What it’s like to be Asian in France

It’s time to address a sensitive topic I’ve been mulling over since first setting foot in France. Issues of racial integration tend to raise hackles here in the Hexagon, so I’ll  admit it: the title of this post is misleading. I don’t speak for all Asians in all of France. No. This is only my piece of the puzzle. That piece is colored by my skin – sure – but it also owes its shape to myriad other factors. Living in the capital. Being a young woman in my twenties. My Chinese American heritage. Speaking with an accent in French. Smiling a lot and wearing big, shiny earrings, etc.

While far from universal, my perspective is nonetheless based on actual encounters that may or may not only occur to someone without my specific set of characteristics. This is what it’s like to be Asian in France, for me.

~

First things first, I love France. While Paris is my HQ, I’ve traveled to other parts of the country and found it consistently awesome. Probably 93.5% of the interactions I have with people are neutral or positive (precision, j’adore), but it’s that remaining 6.5% that I’m going to talk about now.

Napolean and Asian baby me

I was a born Francophile. Also, my dad had the brilliant idea to dress me up as Napolean when I was a baby.

~

The first hint for me that being Asian in France might be different from what I was used to came during a dinner at the Paris home of a Chinese French couple (friends of my parents) and their high school age boys. At the time, I had only spent a few days in France and was still shy about using the language. Still, I managed to engage the high schoolers in a discussion about French versus American cultures.

The boys were friendly, extroverted and spoke animatedly. They both attended a prestigious school, made references to plentiful friends, and engaged in extra-curricular  activities. To me, they sounded perfectly integrated into French society. After all, why wouldn’t they be? They were born in France, and in my mind, they were French.

However, as the night progressed, something seemed off about our conversation. I struggled to put my finger on it, when it suddenly hit me. Each time I spoke about the US, I used “we” to refer to Americans. But when the boys spoke about France, they used “they” to refer to the French.

I wondered if I was reading too much into things, but I couldn’t shake the impression that the boys didn’t think of themselves as French. If that were the case, which societal factors led them to feel that way? Now, after over a year of cumulative living experience in France, I think I can offer some possible answers.

~

“Japan?”

I stayed silent.

“Korea?”

I remained stony-faced.

“Vietnam?”

I stared resolutely across the tracks to the opposite side of the subway station, determined to ignore this stranger who had wandered over and – after issuing a cursory, unanswered “Hello!”  – begun interrogating me about my racial origins.

“Do you speak English?”

Do I ever, I thought to myself as I mentally listed all the curse words I wanted to unleash on him. Unfortunately, their meanings would have been lost on him, a non-native speaker, and I feared that engaging him in any fashion would only provoke further interaction. After what seemed an eternity but was only a couple of minutes, my train arrived. I managed to get into a different car from my harasser and take some deep breaths. At last, my racing heart slowed to a normal rhythm and my fury at being objectified, exoticized, targeted, and accosted while simply going about my business began to dissipate.

My head on a terracotta warrior

Thanks for playing Guess-My-Asian-Country-of-Origin. Your implication that Asians all look alike / are interchangeable has allowed you to unlock a new level: Find-the-Asian-Girl-among-the-Asian-Statues.

I wish this had been an isolated incident. It wasn’t. Similar incidents happen on a monthly basis. Sadly, when I say similar, I mean identical except for the slightest of variations such as the perpetrator substituting “konnichiwa” for “hello.”

~

It’s easy to shrug off strangers who hassle a young woman as simply creeps. Unfortunately, there are more insidious ways to single someone out for their race — ways which may even be construed as friendliness or fraternal lightheartedness.

I’m thinking, in this case, of a professional acquaintance who is an older male. When he found out that I had Chinese heritage, he was extremely enthusiastic. “My GIRLFRIEND is Chinese!” he exclaimed as if we had uncovered an intimate connection, instead of one that is completely statistically unremarkable given that one fifth of the world’s population is Chinese (also, pro tip: Chinese American is worlds away from Chinese, culturally). However, recognizing that this person was only trying to be friendly, I refrained from shooting back a wide-eyed “No way! Get this, my BOYFRIEND is French!” Instead, I smiled and nodded as if he had just conveyed a curious novelty.

When he further asked if I knew Mandarin, I responded that I could converse at a basic level though I couldn’t read or write. After this regrettable admission, I had to grit my teeth and endure some “[Presumable Chinese], can you understand what I said?!” each time I saw him. Though my answer was always “no,” his attempts to communicate with me in Chinese escalated to writing me occasional work-related e-mails with lines in Chinese, despite the fact that I couldn’t read a word of the language.

Maybe this is an example of someone who’s only a bit clueless but ultimately harmless. In an effort to get along, that’s precisely what I told myself. Surely, I thought, others I encountered in the professional realm would be a tad more sensitive. This latter belief was blown to pieces when I went to a dinner hosted by this very acquaintance and attended by a few others in our field.

It turned out that our host’s Chinese girlfriend was not present but had prepared some dishes for our party. As we chowed down, I was taken aback as the diners – both men and women – joked about this missing girlfriend giving him “massages” in addition to cooking, and “massages” being part of the educational curriculum in China. Though I felt uncomfortable, I am ashamed to say that I did not speak up and, after a few cups of bubbly, even laughed along for a bit. At the end of the night, one man flippantly said to our host, “Thank Lucy Liu for her cooking.”

~

In France, the standard size of a coffee is what Americans tend to think of as an espresso. If you want more of the black stuff, you have to specifically request a “long,” “lengthened,” or “Americano style” coffee. Even then, a French cafe will only  serve you the amount of about half a cup from an American deli. This is something I had trouble getting used to, after having run around New York for a year with a cup of Joe constantly glued to my hand.

On the now rare occasions when the desire for a heartier beverage strikes me, I turn to the much maligned Starbucks. This is a choice I’ve had to defend multiple times. I say this so that you can imagine my disappointment when last September, news broke of an instance of racism at a Starbucks in Paris. A barista had drawn a face with slit eyes on the drink of a Korean-American.

The article induced some head-shaking and sighing on my part but did not stop me from patronizing their establishments. After all, this was perpetrated by an individual barista, and – as indicated within the report – this kind of stuff happens in the US too. However, it’d never happened to me in the US, and, even after the report, I didn’t think something similar would happen to me in Paris either.

Sing with me now the refrain of this blog: Ah, how naive I was.

No, my drink at the Starbucks Saint-Lazare wasn’t labeled with an offensive caricature. What happened instead was that I ordered my typical “Americano” and when it was ready, the barista shouted, “Chino!! Oops, I mean Americano.” Then he turned and cackled with the barista next to him.

I briefly considered the damage that a steaming hot beverage could do, but I restrained myself. Nonetheless, the drink left a bitter taste in my mouth — one that had nothing to do with the coffee itself.

election 2012 american embassy in paris

You’ll just have to believe me when I say I’m American.

~

When I set out to write this entry, I first opened a Word document and simply listed all the times I could remember being singled out for my race in the past six months (I’m still wary about using the word “racist” to describe these encounters; I’m optimistic – perhaps naively so – that people are basically decent, just ignorant). I came up with a total of 12 anecdotes I could use.

Twelve. In six months. That I can remember. From those, I had to select just a few to sketch my experience.

On average, I have an uncomfortable racial encounter on a bi-weekly basis.

I don’t really know what to make of this figure. Perhaps others have more encounters of this sort than I do. Perhaps others experience something similar on a daily basis. I may be supremely privileged, and this may all sound overblown. I may also just be unlucky; perhaps other Asians saunter about France completely unassailed.

What I do know is that in nine months of living and working in Manhattan, I can only recall two instances of something like this happening. Sure, I probably would’ve told another tale if I’d lived in Jasper, Alabama — but I can only analyze my experience within the context that I know. (It also seems more reasonable to compare New York and Paris, as each is an international metropolis with a significant Asian population.)

I just want to conclude with a couple of caveats.

1) It’s possible that I’m noticing and remembering these incidents more often in Paris and around France because I’m a foreigner to this country. I may just be more wary than I am in the States because I have a foreigner’s sense of always being an outsider. However, I can frankly say that some of the racial encounters I’ve had in France have simply never occurred to me in the US.

2) I don’t want anyone to think that the offenders are always old white guys of Gallic descent. Nope. Offenders come in all colors of the rainbow, can be any age, and of either sex. Besides the fact that strangers who approach me in public spaces to inquire about my race are always male, there is really no pattern.

In the end, I’m proud of my heritage and am happy to talk about it with people who know me or who are in the process of getting to know me. All I ask is that those who are curious not make assumptions and actually listen when I relate my individual background. That’s not too exacting a request, I hope.

mannequin chinatown new york city

I make a valiant effort to explain what being Chinese American means to me. But there are some things I can’t explain — like this storefront in Chinatown, New York.

(For anyone wishing to read more on the topic, I recommend this insightful article about how Asians are treated in France from a Frenchman’s point of view.)

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90 thoughts on “What it’s like to be Asian in France

  1. Thanks for your interesting post! I’m an Asian-American interested in travelling to France, and am deciding whether to visit the country or to go to Germany instead – since I only have limited time. I speak a fair amount of French (and German) but am still worried that as a lone traveller I might not feel entirely welcome, and am searching blogs for people’s anecdotes and opinions.. :p

    I grew up in Greece, which is undeniably quite a racist place, so understand how it feels to be treated differently and I TOTALLY understand your anecdote about some individuals’ particular taste for listing a series of country names and expecting you to reply with your own. (Um, no thanks, I’d rather ignore you and be on my way, rude person!)

