Addressing Race in France

Back in June, I was solicited to write a column about my experience living as a Chinese-American in France. Of course, I got right to work because the prospect of paid writing was far more attractive than studying for the GRE.

My original intention was to be as salty as possible, but I realized that wouldn’t be very encouraging for anyone looking to study/work/live in France, so I ended up balancing the negative with the positive. The piece has finally been edited and published at On She Goes:

http://www.onshegoes.com/stories/being-chinese-american-in-france/

Regardless or not if you’re interested in traveling to France, if you’re a WOC, On She Goes is a great travel resource! And if you’re a WOC writer, they take pitches–and pay for accepted pieces.

 

 

You’ve been in France too long when…, III

  • Your mom brings you madeleines from Starbucks, but they’re so revoltingly sweet, you don’t know if you’ve ever been more offended in your life
  • Madeline says, “SARENA you salty french bitch,” and it’s one of the most beautiful compliments you’ve ever received
  • You forgot how nice and smooth your hair feels when it’s not weighed down by hard water. Now you can happily go back to distressing your friends with your party trick
  • Reviewing study abroad notes for CV purposes renders you incapable of thinking in English (I typed this in English while thinking in French. It was not fun.)
  • Wegman’s makes you weigh your produce to print out a barcode sticker with the price, in true French style, and nothing’s ever felt more right in America
  • You haven’t known true hardship until you’re going through a 1000-word vocabulary list for the GRE and start reading all the words with a French accent, so you have to start over because some of them simply don’t make sense in French
  • You’re going on a walk through the neighborhood with your mom, and walking back to your car with your dad, and strangers walk past you and say “hi,” resulting in you side-eyeing them like, “Who the hell are you?” You’ve been gone from southern hospitality for too long, but at least your parents are less confused and respond for you
  • You go to vote in person for the first time, but you applied to vote absentee while in France so it causes all sorts of issues and then you can’t vote at all #yaybrokendemocracy
  • Madeline calls you a nerd when you say you have to go see the Simone de Beauvoir exhibition in DC, and you don’t even have a counterargument because you know she’s right
  • Your parents drag you along to Olive Garden, but their breadsticks are the saddest and most pitiful things after French bread
  • While watching/fangirling over Wonder Woman, you exclaim, “Hey, I’ve been there!” (Paris) and momentarily wonder why there are subtitles for the French dialogue
  • Reading Le Deuxième Sexe makes you realize it’s rather problematic that you recognize more words in a foreign language than in a GRE review book (attacking standardized tests is another problem for another day)
  • You point out to Nat, “Look, you can watch Moana in French!” You do not watch Moana in French, partly because she doesn’t know French and partly because you refused to watch it in France because they didn’t hire Polynesian voice actors/actresses
  • Autocorrect on your phone changes English words into French ones
  • You accidentally reply to a text in French…with a friend who doesn’t even speak French

The Salt Chronicles

Okay, I need to get this off my chest. France is so much more racist and misogynistic than the US—you know it’s bad when there’s not one, but two, threads on the TAPIF Facebook page featuring rants about sexual and racial harassment from men. And you know what the worst part is? It’s not just the women pouring out all their salt—some male-identifying assistants have also noticed the rampant sexism towards their friends, colleagues, and students. Don’t worry, the tale only gets better from here—like one of those horror stories that you can’t stop reading even though you know you should chuck it into a fire to stop the nightmares. Fortunately, it turns out that, if you’re Asian (East Asian, at least, I can’t speak for other minorities), you get to learn that misogyny and racism often go hand-in-hand! Here, let me casually list out all the experiences I had this year in France alone. Don’t worry, these are just the ones I remember and doesn’t even factor in studying abroad:

