Picking from the Fig Tree: A Look at Choosing Majors in 3 Countries

In Aziz Ansari’s new TV series, Master of None, the comedian’s father dishes some hard-hitting advice to his indecisive son. He shares this cautionary Sylvia Plath quote:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree . . . . From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. . . . I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Watching this segment, I thought – save for those lucky few who harbor a single, burning passion from the day they’re born – what young person hasn’t faced a similar dilemma? Whether choosing a college major or a career path, or deciding where to live, the array of life choices can be overwhelming. Now teaching a university seminar for first-year international students, I found the quote pertinent to my class as well.

leaning against a barren tree

No figs here, sadly. Just a melancholy undergrad and a barren tree.

In my seminar, most of the international students are Chinese, and many were mystified by our university’s insistence on a liberal arts core curriculum. In fact, only a few had heard of the term “liberal arts” before, and – even after we thoroughly discussed it – some still seemed perplexed. Their confusion led me to wonder: just how different are the processes through which foreign and American undergrads choose their courses of study?

After a little research and reflection, I understand better now where the students are coming from, both literally and figuratively.

~

I think back to my own undergraduate experience and my “fig tree” problem of the period: declaring a major. I had applied to college as an undecided student, after having gone through the brochure a hundred times. When I finally arrived on campus, I thought I’d study computer science like my mom. A single introduction to Java class quickly set me straight. I then veered into economics, spending countless hours staring at mystifying graphs and figures. Eventually, I acknowledged I’d only ever be a mediocre economist at best. My final, serious attempt was French language and literature, a subject I ended up both loving and succeeding at academically. Ultimately, I graduated with a double major in economics and French, the culmination of a winding  journey which also included rest stops at the departments of English, history, art history, Asian studies, astronomy, psychology, sociology, hotel administration, and – last but not least – plant pathology.

Greedy me ended up plucking two figs after having taken a bite out of almost all the rest.

~

When I contrast my experience to the experience the  Chinese students might have had, had they gone to Chinese universities, the gulf boggles my mind. Much ink has been spilled over the feverish process by which high schoolers get into Chinese universities (the process by which they prepare for the make-or-break gao kao, China’s national higher education entrance exam) — but considerably less attention has been paid to how they choose a major if indeed they pass.

As it turns out, Chinese students usually select their major around the same time they take the gao kao. Instead of sending application packages to various schools, they complete a single form indicating which colleges they prefer and naming a few majors which sound appealing. If they’re lucky, their gao kao test scores will qualify them for one of their chosen colleges, and the college will return an offer of acceptance with one of their listed majors. The vast majority of students are then locked into the major, given the laboriousness of the procedure to change majors at most institutions.

This is akin to speculating about which figs taste best, then eating whichever one happens to fall in your lap.

Infant academoiselle reading a book

My parents chose to raise me in the US, but what if they’d stayed in China? Who knows if I would’ve even made it to university, never mind what I would’ve studied.

~

At this point, I need to try to rein in my personal biases (as well as my panic at the thought of an alternative reality where I had to take the gao kao). I have to concede that both the US approach and the Chinese approach have advantages and disadvantages.

In short, the US system allows those like me to indulge in a bit of dilletantism, in the hopes of broadening students’ perspectives, instilling certain values, and fostering creative, interdisciplinary collaborations. But this approach comes with the danger of dawdling beneath the fig tree.

Meanwhile, the Chinese system allows young people to delve deep into their specializations, without the burdensome distraction of taking classes in other subjects. Of course, the downside is that students don’t necessarily receive the lauded benefits of a liberal arts education, and they may end up studying something which no longer interests them or doesn’t suit their abilities.

It all makes me wonder: isn’t there a middle way? How do we get at the fig that’s just right for us without wasting too much time putzing around?

~

Diderot monument

Let’s turn to France, one of the centers of the Enlightenment.

Before I’m accused of viewing the French system en rose, let me just acknowledge that it has its own set of deep and troubling dysfunctions. For instance, only 50% of students in France’s public universities successfully pass their first year of study. But – if we examine only the process by which undergraduates choose their majors – we can see that they offer something of a middle way between the American and the Chinese systems.