    Hearing stories about bad incidents is always maddening but super helpful, so thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Hi Jason,

      Thanks for your comment. I also searched online for opinions / anecdotes about this issue when I first came to France, and one of my goals in writing this was to offer an alternative point of view from other sources I’ve seen (some people rhapsodize about how seamlessly Asians are “integrated” into France, which obviously hasn’t been my personal experience).

      That said, I really, really hope that reading this doesn’t deter you from travelling to France. Not for one second. As I noted, the overwhelming majority of my experiences have been positive — not just positive but flippin’ awesome. The occasional frustrations I wrote about are more than trumped by the wonderful people I have met and the trove of knowledge I’ve gained.

      Also, I’ve found that some of my most memorable and enlightening travel experiences have been to places around the world where I *don’t* feel entirely welcome. I think it’s best to consider the world your oyster and not let ignorant people dull the shine of the pearl.

  2. Nice blog, dude. Sorry to hear about these experiences, tho 😦
    Anyway, just wanted to say that you don’t need to be wary of calling it exactly what it is—racism. It’s about privilege and systemic power and discrimination, not someone’s ignorance coupled with good/bad/nebulous intentions. I feel like the discourse around the very word “racism” has become really skewed, such that now, calling out the perpetrator(s) for their racism is a bigger crime than whatever was suffered by their victim(s). Because “racism” has become associated with egregious and aberrant acts of violence that only the most evil and deviant can perpetrate (not mere micro-aggressions committed by good normal salt-of-the-earth type people who don’t know any better). And if you dare cry racism at anything less, well, you’re just massaging your self-righteousness in pursuit of some stultifying political correctness.
    But that’s just bullshit; it amounts to robbing the oppressed of something as basic as the language we use to describe our experiences. Racism is much more banal, and it often manifests itself in the form of such daily/weekly micro-aggressions, like the ones you mentioned. It’s really not the responsibility of the marginalized to make excuses (or to perform all the extra emotional labor) for the oppressors by giving them the benefit of the doubt or whatever.

    • Glad you stumbled on the blog! Your response hits the nail on the head. I do feel these micro-aggressions are racist acts but I also feel strangely obligated to perform the “emotional labor,” as you said, of trying to justify them. (Oh they didn’t mean any harm by that… They were just joking… I am too uptight…) But ultimately these are poor excuses for what are absolutely incidents of systematic marginalization. Thanks for your insight.

    • If a 20-ton truck is barreling down on you as you blunder into an intersection while ignoring the “don’t walk” sign, you really want that truck’s air horn to be so loud that it blasts you back onto the sidewalk. On the other hand when the truck driver jolts everyone for a mile around out of their beds by blasting that same air horn to indicate that she has arrived at her destination at 3AM after a long haul and would like to be unloaded as quickly as possible, you begin to wonder whether there could not in fact be two kinds of horn on a truck, one that can blow a hole in a three-foot thick concrete wall, and the other which says “Hi gals! I’ve arrived with 10 tons of ice cream. Please unload it before it melts.”

      Notwithstanding what your avatar announces about your attitude toward proportionate responses, I hope you may agree that a sub-Supreme-Court-level signal that the line of cultural courtesy has been crossed would be very useful to the peaceful progress of our species through the coming decades. Many of us are still stuck in the perception that the PC Police are prepared to make a federal case of a minor infraction. You seem to have moved on to an environment, real or perceived, where people make a federal case of your having made a federal case of a minor infraction. I hope you (and I) never have the opportunity to see how quickly these niceties evaporate when the broader picture turns to genuine violence.

      People who say “culturally inappropriate” things may never have been in situations where they were curiosities (foreign travel is expensive) and may not realize how a well-intended or genuinely curious acknowledgement of obvious visual differences will be received. No doubt the French are tired of hearing “bawn joor, comment alley vooz” when they travel. Furthermore your “systemic” transgressors are not always the sort who are systemic (or systematic) about much of anything, be it their slurs, their studies, or their housekeeping. I suspect that at least 51% of the incidents that dominate your daily life do not involve grand schemes of genocide or territorial acquisition. When the field of Oppression Studies finally develops its “Newton’s Laws” it will probably be understood that most culturally offensive behavior is less an effort to wield power than it is an expression of feeling powerless.

  3. This was a very interesting post to read and I’m glad you wrote it. I’m not Asian-American but I grew up with a lot of Asian friends, and the comments French people sometimes make about Asians sometimes shock me, whether it’s squinching up their eyes to mime an Asian person in Time’s Up (the game) or saying that they just can’t tell the different between Japanese and Korean and all that like it’s just so complicated and beyond people of normal intelligence. Sometimes I do try to explain that it’s ridiculous or offensive, and typically they have no freaking idea — which is hard to understand. Obviously I don’t think you should feel like you have to excuse behavior like that, but I understand how in the day to day people sometimes choose the path of least resistance!

    • It’s true — people sometimes have no idea that their behavior is racist, and frankly I’m not sure what the best way to remedy that is. If no one speaks up, obviously nothing will change but at the same time, launching into a diatribe isn’t effective either. Even a gentle tip-off will read as a reprimand and elicits defensiveness unfortunately. Also, I simply do not have the mental and emotional energy to be an activist 24/7, so I do often choose the “path of least resistance” by letting things go.

      I think education about this really needs to start with kids at home and in schools. Not squinting your eyes to indicate an Asian appearance should be as basic a behavioral tenet as not chewing with your mouth open and saying “please” and “thank you.”

      Thanks for your comment!

      • Go to China and you’ll end up calling every one of them Nazi racist. In China, and other East Asian countries, you won’t get a job as an English teacher because they only wanna hire ‘white people’. In fact, I’ve witnessed lots of cases in China where Italian or Russian immigrants in America who spoke limited English were hired as an English teacher instead of American born Chinese who spoke fluent English. Also, you can search on youtube regarding that issue and you’ll hear almost everyone who went to East Asia to teach English saying the same thing.

  4. I lived in Paris over 20 years ago as an exchange student and the same things happened to me all the time. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

    • Paris is indeed surprisingly insular in some ways, but I’m optimistic that change will come, albeit gradually. I see your “plus ca change…” and raise you a “the only constant is change”!

  5. Hey, I found your blog by way of reading another. Thanks for the post. I thought it was informative. I’m heading to Paris in late May and I just wanted to get a sense of the immigrant population and issues of race and class. I know that I’ve romanticized the City of Lights like many other Americans, I have idealized views of the Parisian lifestyle, but I’m interested in learning about the realities of living in Paris as a middle-class Asian-Parisian woman. Anyhow, hope your year continues very well.

  6. Hi academoiselle!

    I’ve been devouring your blog and I just wanted to say thank you for your frank, down to earth insight on what it’s like to be Asian in France. I do my best not to romanticize the ~Parisienne~ experience but it’s pretty difficult, coming from a North American perspective so your blog is super helpful haha.
    Currently, I’m considering a program with Sciences Po on the Reims campus. I speak a fair amount of French, but not enough that I’m not a little nervous about moving there. Also, I come from Vancouver, a city so drenched in multiculturalism it’s pretty much impossible to walk down the street without seeing a handful or people from different nationalities, so I’m a little bit worried about what it’ll be like to live in Reims, a smaller city that will undoubtedly be predominately white.

    (But your blog makes me think that it will be worth it.)

    Thanks for your help :)!

    • I’m glad you find these anecdotes useful! I’m sure your own experience – should you choose to pursue it – would be worthwhile. Reims is absolutely beautiful and as the Champagne capital, definitely draws tourists from around the world… Obviously, that’s no guarantee that you’ll always be comfortable, but learning a foreign language and adapting to a new culture is almost by definition an uncomfortable experience. But super enriching. Bonne chance !

  7. This was a really interesting article. I’m African-American and have been living and working in Paris for about 2 years now.

    One the things in your article that really impacted me is the way people (both people of color and of European descent) tend to, without thinking about it at all, refer to each other as “us” and “them”.

    And I realized not too long ago that I had actually absored this idea of thinking that people of color who are born in France are “French” in the national sense, but that only white people are really “français”. I didn’t come to this country thinking that way. I naively assumed that it was like the US in that blacks, whites, Asians, etc can all feel and be regarded as authentically American by virtue of being born and raised there. All I can conclude is I must have subconsciously absorbed it from the discourse of the people around me.

    I do have friends here of Asian or African descent who say things like “Ne fais pas le petit français”, or “Eux, les français tu sais, ils font ça tout le temps, mais nous…” and these people were born and raised in France!

    • Thanks for recounting your experience! The “us” vs “them” thing is both subtle and glaringly obvious, and that idea of who’s truly “français” is especially pernicious. It’s a part of the culture that I will always have trouble with.