  • One old man referred to me as “a yellow girl.” What is this, the 1900s? Last time I checked, it was 2017. Yes, I know I’m bad at math, which must be such a surprise, but believe it or not, I do know how to read a calendar.
  • One old man actually said to my face, “Once I had Japanese conquest” and then tried to ask me out for a drink. Sit all the way down, child, because even if I weren’t gay, the chances of me going out with you were smaller than covfefe.
  • A group of high school boys actually uttered the words “ching chong” when I walked past them in the hallway. Ah, yes, let me ching the chong out of you. Don’t know what that means? Here, I’ll give you a hint—reorder the words “up” and “beat.”
  • Some random guy on the sidewalk wouldn’t shut up about how Asian girls always look younger than they actually are. Sorry, Sir Too-Easily Sunburned, I can’t help it if your ass will get old and wrinkly long before mine does.
  • On two separate occasions, guys shouted at me from their cars, though luckily I didn’t hear/understand what they said. Really, it’s too bad looks can’t kill/maim/injure.
  • One man repeatedly shouted “Une chinoise!” after me at the train station in Laon, prompting S to offer to walk me to the bus stop. Like, do men not realize how bad it is when other men have to offer to walk a woman somewhere for her protection???
  • One guy insisted on getting my number even after I lied and said I have a boyfriend. Please, Mr. Incredibly Stupid Or Desperate Or Both, take a hint. I promise it doesn’t require too much of your brain, even if yours is really small.
  • One man kept walking up to me and making kissing noises in the Gare du Nord until I stalked away instead of punching him in the face. Tbh I should’ve attacked him with a stale baguette.
  • Two men remarked, “Une petite chinoise” as they walked past me, thinking I couldn’t understand them. Seriously, what is it with white people thinking POC can’t understand or speak a country’s native language?
  • One old man stopped at a bus stop purely to ask me out for a drink. The only thing I would’ve been drinking that evening was his blood in a ritual sacrifice to Satan.
  • As I stood in a grocery store picking out a carrot and some potatoes, one middle-aged man walked behind me and said, “Tu es bien jolie.” Who gave him the right to use the informal “tu” instead of the formal, polite “vous?” No one. Not even the friend zone.

If you think these instances are bad, you should’ve seen some of the other comments from female-identifying assistants. Race notwithstanding, they’ve been punched, groped, followed—on foot and by cars—and made the victims of lewd comments and actions. Like, really? Keep that in your pants. No one wants to see it.

The most accurate comment I’ve read on the Facebook page? “Fuck men.” That essentially sums up why I’m gay. Kidding, this is why I distrust men so deeply. I’m not saying that racism and misogyny don’t exist in America. They absolutely do—look at who our “president” is. I’m just saying that, while I’ve experienced racism in the US, I’ve never experienced it and misogyny at the same time. The only thing terrible thing that’s happened to me in America was getting “cat called,” or having a guy lean out of a pickup truck at R-MC and yell, “If you believe it, you can achieve it!” sending Madeline, Nat, and me into a fit of laughter. And the racist moments have just been variations of “Where are you really from?” and “You speak English so well!” At least I could respond to those with cutting sarcasm: “My mother’s vagina” and “Thanks, I grew up here.” But what are you supposed to do when you’re 5’5” and will never top 100 pounds and your opponents are the patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity?

As one of the assistants pointed out, “It’s so sad that we have a ‘normal’ level of harassment for being female or not being a white cis male.” Because the consensus across the 200+ comments seemed to be that all these moments of harassment escalated solely in France. “Now hey there,” some fragile meninist might argue, “it’s because you were traveling alone in France!” Nope. I’ve traveled alone to Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland, and not once did I experience racism or misogyny in those countries. I’m sure that, at some point or another, all the people who commented have been outside on their own at least once in America or Canada—but none of that sexual harassment ever reached the frequency or intensity they did in France.

Bottom line? Even if you promised to get me into grad school and secure me a job, I wouldn’t be able to explain to you why France is more sexist and racist than the US. One might argue that it’s because they’re less diverse–but my college was incredibly white, and no one there ever harassed me for being Asian and female. And because of that, I wouldn’t be able to live in France unless I spent my entire salary on those weird white-washing, skin-whitening creams. Like, you know it’s bad when you spend nearly an hour bonding on Facebook with a Chinese-Canadian assistant you’ve never met before over how racist French men are.

