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

The Accidental Patriot

This July 4th found Z and I wandering around New York, passing street after street of houses and storefronts bearing American flags and proud displays of red, white, and blue. This festive atmosphere got me thinking: What did patriotism – defined as “the devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country” – mean in our respective nations?

July Fourth Brooklyn Greenpoint

I take patriotism very seriously.

Unlike admitting your gluten-intolerance or tendency to binge watch Game of Thrones, professing your patriotism won’t garner you any respect among twenty-somethings in coastal cities today. Nonetheless, it’s true: I take a lot of pride in my national identity. Though “patriotic” hasn’t always been an adjective I would use to describe myself, I’ve finally made peace with this sometimes loaded term. As is often the case, France is to thank for this development — France, with a little help from the Netherlands.

~

Across the street from Rembrandt’s former house in Amsterdam is a convivial restaurant and pub. In May, as Z and I sat at one of the dark, wooden tables, Z pushed aside his mug of Heineken to glance at his watch.

“It’s almost 8 o’clock,” he remarked. “There’s supposed to be a couple minutes of silence soon.”

“Why?” I inquired from my happy tourist stupor, which had been steadily nursed by a glass of red wine.

“Today is Commemoration Day in the Netherlands for those who died in World War II. There’s a ceremony starting at Dam Square.”

I looked around. Waiters flew by with teetering plates while the jabber of customers blended into a single drone of contentment. “I don’t think we’ll see anything about that in here,” I shrugged.

It turned out I was wrong. As the clock approached eight, the waitstaff scurried back towards the bar; one employee flipped on the TV. When the hour struck, all chatter within the restaurant evaporated into silence, and every head turned to watch the televised procession of the King and Queen across Dam Square.

After one hundred and twenty seconds, a blare of trumpets over the speakers finally broke this reverent hush. Immediately, waiters resumed their perpetual bustle, and Dutch diners faced their table companions once again.

Dutch Coronation Bakery

Monarchy never looked so delicious. (Visible signs of patriotism were everywhere in Amsterdam.)

~

This brief but intense interlude won Z’s admiration. “That was really impressive how everyone stopped to pay their respect,” he mused. “I wish we were more patriotic in France…”

Z’s rueful statement surprised me, but on second thought, I recalled that I’d never seen any noteworthy display of patriotism in France. Though I’ve previously written about “French exceptionalism” (the idea that the country is unique and perhaps even superior in a global context), it suddenly struck me that the French weren’t really an outwardly patriotic people.

This fact isn’t as glaringly obvious as one would think. After all, Paris in particular is so steeped in history, culture, and tourist traps that the very fact of its existence seems a testament to love of country.

Monet 14 Juillet

Monet’s depiction of Bastille Day in Paris is  misleading —  the only place you’ll see this many French flags is a European football stadium.

When I voiced that, actually, I had never seen a private residence fly the French flag, Z wondered aloud if only state buildings had the legal right to display them. After some quick Googling proved that suggestion wrong, he conceded, “Okay. I guess only the government displays them because no one else wants to.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I think displaying the flag means you support the Far Right.”

My thoughts rushed to the 2012 presidential election in the US and the controversy over which candidate wore a flag pin more often. Though a similar zeal for displaying the flag can be found among conservatives in the States, fortunately, the rest of us are still able to wield this powerful symbol without fear of being branded an unsavory extremist. After all, the flag was supposed to represent all Americans, not just a subset of the population.

I turned back to Z and insisted heatedly, “You should fly the flag! It’s your flag too — don’t let the Far Right take ownership of it. Aren’t you proud of being French?”

I went on to describe a few instances when I took part in flag-waving.

Z regarded me skeptically, finally interjecting, “Wow, they must’ve really brainwashed you over there.”

“They did not.” I was defensive. “I mean, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance when we were little and had to learn to sing the national anthem — but that was it.”

Z’s eyes widened with horror. “They made you recite a pledge to your country? And sing the national anthem? When you were children?”

“Yeah,” I affirmed, confused. “I mean, it’s not a big deal is it? Don’t they do that in every country?”

“No way.” Z shook his head. “We didn’t do that. That’s total brainwashing.”

“Oh.” I fell silent.

Admittedly, upon reflection, such practices could seem – well – creepybut apparently they had been rather effective. Not only do Americans not have compunctions about flying the flag, I also thought to myself that, under certain circumstances, Americans have an incredibly strong sense of national unity. (Hear me out.)