      • True français is of course the French gaulois / Franks tribe, they’ve built a unique country of ~ 2000 years history… just like real Chinese is the Han people. Everybody else of immigrants are only French from citizenship perspective. Totally different from the USA or Canada, countries if immigrants! ! Your expérience is similar to those of European or African ethnicity living in East Asia, they could be born there or live there for decades but forever seen by historically native people as outsider and get discriminated. It’s OK because c’est la vie! Just get over it and embrace it! Big deal 🙂

  8. This is actually really interesting, as I’m currently in the UK and while this sort of distinction does not happen a lot in England, I’ve noticed it during my travels in Europe. I went to Denmark for a quick 3 day trip, and at a party, I was introduced to this guy with his 4 friends (one of them was Danish as he was born and raised in Denmark but he was of Iranian decent). When I asked them if they were all from Denmark, the guy I was introduced to replied with “Yes, except for him (while pointing to the guy of Iranian decent). He’s brown.” I was absolutely shocked at that remark but when talking about it with others, I received suggestions that it could have been a language issue as perhaps in Danish saying such a thing would not be offensive, or perhaps that they’re used to it, that it’s not perceived as a problem. I also got the same “konichiwa” and “ni hao ma” questions brought up to me by random strangers on the streets of Denmark and like you, I just felt like choking them.
    While in the UK, I’ve also met some lovely Polish people. They’ve actually confided in me that they’ve never met an Asian before, and this was the first time they’ve actually talked to one. I suppose for a lot of people, meeting Asians is not very common, and while it’s easy to disregard these people as ignorant, I don’t find myself comfortable doing such a thing as they’re just interested in seeing something new.
    I think that these situations made me feel uncomfortable travelling around Europe, as I imagined that I would be treated like how I’m treated in the UK. In the UK, I fine that the urban areas such as London, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester are filled with people of different races and many people seem to not be phased by people different than them – even the ones who display their religion on them like the head scarf and the turban. I suppose once you go into the country side, it would be different, and people might not be used to such a display of diversity however, in a city like Paris – where many foreigners come over as tourists or students, I didn’t think that such uncomfortable situations would occur.

    • Wow, I feel for that Danish guy. That is really uncomfortable. I absolutely understand that some people are curious when meeting someone of a different background; I would be curious too — but I really think there is a problem with the way many people use their “curiosity” to justify horrendous behavior. Curiosity should be channeled through respectful questions, no assumptions, and an open mind. Almost by definition, the “curious” person has a lack of information or experience, so the onus is on them to learn instead of assume. People who don’t do that cannot hide behind “curiosity” — it is rudeness and disrespect plain and simple.

      • I think it makes sense that your cousins call the french “them”. I see plenty of asian americans with the mentality that consider white people “them.” Your cousins use “them” in that way too bc french people do believe that they are ethnically french while for americans the word “french” refers to the nationality and not the people. Americans don’t make such distinctions and everyone feels American whatever that means culturally or on paper but you use hyphens. So while you caught a good point i think you read the meaning a bit differently than how a french or other european would. To your cousins talking about french people is the same as asians talking about white people. Plus europeans tend to think the people of each nation look different and have those ethnic and cultural ideas. So even germans, english and italian people who are all well integrated would also call the french french and make that distinction. This is not saying that there is no racism but my point is things just seem more shocking when seen through an american lens where the lens. Plus the history is different and not everyone knows american history as americans dont know french history. So it’s only natural for them to think asians are usually from asia bc thats their experience most of the time. Though i am a bit confused why americans think asiams are from asia when they have a longer history of immigration and must have met more asians who were born in america. C’est la vie.

      • That’s a good point! (The boys weren’t my cousins though.) I’ve thought about it from that perspective as well… In the US, there isn’t one race that’s generally identified as “American,” whereas there seems to be a stronger racial basis for the French identity. It’s a noticeable cultural difference, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it shocking… just something which made me go “huh” during the conversation.

  9. Found this amusing and I’m glad that you’ve shared your experience in France with us. I’ve not had any real problems with french people to date, not in the twelve years that I’ve lived there. There are, I agree, some idiots that like twiddling with trouble, but all you have to do is answer back, in words or action. Never bite your tongue, it won’t get you any respect, which on french streets is earned, not given. And if you want to stay in France, bring your ‘charactère’… you shouldn’t leave home without it. At times it’s your sole weapon. French people, I have the impression, aren’t averse to tipping the cart at times. Give it back elegantly, and you’ll have made your point. Certes, you might have to fight it out, but it’s unlikely that you’ll be alone. Take it sitting down, and you’re seen as nothing. Defend yourself, that’s expected of you. Fencing with words is an art, and it’s something french people ( and not only them ) actually enjoy.
    Every french experience will be different… France is never the same twice over for the same person. Vive la France!

    • You make a great point about the French art of conversation. I love the analogy to fencing; safety is definitely not guaranteed when holding a conversation in France! I think a bit of a thick skin is required to be able to hold your own, and one can definitely come to enjoy the sort of back and forth that takes place even when political correctness is set aside.

  10. Hey there!

    I stumbled upon your blog when looking for a teaching assistant in France’s blog from an Asian-American perspective, as I’m considering applying to the program. I was thrilled to finally find one, and the few entries I’ve read so far have been really interesting and pertinent to me. Let me just start off with this– I really connected with all of the points you mentioned, since I studied abroad in Paris last year for a semester. As an Asian-American that grew up in a major city with a significant Asian population, while I’ve certainly experienced racism before (there’s just no way to avoid it, ha), there were some things that happened to me in Paris that absolutely shocked me.

    For example, last year was the first time the “slanty eyes” motion had ever been done to me… yikes. Besides extreme examples like that, I’d have to say that I would have at least one mildly uncomfortable race-related experience per week. Of course, most of them were what people would call “harmless”, like when curious people would play the “Can I guess what type of Asian you are?” game before I even say bonjour to them. I know perfectly well that they’re not satisfied with the “I’m American” answer, but I have to admit that I said that to them every single time despite knowing that, haha. When prodded for more, I would just tell them that I’m Asian-American. Like you, I noticed that there isn’t really a pattern to this either, like when a French-Algerian guy greeted me immediately with “Konnichiwa!” at the crepe stand. I was pretty used to this, so I usually explain that I’m Asian-American. That time, the guy said, “Aha! Like how I am French-Algerian,” which made me happy that we could get some point of understanding. Funnily enough, he added on with, “I love Chinese people! But I hate Americans”. Alas, you can’t win everything.

    What really fascinates me is the difference between race relations in the US, and in France. I know quite a few French-Chinese people (most of them are full Chinese), and I really noticed the difference when I was relating the slanty-eyed incident to one of them, a girl from the suburbs of Paris. She exclaimed, “Oh, he’s not racist, he just thinks you’re cute and wants to flirt. But I agree that it is annoying.” I felt quite sad when I heard that, because it seemed like incidents like that were normal to her. So while I loved (and still love!) Paris, I didn’t love those few experiences that made me feel uncomfortable or annoyed, like when French guys bowed to me with their palms together. What’s funny is that on the other side of the spectrum, sometimes other French people would mistake me for being a Parisian and ask me for directions– always French people, and not foreigners! It was probably my black peacoat and boots.

    I was looking for blogs like yours because I was curious on how students would accept an Asian-American teacher. From what I’ve read so far, it seems that your experience was really positive and I’m glad! Though because of my prior experience in Paris, I’m strongly considering picking a different area to apply to so I can explore different parts of France, such as southern France (Nice, etc.) or maybe somewhere like Nantes. I’ve been to Nice before for a couple of days, and it was markedly different from Paris. However, I know that is not quite a long enough time period to judge the city, though I loved the fact that all of the French people I talked to always happily spoke to me in French unlike Parisians who would sometimes switch to English immediately upon hearing my accent. Would you have any advice regarding this? Though I love Paris and feel quite comfortable there, I think it would be best to try living in a new city.

    • Hi, thanks for taking the time to share your experiences. Your story about the girl who was dismissive of your reaction to the slanty eyes incident highlights one of the major aspects of French culture that will never sit right with me — i.e. the acceptance of micro-aggressions towards marginalized racial groups as well as towards women. I’m not saying that this grin-and-bear-it attitude doesn’t exist in the US, but it definitely seemed harder to find a sympathetic ear in France.

      With regards to the second part of your comment, the good news is that I don’t feel my being Asian-American negatively impacted my experience as a teaching assistant at all. I should qualify that statement by adding that I worked in a very diverse, multicultural part of Paris, but – yes – I really enjoyed my assistantship. That said, if my boyfriend had not lived in Paris, I probably would have chosen another region as well. Like you, I was quite curious about other parts of France. I think you should totally go for it! 🙂

      • This is exactly what I was looking for, I had stumbled across a comment from one of my parent’s friends and they had mentioned that France was quite prejudice against asians. The fact is I’m also going on the assistant program, but I’ll be in Marseille. I’m not particularly worried about the racism, per se, as I have encountered much worse cases here in New Zealand, but I’ve also heard that they are quite bigoted against the English. Do you have any experience on this?

        I happen to be fluent in Japanese and Chinese, will this help me while I’m there? Perhaps a sly remark of “Oh you speak Japanese too” in Japanese when they say “konnichiwa” haha

      • Hi Tyler, I’m glad you found the site. To be honest, I’m unfamiliar with French bigotry towards the English. I know the two countries like to take potshots at one another, but beyond that, I’m not sure how much substantive bigotry exists. I haven’t really heard or seen it expressed while I was in France, but perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention to catch some subtleties.

        Regarding your use of Japanese to deflect harassment — well, you can certainly try, but I doubt anyone rude enough to say “konnichiwa” actually knows enough Japanese to catch your intent. In a few instances, I’ve resorted to universally understood hand gestures that are not exactly sly. I’m not sure what to tell you, because I’m still trying to figure out myself what the best response is in these situations. It frankly ticks me off that you and I are here, trying to come up with a considered response, when our harassers are the ones who *really* need to reflect on and revamp their behaviors.