PS. Not linked to misogyny, but some teacher thought I was my prof référent’s adopted child because apparently English assistants can’t be Asian. Ah yes, I have come from the land of Oriental rugs to teach your white people my flawless English.

You’ve been in France too long when…

  • The best compliment you can receive is no longer, “You speak French so well!” but a friend saying, “I always forget you’re lowkey savage af” and “I’m sure if you helped raise my kids they’d be savage af”
  • Your mom brings back a frosted buttercream cookie from the day care, and your first thought is “Ooh, pretty cookie!” And then you bite into it and nearly spit it out in disgust because it tastes like processed sugar and you’ve been ruined by French pastries. Yes, France will sometimes turn you into a snob
  • Eating the first freshly-baked egg tart in seven months nearly makes you weep at its deliciousness
  • After signing a form at Toyota, you slide it back to the employee, who says, “Thank you.” You almost reply, “De rien,” think “Shit,” and then end up saying nothing
  • You’ve given up counting the number of times you’ve accidentally used French with friends
  • While searching the fridge for baby carrots, you start talking to yourself out loud in French, wondering where they could possibly be hiding
  • Your phone now autocorrects your English into French. It knows you’re a nerd.
  • While wandering through a buffet with your friends and surveying all the unappetizing food, you mutter, “Someone bring me back to France”
  • You have to unsubscribe from a newsletter full of travel tips about France because now it just makes you sad
  • At Sam’s Club, your dad suggests buying croissants, but you basically go “nah” because you know they’ll taste of imitation and failure compared to French croissants
  • Iszi and Nat are talking about setting traps for college students, and someone mentions using free beer as bait, and you say, “If you put something French in a box, I’d go get it” …especially because one of your friends just gave you a set of The Little Prince bracelets for a late birthday present
  • Nat’s talking about finding your passion in life, and you figure that French is already a given, so you say, “I like my gossip”
    • She responds, “You’re made of salt and you’re made of French, so you can probably be salty in French”
  • You sort of lived off of chocolate chip muffins from Greenberry’s a few times a week at R-MC, but when the coffee shop ladies give you one for free after graduation, you can barely eat it the next day because it tastes overly processed and sweet
  • The final clue in an escape room is a map of Paris, and you recognize the city instantly and are so delighted to be holding a little slice of France in your hands that you pretty much stop paying attention to the rest of the room. Luckily, your friends aren’t captured by the Francophile trap.

You’ve been in France too long when you…

  • Keep accidentally spelling appartement the French way, and then your friends all make fun of you. Why do I love them, again?
  • Feel personally offended by the rain. Like, I didn’t leave dreary northern France for grey skies and sadness
  • Forget just how…white France is in comparison to America
  • Listen to a voice message on the home phone, and the guy speaking has a southern accent so your first thought is, “Why are you so hard to understand can’t you speak in French?”
  • Check a Starbucks gift card balance via telephone for your mother and automatically select the French option
  • Wonder why American serving sizes are so large, especially because you ordered a small
  • Stare in amazement at the fact that grocery stores have more than two cash registers open
  • Shrug and say, “Don’t ask me, I haven’t been here for 7 months”
  • Cannot understand why a bag of croissants has Italian but not French on it
  • Forget how nice it is to be able to carry groceries from the car to the door
  • Sigh in relief at the fact that there isn’t someone smoking every five feet outside
  • Basically weep over your first bites of tofu, mango, Pocky, and Rice Krispies in nearly a year
  • Are deeply impressed by the fact that Americans actually pick up their dog’s poop
  • Bemoan the state of American “bread” and mutter to yourself, “That’s not a real baguette” every time you walk past one in a grocery store
  • Want to know why restaurants have ketchup but not mayo, and then you remember that American mayo is revolting
  • Forget the tipping system exists in the US
  • Realize in astonishment that, in America, businesses are actually open after 8pm and on Sundays
  • Accidentally use French, again, but at least this time it was just over Facebook with Madeline
  • Have never been more confused than when, after your parents insist on buying you a new car, the Toyota dealer drives you to the parking lot in a golf car. I’m an able-bodied person with two fully functional legs…?
  • Look at your glass of water in a restaurant and think, “I wanted water, not ice with a side of water.” Bring me back my carafes d’eau? 