Starting in the penultimate year of high school, French students are asked to think broadly about which discipline they’d like to pursue. Students are then split into 3 tracks: the ‘L’ track (for literary studies), the ‘ES’ track (for economics and social sciences), or the ‘S’ track (for the sciences). In general, though, the track they choose isn’t particularly limiting. It determines which version of the bac they will take (another national higher education qualification exam), but the bac isn’t widely seen as a demanding exam. As long as students get a passing score, they can enroll in public universities.

When students start university, that’s when they choose a filière or major. Generally, ‘S’ students can pick any major, including those in the arts and humanities. Meanwhile, ‘L’ and ‘ES’ students might have difficulty breaking into the sciences, but they enjoy pretty much every other option.

And if it doesn’t work out? Students can change course to a different (but related) subject after the first semester. If they want to do something which deviates more drastically, they can also decide to retake their first year.

In reality, as many as 30% of students retake the first year (including those who fail as well as those who want to change majors). Since annual tuition is only a couple hundred Euros, many can afford the option. Furthermore, since French universities grant a bachelor’s degree after only 3 years of study, retaking the first year simply puts the repeaters at 4 years, a common degree duration worldwide. It’s not a perfect system, but students largely end up studying what they want — even if they can’t take a bite out of every fig.

~

Outside of the formal education system, what I really admire about France is the deep-seated culture of the liberal arts. In France, being a talented engineer doesn’t exempt you from having to argue philosophy at the dinner table, and being a financial analyst doesn’t mean it’s cute to be clueless about the latest exposition at the Grand Palais. This is a society where the tradition of the “public intellectual” is still alive, even if everyone rolls their eyes each time Bernard-Henri Lévy makes a television appearance.

Maybe this is the answer to the riddle of the fig tree.

Maybe we can taste some and describe the rest in poetry.

cassis chocolat macaron

Or  we can turn the figs into giant macarons. That might also work.

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Introversion and Culture (Or, That Time I Built a Fort in my Boyfriend’s Apartment)

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t an introvert. Interacting with others never came easily to me. Nonetheless, over time, I’ve learned how to fake it, e.g. how to make a compelling speech in front of an audience (thank you, high school Speech and Debate); how to exude warmth towards customers (thank you, tech support job in college); and how to muster good humor when meeting people socially (thank you, red wine).

I guess I’ve improved enough at projecting a comfortable persona that some might not even believe I still struggle. On a recent Friday at the office, when I admitted I’d be staying home that night “just me and my introverted self,” my colleagues snorted, “You’re definitely not an introvert.”

Crawling into a hole

Actually, yeah — I could stay in my woman cave forever if I didn’t have to work…

While the rewards are great, performing socially is tasking, and I haven’t always been as capable. When I first joined Speech and Debate, one of the more experienced club members noticed my tendency to avoid eye contact, so he blocked me in a corridor until I could meet and hold his gaze. (We stood in that corridor quite a while.)

Nowadays, I would have no issues entering a staring contest, but I still require lots of alone time. This even applies to time away from those closest to me. For instance, when living in Z’s studio apartment a couple years ago, I built a “fort” out of clothing and chairs just to have some personal space for the day. I wasn’t the least bit upset — just needed a private area to read a book and have some snacks.

Friends under a virtual tree

Adolescent me loved escaping into online games. I could look fabulous in a corset, while wearing pajamas in real life!

Some might find these tendencies off-putting, but they’re part of who I am. Introversion is a spectrum; of course there are going to be people who fall towards the ends. Given my own nature, I have a great deal of empathy for international students coming from countries that view introverted behaviors as the norm. Arriving in the US where extroversion is glorified as well as materially rewarded, these students have a tough cultural adjustment to make.

I am thinking specifically of the students in the English support program I work for, most of whom are Chinese or Indian. Though they come from privileged families, many were brought up in a way that they don’t seem self-confident by American standards. They’re often hesitant to speak up in class, though class participation is a major part of their grade. They may shy away from chatting with professors, though relationships with professors can be key to later internships and recommendation letters. For many, career fairs are particularly nerve-wracking — not only because of the language barrier, but also because they were taught never to boast about their accomplishments. Some, having been raised to keep their problems private, are even afraid to speak with us advisors.

A couple of incidents I’ve witnessed highlight how drastic these cultural differences can be. Once, a female student came to me in tears because her professor had made remarks to her that she saw as harsh or impatient. She didn’t understand why the professor seemed not to like her — she was quiet and got good grades, facts which had always endeared her to teachers in her home country.