  11. French people esp Parisans are rude and unfriendly in general and the blacks in Paris especially seems to hate asians. I already have several incidents of encounter with them during the two times I visited Paris which I believed were racially motivated. I also encounter black people in other European cities eg London and do not face this problem. Suffice to say, I will not go back to Paris again.

    • I’m sorry your experiences in Paris made you feel this way, but I’m still personally uncomfortable with the blanket generalization that French people/Parisians are rude and unfriendly. I think you’ll find rude people everywhere around the globe; urban density of course increases the chance that you’ll frequently encounter jerks. Certainly, this is not to discount any racial attacks you endured, and I agree that some places are worse than others for segments of the population. Paris can indeed be uncomfortable for Asians.

  12. Hi Thanks for this honest blog, I am an Asian Australian who just recently moved to Paris from London because of my husband work commitment. I felt the same way as you and for me being asian is also a challenge to get a job as a teacher assistant, because although I am Australian I was born in Indonesia, and because of this they automatically assume my english is not as good as a native speak although I have teaching experience before. I try so hard to explain that I have lived in Australia and England most of my life, but they will say that they wanted someone with a certain accent which I found very unjust. And I have a french friend in London who called me yellow once and thinks its funny, I just think they don’t really realise that their behaviour is offensive. Thank you for your post and sharing it. I am glad I found you as I don’t feel as if I am the only one experiencing this kind of behaviour before.

    • From what I understand, this is a problem faced by many native English speakers who either are non-white, or who have non-American or non-British accents. Best of luck to you in settling into Paris!

    • I think this is also an I interesting topic you raised about what types of racial remarks people are more sensitive to or desensitized to. Being a Chinese American in NYC I notice a wide spectrum of offensive things that I might encounter on a daily basis. Being called “yellow” should be really offensive but it almost seems not so severe bc no one really uses that term or other Asians from Asia use it in a prideful way when speaking about races like the colors in a skittles bag. But if someone made a slant-eyed gesture I would probably want to punch them in the face.

      Certain countries also seem to have more sensitivity towards racial discrimination than others. Like it’s been brought up–a lot of people aren’t aware or really see it as a malicious thing to make an Asian joke or assumption about an Asian person. I had a roommate who was fresh from Ireland and timidly said “…but you’re not yellow, you’re white, you’re whiter than me. What would call yourself?” I said beige, but besides the point. I was amused by how sensitive he broached the subject.

      I also feel for what you expressed about people thinking they’re not getting the authentic language from “non-native” speakers. I work at an agency where we have outside consultants who are Chinese or Indian and might have quite a bit of an accent despite living in the states for many years and being able to converse in a very eloquent and articulate way. My bosses would dismiss a lot of what they say as “broken English” even though their grammar and vocabulary usage is way more proficient than my bosses’. It’s a ridiculous subconscious generalization, and one where they don’t realize how offended I felt that they would say things like that to me about another person of Chinese descent. If anything I don’t want people to talk that way about my parents behind their backs.

      What bothers me sometimes is when Asians from Asia also facilitate that type of mild racism by calling themselves yellow or referring to their person as oriental or encouraging it as friendly banter. Like the article mentioned, I would never draw a frog on a French person’s coffee cup if I were a barista at Starbucks. There’s jokes and generalizations about everyone in the world but to actively be cruel to someone for no reason seems horrendous because they no longer even empathize or see that person as another human being with the same emotions and insecurities as everyone.

  13. Hey! Just wanted to thank you for this entire blog. I’m an Asian-Australian in Lyon right now, and your blog not only resonates with me but is pretty hilarious and well written =).

  14. Hi, I just had to comment on this (it’ s my first comment on any blog ever!). Having lived in Paris for 6 months, 7 years ago when I just turned 20, I’m surprised by this. Being an Asian-American male, I actually had more problems being an American. I don’t know, maybe because I’m from New York, I do have a very strong personality and tend to be very loud and blunt. In that sense, I guess I don’t fall into the “Asian stereotype”. When someone rubs me the wrong way, I’m NEVER shy to shout back. Sometimes I’m the instigator :p My French has improved a lot now but when I studied there, I tried speaking French and if that failed, I would shout back them in loud English; it almost always caught them off-guard. Yes sometimes, I did make racist remarks against the French calling them “frogs”.

    Nevertheless, I think we as Asian-Americans are a little too sensitive towards the race issue since we’re fed on this issue since little. Having living broad for over 5 years in different countries including Holland and Poland (where I’m based now) as well as visiting Asia, I think racism happens in every country and some are just out of complete ignorance. And that includes Asia. I’ve heard from Euro friends similar stories in Asia too, but probably lesser degree there than in Europe. And yes, many provincial people think Asians are not part of America. I always shout back and correct them. But at the same time, I now embrace my Korean heritage more (though the Korean culture is so complicated as I found out). I actually get more kick when I speak in loud American English with NY accent with confused looks on people’s faces 🙂 Also, when it comes to these issues, I laugh it off in front of their faces and shout back a subtle remark as well.

    Overall I’m glad you had good time there. I must admit I LOVE Paris but I’m not a big fan of the people. I used work on 5th Ave in Manhattan and met many French tourists. None of my colleague liked them as well (of course there’re exceptions as always). I must say though, my 6 months in Paris was the best time of my life! 🙂

  15. I am a 43 year old who was born in Korea but raised in the U.S. since 1974. I don’t speak Korean or French. I went to France this Spring planning on cycling from Calais to Avignon for a month. This was my fourth visit to France and 13th overall to Europe. On the third day after having cycled from Calais, I met a white French woman in Amiens. Next thing I know, I abandoned my cycling holiday and proceeded to live with her (and her four year old son) for the next three months! (I had recently sold my business back home and had time and money to travel as long as I wanted). The whole experience was surreal, an emotional roller coaster full of ups and downs. Amiens doesn’t remotely have the racial diversity of Paris, so I stuck out like a sore thumb. I experienced what you and all the other commenters on this site mentioned – almost daily. She would sometimes witness it with me and was shocked and disgusted, often getting into arguments with them. I tried to learn French, I bought a new wardrobe (I came to France with only outdoorsy clothing), I was introduced to her friends (who were all polite), and got a membership to the city pool. She said that Amiens, and Picardie in general, was the “backwater” of France, full of simple, uneducated people. Whatever the reason was, I could not take it any more and decided to leave in September. We are still friends, but the cultural divide and casual racism was too much to overcome. I still love France (I’ve bicycle toured to 40 countries and France is my favorite) and will always go back, but I could never live there.

    • Hi Craig,
      Thanks for sharing your story. That must’ve been quite painful, and I’m sorry that this happened to you. While walking about in Paris with my boyfriend, I’ve had shouted at me: “A French person with a Chinese person? That’s not done here!” It’s disgusting and unfortunate that attitudes like this still exist, but – yes – still love France and would definitely go back as well. 🙂

  16. As a British Chinese guy about to make my first proper trip (i.e. not being led around) to France, you’re making me a bit worried! This reminds me though, the only case of racism I experienced in the UK, came from a friend’s friend who was… born to French parents. I often joke about how mad Britain is to be so politically correct, but thinking from your perspective, it’s probably better than the France you described.

    • I hope you had/are having/will have a great time! As you can see from the other comments, the range of experience is quite varied for those of Asian descent in France. Nonetheless it’s an easy country to fall in love with — as I did, in spite of the negatives! Haters gonna hate, so you just gotta do you. 😀

  17. Dear Academoiselle,

    I’m a French born Chinese living in Paris, and this is my first time in your blog.
    I find your article very interesting, because i have never felt that the French are racist toward Asians, but instead, they are only joking around.
    Maybe this is because i am used to it. When i was small (primary school), my classmates would often say mean things, like my father is Jacky Chan, or that i know Kung-Fu or that i have to open my eyes; but now i’m 22 and no longer have to deal with these problems. I have many friends from different origins, mostly Portuguese and French, (not many Asian friends actually), and i don’t feel like i’m not French at all! (except that i can’t drink milk)

    Of course there are still people in the metro/street = strangers who ask me if i’m Japanese or Korean, or would say konnichiwa or nihao but they just want to joke with you (they don’t mean any harm – it is not like they dislike Asian!). well, this is my thought.
    And so that is why i find your post interesting. although we are both Asians who grew up outside of Asia, i don’t feel that the French treat me with “racism”. But i agree that to “real” Asian, those comments must be really annoying.

    However what annoys me the most is when i go shopping. I don’t know why but i am often mistaken for a tourist although i speak French very well (i was born and grew up in France) but they would speak to me in English. Last time was in théâtre Mogador, but i noticed there were no other Asians around me. But i won’t say that it is racism…

    As you can see, my English is poor (i mean, the way i express my ideas), i’m sorry !

    • Hi! I appreciate your comment — obviously we are coming from very different perspectives — but I must disagree. Racist acts don’t always have viciousness at their core; they can arise from humor (“joking”), ignorance, curiosity, etc. I personally don’t see any of these factors as an excuse for racism. When I’m walking down the street, it doesn’t matter to me if someone says “konnichiwa” because they genuinely hate Asians or because they think they’re being funny. The end result is the same: harassment.