Transitions

Within three days of leaving France, this is what I’ve managed to do so far in the strange land of America:

  • Made a French couple think I was French by speaking French on the plane to Reykjavik
  • Cried five times on the plane to DC
  • Sobbed on Iszi and Pat
  • Stared at how big everything in America is
  • Inhaled my first peanut butter sandwich in seven months
  • Grabbed a box of chocolate from my mom because it had French on it
  • Felt like a snob because I eyed the pastries at Trader Joe’s in disdain…where are my pains au chocolat?
  • Drank some of Iszi’s chai frap and agreed that it tasted like America
  • Cried on Madeline
  • Winced at how loud everything in America is
  • Accidentally used French with my non-Francophone friends…at least it was just an “au revoir” that slipped out, and not something more tragic in a formal setting
  • Cried over a letter addressed to my brother in the mailbox
  • Eaten fried rice three days in a row
  • “Unpacked” by carrying everything upstairs to my bed and then moving it all to my desk or to the floor

Final Thoughts

After having sobbed on several of my friends and inhaling my first peanut butter sandwich in seven months, I’m beginning this post with a disclaimer: in all fairness, I can’t judge the TAPIF experience properly because I spent a good two months mentally checked out of the program, writing essays and poems and rewatching Parks and Rec. (Sorry, teachers, but hey, at least I did my job). Regardless, I’ll give this post my best shot—it’s going to be quite long, probably essay length, because that’s the kind of writer I am. Anyways, these 7 months in France were jam-packed with so many firsts in my life: working as an adult—and in a foreign country; living rent-free; coming out; protesting (twice); going to my first official concert; BSing public speaking without being nervous about it; watching my first play in French; making phone calls—in a foreign language—without panicking; and losing my brother.

Teaching: Right before diversity graduation last year, two of my friends said that French kids were the worst, and wow, were they not kidding. Some of the things I’ve seen the students here do would have gotten them straight-up suspended in the US. Now, I’m not saying that they’re all awful; most of the kids I encountered were quite lovely—it’s just that, in four or five classes, the students blatantly provoked and disrespected the teachers. For whatever reason, though, those ill-behaved students never directed that ire toward me—and I don’t know what it says, that they’ll willingly listen to a soft-spoken American who looks like a high schooler, but not their own trained teacher…it’s absolutely bizarre to have a class of 20+ secondes listen to you without complaint.

I’ve witnessed so many different teaching methods, including some I’d use and some that I wouldn’t go near with a ten-foot-pole. But what working in schools has really taught me is that, even in high school, teaching is just glorified babysitting. And if you have no idea what you’re doing, well, that’s fine—the students won’t have a clue that you’re just pulling words out of your mouth as you go.

French: My writing skills probably deteriorated, seeing as I only wrote emails and never got to write any essays, much to my great disappointment. (Yes, I know, I’m a nerd.) I wouldn’t say that my speaking skills improved, necessarily, but I certainly got a lot more comfortable using French, to the point that I reserved BlaBlaCars and Airbnbs with French-only speakers without hesitation. While studying abroad, I wouldn’t have done that if you’d offered to pay me. One of the Americans in Caen asked me, “How’s your French?” and I replied, “I majored in it, so fluent-ish,” but I think I can officially remove the “-ish” seeing as I’ve begun and maintained conversations in French with native speakers. And accidentally used French after being back in the US for all of a day.

