Bridging two cultures: an international perspective on PHS


graphic by Tiffany Fang

On September 9, 2013, I entered PHS and I was so lost. I looked all around me. Everything was so different from where I came from. I am a new student this year and I arrived in Princeton from a small town in France only a week before school started. I am here for one year, and I had never been to America prior to this year. There are so many things that I need to adapt to, first and foremost the language, the culture, and the environment.

PHS is almost twice as large as my old school. I must confess that the first week of school was really difficult. Four minutes between each class is very short; I ran so quickly the first week to be able to get to my classes, up and down and up again. It was like getting my daily exercise split into four minute spurts throughout the day. In France, I definitely did not have to run as much after each bell as everything was organized in circles. Getting to my classes was a lot easier this way.  The hallways are really different too, with lockers decorated on every wall. We don’t have lockers in France, making the walls very empty. At first I didn’t know why I would need one, but when I saw how big my books were, I understood. I spent an entire week finding my locker and figuring out how it works. Several times that first week I found myself staring helplessly at my locker, definitively shut with all my stuff locked inside. I had to ask many people in the hallways to help me open my locker, people who probably found me really crazy! “A girl who doesn’t know how to open a locker? She must be new.”

And on top of being so easily identified as a new student, it was really hard for me to speak English well, making it even more challenging to ask questions. However, my fears soon subsided as everyone I talked to was very friendly and helped me with everything I needed. They always repeated themselves when I didn’t understand them and listened to me carefully, even when my accent was horrible—only a few words into a sentence, people asked: “Oh, you’re not American, right?” Despite the language barrier, talking to other people helped me meet a lot of other students from European countries such as Germany. I felt more comfortable conversing with them in English because I knew that they had probably lived through the same experience of walking into a completely foreign setting and feeling overwhelmed by all the new things. A few weeks later, I realized that there are students who speak French in almost all my classes! It’s amazing for me to see so much diversity at PHS because diversity to this extent does not exist in France. At the same time that I’m learning about the American culture, I am also discovering Chinese, Indian, African and countless other ones. This is what makes life here interesting—every day is like a trip to all these countries as I learn about the cultures from talking to different people.

The biggest difference between France and Princeton is the amount of time I spend in school. In France, school begins at approximately the same time but ends at 6 p.m., so when I came here it felt like I had a half day left every day after school. The first Wednesday I had, I wondered if we would even have time to cover anything in class before the bell rang …

I also had more subjects in France, so when I saw that I would have the same exact classes every day, I was worried that I would be bored. Looking back, I find that having the same classes every day is not that bad because it helps me remember what I learned. Another thing that helps me learn here is the accessibility of help. Teachers are very supportive and help students whenever they need it. The relationship between students and teachers is better here than in France, making me feel more comfortable in all my new classes when I had no clue what was going on. For example, teachers here often offer a redo of an assignment, or will take time with you to go over it in order to make it better. That never happened to me before I came here. Communication by email with the teachers whenever I have questions was also something extremely new. Emailing teachers is something students at my school would never imagine doing. Sure, the teachers were nice, but sending them an email was considered something of an intrusion of their private life and, therefore, taboo. Teachers were not close to students. The roles are clearly defined: a teacher is a teacher and a student is a student. Students don’t ask their teachers to come to their choir performances or other events because they are unrelated to class. It certainly is a different experience to be able to communicate with teachers on a more personal level, at least in comparison to France. In general, this more open relationship contributes to the warm and friendly environment I found at PHS.

Despite all the positive differences, the thing that I miss the most is the huge lunch break I used to have, which was almost an hour and a half long. This gave me time to hang out with my friends, do work, or just go to the park next to my old school, freedoms that I don’t have here. At PHS, I have to get used to eating faster so that I won’t be late for my sixth period class. Also, the cafeteria here is much smaller compared to the one at my old school. Seeing people eat in the hallway seemed a bit weird to me at first, because in France everyone would eat in the cafeteria. But now, walking through the hallways and seeing people eating on the floor seems normal.

Both schools have positive and negative aspects so I can’t say which one is better. I prefer the PHS environment: the proximity of the city, the small town, the way teachers want to help you do better. People have fun working even if it is hard and stressful. Here, I feel free to do what I want to go further in my studies. However, I miss the organization of my old school, having class with the same classmates, and having more time for break. The two schools are so different and I am really glad that I have the opportunity to experience both.

Since I’ve come here, I have met so many amazing people and learned new things, it’s almost like having a second life! I’m coming to see Princeton as a sort of second home and I don’t know what I will do when I am back in France. Even upon a happy return home to my friends, it will be like the end of a dream.