The other incident involved a taciturn young man who was almost removed from his professor’s class. He hadn’t been misbehaving in the traditional sense; it was just that his silence in class “creeped out” the professor. The professor insisted that the student either go to counseling (a huge no-no in the student’s culture), or not come back to class. Though the young man was eventually reinstated, it was an incredibly frustrating ordeal.

~

Situations like the above are hard to advise in, because there’s not necessarily a party that’s right or wrong. I am also loathe to make international students feel that the values they grew up with are at all inferior. Still, the fact is that they chose to study in the US, where – for better or worse – a certain amount of sociability and self-promotion are critical to success. And so I give students what tips I know to  mimic these traits … ways to approach a professor, clubs they could join to make friends, how to deliver a presentation …

Introvert

I would never have thought I could advise anybody about how to appear less introverted.

Final thoughts before I go. First, culture is not monolithic (there are introverted Americans and extroverted Chinese). Secondly, the differences between individuals will always be greater than the differences between groups (in any large sample of international students from the same country, there will be immense variation in personalities). These things said, we can’t be blind to the fact that culture plays an enormous role in shaping behaviors.

Fortunately, new behaviors can be learned and new cultures adapted to. After all, none of us can stay in our forts forever.

Battling the Blues with Transatlantic Laughter

Over the last few years, I’ve pretty much lived the idiom: “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Bouncing between Greater Boston, New York, and Paris, I can attest that fond-growing is by far my most consistent cardio workout. After some initial elation at returning to New York at the end of a long Parisian winter and crappy bout of melancholia, I find myself – surprise! – occasionally longing again for the highlights of the Hexagon.

Though I’m happy to be where I am, the symptoms of withdrawal are familiar — crossing my eyes when scrolling through web feeds so I can’t see photos of France posted by expat bloggers, fingering necklaces with delicate Eiffel Tower charms in trendy accessories boutiques, perking up my ears at the lilt of the French language, whether overheard in the subway or the streets of New York … All this adopted-homesickness, coupled with having to maintain a long distance relationship, isn’t exactly fun.

Ironically, though, fun is the antidote to this well-known stage of reverse culture shock. Putting myself out there, overcoming social inertia, and facing life with humor I’ve found is the best way to cope.

reindeer skype

Battling the blues with transatlantic laughter.

With that in mind, I’m taking some time today to just laugh at the French language. Since reading Mallarmé isn’t helping me to feel any better about the distance, I’ll rant about some ways French – commonly thought of as the language of love – is downright silly instead.

~

1) French people sometimes speak like children in a conservative ’50s household.

If you took French in secondary school, you probably remember those textbooks with pictures of people in single-color sweaters, light wash jeans, and white sneakers. In reality, the French haven’t dressed this way for some twenty odd years, but the surprising thing is, they sometimes speak as if they were still living in this imaginary idyll.

Take the pseudo-expletive, “mince!” This is pretty much the equivalent of “darn” in American English (i.e. a very tame word), but it’s used with surprising frequency in everyday French. Besides its Leave it to Beaver propriety, what really makes it goofy is the fact that it also means “skinny,” “thin,” or “slim.” Thus, I always have to choke back a laugh whenever Z stubs his toe and cries out what sounds to me like “skinny!”

That same whiff of childishness surrounds another popular French exclamation: “nickel!” The name of this metal is uttered to mean “super!” “great!” or “awesome!” While I can clearly see the evolution of its meaning from the metal, to an adjective meaning “spotless” and “impeccable,” to a general expression of approval — by golly, gee whiz! I still can’t quite shake the idea that its usage would be better limited to those under the age of five.

~

2) They clean with serpillières.

Speaking of ’50s households, one of the few times I tried to do a thorough cleaning of our apartment in Paris, Z and I got into a fight over this ridiculous word.

French maid with knife

I could never be a French maid — housework makes me want to commit violence.

As I despairingly looked upon a dirty kitchen floor, I asked Z for a mop.

“What’s a mop?” he asked.

“You know, to wipe the floor.”

He returned with an old rag. “Here you go.”

I gaped at the sad shred of cloth he had handed me and – blanching at the prospect of wiping the floor on my hands and knees – snapped like a true diva, “I asked for a mop!”

“That is a mop,” he insisted heatedly. “It’s a serpillière. Here, I’ll prove it to you. It’s in the dictionary!”