Public speaking: This is going to sound really bad, but apparently I don’t mind speaking in front of people when there’s no grade at stake (or microphone standing before me). Sure, I’m still a socially awkward human being, but 6th-grade-me would’ve been so proud of BSing a lesson on Hitchcock. (Take that, 6th-grade English teacher who said that being painfully shy would hurt me later in life. Sometimes I feel like I talk purely to spite her.) However, I still hate being the center of attention: when the Claudel teachers raised their glasses to me, my first instinct was to turn around and run outside. Although…part of me can’t help but wonder if I maybe hated speaking up as a student because I didn’t want to fulfill the “smart Asian” stereotype. Yeah, 12 hours of work a week leaves you with way too much thinking time.

Hours: Please make us work more than 12. I nearly lost my mind from the boredom, watching too many TV shows (15) and working on an assortment of half-finished poems and essays.

Location: I chose Amiens because I’d spent a year abroad in the south and wanted to experience something completely different. But boy, did I have no idea how different it would be. In the future, could I see myself living in the north of France? Nope. I need sun. I nearly experienced seasonal depression because, I kid you not, from November to February there were weeks where I didn’t remember what the sun looked or felt like. Also, it’s beyond sad when you have to unpack your winter coat in late April.

Salary: I got lucky because, for the first—and probably last time in my life—I didn’t have to pay rent. And even though I splurged on travel and presents, I actually left France with more money than I arrived with. It helps that groceries were incredibly cheap, about 20 euros/week. (Some assistants were complaining about spending 200 euros/week. Excuse my French, but what the hell were they buying…? During the months I didn’t travel, I was hard-pressed to spend 200 euros/month on the cafeteria, phone plan, laundry, food, and transportation.) Oh, and in case you were wondering, exchanging money from euros to dollars makes you feel so much richer.

The –isms: Too long. I’ll cover the racism and misogyny in a separate post.

Homesickness: I did and I didn’t want to leave France—I missed my friends and family, but I’m also going to miss essentially being paid to travel. However, most of why I didn’t want to leave France has everything to do with grief. At least over there, even if my emotional support system was back here in America, I didn’t have to deal with living in a house hollowed by my brother’s ghost, where I’m confronted with daily reminders of him. And, well…how many TAPIF assistants have to return home to a funeral?


Now for the million-dollar question: would I have renewed the contract? I honestly don’t know. Tragedy changes everything. It feels like a lifetime ago, but before December, I think I was considering working in the sun-soaked south, Martinique, or Guadeloupe. But even if I hadn’t lost Justin, I can’t say with certainty that I would’ve repeated TAPIF. Despite the immersion experience, I didn’t get to help students on a more individual level like I’d hoped to. Perhaps this was due to being the guinea pig English assistant split between two lycées for the first time; still, in many classes, it was hard to shake the impression that I was being used more as an American accent or a babysitter than as a cultural or near-peer asset.

I don’t regret my choice, though, which I suppose, in the end, is the best thing anyone can say. I’ve gotten to see so much of the world and meet so many incredible assistants (26 of them, somehow???), as well as some amazing teachers, something that would’ve never happened if I’d ended up settling for an entry-level job that I would have most likely ended up hating. Honestly, I’ve been absolutely floored by some of the kindness that some of the teachers have shown me, from Nico and Marylise inviting me to stay over on new Year’s Eve after they learned that I’d lost my brother, to Marilo offering to let me sleep over Sunday night and drive me to the train station the day I left France. Not to mention, what other job would’ve let me travel to five countries? Across France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland, I got to see 19 cities: Amiens, Lille, Brussels, Paris, Strasbourg, Lyon, Dijon, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Caen, Bayeux, Mont St-Michel, Galway, Dublin, Bray, Glendalough, Howth, Rouen, and Giverny.

(Okay, I lied, I do have one regret: not making it down to Saint-Malo, which is fine, because my one regret from Nice was not seeing Versailles. I accomplished that eventually…or 2 years later. Anyways, my point is, I’m not done with France yet. I’ll be back at some point, during another chapter of my life.)