      Thanks for reading and sharing.

      • Hello, I have read your article and some of the comments, which are very interesting. But I have some questions that I would like to know your perspective :
        1. How do you define racism ?
        2. You honestly identify yourself as Sino-American or American ?
        3. When you insist that your are American, are you talking about your nationality or cultural identity ?
        4. Are you always able to distinguish westerners by their appearance ?
        5. Do you think that you have a deep enough understanding of French culture + Parisian culture when you conclude your judgement ?

        The reply to these questions is essential for clarifying the objectiveness of the judgement that you have made and therefore very important for readers who seek for understanding of racial issues in France. Thank you very much for your sharing.

      • to be honest….. why do i feel like Australia is most racist country towards to asian ( asian seems like only minority in there despite aboriginal) even asian represent 10% of Australian…. but most of time i feel like … they are “try-hard asian” like overcompensate to white……….

  18. This won’t add much to the conversation, but I must admit I like the way you write about race-related topics, and maybe this is because I find similarities in each of our approaches. I like to think this approach is more precise and logical. Specifically, you avoid a lot of the assumptions and impositions I find in many pieces of similar topic, e.g. often authors will inform the reader of the motives behind insensitive behavior of an individual they have often never met before.

  19. In a country with way fewer asians per capita than America, why would you expect them to behave as Americans do? Other than the Starbucks incident, the other incidents you related don’t sound racist to me. They just sound like those people were likely intrigued by seeing an asian and wanted to “meet” you. I’m a black American with a wife who was born-and-raised in Korea and I’ve experienced similar things in Korea and China. I find it funny and expected because there aren’t so many of us in those parts of the world – it’s only natural. The best way for them to stop doing that, is for them to meet you and many more like you and eventually the newness will wear off. If you don’t like it, perhaps you shouldn’t be in their country. I’ll admit something – I am (or was) somewhat intrigued by asian people too. I’m intrigued by anyone whose particularly different from what I grew up seeing regularly. I’m drawn to people who are different and just want to meet them too. Being an American though, my compulsion to just walk right up to them and start invading their private life is somewhat curtailed, but I certainly understand that compulsion. I’ve been married to my wife for 16 years now, and known her even longer, and I still cherish and love our differences (well, maybe not some of the stinky foods). Those differences really keep things interesting for me – and she seems to have an infinite supply of different ways of thinking, eating, sleeping, cooking, etc. Anyway, to the extent you can tolerate it, I think you should humor those strangers coming up to you saying “Konnichi wa” or whatever. Educate them for 30 seconds. No one asked you to go to their country (well maybe someone did, but you know what I mean), you should expect that you’d be a cultural ambassador for your country/race/heritage whatever. And obviously, try not to judge them by your American standards, you’re not in America. And even if their behavior really was somewhat racist, then you have an even better reason to engage and educate them. I believe it’s much harder for someone to mistreat another person when they know them personally.

    • Have you ever acted like a jerk, without intending to be a jerk? I personally don’t know anyone who hasn’t, at some point in their lives.

      I don’t know what’s so groundbreaking about the concept that it’s possible to act racist without intending to be racist. That’s the whole point of my post above … I do not believe that “being intrigued” is even remotely a justification for race-based harassment.

      Also, please do not tell me to stay out of certain countries. Contrary to your hostile assumption, I *was* invited to France, by the French government itself. Part of my duties was being a cultural ambassador, and my students and colleagues will attest that I did a fine job.

      It was not part of my job, *nor should it ever be part of anyone’s job* to humor street harassment.

  20. Hi there,

    Maybe a year or two too late to respond, however I loved your blog and I want you to know that your blog entry has made a huge difference/impact on my life. I had went through depression during my student exchange year with Rotary International to France. What you encountered in Paris, was the exact(that’s why I was blown away from the empathy of your situation), and I mean 100% exact of what had happened to me. Unfortunately I was in Paris for only a week, and I stayed with host families in La Flèche (a small village 2 hr drive outside of Paris) for a whole year and the racism there was probably triple the amount. I kept telling myself that it was because they were ignorant, and they are from a small village (everybody was white). However the racism was not only harassment but I was constantly made made fun by my fellow classmates. Constantly in school I was bullied by phrases like “chinatown”, “ching chong”, they would constantly ask me “how do I see with those slit eyes”, a boy from my class even put his hand and touched my eye when he asked that. I had never felt so violated and made feel so ugly just because I was different. I don’t mind if people mock me on my skills or the lack thereof, however to be bullied/judged and emotionally violated for something I cannot choose or control does not make sense at all. To this day, I try to deny my experiences of that.

    • BTW, I was also a cultural ambassador, representing Australia, for Rotary France..and trust me every time they would ask me … “tu es de quelle origine?” (they think being Australian equates to being White). All the dinners that I attended, the Rotarians would always make jokes like “desolee, on a pas de riz ici”. I’m not sure about you, but most of the jokes I had received were in a negative manner, that implied that the Asian race is funny/ridiculous because Asian culture/ethnicity is inferior compared to the French standards. Many times they greeted me with the “bow”, and giggle about it. I know for a fact it isn’t because of the “Effort” to mend cultural differences, but rather mocking the culture instead. Not once during my year was I referred as an Australian or that Australia was my home. They would always ask me about China, even though I was not raised there nor do I speak the language properly (don’t know how to read or write either). My friend, who was of Italian descent (her parents moved to Australia), because she was of caucasian, to the French, by her looks she was Australian. She never once had people yelling out “bonjourno bella” or people referring to her as “tu es de quelle origine ?” or refer to her “home” as native Italy. She was actually more Italian than I am Chinese..she even knew how to write, read and speak Italian like a native…

      • I’m so sorry this happened to you. I’m sad and angry that people can actually be that terrible. Unfortunately, as much as we try to act the part of cultural ambassadors and foster cultural “exchange,” sometimes despite all our efforts, that exchange will be a one-way street — and we end up being the ones ourselves learning negative aspects of a foreign culture.

        But this doesn’t mean we’ve failed … I believe that part of true cultural exchange is the dismantling of stereotypes and romanticism about cultures. The truth needs to be shared, and the truth is that there rests a deep and extremely harmful vein of casual racism in France.

        Thank you for sharing.

  21. I have been wondering about the difference between racism and nationalism recently. First some background info, I am a white Canadian who recently moved to Scarborough Canada which is almost entirely a non-white city, at least in large areas. There are some similarities and differences that I can share with your experiences. EVERY time I’m out with Indian, Sri Lankan, or Pakistani friends I am questioned what my nationality is. Sometimes they try to guess like in your case, but I always tell them I’m Canadian. I have come to understand that they aren’t trying to be offensive, but rather establish a connection based. Most of these people are born in Canada too.. But on a more difficult note, there was a time someone asked me at a bus stop and I eventually told them I was german heritage. The next question the Tamil asked was if I was a Nazi.. Wait.. Did he just really ask me that? To me that is more offensive than being called a Nigger, and a Chinese being called anything I can think of. I had to hold in my anger and not resort to violence so that passers by didn’t think I was the racist one attacking him. Wow, but sadly that isn’t an isolated event. After spending 2 years here, and hearing racial comments from Chinese against Indian, Paki against Tamil and Black, Tamil against Chinese, I have realized that approximately 60-80% of the working class coloured people here in Scarborough have deep seated racist beliefs, inherited from their parents home culture and friends who perpetuate it. That is a large percentage and it is based soley on my daily experiences hanging around coloured friends for over 2 years. There is also lot of anti white sentiment in general aside from the inter-cultural racism. My point is that coloured people hear have deep seated racism, but the sentiments shouldn’t exist in a first world country like Canada. I understand third world countries like India have racism, but then it doesn’t surprise me when I see the obvious and pervasive racism in wealthy places like Dubai or Saudi Arabia. And then it dawns on me when I hear stories of deep rooted cultural racism that still widely exists in societies like Japan who are very modern, that racism pervasively exists everywhere in the world. From what I hear, Francophones dislike Quebecois, the french heritage population of Canada. And they experience passive dislike when visiting france, despite looking identical, you know the typical behind the back comments and sneering. So I wouldn’t take the daily interactions that you experience as particularly negative at all. BUT, a big but, the conversation of deep-seated racism is a completely different issue altogether. Let me explain why..

    Back to my opening sentence, the difference between nationality vs race. A Chinese can be French with regards to nationality, but a Chinese cannot be a French with regards to race. The same goes for a generational Francophone living in Japan for example, who is always at a disadvantage to “Japanese Priviledge” in the Japanese workforce and in Japanese cultural institutions. I think more people need to understand this difference between nationality and race. Your family friends who you referred to as French Chinese, cannot be French from a racial perspective. America doesn’t have such a long history and it really is a melting pot, but for the other countries in the world it is different. France in this example, has a long cultural history and when an outsider comes into the country they simply don’t share that same heritage, and shouldn’t expect to “copy” it for their own. Rather they should be proud of their Chinese heritage. Now these aren’t necessarily my beliefs, they are the beliefs of the majority of my coloured friends here in Toronto who happily separate themselves from being “Full Canadian”. Other cultures should be proud of their heritage, but this often leads to a form of competitive behaviour where one culture assumes they are better than another because of their history or traditions.

