Brat in a school called Barrett – like the hair accessory. He felt weird about this. Then the school had fun games and a show where they brought reptiles at school, big long snakes that they could put around their necks so the school became a cool place again.

One day he had an anatomy course with focus on reproduction. The girls were in another room so everyone could ask questions without embarrassment. On his return, he seemed surprised to have discovered that his penis had other functions in addition to urinating.

Whenever they do a school picnic, they go for easy things like chips, buns and hot dogs. Balanced meal??? Unfortunately our son has never liked sausages of any kind, plastic-like nor gourmet. For him picnic meant a dry bun. About school picnics my husband had a sort of opposite discovery when he proposed to chaperon one of the school picnics in France. At lunch time, the teachers pulled a bottle of red wine and offered him some. When he told me this anecdote he was expecting me to gasp and me for him to give the punch line – it was such a common thing to see teachers drink wine at lunch!

Our daughter talked more and more English at home and our son, having forgotten the French word for apple sauce exclaimed, “that’s it, I’m losing my French!” He wanted to know if we returned to France on our next holiday. Our daughter, however, thought that everything was better in Arlington.