I’m going to finally shut up and bring this post full-circle by ending with a disclaimer, too: no two TAPIF experiences will be the same. So much of it depends so much on where you’re placed (the city and the school[s]), the assistants you meet, and your expectations and attitude. I know my time here in France has changed me—but how, I can’t say, especially because my situation was so complicated. I can say, however, that I’ll be able to look back upon my time here fondly, that the seven months of my life I spent here have given me a lot of good memories that will make me smile whenever I reminisce about the struggle of being an assistant in a country with terrible bureaucracy.

Just an FYI

For anyone who cares, I’m officially back in the US! I’ve been awake since 6:29 in the morning, or 12:29am American time, and have experienced way too many emotions during my near all-nighter. Not only did I cry five times on the plane, but I also sobbed on Iszi and Pat. Anyways, after being fed freshly cooked fried rice and freshly picked cilantro, and letting you all know that I made it home in one piece, I’m getting my well-deserved sleep.

Miscellaneous Moments, Part XIII

  • You know you’re in too deep with your French major when you cringe at how some people pronounce “Bonjour” in that one Beauty and the Beast song.
  • There’s nothing more entertaining than listening to American college students attempt to figure out what the flavor nature (plain) chips were: “Maybe they just threw a bunch of nature in a bag!” “Can you have chips au naturel?”
  • These past few days, so many people have been asking—in English and in French—what I want to do in the future, and I’m sure that at least one of my French professors will be delighted to hear that I automatically reply, “I’m thinking about going to grad school for a French PhD.”
  • On the train, the French guy next to me was working on a paper in English, and I desperately wanted to offer to edit it for him because my inner-writing tutor has been starved for a year.
  • In the hallway, I got stuck in one of those “Sorry I don’t know what direction you’re going in and I’m trying not to walk into you” dances, which would’ve been fine, except I didn’t know which language to apologize in. I tried to say, “Pardon” and then wondered if I should be saying, “Sorry,” so instead what came out was a mumbled “Porry.” (It’s like the time I couldn’t decide between “You’re welcome” and “No problem” at the Writing Center, what left my mouth was a muffled, “You’re problem.”)
  • Shout-out to Jt for inviting me to her house to hang out with three other teachers—they fed me rose tea, apple-walnut cake, and dark chocolate, and then we played Bandido and Uno…except I kept forgetting to say “Uno” when I had one card left.
  • I’ve finally figured out the secret to being an adult: making an official phone call to the bank, in French no less, without panicking.
  • Iv, a Spanish teacher at Claudel, asked if I liked Laon and I replied, “Ouiiiii” before finally ending in “Et non,” to which he gave me the thumbs up. I mean, the city’s got a stunning cathedral and view, but, as several teachers have told me, “It’s dead,” aka there’s nothing to do.
    • He also asked if I liked the orange Cheeto who’s somehow in charge of the US, and when Iv said “No, not at all,” he laughed and said we could be friends.
  • Isn’t it lovely when you tell R, a German teacher, that you’re leaving on the 8 before your visa expires, and she jokes that it’s good that I’m escaping while I still can, before Le Pen becomes president? And then Iv chimes in, saying she wouldn’t hesitate to throw me in French jail because, as R put it, I’m American and Asian. Yay bigoted politicians!
  • A cute waiter gave me 7 pieces of candy with my bill, and I didn’t know what to do with all of it, so I left exact change, took 5 pieces, and ran. I’m an adult.
  • I’m still thinking about that flaky, buttery, still-warm pain au chocolat I ingested before leaving Rouen. I’m going to miss French pastries so much.
    • On my way to the train station, the cutest baby with a rabbit hat and two bottom teeth waved enthusiastically at me while babbling in French gibberish.
  • Sure, an open bag of madeleines marked “Mangez-nous” (Eat us) in the middle of the staffroom might be suspicious, but I ate them anyways. Here’s to hoping that nobody wanted to poison an American savoring as much French food as she can before she leaves.
  • That awkward moment when the Claudel teachers are joking about whether or not Trump will let me back into the US and F says, “She’ll be fine, she doesn’t look Muslim.”