    So in a homogenous country like Vietnam the culture, race and nationality are synonymous. But an important distinction needs to be made in multicultural countries between culture, race, and nationality as they are not the same. A Chinese can have french nationality and culture, but Chinese race. That small distinction will always create some separation from truly being French.
    Also, what ever percentage of French who are perpetuating such behaviour are probably doing so to preserve their tradition of what is means to be French from a historical perspective, rather than being purposely racist against a specific race, their is a fine distinction there that can be misinterpreted if you’re on the receiving end.

    It disappointing to hear but if you move to a foreign country you don’t automatically inherit their cultural history and you should be well prepared to accept that fact, you can still live comfortably and find friends who fortunately don’t care about keeping traditions. Would like to hear your thoughts addressing my points, thanks

    • I agree with a lot of this. Unfortunately racist attitudes are very widespread across the globe. All we can do is individually try to educate people.
      One thing about French/Québécois, though – in general the two populations get along pretty well and often refer to each other as “nos cousins français” or “nos cousins québécois.” There are indeed some snobby types in Europe who mock a Québécois accent and think it sounds very rustic – but there are many others who find it charming. On the flip side there are some Québécois who find Europeans to be stuck-up and their accent too posh. But for the most part they get along.

    • ” Also, what ever percentage of French who are perpetuating such behaviour are probably doing so to preserve their tradition of what is means to be French from a historical perspective, rather than being purposely racist against a specific race, their is a fine distinction there that can be misinterpreted if you’re on the receiving end.” – that’s basically justifying white privilege.

      “It disappointing to hear but if you move to a foreign country you don’t automatically inherit their cultural history and you should be well prepared to accept that fact, you can still live comfortably and find friends who fortunately don’t care about keeping traditions.” I think you misinterpreted the article. She is American. She only moved to France for work, she did not say she wanted to be French or identified as French. THE ISSUE was people being racist towards her by not acknowledging that she is American because people still think being American equates to being White and only exclusive to White people (so yes she knows she is a foreigner, an American, working in France temporarily..in fact she was there to represent America by teaching English to the French students). Also you’re assuming that accepting people of colour as French somehow means that you’re not keeping “Traditions” alive? Like what traditions… traditions of racism? I’ve seen French people who are ethnic, but still celebrate Noel, Bastille Day, vote, eat/ cook French cuisine, speak French, etc.. so obviously white French people are not the only ones who are capable of maintaing “french traditions”, especially when they ( historically) have colonised and forcefully pushed their culture on other countries in Africa and Asia which kind of negates what you were saying how French people don’t want others to “copy” their culture. Another paradox, if French people sincerely don’t want newly immigrants adopting their culture and then they would still be racist as they will start to complain that the immigrants don’t speak French, don’t contribute to society etc…

      The French being racist towards her, as in denying her identity because of her skin colour (true Americans is only exclusive for those who are White) has nothing to do and is irrelevant to your point about French preserving their “national identity and culture”. Also France is not homogenous, it didn’t become homogenous when historically they colonised many African and Asian countries. And since when does cultural traditions have to link with skin colour? It doesn’t, therefore nationalism is not an excuse or in this matter a justification for racism. Your comments merely explained why some French people can be racist or discriminatory, we readers already know the explanations. But guess what, explanations are just that. They are not justifications for any kind of discriminations.

  22. Great article. As long as you can speak the language, then its all good. But, if you sound like a tourist, then I can understand the barista calling you ‘chino’. I am Korean, and mexicans call me chino all the time. I laugh, because as long as I am making money, I don’t care what they call me. My point is, when you let racial remarks get to you, then you can’t think straight, and you forget your objectives, because it gets emotional. I was in Korea last summer, and I saw a black woman at the Smoothie King in Shinsegae department store. Everyone was staring at her, because she looked different.

    Its human nature. I guarantee, if you were to get a job at the starbucks, where the baristas insulted you, sooner or later, they would have become your friends. Otherwise, you cares what strangers say. Just smile, and either they smile back, or they don’t. Either way, thank you and have a nice day.

    • Please do not try to normalise or justify racism. I understand what you’re saying that you shouldn’t let bullies get away with hurting you, so just put a smile on your face.
      However there is a balance in life, in which if you let someone get away with it (for you i’m sure it’s a coping mechanism to smile it off or laugh it off) then you are validating their poor behaviour. If people back in the 60s tried to normalise racism, there wouldn’t have been a whole civil rights movement.
      As Nelson Mandela has said, it’s not within human nature to hate, people are not born with hatred, they learn to hate.
      The author’s point of the article is that no one should single out a person because of their race, gender or sexual orientation.
      Get to know them as a person, instead of dehumanising them by labelling them as some kind of an alien. Most of the racism in France is mostly backhanded, it’s not in your face but there is a negative undertone in their deliverance of those remarks. e.g. there is “hey where do you come from?” and there is “no, you’re not american, because you’re not white, you are Asian so where are you REALLY from!”

      • Steve suggests that in many cases, people who act ignorantly towards a person of a different race, if given the chance to get to know that person, could become a friend. I believe this to be true as well, and I would be shy to call that person’s ignorance, racism.
        Clearly, some of us have different senses of what “racism” is and/or means. I appreciate Steve Kim’s opinion and it resonates with me. I posted a response here a few months ago, trying to share a similar sentiment as Steve’s but ended up unintentionally (possibly) offending “academoiselle”. I feel to call something or someone racist, I must get the sense that there’s actual intent or belief by that person, that they are superior to me in some way. The definition on dictionary.com is:

        1.) a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.

        3.) hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

        For me, it’s important to draw a distinction between people being ignorant, versus people actually being racist. To conflate the two is to diminish what I understand to be true racism and what civil rights leaders had to fight in the US particularly during the ’60s.

      • Christopher I respect your opinion, however the case in France the racism doesn’t go just towards asians it’s anyone who isn’t white french. They even have a name for it, in english its translated as “pure white blood”.

        Racism does stem from ignorance though, it is a mixture of elements of such psychological reasoning. They have intolerance of another race because they don’t see anyone who is physically different from them on a daily basis or because they are ignorant (maybe they are not a multicultural society, they lack knowledge of the outside world etc). The racism is even stronger in Marseilles towards the French who are of Arab descent. In France there are huge issues with employment where people have to change their last names in order to get a job interview. There were many instances where the public threw bananas at a black politician in France where they called her a monkey. Those who have racist tendencies such as alienating someone because they are different, even if it is meant as a joke and comes from a place of twisted careness, it’s still racism. Just like someone who calls a gay man a “faggot” even if they say it’s a joke, it’s still homophobic as they are trying to alienate someone for their sexual orientation.

        As the author stated, there are times where people act like a jerk even if they don’t mean to, it doesn’t change the effect on the person who is receiving the remarks.

        e.g. if were an African-American and you go to a starbucks to order a black coffee, and the server wrote “negro coffee” would there be more outcry? This actually happened to my friend in Lyon, France. Sure the serve was joking, meant no physical harm, yet its this kind of mentality of “us” v “them”..we forget that we are all human beings, and should treat each other as such.

  23. Actually I’m familiar with what you’ve reported, and I’m Asian Australian a good as born and bred here. People randomly saying ‘konichiwa’ to me, for instance, I used to think they were making fun of me but maybe a few really thought I was Japanese? Or ‘ni hao’ sometimes. Some people here, especially some of Italian, Lebanese but also East Asian background but fully Australian often refer to ‘Aussies’ as specifically Anglo-Celtic Australians, a phenomena that doesn’t seem to exist. There’s this idea they’re ‘more’ or ‘true’ Australians, whereas the minorities are not. I feel in the US you’re equally American no matter your race, whereas here if you’re not of British stock you’re somehow a bit less so, but thankfully I feel this is changing. I’ve also got name-calling etc, not infrequently. I wouldn’t say most Australians are racism but quite a large minority are, and a lot of people harbour some negative views privately, especially to aborigines.

  24. I’m a french guy so I’ll speak about your post a little bit.
    First I think these kind of described behaviours are racist, and stupid. Not all people are like that, or will react like that when seeing chinese people.
    I think the main problem is cultural.
    For us french people, whatever we can say or do is not bad as long as we mean well. This is a very important piece of french culture to understand. We never blame somebody if he meant well, even though he said or did something that could hurt us. And usually we don’t feel hurt if the people in front of us didn’t mean to offend us.
    So when people behave in a stupid way, mimicking chinese almond eyes, they think you will react as a french people, and not be offended, because they are not attacking you or who you are, but just teasing and joking about your difference.
    I’m not trying to say this behaviour is good, I think in a way we can be rude and selfish, and not think about other people’s feelings and cultural differences. We often expect foreigners to adapt themselves to our culture, and think like us. This is typically french culture here.
    For the record, my girlfriend is chinese (born and raised in China) and I leave in Canada.
    In North America, people are totally different and multi culturalism is part of the society. In France, it’s not the case, thus those rude and typically french behaviours.
    Love it or hate it haha 🙂
    Cheers 😉

    • “we often expect foreigners to adapt themselves to our culture, and think like us.” I agree that’s part of French culture and it is something I admire 🙂 I believe if you are living in a country, whether that may be temporary or if you are born there, you should embrace the culture, the locals , the language and participate in society as much as you can.