It turns out the source of our confusion was a sloppy translation. In fact, the French rarely use mops. The closest tool they have is a broom handle with a single rag attached to the bottom, and the word serpillière can refer either to this broom-handle-with-rag (an approximation of a “mop”), OR simply to the rag itself (no broom handle necessary). A bit of linguistic laziness can thus mean the difference between getting one’s hands dirty and my preferred method of cleaning: just prodding at stuff with a very long stick.

~

3) They use Verlan, also known as French pig Latin.

I remember when, as a preteen, I first learned how to say things in pig Latin. My insufferability instantly shot up as I went around shouting, “ELLO-HAY! An-cay ou-yay understand-way e-may?!” Fortunately for all involved, I quickly tired of this little trick and reverted back to normal speech within a few hours.

Well, the French learned verlan, their version of pig Latin — and they just never reverted back. Verlan is so incorporated into the language now that no one bats an eye if you express gratitude with a “ci-mer” instead of “merci.” Even hardened criminals love this wordplay. You’ll find the phrase “f*ck les keufs” articulated in the graffiti of downtrodden neighborhoods, conveying disdainful threats to the police through a curious mishmash of English and verlan.

I love this bizarre transformation of the French language. I especially like to imagine the equivalent situation playing out in the US, perhaps on an episode of Cops. As burly police officers bear down on some hooligan, I like to picture the offender yelling out obscenities in pig Latin. “UCK-FAY OU-YAY!” he’d cry indignantly. “UUUUUCK-FAY OUUUUU-YAY!”

~

 4) Atypique (“atypical”) is used as a euphemism for ugly.

I was able to add this sardonic gem to my vocabulary while following the French reality show La Belle et ses Princes Presque Charmants (literally “The Beauty and Her Prince Almost-Charmings”). The show rips off an old American series called Average Joe, which pitted a team of fratty hunks against a team of “average Joes” (guys whose looks were somewhat less breathtaking) for the attentions of a conventionally hot chick. In the French version, I kept hearing members of the team of hunks referring to their less comely opponents as having physiques atypiques or “atypical physiques.” Confused, I turned to Z: “Don’t they mean physiques typiques, since their opponents are supposed to be average looking?”

“No,” explained Z, “They’re making fun of them for their bodies.”

“But their bodies are just average,” I argued. “I thought that was the whole point of the show.”

“Yeah, but atypique here means they’re not good looking,” shrugged Z.

I groaned. Of course. No way the contemporary French population would have missed an opportunity to invert their words.

physique atypique

Nothing atypical here, besides maybe a higher-than-average tolerance for public humiliation.

~

5)   There’s no translation for “rolling one’s eyes.”

Now that I’m putting together this list, I’m glad to be inside a country where I can express exasperation with a satisfying eyeroll. This tried and true outlet for my inner petulant child simply does not exist in France. It took me a while to pick up on this subtle difference; after all, the French are so great at complaining vehemently, the fact that I had never once seen nor read of someone rolling their eyes just didn’t enter my consciousness.

I finally wised up while reading some trashy, French internet forums. Unlike in American forums, when people got snarky with one another, there was no mention of eyerolling. Thinking I’d just missed something obvious, I casually asked Z how one would write “eyeroll” in French. When my query was met with radio silence, something clicked inside my mind.

“WAIT A MINUTE. YOU GUYS DON’T ROLL YOUR EYES!” I shouted accusingly.

“Well, we kinda do.”

Supposedly, there is an approximation of eyerolling in French, which is expressed through the phrase: lever les yeux au ciel (literally, “to raise one’s eyes to the sky”). While this gesture is closely related, it is most definitely not the same. For one, the French version contains an implicit appeal to a higher power, which is not necessarily true of the good ol’ eyeroll. Moreover – as I discovered after several minutes of rigorous, scientific personal experimentation – my American upbringing had made it almost impossible for me to simply raise my eyes, without giving them a quick tour of the backs of my eye sockets.

I guess that’s just how I roll.

~

These are some of my annoyances with the French tongue. Feel free to share yours!

French table manners: can’t eat with them, can’t eat without them

I distinctly remember the first time I gave a rat’s bottom about table manners.

It was only a few years ago. Z had just called to ask me on our third date: an evening visit to the Centre Pompidou (the national museum of modern art), to be followed by dinner at the trendy restaurant located on its rooftop.