I recalled the nights after 9/11, when everyone in my neighborhood flooded outside to hold candlelight vigils. Even as a middle schooler, I’d felt touched by the sudden closeness of my diverse little suburb. I also thought back to the nights when President Obama was elected and when Bin Laden’s death was confirmed. I had barged into the streets with seemingly the rest of my town and watched people high-five strangers, whoop spontaneously, smile deliriously…

It was highly unlikely such reactions could have occurred on a national scale in France, I realized.

It was also in France – after learning of the Newtown shooting, Hurricane Sandy, and the Boston Marathon bombing – that I became aware of how sorely I missed that sense of American unity. There were no vigils, no acknowledgment from neighbors, riders on the metro, or most of my colleagues. Though this was completely understandable, it was also isolating.

And that’s how I grasped Z’s point. Brainwashing or no, I was patriotic.

~

Patriotism doesn’t mean I think the US is doing everything right. It doesn’t even mean I think it’s doing some of the basic things right.

But my protestations don’t disqualify me from patriotism. In fact, it’s crucial that they cannot disqualify me from patriotism.

On July 4th, as I led Z through the decked out streets of New York, I felt particularly grateful for this fact. The American flag had not yet been lost to any one group — as far as I could see.

American Flag Sunglasses

And thanks to these shades, I could see pretty far.

Resident S(evil)la

For lots of folks, the fondness of travel and the drive to write are like Siamese twins — two heads growing out of the same body. It only seems natural. If travel is a way to self-actualize and writing is a form of self-expression, both activities can be personally fulfilling.

But, in my case, it seems the twin drives have been surgically separated. Each twin survives but feels the presence of a phantom limb. Every time I travel, I *dread* the accompanying compulsion to write about the trip. Though I feel something should be said, the truth is: I never know what to say.

I suck at recapping. I can’t pick the best pictures. I forget the name of that hotel or that restaurant or that clever phrase in the foreign language. I don’t know how to convey the breathless beauty of that landscape (where was it again?) or the zen-like tranquility of that moment (does a long series of “um”s equal one long “oooooom”?). And when I Google the accounts of other travelers to the same place, I find it’s already been eloquently described so many times over that any attempt to encapsulate my experience wouldn’t be worth the effort.

A "small" beer I ordered in Seville

So little to contribute to the vast repository of human experience. :Sadface:

Such was my feeling when I initially returned from Seville, Spain, where I’d gone during the recent school holidays. But then, something unusual happened. I Googled one of my favorite areas we’d visited and found no traveler accounts of it whatsoever. No guidebook mentioned it. I even took out our map of Seville and didn’t find it on the map!

Okay, fine. In a city that boasts the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and more palaces than you can shake a flamenco dancer’s fan at, people aren’t going to be thronging to see the Science and Technology Park. Though the area was used for activities during the 1992 Universal Exposition, today, it’s just where corporations set up shop. Despite being off the beaten track, it turned out to be really, really cool part of the city.

You see, we’d done the whole wine-and-tapas-with-an-accordion-player-straddling-the-salt-and-pepper-shakers thing for a few days already (that is to say, we’d exhausted the obviously charming, touristy neighborhoods). We wanted to get a little away from our little getaway. And so we walked…

…. Past any place where you could hear English or French being spoken (many of the other tourists were French families taking advantage of the school holidays)… past any place you could see people, period… past the unmanned booth at the gate of a parking lot… past the parking lot… more parking lots. Buildings of a science-fictional appearance came into view. It was a Sunday, and they were all abandoned.

“It’s like we’re in Resident Evil or something,” I whispered to Z, so that the zombies wouldn’t overhear. Obviously, the undead had overrun the corporate laboratories that’d created them, necessitating the utmost caution.

Actually government offices

I instinctively felt that everyone who worked here must have worn a white hazmat suit.

This looks like the thing I use to uncork a bottle of wine

You know they’ve been manipulating Mother Nature when the surrounding flowers match the building.

The Spanish Pavilion during the 1992 Universal Expo

Any resemblance to Disney World Epcot Theme Park is misleading. Childhoods do not exist after the zombie apocalypse.

Then, it happened: we were trapped. After passing eerie edifices for half an hour, we found ourselves stuck in a lot surrounded by a fence. And not just any fence — a diabolical fence. You see, this fence was made of rows of vertical pipes spaced just a little too closely together for a human being to slip through.

But that didn’t stop us from trying. After circling the lot and gnashing our teeth for a bit, I spotted a pair of pipes that seemed to have more than the standard space between them. I sucked my stomach in like a Sports Illustrated model, then threw myself at the gap. A bit of wiggling — and I was through!

