City Year Camp

Last week consisted of more tedious PowerPoints that have probably permanently shortened my attention span, so I’m going to spare you from that boredom and instead get into the Summer Leadership Academy, a week-long program led and taught by CY members. My team worked with K-2 students, and I legitimately forgot how small children actually are. The highlights (both positive and negative), but mostly comments by/about the students:

  • A 4-year-old, about fruit punch CapriSun: “It tastes fresh.”
  • I almost cried several times because these children were just so small and cute and pure…when they were behaving, at least.
  • A kid threw herself into my lap and shouted, “Mommy!” I almost noped my way out of the room. I am nobody’s mother. I’d rather be called Madame.
  • These kids were simply fascinated by non-black people’s hair. One kid told me, “I like your hair!” and now I can’t dye it again. (Kidding, I have to get rid of the “unprofessional” pink/purple/grayish-brown streak.)
  • One 4-year-old, who’d spent a good portion of the morning crying, asked me while I was walking him to recess, “Is Mommy coming back? Fast?”
    • As I’m walking him to the bathroom after recess: “You said Mommy was coming back!”
  • An attempt to say “arts and crafts” became, “I love arts and crabs.”
  • A 2nd grader: “Why are you always laughing?” (Do I look that smiley???)
  • One kid told me that Freddy the Bear was going to eat me. Guess I can’t trust anyone named Freddy.
    • This kid was happily drawing animal characters from the video game Five Nights at Freddy’s, and then suddenly said, “I’m going to get red. For the blood,” and just casually got up and headed for the markers.
  • A kid, after she fell down and started crying: “I want soda!”
  • Two children, looking at and arguing about a postcard of the Temple Bar in Ireland: “Is that the Flash? Why is he in the picture? No, that’s not him!”
  • A first-grader, about a snow cone: “It tastes like red.”
  • I hardcore disappointed a kid because she was running around tickling random corps members, but I have the magical power of being utterly unticklish.
  • It’s sad how gender stereotypes are already ingrained in these children. I was wearing one of my brother’s old clip-on ties in an attempt to make my t-shirt look less casual, and a 1st grader asked, “Why are you wearing that? Ties are for boys.” Sigh.

These children get so attached so quickly, I don’t know how I feel about it. Also, a friend and I had this wonderful venting session because of many reasons, including one very lovely moment when we got called “push-y over-y.” Thanks. Ahem. I’m going to stop the salt here and say that this academy/summer camp was such a good hands-on, learning experience for when we actually start work on the 24th.


You’ve been in France too long when you…

  • Are both confused and horrified that a grocery store is open until 9pm on a Sunday
  • Catch yourself daydreaming about French bread
  • Procrastinate on packing for days and then stuff a box full of French books. Priorities.
  • See someone smoking and immediately think, “How dare you? That’s only supposed to happen in Europe!”
  • Wrinkle your nose whenever your parents see “French bread” at grocery stores and ask if you want some, to which your only response can be a despondent, “That’s not French bread”
  • Dream about telling your roommates that you’re a French snob when it comes to food (the sad thing is, that’s completely true)
  • Are deeply offended by the fact that a one-way, 20-minute trip on the DC metro costs $3.85. Why does American public transportation suck so much?
  • Think you’re hallucinating when you see an ad in French on the other side of the tracks. Nope, turns out that the Alliance Française happened to know where to find me.
  • Still can’t believe that America can justify charging $2.99 for a loaf of bread when you can walk into Carrefour and buy a baguette for under a euro. Capitalism, ugh. Take me back to the French cost of living.
  • Stand at your dining room window and yell at a guy, “Sir, pick up your dog’s poop! This isn’t France!”
  • Get beyond excited when you meet an aspiring French major and two people with French mothers
  • Stumble across a farmers market near a metro stop and become absurdly happy because it reminds you of walking through France. And then proceed to stare in shock at a baguette’s $4 price tag and a $3 pain au chocolat labeled “chocolate croissant”
  • Learn from a random City Year person you’ve never seen before that she’s already heard that you’re planning to apply to grad school for French. It’s been all of one week, and I’ve already established a reputation as the French nerd.
  • See a French flag hanging outside a classroom in your elementary school and want to know who that teacher is so you can work with them
  • Basically go to Giant for the sole purpose of purchasing buy-one-get-one-free French yogurt (look how cute these little pots are, though!)
  • IMG_6085
  • Hear a City Year person say “French” on the metro, so you instantly look up and walk towards them because that’s a conversation you need to join
  • Are low-key tempted to buy a French pastry from the farmers market but are afraid that it won’t live up to your expectations
  • Have never been happier to see that the Silver Spring library has four whole shelves of French books
  • Can’t resist buying a 5-cent postcard from a thrift store because it reminds you of your study abroad days in the Côte d’Azur
  • IMG_6089

A Weekend in DC

Since City Year gives us $200 for the metro every month, I figured I might as well blow through as much money as possible before August. What better way to do that besides meeting up with friends in a conveniently flat and walkable city?