      However there is a cultural paradox that exists in French society and many other nations as well. Because how can one “Adapt themselves” to French culture or society at large when they are constantly being “teased” or “joked about” their “difference”? You can’t try to be included and at the same time be alienated and excluded. Do you see how that kind of a mentality contradicts itself? It’s like you learn the language, the cultural customs, knowledge on the nation’s history and current affairs, however you are constantly reminded that “you will never be part of this society because you are physically different from us and thus we will always treat you differently FROM US”.

      I think everybody is human, so everybody should be treated equally, and thus we should embrace differences rather than alienating them 🙂

  25. I think you are over-reacting a bit. Racism is a harsh word and I don’t think the instances you describe were meant to offend or demonstrate any hatred toward you or your background. Even a jibe like Chino — sounds to me an attempt at linguistic witticism. Mexicans call ‘oriental girls’ Chinetta. It’s a harmless word when you analyse it. It’s sometimes the tone of delivery that matters. Should mexicans be called Latino? Do they all have something in common with the Latin races? Some words, that people tend to roar on and on about, are actually harmless. Some academics (beginning with Edward Said) made people fear the word ‘oriental’ was racist. What! It was Said’s interpretations that I found offensive, not the use of the word.
    I agree it’s exhausting to try to explain to people the differences between cultures that, to us, seem widely dissimilar. The behaviours you describe don’t sound at all as if they are condescending or hostile. What would you think if I told you that I used to try to guess the origin of European people based on their accents?
    – ‘Are you German?’
    – ‘No.’
    – ‘… because I can speak, a little German… nur ein wenig.’
    – ‘You don’t sound Russian.’
    – ‘No, I’m not.’
    – ‘Are you Danish?’
    – ‘No.’
    – ‘Well, I wouldn’t know, but are you Dutch?’
    – ‘No, I’m Belgian.’
    – ‘Oh! I see.’

    I had a similar scenario interrogating a Welshman. Neither one took offence, one was my age and the other was an 80 year old tenor in the choir. These conversations were actually the beginnings of friendships.

    Prejudice and racism do exist, here (France), there (in the Far East), and everywhere. I sometimes call it xenophobia. I have felt it and do experience it whenever I am outside the comfort of my home, sadly. Europeans will experience it when they are away from there homes as well. A former neighbour of mine, of Anglo-French descent in Los Angeles told me that he is usually ignored when he goes to a Korean restaurant in Koreatown.
    In life, one has to take things on the chin. When something is really outrageous and unfair, remaining rational and dignified, I think, is the best way to cope.

  26. I find the conversation that took place at the party to be vulgar, and without question crossed a line that should not be crossed. But I can’t help thinking that we’ve all become a little too sensitive when you can’t ask a person about their ethnicity (or ancestral ethnicity). When I travel abroad I’m consistently asked where I’m from, and when I tell people (especially in Europe) that I’m American they always ask “Where is your family originally from?” I have no problem telling them my great-grandparents came from Germany and Italy. In general, people are curious creatures.

    I’ve found that Asian Americans, in particular, are overly sensitive about discussing ethnicity. I’m not sure why. It gives the impression that they are in some way ashamed of their ancestral ethnicity. If I were to ask “Where is your family is originally from?” you would likely take offense, label me an offender, and assume I’m ignorant. You’re an American, just like me, but our families brought culture and customs with them when they came to America. My Grandmother makes homemade gnocchi, and I’m not ashamed of telling people. I may be American, but I’m American by way of Germany and Italy. So what’s wrong with being American by way of China?

    • Astonishingly old post, but Joseph, I think your comment is a good example of what makes members of minority groups so frustrated.

      You missed a good deal of the point.

      The point is, you only have to answer questions about your origins when you go on vacation. It’s an exceptional experience for you.

      As an American, you do NOT have to answer daily where (no, but really? WHERE?) your ancestors are from. If you had to field this sort of question day in, day out (or even once a week), after a while, it would start to grate. Welcome to being an Asian American. Or a Latino American. Not so much an African American, but clearly being black is no walk in the park pretty much anywhere.

      It would start to grate because you would constantly feel like an outsider in your OWN country. As in, the place you grew up in. The place you shouldn’t have to justify.

      Americans are quite privileged when it comes to this sort of identity because it really doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. Everyone can become an American.

      PS For the record, Asian Americans are NOT overly sensitive about these matters. If anything, there is too much understanding extended, which results in people not reciprocating the same sort of cultural leniency they’re being (unbeknownst to them) extended in the first place.

      • Great response! I does help to consider how it might feel if I were asked regularly, for years, “Where are you from?”. However, I suspect there’s one more variable in the mix here. My wife is from South Korea and we live in the midwest, so she get’s that kind of question from time-to-time as well. However, I think because she doesn’t see herself as American, it doesn’t particularly bother her to be asked. So, I can see, or imagine, that if you see yourself as just American (because you may actually be), such questions could become irksome at some point. It’s an interesting perspective. On the other hand, I know there are plenty of American-born/raised asians who are not particularly bothered by such questions. Though, maybe they’re not asked often enough to get sick of it. I suspect everyone’s tolerance level will be different. Personally, I think THIS is the perfect response an asian could give to those questions: https://youtu.be/DWynJkN5HbQ 🙂

      • Good response from you below, Christopher. The video made me laugh. Only throw in some comments about martial arts for me. Then it’s accurate.

        Of course your wife isn’t bothered. I don’t think anyone who’s not from the country he/she settled in would have a right to be bothered. If I went to France, even though there’s a huge Vietnamese population there, I would never feel bothered if people asked me that question because I’m not from there. I’m from America.

        I’m glad you posted that video because it highlights something crucial. It’s not so much the question as how it’s phrased. Some people say, “Oh, you’re Vietnamese? Cool.” That’s fine.

        Others say, “Oh, you’re Vietnamese? I love pho! So sad about the boat people. Vietnam War … how do you feel?”

        It’s the attitude of the guy in video that annoys me. You know three things about Vietnam? What do you want me to say? Congrats, you’re now an honorary Vietnamese?

        There’s a clear distinction between organic conversational curiosity and pandering. The older I get, the more the pandering riles me up, especially since the people have no idea how condescending they sound.

        Sometimes I think, “Man, it’s San Francisco. It’s a third Asian. There are Chinese here whose families have been here longer than yours. If anything, they should be asking you the question.”

        Don’t get the wrong idea. I rarely say any of this to people. Mostly I just humor them to get along.

        So when someone like Joseph says we’re overly sensitive, it brings out the response from me. Because most of the time, trust me, we just let it slide, even if it bothers us.

  27. Hi academoiselle,

    I chanced upon your article when I decided to do some little reading up on how the French actually view Asians after encountering a few – rather rude – experiences with the French recently.

    First of all, I’ve got to say that I’m from a business school here, and perhaps my experiences have got to do with what the culture is like in this business school – and I’m here to clarify, hopefully. There seems to be a distant between the French and Asians typically. Twice, I had lunch with different people and I saw their friends sort of gave them a look as if to say that what are they doing with an asian. This seems pretty sad.

    Secondly, I realised it’s pretty difficult to strike a conversation with them online. Well of course, the best way is to catch up in person. However, given that I don’t see certain people in school, and when I would like to have a chat with them over social media, it seems like they would intentionally ignore my messages and reply in a few days time – from what I understand, this isn’t a typical behaviour. This makes it incredibly tough to actually hold a proper conversation with a French to even ask the person out for coffee or sorts.

    Am I going about it the wrong way here?

  28. I found your blog interesting. I’m a tall blonde woman and when I travel to Paris the Chinese stare at me and make comments that are rude when I patiently wait in lines for museums they try to jumb ahead of people in line. I just read an article about Chinese tourist and how badly they behave in Paris and the Chinese government wrote brochures on how to behave when you travel and they ignore the info. It’s unfortunate that you have been made to feel uncomfortable. It’s to bad as people we just don’t accept each other as individuals…

  29. Funny. I never get offended when people can’t tell if I am from the US, England, Australia or Italy. Some races simple share similar features. Nothing to get insulted about. In fact I am a racial mix.

    Races and cultures are interesting and by asking questions people can learn. If we don’t respond they don’t. If you had answered that man on the station, maybe he would have learnt something too.

  30. PS, I am naturally inquisitive about different races, cultures and societies. I wish it was something people could be proud of instead of feeling like questions related to race or family history is somehow to be meant or taken as an insult.

    I am pleased to be Belgian/Irish/SriLankan.

  31. My hubby and I often ask people of all races where they are from because we have travelled to so many different places that we are interested to discuss places we have been and our shared experiences. It’s not only Asians who get asked where they are from.

    I even ask fellow Australians where they are from (Sydney, Melbourne, Perth….)

  32. Jenny, my best friend in Australia is full blood Chinese, but hopelessly ‘Australian’. I am more at home in China than she would be. She would freak out.

  33. I’ve lived in Paris for couple of years and was raised in Germany. Though, I am Asian I define myself as European as I have a strong European culture and educational background. I totally understand what you mean and I also had kinda similar experience. Being an Asian in Paris is indeed tough as they often ignore us or sometime treat us like aliens. However, don’t be so frustrated. I experienced racism even in Germany that was way harsher than that I experienced in France.
    But as time progressed I realized that it’s not racism but just their culture. I admit that sometimes they are so mean to Chinese. But it’s not racism but just their culture. I now live in the U.S and feel that U.S citizens are way nicer than european. However, its just as same as the French people. Being nice is kinda U.S culture while being a bit cynical is France culture.

