A Typical Day in Paris je t’aime

As we near the end of another year and I collect my thoughts about returning to New York, I can’t help but remember my first experience of Paris. I wrote the below as a study abroad student during those heady days of discovering the city. Though some of the romanticism has been wrung out of me, this does take me back.

~

A Typical Day in Paris je t’aime

I don’t believe in love at first sight and Paris was no exception. Had I just been touring, I would’ve gone home and said that I loved Paris, of course. But that sort of “love” is just exaggerated enthusiasm. True love doesn’t spring from three days of voyeurism; it takes at least twenty-one.

So after three weeks and a few odd days, I find myself madly in love with her. Paris, after all, is a woman, I’ve decided — beautiful, her cold elegance tempered by her burning cigarette. The city charges every moment with the possibility of pleasure. The tiniest details and most mundane rituals can yield joy.

When I wake up, it’s to a languorous half-light seeping in through the chinks of a metal screen. The screen, which covers sliding doors to the terrace, is retractable by twisting a dowel. Every morning is cinematic; as I retract the screen, light flows in slowly. It’s a polite guest which takes time to greet the space. With each inch of its advance, I readjust my readings of the day’s weather and temperature. Naturally, the City of Light manifests her mood through the medium of her namesake.

bedroom chambre

I take the elevator down to the lobby. During the ride, I struggle to resist primping in front of the mirror. A sign warns: “under 24 hour surveillance.”

The front door confronts me with one of Paris’s quirks. Even from inside the building, I can’t just push it to exit. As a smug act of defiance to globalized user-friendliness, many buildings require pushing a button on the wall before the door itself. After I helped a visiting Frenchwoman figure this out, I realized it was just one of the city’s slinky winks to those who know her and love her.

Out into the courtyard, past the bed of roses. Past the green gate, out onto the street. I glance to my left and voila … the Eiffel Tower rises above the treetops. Bleary-eyed, it looks like a construction crane or radio tower at this hour. Paris is not a morning girl.

Fun exercises: dodge the dog shit on the pavement. See how closely I can pass a pigeon without its flinching.

In the metro station tunnels, I wait for that moment. That one electrifying moment when everyone’s footsteps synchronize, setting the beat for a uniquely urban chanson. And I smile and I smile because the music is beautiful.

I hold my breath through the parts of the station that smell like shit.

Once on the train, I flip out a folding chair, a strapontin. If I choose to stand, I lean against the doors, knowing that they won’t open automatically behind me. When it’s my stop, I like to lift the latch while the train is still slowing, so that the doors open and I can watch the ground whizz by my feet.

Paris je t’aime.

I love your men, your women, your children. Your scarves, your coats, your darling shoes. Your cigarettes, your slang, your unkempt dogs. Your cafes, your bookshops, your boulangeries. Your patisseries. Your creperies. Your strikes. Your parks. Your bikes. Your chilly autumn nights. Your puddles of light from the restaurants humming respite from the wind and the rain in my hair in my shoes in my eyes.

When I come home, the train crawls out of the underground and takes an overpass bridge. The Eiffel Tower is a blaze of light.

She’s alive.

eiffel tower abstract

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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!

On Being a Cultural Ambassador

It boggles the mind but is true: my position as an English Teaching Assistant in France has officially ended. As I reflect back on the school year, there’s one topic I realize hasn’t been given its due — what it’s like to serve as a “cultural ambassador” of sorts for the good old US of A.

When I applied for the Teaching Assistant Program in France, this was an aspect of the job description that gave me pause. I was certain that I could handle instructing English, but “sharing my culture”? I was a bit less confident.

Could I “share” my culture in a less than superficial way? Was I allowed to share negative aspects of it? What did “my culture” mean anyway: my individual perspective or some nationally recognized narrative about the US?

Would I even be credible as a representative American?

Me with apple pie

I thought walking around with apple pie might help my case.

It turns out I needn’t have worried. Over the course of the school year, there have been plenty of opportunities for cultural exchange. The students were surprisingly receptive to my whackadoodle lesson plans, from singing Katy Perry in unison (picture a classroom of French youth screaming “make’em go oh oh oh!” — ’cause that happened) to analyzing conflict resolution techniques in The Avengers.

Still, it wasn’t all pop stars and superheroes. Here are some of the cultural challenges I dealt with while teaching, and how I smashed them with Thor’s hammer (or else fumbled awkwardly through).

~

Challenge 1: Student reticence

Reticent. Taciturn. Laconic. Terse. I could go on, but it appeared my students couldn’t. In general, French young adults are even more hesitant to participate in class than their American counterparts. This is largely due to an educational model which favors lecture-style teaching and insists that teachers are infallible and thus unquestionable.

The idea that the teacher has all the answers and the students have none obviously isn’t very conducive to fostering discussion. But getting the students to speak was my job. What to do? I thought of all the great American teachers I’d had. They were never simply lecturers but also warm conversationalists who treated students as equals.

