American School of Paris Yearbook, 1987
WHY JULES IS AN INTERNATIONAL STUDENT
Early in the process of writing TENDERFOOT, Jules’ back story needed to be imagined. Where was she from? What was her life like there? What impact did it have on her character and behavior?
If you’ve read my bio, and I’ll assume you have, you may have noticed a few similarities between Jules’ background and mine. We both lived as Americans abroad in Paris, France, attended international schools teaching American academics, are from families that place a heavy emphasis on travel, and have a world view a bit outside of the mainstream.
Why do Jules and I share this background? There are several reasons. But first, I will define the term “international student” as it is used in the book:
An international student is a child of school age (not post-secondary) who moves with their family from a place they consider “home” to another country.
- While the student has left behind extended family, friends, and community, they continue to live with their nuclear family.
- The international student has a place and culture they identify with and which they consider “home,” but it is not where they live. For the purposes of this book, the home country is the United States and its culture. Pearl S Buck, while an American ex-patriot, would not count in this definition because she was raised in China and self-identified with China, not the United States.
- Frequently, the international student moves more than once to another country and there is set time or place for the next move. This makes the future uncertain.
- This definition stands in contrast to students who visit another country and attend school for one school year while living with a foreign host family.
Here are the reasons why Jules is an international student:
Write about what you know.
- It’s a common rule of thumb for writers. I’ve lived through the experience of being ripped up from one culture and plunked down in another. Got that one down cold.
The international student experience is relatively unknown.
- If someone knows of another book where the main character is an American who has lived abroad as a teen, I’d love to read it! Please leave a note in the comments.
In the United States, the international student experience usually is thought of as students from other countries coming to America for a school year in high school as opposed to American students leaving the country with their families.
- This assumption provides an opportunity to flip the meaning and make it something unique.
- As this is a rare experience, it is something new to share with readers.
The international student experience is interesting.
- With a unusual situation comes unique opportunities. During the three years I spent at the American School of Paris, I visited the U.S.S.R. on spring break, went with two grades of students to Ullswater, England to attend Outward Bound, and performed on choir/band trips with students from other international schools in West Berlin, Frankfurt, and Vienna. The trips I missed? Ski trips every February to the Alps, sports trips all over Europe for competition, and a spring break in North Africa. These were just the school trips. My family traveled Europe extensively the three years we lived there. Opportunities abound for the exploration of other cultures.
- More nationalities than Americans attend international schools: I had friends from all of the Scandinavian countries, France, Spain, various Arab countries, and a sprinkling of others. The funny thing was, as different as our native cultures were, we formed strong bonds with each other because of the us vs. them mentality: the internationals speaking English versus the French!
- As a teenager, having access to a transportation system as comprehensive as that of Paris is very cool. The students at my school ran all over town on weekends, frowning at the embarrassing American tourists in their white sneakers and fanny packs. (It was the ’80s.) We didn’t have to be sixteen years old with a driver’s license and access to a car to get away from our parents. I was thirteen when my parents let me take the metro to meet friends on the Champs-Elysees to see an (always American) movie. This type of freedom is unusual and liberating.
The experience of the international student applies to military brats but in a different way.
- While I was a pseudo-military brat, I never lived on a military base like the kids I saw when we went shopping for American goods on base at Ramstein, Germany or SHAPE, in Belgium. I believe their experience is different from the one experienced by international students because in these military towns, the students do almost all of their socialization on base. Schools and shopping are usually located on base, so these students have less interaction with the native community.
Parental and societal expectations are different in the international community.
- There is both the internal and external pressure on a student to succeed – and to succeed at a level that is equal or higher to the parents’ success. This can be a tall order when the parents are given pay and responsibility commensurate with a job working abroad. As students, we were expected to not only attend college but to attend a great college. We took International Baccalaureate and Honors classes and were expected to bring home good grades. The internal pressure came from trying to measure up and find a way in the world that would allow us to live this kind of lifestyle on our own.
- Other cultures live by different rules of law and teenagers like to push boundaries. This equals potential diplomatic incidents. For example, if your kid gets arrested by the French police, there is no phone call home, plus they can hold you as long as they like, releasing you only when they have something worked out with your Embassy/Consulate. The ramifications could be huge. Being a teenager abroad poses different challenges than found in the United States. My mother happily repeated the stories of the (few) kids who experienced these ramifications to keep me in line. It worked.
- In line with following local laws and customs, international students receive greater responsibility at a younger age than peers back home. Was I running around Paris at age thirteen? Yes. Was I expected to be home on time, not get mugged by the Gypsies, stay with my friends at all times, and to keep a distance from suspect individuals? Yes. I was forced to learn and use French and understand the laws and customs of the French, and in doing so, learn about the larger world.
- Living within the French community, we made friends with multiple families in our French apartment building. We held open house parties for our French neighbors and attended their dinner parties. One family was kind enough to invite us to their summer home for a week in southwest France. While speaking French with them for a week was difficult, it was worth the struggle. Getting to experience another culture full-time is an amazing opportunity.
Finally, the most important reason for while Jules is an international student: the development of backstory is enhanced by drawing on rich cultures.
There are three types of cultures intersecting in TENDERFOOT; a public university in the American South, the cultures of France and Sweden, and the world internal students. All of these cultures add to the story.
- Jules has lived in Manhattan, Paris, and Stockholm. The moves were traumatizing to her. She finds the campus at UNC-Chapel Hill warm and welcoming and chooses it because it is a place where she feels safe… for a time.
- Jules’ family has extensive roots through her mother’s side in Sweden and much of her backstory is provided by the modern-day culture and folklore.
- Manhattan, New York, is a popular location for setting movies and TV shows. It is Jules’ home base because most readers will be able to picture living there and what that is like.
- Paris, France, because again, it’s something I, as an author, know something about and can impart to the readers.
These rich cultures provide Jules with several personality traits:
- She is not afraid to pick up and move on, but she loathes it.
- She has a larger understanding of the world than her peers. Her friends Jade, Jenny, Michelle, and Priya act as controls.
- She is quick to spot danger because of her upbringing.
- She clings to the familiar.
- She is a people-watcher and likes to figure out people’s motivations.
- She always feels like an outsider.
- She’s developed enough adult distrust of the world that she questions everything and uses sarcasm as a defense.
- She’s always moving somewhere new, i.e. always a Tenderfoot.
I hope you enjoyed my blog about Jules Jennings, international student, the main character and narrator of TENDERFOOT. I invite you to meet her for yourself!