Le Temps Perdu

When immigrants assimilate to the pace of a new place.

By Stephanie Audette

Sévérine Bates plans out her busy schedule balancing life as a PhD student and being a mom.

She was nine months pregnant, but Sévérine Bates ran. She couldn’t be late to her doctor’s appointment again. A month earlier Bates had called the Minneapolis office to say she was stuck in traffic and wouldn’t make it on time. “I still had someone reminding me ‘this is not acceptable,’” she says. Determined not to make the same mistake twice, Bates found herself sprinting. She wasn’t trying to induce labor, but that’s probably what ended up happening. She gave birth later that day.

This PhD student and new mother hasn’t always needed to be an accidental runner.

After growing up in the Caribbean on the slow-paced French island of Martinique, Bates moved to France to study. “If you have an appointment, people do not put as much importance in respecting the schedule,” she says. If Bates is any indication, even the brightest, most culturally savvy people have difficulty embracing a new pace of life after moving to the U.S.
Time Changes

“The study of different cultures assures us that others have conceptions of time unlike our own,” writes William Gallois in his book Time, Religion and History. In other words, time is relative. Stack up time-oriented America against European countries like France and Spain, and you’ll notice a striking divide between how people view and treat time in different regions. Often, moving to the U.S. proves a difficult adjustment for people emigrating from places where they’re not taught to constantly watch the clock, something with which Bates is all too familiar.

“It just felt like people took the time to appreciate life,” she explains of her former life in Montpellier, France.
After moving to Minnesota in 2006 to study to be a professor, Bates noticed an immediate difference in the rigorous scheduling. “Time defines everything that you do,” she says. “I always feel like we are prisoners of time.”

Patricia Mougel, director of language instruction for the University of Minnesota’s French department, explains a fast pace doesn’t always equate to greater productivity. “In the U.S. it’s busy, busy, but I’m not convinced more is accomplished in the end,” she says.

Mougel, who has lived on both sides of the Atlantic, looks at the idea of time from a cultural perspective. “Americans project themselves a lot in the future, moving ahead, making progress,” she says, while the French orient themselves more in the past or present.

On the clock

The business world is full of imposed standards on how to spend your day and increase productivity. Susan Villar, director of language instruction for the department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies, gives her husband as an example. After emigrating from Spain, he worked as a physician in the U.S., maintaining a schedule that was likely more demanding and rigorous than his native country. “He had an appreciation for the work ethic here,” she says. “He thought it was too much but he went along with it.” Villar’s husband isn’t the first example of how calling a new place home can create conflict as cultural norms clash. Although the family would make frequent trips back to Spain, they made the U.S. their home after meeting when Villar went abroad as a student.

Vicky Li, a communications specialist for Cargill, has worked in her native Brazil as well as in Minnesota. Before transferring to company headquarters in Wayzata, MN eight years ago, she would work long days in Sao Paulo, where workers approached time management differently. When she started working in the U.S., she discovered meetings were numerous, but decisions were few. At lunchtime, people ate at their desks, if at all. Li, who gestures animatedly when she talks, remarks that this practice would be considered unhealthy in Brazil, resulting in a call from a manager. Nevertheless, she says she eats lunch at her desk now, following the example of her coworkers.
Vikky Li hasn’t always been accustomed to eating at her desk, since it was considered unhealthy in her native country of Brazil, but now it’s something she does regularly.

Caught between two cultures, immigrants are often faced with the choice of conforming or staying true to their own customs. Sometimes it’s a compromise—Mougel, a French native, refuses to rush through her lunch, even though it’s been nearly 20 years since she moved. “I won’t take two hours,” she says, “but I’ll take 20 minutes.”

Meals and Leisure

In Peter Mayle’s critically-acclaimed A Year in Provence, the writer describes life in a small Mediterranean town. Underneath his light hearted anecdotes and witty descriptions lies an undeniable truth – nothing gets in the way of a Frenchman and his food. Sundays are still traditionally a day for friends, family, and long meals.

That firm commitment to not rushing through meals extends beyond the dinner table. Any suggestion of upping the 35-hour workweek or extending the official retirement age results in grèves (strikes). In Montpellier, France, the train, tram, and bus schedules were disrupted for nearly three weeks in the fall of 2010 when the government proposed raising the official retirement age from 60 to 62. Spending time enjoying life, rather than working, is a sentiment widely held outside France. “The European month of vacation is sacred,” Villar, the specialist in Spanish language and culture, says, referring to the customary four-week block many people take off from work.

According to a report by the Center for Economic Policy and Research, federal law doesn’t require American employers to offer their employees paid vacation, making the U.S. the only advanced nation in the world that doesn’t guarantee time off for workers.

Changing times

As the world becomes increasingly connected through technology and transportation, some of these cultural markers are disappearing. “The two hour lunch break is a myth in 2012,” Mougel says. Indeed, “le fast food” is becoming an increasingly common fixture in French towns, changing the culinary landscape. Starbucks, Subway, and McDonalds populate cobblestone streets, alongside cafés, boulangeries, and brasseries. Glass cases in grocery stores are filled with an increasing array of frozen, packaged foods that rival the traditional open-air markets stocked with fresh meat and produce.

Bates made the decision to come to the U.S. because she admired the “intellectual freedom” of our education system. In many ways, Bates is still trying to reconcile her roots with her respect for U.S. culture. She’s surprised to find that even she has changed. Now more “Americanized,” she gets frustrated when she goes back to Martinique to visit and a store opens later than the time that’s posted. Still, she sees how our “no vacation nation” could benefit from slowing down every once in awhile. After all, arriving a few minutes late to an appointment isn’t the end of the world—it’s life, and it goes on.