“Sure, sounds good,” was my nonchalant reply. As soon as the call ended, my face contorted in panic, and I raced to Google like a terrified toddler to the protection of its sage mother.

FRENCH TABLE MANNERS, I typed maniacally. EATING ETIQUETTE IN FRANCE. UTENSILS IN FRANCE. WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE GIVEN MORE THAN ONE UTENSIL AT A TIME…IN FRANCE. VIDEOS OF FRENCH PEOPLE EATING. 

I spent the afternoon investigating the topic with greater zeal than I invested in most academic research. My laptop played instructional videos on a loop while I practiced with pens and pencils before the screen. Finally, satisfied that I could mimic the habits of a bourgeois upbringing I never had, I slipped out the door to test my newly acquired talents.

~

Contrary to what I thought, I didn’t master French table manners that afternoon. In fact, I still haven’t mastered them.

Biting chocolate bar

My preferred method of eating: inhaling foods whole.

While my upbringing certainly had its merits, I suspect it may have left me with a distinct disadvantage in the realm of table manners. To be precise, I should say disadvantages (plural) and clarify what these are:

  • It’s considered polite to eat noisily in Chinese culture. If diners smack their lips or slurp their soups, they’re only indicating their appreciation of the meal. Consequently, I was never reprimanded for noisy eating as a child and didn’t even realize it was frowned upon by the culture at large until well into adolescence.
  • Growing up in a Chinese-American family, I also never received instruction on how to wield a knife and a fork (not to mention their countless cousins). Meat and vegetables were always served precut into bite-sized pieces, to be lifted in a single movement via chopstick.
  • When I chowed down on Western food at school, I still didn’t learn table manners. Other kids neither noticed nor cared how I ate. Also, the food was of the variety that’s typically eaten with one’s hands, e.g. burgers, fries, pizza, nuggets. (Imagine my dismay upon learning that in France, even such low-grade items are primly treated with utensils.)
  • I almost never had multiple-course meals in the U.S. If something yummy was set in front of me, I ate until I was full. Adjusting to the typical three or four course meal in France was a challenge. I would forget to make room for the cheese course or “petit dessert and end up overstuffed like a taxidermy project gone wrong.
mother and daughter pizza

My parents can take the credit for my table manners, or lack thereof. THANKS MOM!

~

Due to the recent holidays and some special events, I’ve been eating quite a bit with Z’s family. This has led to some occasions for self-consciousness on my part.

At one meal, since I have no cooking skills to speak of, I tried to help by setting the table. Z muttered something about the knives, but I didn’t hear him and didn’t ask him to repeat himself. I was fairly confident that – after all this time in France – I knew how to set the table properly. But when everyone sat down at their place, the adults exclaimed at how small their knives were.

It turned out I’d set the table with “kids’ knives.”

Eating with both kids and adults did allow me to see the sort of rigorous training I’d missed in my childhood. When a ten year old posed his elbows on the table, he was immediately reprimanded. Later, when the same boy ducked his head to take a bite, his grandmother cried: C’est la fourchette qui se lève, pas la tête qui se baisse! (It’s the fork which should rise, not the head which descends!)

My own head snapped up so quickly I almost got whiplash.

Tostada de jamón

How does that song go? Nothing I can do … a total descent of the head.

Then there are the extremely specific situations for which no website could have prepared me. At a recent dinner, two types of cheese were offered on a platter: a soft cheese in a container with a spoon and a hard cheese with a knife next to it.

By some accident of seating, I had to serve myself first. With only two cheeses and two utensils, I didn’t think I could mess anything up.

Of course — I did.

I tried to spoon some of the soft cheese onto my plate, but the cheese simply stuck to the spoon. At that point, I had two choices:

  1. Use the communal knife for the hard cheese to scrape the soft cheese off the spoon, thus contaminating the knife for the hard cheese with the particles of the soft cheese.
  2. Use my personal knife to scrape the soft cheese off the spoon, thus contaminating the spoon with some of the food particles that were still on my knife from the previous course.

Believing it was the lesser of two evils, I chose the first option.

Naturally, everyone else exercised option two.

~

As it turns out, Z’s the kind of guy who eats hot chocolate powder with a spoon, so he wasn’t completely repulsed by my apparent lack of sophistication on that early date. I’ve largely adapted to French table manners by now, but – after popping in a movie and opening a box of pizza – I still smile when Z reaches for his fork and knife while I simply wiggle my fingers.