It was Z’s turn. He squeezed into the gap. Wiggled. Wiggled some more. Tried to move back. Tried to go forward. Oh God, I thought. Please don’t let me have to call the Sevillan authorities and explain that my boyfriend is stuck in a fence. Fortunately, that wasn’t necessary, as – only a few bruised ribs later – he too plopped through to freedom.

Well, it had been a narrow escape from the zombies, and we were feeling pretty dead ourselves at this point. As we crawled back to civilization, Seville rewarded our adventures with a glorious sunset over the park.

Sunset over the tech park

Sunsets are indeed enjoyable when you know you’ll live to the next day.

An Asian American Abroad

I recently returned from a trip to China, during which, Z, my boyfriend of French origin, joined me for over a week of travel across the country. As a Chinese-American who can speak Chinese somewhat haltingly travelling with an apparent foreigner, the question of my own identity (native versus foreigner, Chinese versus American) was never far from my mind. A couple of incidents seemed to highlight the uncomfortable dichotomy.

During one exchange, a food vendor in Beijing, upon hearing my accent, asked:
“Where are you from?”
“I’m American.”
“Oh, he’s American? Where are you from?”
“No, I’m American. He’s French.”

In another dialogue with a waitress in Xian, I asked:
“Do you have a menu with pictures? Or in English?”
“What?”
“I can’t read Chinese.”
The waitress gave me an incredulous look. “You want the English menu?”
“Yes, please.”
Minutes later, the waitress brought the Chinese menu anyway.
“I can’t read this,” I told her.
“You can’t read this?”
“No. Do you have the English menu?”
The waitress appeared mystified. “Are you Korean or something?”
“No.”
“Where are you from?”
“The U.S.”
“You don’t look like you’re American,” she protested.
Finally, the waitress brought the English menu. Z astutely noticed a discrepancy in prices between the items on the English menu and the Chinese menu. When our waitress came back, I took out both menus and asked her the price of the dish we wanted to order, gesturing to a number in the Chinese menu to confirm if it was the same. The waitress cried triumphantly: “You can read Chinese!”
It was my turn to look incredulous. “…No.”

My definition of being Chinese-American = ordering pancakes in China. NOMNOM.

Being true to my Chinese-American self: ordering pancakes in China. OM NOM.

~

Most people I know, when asked where they are from, do not have to wonder if their response will be deemed false, incorrect, or a misstatement of some sort. I do. Every time I’m abroad and posed the question “Where are you from?”, I scan the face of my interlocutor and try to guess if this is one of those times, if this is one of those people who will narrow their eyes in suspicion at my answer. Because inevitably, there are those who have already formed an answer to their own question, who have decided that there are a handful of acceptable responses and that I should identify myself accordingly. “I’m American” is rarely one of these pre-approved rejoinders.

Such people are, generally speaking, quite friendly. They’re sometimes well educated. And they probably don’t think of themselves as racist. But the assumptions they hold about race and identity are nefarious and pervasive, such as the idea that Americans do not have Chinese heritage.

It’s not just in China that I’ve encountered this attitude. In fact, I’m more understanding of such assumptions in China, a country which only opened to the international community within the last generation, and a country where people can correctly recognize my ethnic features as Chinese. Nonetheless, it does get exhausting having to constantly defend your identity. All. Around. The world.

In Belgium, where I was again travelling with Z, a gregarious photographer dressed as a musketeer thought I was joking when I said I was from New York. (This guy did kick butt though; we took pictures together and later sent him a New Year’s card.)

The musketeer and me

I said I was from America.
He said he was from the 17th century.
Only one of us was incredulous.

In Morocco, when I was travelling with a group of other American girls, vendors were nonetheless eager to try out their Japanese on me.

France’s record? No better. When explaining that I was Chinese-American, I’ve encountered one person who flat out insisted that I was really Chinese… and another person who said that I was really American.

And I can’t even win in the States. I once attended a dinner at my university, where a young man asked my name. When I told him my decidedly non-Asian first name, he persisted: “No, what is your real name?”

Baffled, I replied, “That is my real name.”

~

A question that I still get asked sometimes is: “Do you feel more Chinese or more American?” I know a lot of minorities get asked a version of this question and while others may answer differently, I identify as American.

Because —

English is my native language. I grew up with the Simpsons and Seinfeld. I watched my first generation parents struggle to establish themselves in the U.S., and succeed, and fail, and succeed again.

Because being American doesn’t mean you can’t be Chinese. Because you can stick a hyphen in front of the word “American” and add any gorgeous modifier on to it. Because this is what being American is all about.

And nobody, anywhere in the world, can take that away from me.