Yesterday’s adventures:

  • Met up with an R-MC friend on a whim
  • Explored Chinatown and bought groceries (Okay, well, he did; I bought some haw flakes for 60 cents because I need my occasional dose of Asian snacks)
  • Looked confusedly through the National Portrait Gallery because we don’t understand art
  • Felt like snobs commenting on how ugly all the concrete buildings in DC are (he studied abroad in Japan, and we all know how much I love the architecture in France)
  • Discovered that a map lied to us and made the walk to the National Mall look much farther than it really was
  • Got distracted by food trucks (and got so much food from one purchase that we’re both still eating it)
  • Lost our sanity because an ice cream truck would not stop playing the same tune over and over again

Today’s adventures:

  • Went to a Paul boulangerie to meet up with A, my fellow Nice and TAPIF alumna–and TAPIF travel buddy–and some Francophile ladies in their 20s to practice our French skills
    • Almost cried at the sight of sandwiches and macarons and tartes and croissants and pains au chocolat
    • Was absurdly happy to eat a sandwich that consisted of real French bread
    • Horrified that a pain au chocolat cost $3.95–like, I could get one of those in Laon for 50 centimes
  • Learned that one of the girls quit TAPIF halfway through because she was the only Anglophone and the only Asian in her tiny town. Oh, the joys of racism.
  • A and I happily caught each other up with our lives since leaving France, and we walked around DC speaking French because we missed using it so much. We probably confused so many people, but I regret nothing.
  • Bizarrely enough, this is the first time we’ve met up in the US–before, we’d only met up in France
  • Explored the Smithsonian and the National Gallery, where I picked up everything related to France in the enormous gift shop and remarked, “Oh, this is cute!” and then promptly set it back down because “This price tag is not cute”
  • Passed a family in the Smithsonian speaking French, and then later in the metro, my head automatically swiveled towards another French family and a random guy telling his friend how he was going to take French in school
  • Nearly died on the metro because the lights kept flickering and then we stalled in total darkness for three minutes in an undetermined tunnel

City Year Training

After two days of training, I can finally explain what City Year actually is—an education-focused nonprofit that places diverse teams of AmeriCorps members in high-need urban schools in order to provide a continuum of academic and socio-emotional support, foster a positive school environment, and improve graduation rates and college + career readiness. We have 2 ½ more weeks of training, but I’m just going to highlight yesterday and today to sort of give you an idea of what we’re doing. The exciting news, school placement and grade level, doesn’t happen until Friday.

I’m too lazy/tired to write paragraphs, so bullet points, here we come:

July 24:

  • The worst. 9 straight hours of training that consisted of being cooped up in a room and enduring PowerPoints. It was like taking two finals and then attending classes.
  • That lovely moment when someone tells all the first-generation college students to stand, and basically everyone who does is a POC
  • Someone described DC as a “transit-rich” city. Ha. American public transportation sucks.
  • My notes devolved from important info to complaining in French so that no one could understand my writing
  • Provided free entertainment for one of my founding team members—at one point, I thought we could finally leave the room, but it turned out we had one more task, so I stalked back in muttering, “This is torture”
  • I’m pretty sure I left a piece of my mind on my chair. I will never recover that piece of my sanity.

July 25:

  • Much more exciting. More interactive activities and some actual service (we probably had the easiest task; one of my roommates had to clean a park)
  • Mildly offended that we had to go to a corner that represented our favorite subject in school, and French wasn’t an option
  • Traveled with a team leader and five other of my founding team members to the Ronald McDonald House
  • Bullied by my new “friends” because I was terrified of the Ronald McDonalds, dolls, and giant stuffed animals scattered outside and inside the house
  • Cooked spaghetti and meatballs, as well as made a salad, to feed 20 people (check out our salad, ft. me chopping lettuce [I’ve graciously blocked out the other team members’ faces because I’m not sure what the policy is regarding social media posts])


  • Got to see families get excited about our fresh food
  • After a grand total of two days, I’ve already garnered fame as the salty/sarcastic/cynical one: right before they got off the metro, two of my teammates told me, “Sarena, I’ll look forward to seeing your smiling face tomorrow” and “I’ll look forward to all your complaints”

Welcome to City Year

(I forgot to post this on the 17th. My bad.) After an exhausting day that gave me horrible flashbacks to the trademark inefficiency of French bureaucracy, I’m officially registered with City Year! This is going to be a huge change from TAPIF, where I nearly lost my mind from the sheer boredom of 12-hour work weeks. Instead, we’re working 50 hours a week, earning a $629 biweekly living stipend, and enjoying the not-so-beautiful American world of 12 personal days.

Also, I’m sure I’m going to sound like a total snob saying this, but the public transportation here is effing terrible compared to France and Europe. I’m still in shock over the fact that we had to pay $3.85 for a 20 minute ride. (Why can’t I just pay 1.70€ for a ticket that lasts 90 minutes and includes unlimited transfers? Take me back to Paris.) Also, who charges more money for peak times? Curse you, American capitalism. And the fare machines here don’t even have touch screens or maps. What year were they built in, the 60s? There’s a problem if I can navigate the vast Parisian metro more easily. In a foreign language. And roll easily through the public transportation systems of countries I’ve never actually lived in before, such as the Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland.

Ahem. I’m going to stop being a Debbie Downer and say that, on the bright side, I’m so excited to live in a liberal area after Marine Le Pen-voting northeast France. DC has random gay flags everywhere, and we even ran across a church that had a Black Lives Matter sign outside. Silver Spring, Maryland is so much more vibrant than Laon—a downtown! A metro! More than a single street of shops! Neighbors who are my age!

Speaking of which, everyone that my roommates and I have met so far seems really awesome. Like TAPIF, we’re all dedicated to City Year some way or another…although after meeting recent high school graduates, I feel like an old lady.

Anyways, the plan after these next 11 months is to attend grad school for a French PhD (If I pass the GRE. And get accepted into a school). Also, bienvenue à la vue from our apartment, where we have free utilities and can happily blast the AC after long, hot work days:



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:

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?