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.)

Ring Around the City, Pockets Full of Presumptions

A couple weeks ago, I was advising groups of communication students on their marketing campaign projects. These were large, long-term projects requiring the students to ultimately present in English before a panel of professors. I helped them hone their pitches, refine their vocabulary, and brainstorm possible responses to critiques from the panel. But one group asked me an unexpected question.

The group had decided to create and promote a fictional line of lingerie accented with candy (yeah, my job is a dirty one but somebody’s gotta do it). Their target consumers would be bourgeois twenty and thirty-somethings. As part of their campaign, they planned to open a pop-up store in Paris. “So,” announced one girl, “We wanted to ask you, since you live in Paris: what’s a good area to open our store in?”

I laughed. Huh? These young men and women had resided in the Paris metropolitan area all their lives. I was an American interloper who recently got scolded by the school’s lunch monitor for keeping my hat on in the cafeteria (unfortunately, it’s considered far ruder in France to wear a hat indoors than in the US). Surely they had a better idea than me of what would work where.

gray knit hat

Seriously, lunch monitor. This hat is not a statement piece. It *is* effective protection from the cold.

Then I looked around. Six pairs of eyes were trained on me, earnestly awaiting my response.

“Um. Well. The Marais district is pretty trendy,” I recited with all the tenuous authority of an out-of-print edition of Lonely Planet. “It’s pricey, but it’s got bars and boutiques that attract a young, fashionable crowd.”

The girl and her group members nodded solemnly while she scribbled down my suggestion. “Yeah, that’s what we thought too.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. Someday I would be uncovered as a fraud, but that day had not come just yet.

~

So, what was going on? Why would a group of Paris area natives turn to me for insights about the city? In fact, that exchange with the communication students was only one in a series of incidents which would finally lead me to the epiphany diagrammed below.

Paris Périphérique

It only took me a couple of years to figure this out.

What is the périphérique? Wikipedia describes it as “a controlled-access dual-carriageway ring road” surrounding Paris. Basically, if Frankenstein’s monster chugged five gallons of Red Bull and were a highway, that highway be the périphérique and you would never, ever want to cross it.

Parisians who live within the area ringed by the highway are considered intra muros (Latin for “within walls”). Parisians who live outside it are considered — gotcha. They’re simply *not* Parisian. 

This is actually kind of a weird concept to me. I did most of my growing up in the suburbs of Boston, and if I met someone from out of state, I would nonetheless say I was from Boston. Working in New York, I also never blinked an eye at residents of the greater New York City area who self-identified as New Yorkers.

But that’s not how this town throws down. When I first met some of my classes, I would talk a bit about where I was from, then ask my students if any of them were originally from outside Paris as well. To my great surprise, the entire class would raise their hands. When I subsequently asked where they were from, the answers would be places like “Saint-Denis,” “La Corneuve,” or “Bobigny,” neighborhoods just a couple metro stops and fifteen minutes away. (My school is very close to the périphérique, on the other side of which these areas are located.) The students, however, looked genuinely perplexed to be lumped in with the intra muros Parisians when I waved my hand and clarified: “No. I mean, really outside Paris.”

~

This mental barrier also exists on the side of us intra muros, though it was only recently that I took note of it. When I brought Z to see my school, he gazed around in wonder. He didn’t recognize *anything* in the neighborhood despite growing up in the same, small administrative district. To my expression of surprise, Z shrugged defensively. “Yeah, but this is right next to the périphérique.”

His justification recalled to me past instances when I’ve heard friends in the city detail their apartment hunt. At some point, a Parisian apartment hunter would say, “The space itself isn’t bad… but it’s very close to the périphérique.” Upon these words, every listener would nod sympathetically, understanding there would be no further inquiry about that particular real estate lead.

Parisian pigeonhole

Bah, those intra muros birds and their fancy real estate! I guess we all pigeonhole ourselves sometimes.

~

Thanks to my students – most of whom cross the périphérique on a daily basis to attend class – I am gaining a deeper understanding of the surrounding suburbs (the banlieues). I had already been aware of the strained relationship between Paris and the poorer banlieues which are home to large immigrant and minority populations. In 2005, the tension ramped up to a whole other level when riots broke out across those neighborhoods in response to teens being injured in a police chase. Many of the rioters were young people with North African origins, prompting questions about French national identity and intégration which remain hotly debated to this day.