  34. Nice article. I wouldn’t take these people too seriously – I mean Starbucks employees? Most cosmopolitan people don’t work at Starbucks. You just have to understand that these people come from sheltered, homogenous upbringings and aren’t the most cultured or worldly folks out there. There are plenty of white people that actually have non-white friends, have traveled and act normally around non-white people. Their comments are just a reflection of how they were raised – most probably haven’t traveled abroad and don’t read much.

  35. Although racism definitely exists in all countries; the majority of time such incidence can be attributed to ignorance and not being exposed to different things. If the only Asian face u see is on TV doing martial arts that is the only thing you know. If the only Asians you see are mobs of Tourist from China than to most closed minded people every Asian person you see will assume are from China. Even in the US we have Pepe Lepew (cartoon french skunk) and calling the French cheese eating surrender monkeys, etc. I know a lot of the Asian culture are pretty racist themselves against the “white hairy barbarians” and “black devils”. I know some northern Italians don’t think southern italians are real italians, Northerners think southerners are hicks, etc. We are all humans with our own cognitive biases and prejudices and it’s only through exposure and knowledge will ignorance be decreased. The next time you experience racism in french just call ask him/her if he is Pepe Lepew!

    • I definitely agree about the “Cheese eating surrender monkey” stereotype here in the states. Its so widespread that to most people, its like stating that the sky is blue. I often wonder how popular this particular stereotype is among Asian Americans, or Asians in general?

  36. I’m asian as well and have travelled to numerous countries. I think a lot of us are overly sensitive about people recognizing our race and being interested in that. It’s just normal. If they mistreat you for it, that’s a different thing. But these anecdotes don’t show any mistreatment. Even the barista was just having fun with wordplay of American vs Chino. I would have laughed too if I was there. We could all enjoy life more if we lightened up a bit.

  37. If I were in Africa I think I’d be just fine with people asking where I’m from, even if that’s the conversation starter, and even if they ask “American?” right from the start. No matter if it’s men and women or only women, so I can’t say that I can sympathize with your viewpoint. You are villainizing people, random fucking people.

    You know I did ask an asian girl once if she was from Korea. The question was just a conversation starter after saying hi and I thought she was most likely from Korea, but she just answered no and there isn’t much one can say after that so I asked her again, but this time if she was from China.

    Now, the ‘goal’ all along was simply to ask her, or anyone for that matter, a question related to the place/setting we were in. I decided to be friendly first and bridge the gap between two strangers just a little bit. But oh oh there’s a problem, I’m a white male asking an asian female a question, and that’s a big no no, isn’t it your highness?

    So you can imagine how it went. She just replied no again in a non-friendly manner and I just thought fuck it, I’m leaving. There’s no point in asking a question when you approach as a friendly person but are seen as a monster, now is there miss perfect? So I simply left and I’m certain that asian female was left more racist and sexist than ever, after all the monster just left after being made aware that she’s not from Korea or China. Who knows, he probably had a fetish for Korean and Chinese girls.

    Thanks for being so considerate, but I think I’ll stick to speaking to my own race from now on. Chow ching chong meow.

  38. Hello!!! 🙂 I’m glad to have stumbled across this blog. It helped me broaden my horizons by a wide berth.
    The reason why I was was interested in this topic of racism in France were my parents! They told me, that many years ago in France, while on their honeymoon, they were checking out of a hotel. A housekeeper lady screamed at them, “You have to tip, you Chinese!”
    They shrugged it off and tipped and left.
    In LA, at least for me in my neck of the woods, it’s actually still not that much different. I have people on a daily basis ask me what I am (Vietnamese), I’ve had kids say “konichiwa” when I tell them I’m Vietnamese, and I’ve had people outright stare at me and ask what Vietnam is. My little brother even told me that kids at his school deny Vietnam’s existence as a country.
    It’s actually pretty bizarre, considering none of my family get PO-ed over this. Maybe we get a little miffed, but it’s never bothered us. My mother had always instructed us to just explain what being Vietnamese is and what it means to people who don’t understand- a lot of them are not meaning to be mean, and just come across as jerks from just being ignorant. And some people are purposely a little racist, but sometimes they think it’s perfectly acceptable.
    It’s pretty weird, how being “racist” is percieved. But I’m sorry you had to experience such blatant acts of disregard and disrespect.
    Again, I’m glad to have stumbled across your blog. 🙂 French culture is pretty deeply ingrained in our family’s history, and I was thinking I should go there some day. But the prospect of severe discrimination was a turn-off, but your blog as well as davidplusworld’s blog has enlightened me a lot. 🙂

  39. In LA of all places! Ignorance knows no bounds I suppose, sigh… I am Korean-American and was raised, for all intents, in the SF Bay Area. One would think ” Well, in the SF Bay Area…, but one would be wrong! Having visited Paris for ~ 30 years – recently for months at a time – I can tell you that racism toward Asians has gotten worse. It’s getting as bad as the U.S! It seemed almost non-existent even 15 years ago. Perhaps it’s because I am now a middle aged single male that I seem to be targeted, I don’t really know. What I do know is that as a younger man with a European wife who is 5’9″ and very athletic, as was/am I, we never ran into any issues. Now, it’s a different story all together! I am accosted, in one way or another, a few times a week! Right?!

    All this said, this blogger is right on when she says it’s mostly great, because it really is! Just know that you will run into these issues and go in eyes wide open. Deer in the headlights will only attract more attention. Paris is an incredible place that you do NOT want to miss; especially because of a few uneducted proles like “dude”! What a wanker! Total creeper! He is so dumb he probably doesn’t even realize he made the case for this blog! 😂

    To the blogger: way to go! There clearly is a need for a forum for this issue. Just to exchang experiences (good and bad) to help other would be travelers, and even those who live or regularly visit, gain more insite.

  40. I’m french. I’ll try to give you my thoughts about your experience.
    To me the difference in the way you felt between France and the US doesn’t come from the fact that you are Asian, but to the fact that you are American. The same way most American people have difficulties to think someone is french if she/he is asian looking; most french people will feel intrigued by an American Asian person and will have difficilties to indentify his/her identity.
    A friend of mine, who french with korean origins experienced in the US the same kind of weird encounteers you had in France. As if people couldn’t get the fact that my friend was as much french as I am. Always asking “what are you really? How can you be french if you are not white? How can you speak french (my friend didn’t speak a word of korean and never went there)? It seems like for them if you are Asian you could be korean, or American… But you couldn’t be european, that is just not how most americans picture us as uniformlly white….

  41. I really enjoyed reading your article about personal experience in Paris. I can really relate to your particular perspective because I’m a young Chinese American woman raised in the Midwest and living in NYC for the past decade. I actually have encountered more mild cases of racial harassment in NYC than ever in the Midwest as an adult. I think it is extremely bothersome and annoying to be objectified or in some ways dehumanized by unprovoked generalizations or jokes made about Asians and by random strangers. I also agree about the lack of awareness about the difference between Asian Americans and Asians from Asia. I don’t think people would assume a 2nd gen German American should know the language and culture of Germany as a native German. I think sometimes we do have to just keep our calm through ignorant behavior and don’t hate people for being basic simpletons. 😛

  42. You should try being a white guy in asia. People point and stare and shout “FOREIGNER” at the top of their lungs. No white privilege, its just a myth I’d hear about occasionally. Anyway, I came to France at the insistence of my Chinese wife who had romanticized ideals about the west. So now we’re here. I love the food. French food rocks. She loves the .. winter.. and other annoying things about France. I noticed the locals are totally flipped out about Asians, like, they don’t know how to handle it at all. It makes me chuckle, It annotys my wife. I chalk it up to basic local ignorance. What else could it be? Same thing that goes on in Asia, but in reverse. One side of me misses Asia, racism and all, but, I know my wife is happier in France, so I persevere here. Vive la difference!

  43. I’m a Korean American and I think you’re being a typical overly sensitive professional victim. Have you ever heard of ‘white monkey job’ in China? Chinese pay big money to white guys just for walking around in suits in conventions/conferences to show that they have ‘white guys’ working with them. And of course, Korea and Japan are 100 times more ethnic concious than the West and it’s not a bad thing. In fact, compared to Asians, Westerners lost their sense of racial/ethnic preservation which is really sad. Your writing is a little funny to me. Get with the reality and learn to ‘accept it’ rather than pushing your own professional-victim-logic. Thank you.

  44. Why did you get offended or bothered at all when people asked you if you could speak Chinese? People will ask the SAME THING If you go to Korea or Japan and tell them you’re Chinese. And Chinese in China will also keep saying ‘Bonjur’ or some French words they know to ethnic French people visiting China. I just don’t get it. what is it that you’re so bothered with? are you so offended when people ask you about China? When people ask me about South Korea, I actually get delighted and I am very interested to tell them about S.Korea and speak South Korean to them(even though I was born in America and don’t really speak fluent Korean, I’m still proud to teach Americans my Korean language). As a fellow Asian, I’m ashamed that you get offended by everything. you should be a professional victim. Thank you.

  45. Also, according to what you wrote, it seems like you get super offended and bothered when people ask you if you can speak English. Are you trolling or are you just a little slow in the brain? People will ask you if you speak English even if you go to CHINA. or KOREA. or WHERE-EVER. English is kind of an international language and obviously the first ‘universal question’ people will ask will be ‘do you speak English?’ since English is the most learned/acnowledged language in the world. What is really bothering you? just weird….

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