I tried to apply this highly un-French model to my classes. But first, I had to convince the students that contrary to what they’d been led to believe, they had as much to contribute as I did. To this end, I prepared a lesson which involved looking at images from the graphic design blog Paris vs New York — then discussing stereotypes of the two cities, France and the US.

NYC vs Paris, yes and non

One student argued this stereotype was accurate because I smiled more than the French teachers. Immediately after making this point, a grumpy teacher poked his head in to make sure we were in the right classroom. The students burst into laughter. “See?”

It worked. Once they realized I had only half the answers and they had the other half, they were more likely to participate. This lesson – given early in the school year – set the tone for a much more discussion-based method of learning than they were used to.

~

Challenge 2: One-sided “debates”

I quickly discovered that some teachers loved leading débats but their definition of “debate” differed from my own. Some would propose a controversial topic only to  guide all the arguments back to their own personal conclusion (a facet of the teacher-knows-best mentality I described above).

The week after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a teacher asked me to speak to her class about it. I actually thought it would be a good idea to address this horrifying and tragic event with the students. Specifically, she requested that I lead the discussion in the form of a debate about gun control in the US.

Though I have very strong feelings on the topic, I tried not to give any indication of my opinion. At first, I simply elicited reactions from the students, many of whom were confused about why people would want to own guns at all (civilian gun ownership in France is extremely restricted). The teacher, who stayed in the room, nodded enthusiastically at these responses. From time to time, she interjected regarding American policy, “Yes, it’s horrible!”

Seeing as the “debate” wasn’t moving, I tried to push the students to at least consider the other side. Why might people want to own guns? I asked. What negative consequences do people think may result if gun ownership were prohibited or severely restricted?

It was at this point that the conversation could have gotten complex and interesting, but unfortunately, it didn’t. When one lone student started speaking about people protecting themselves, the teacher quickly shut him down. Feeling bad for him, I finally broke my silence to come to his defense — the defense of an argument I didn’t even agree with! The teacher stared wide-eyed as I talked about concerns about criminality, the Second Amendment, and historical precedent.

When the bell finally rang, I was left feeling conflicted. On the one hand, I hadn’t enjoyed making arguments for a viewpoint which I found distasteful days after a national tragedy. On the other hand, my discomfort was assuaged by the fact that I had managed to voice an opinion common to many Americans. There was some merit in that, wasn’t there? After all, advancing understanding of American culture – which all its diverse and difficult aspects – had been one of my goals.

angry pacifist at occupy wall st

America, how do I explain you?

~

Challenge 3: The “French Exception” mindset

France — fields of lavender in the countryside, ornate monuments in the Capital, haute cuisine, a plush social safety net, and the birthplace of some of the most brilliant artists, writers, and thinkers in human history… How do they do it? Even the French don’t know. Here’s where the nebulous concept of “French exceptionalism” comes in.

Everyone’s familiar with the stereotype that the French are snooty and supercilious. Well, let’s dismantle that right now. Generally, if you’re friendly and considerate, attempt a few words of the language, and don’t stand in the middle of the street snapping photos of pastry displays (guilty as charged), you’ll get no Franco-flak.

Nonetheless, it seems the idea of French exceptionalism is woven into the national psyche in some way. I encountered this mindset during a lesson when I assisted a teacher in leading another débat about “copycat tourism” — that is, when one country builds a “copy” of another country’s famous monument to attract tourists (think Las Vegas or Disney World Epcot Theme Park).

copycat vegas eiffel tower

Indulging in some copycat tourism in Vegas. Whateeeevs.

Again, this was a completely one-sided debate. I was surprised at how fiercely defensive the students were of French monuments and aspects of their cultural heritage in general. No one could replicate the beautiful artifacts of France (and other European countries), they insisted. No one should replicate them.

That’s an understandable way to feel, I replied. But could anyone think of a single reason why copycat tourism could be advantageous or attractive?

Crickets.

“Has anyone been to Vegas?” I asked.

“Yes!” squealed one girl. “It was amazing!” We all laughed.

“Okay, so you had fun. But did the entertainment in Vegas take away from the historical beauty of Paris?” I probed. “Do you think someone who sees the Eiffel Tower in Vegas would no longer wish to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris? Isn’t it possible that a tourist in Vegas would wonder what Paris was really like and want to come here even more?”

The students were silent as they reflected.

“Who’s been to Disney World Paris?” I inquired.

“I love Disney World,” shouted another girl. “I go there every month!”

“Great!” I responded. “But you know that Disney World is a famous American attraction right? Do you think it’s really so bad to have a ‘copy’ of it here?”

Ultimately, the students and I were able to put together a balanced list of the advantages and disadvantages of copycat tourism. Again – though my personal view actually aligned with that of my students – I was glad to have been able to push them to see the other side. Perhaps it was okay for others to mimic France a little. And perhaps France had done a little mimicking of its own.

~

Today, I am writing from the United States. I’m happy to report that I have accepted  a job offer as an International Student Advisor at a university in New York City. Though I am a little sad to have left the City of Light, I’m also excited to move on to this next chapter of my life. I look forward to continuing to help international students adjust to American culture, and more specifically, life in the Big Apple.

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.