There’s a lot of racial diversity among my students, many of whom have North African heritage themselves. While some hail from wealthier or middle-class neighborhoods, a large number also commute from the poorer banlieues I mentioned. These are the students who are changing my impressions of such areas, which I had mentally associated with news images of grisly housing projects, burning cars, and disaffected youth. Fortunately, the kids I work with are bright, funny, and enthusiastic, and they take a lot of pride in their origins.

Given the lively classroom exchanges I have with them and seeing them interact with their diverse peers, I realize that the grim media reports of the banlieues do not do their populations justice. These images leave us with the impression that the problems in the banlieues run too deep to solve, and that it is impossible to reach their youth.

I now know this is not the case. While my feet are still firmly intra muros, I appreciate the lesson carried in by my students from just beyond the périphérique. 

Skip the escalator, take the stares

Like lots of folks galvanized by a new calendar, I’m a couple of weeks into an exercise routine. It isn’t a particularly rigorous one; I just take the stairs more often and jog every couple of days. While jogging, I also have to take the stares — that is, subject myself to the pointed visual scrutiny that’s the specialty of Parisians.

I’ll admit it: as self-empowered as I try to be, the stares get to me. In New York City, a lingering look can get you a nasty tongue-lashing, a sleazy stalker, or a fist in the face (choose your own adventure). As a result, New Yorkers often go to great lengths to avoid eye contact with strangers. The air they project is one of: Why yes, I  *am* more interested in this scuff mark on the subway floor than your neon pink mohawk. It’s rude to act otherwise.

Parisians? They don’t seem to have gotten the memo. While Z claims that little’uns in France are taught not to stare, in reality, nobody applies the lesson. This being Paris however, the staring isn’t just some oafish eyeballing. Oh no. Parisian stares are once-overs sharply directing you back to your place in line.

Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada

I’m convinced that Parisians are secretly Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Or not so secretly.

The more time I spend here, the more I realize how elaborately the society is codified. There’s codes – configurations, systems, and sequences, if you will – for everything.

This is your fish knife. This is your cheese knife. This is the way you say hello to your boulanger or neighborhood baker. This is the way you say hello to your host mother’s daughter’s ex-lover. This is the way you dress on a Monday morning. This is the way you dress on a Sunday afternoon.

And this?

In sweats

My go-to outfit in college, also known as Heaven on Earth.

This is the way you dress never.

I found out the hard way that such a codified society requires a lot of citizen policing. Le grand public – the general public – serves as vigilantes, armed with withering gazes.

I speak of Paris being a conservative city, a statement which always surprises those who haven’t spent a lot of time here. Friends have replied: But Paris is so chic! And Socialist! And — wait, what do you mean people can’t wear shorts there?

Again, I learned this the hard way. If you don a pair of shorts, you will immediately be pegged as a tourist and/or exhibitionist, then reduced to a mortified mess by the gawking you elicit. Also, never dash out for coffee and pastries in your sweats. If you have any respect at all for your boulanger – or yourself! – you had better get dressed-dressed…

In black, beige, gray, or navy blue (a slightly more varied palette is acceptable in the summertime).

Paris Plage on the Seine

Paris redefines “wild” : Every summer, a fake beach is constructed along the Seine River. Every summer, Parisians lounge on beach chairs in long sleeved clothing.

Such is the environment I must contend with when I go running. (By the way, those illustrations in French textbooks of happy joggers next to the phrase faire du jogging? Flagrant deception! One: Parisians don’t jog. It looks stupid. Two: Those who do aren’t happy about it because it means they [we] can’t afford to join a proper gym or club de fitness. Three: That’s why there are only illustrations in  textbooks — we wouldn’t let anyone photograph our shame.)

Nonetheless, I’m continuing my routine, with one small adjustment. I’ve shifted from afternoon to evening runs, when there are both more fellow joggers and conveniently less visibility.

pebble person

Oh the things I’ll do for a rock hard bod. (Credit for this pebble person goes to Z, who made this at a beach while wearing long sleeves.)

~

For this new year, I also have a more generalized goal of skipping the escalator and taking the stares. It’s a goal to not take the easy way out or succumb to others’ notions of what I should do. Facing a future of various career possibilities and destinations, that’s not a bad place to start, I think.