On She Goes

A Complicated Love Affair

Being Chinese American in France

Sarena Tien
Sarena Tien
July 19, 2017
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This story is part of a series about being ___ in ___ , exploring how our identities color our experiences while living in new places around the world. 

My love affair with France began when I was just 11 years old, when I chose to study French to spite everyone who said Spanish would be more useful. Even after fulfilling Virginia’s foreign-language requirement by 10th grade, I kept studying French because I loved being able to write in another language. During my junior year of college, I studied abroad in sun-soaked Nice, a Chinese American living in an insulated bubble of international students. It wasn’t until I returned to France after graduation, working as an English teaching assistant for seven months, that I realized the country isn’t “La Vie en Rose.” Sure, France is beautiful—what’s not to love about centuries-old castles, getting lost on winding cobblestone streets, and devouring ruinous pastries? But there’s a certain je ne sais quoi to the challenges I faced that shattered so many of my romanticized preconceptions of the country.

photo by Sarena Tien

Standing out
I’m no stranger to being different. Growing up as a Chinese American in Richmond, Virginia, I’d heard endless versions of the microaggression “Where are you really from?” Having dealt with racism my entire life in the US, I thought I was prepared to confront it in France.

As a teacher, I lived in Laon, a northern city with a population of 25,000 that was blindingly white. I thought the lack of racial diversity explained the endless questions about my race—the students had never seen an Asian American before. But after repeatedly telling high schoolers you’re American, there are only so many times you can hear “What is your origin?” before you want to bash your head against the wall. I fought back against the incessant questions about where I was from by teaching social justice lessons about intersectionality and immigration. Even when I had to make a stick-figure drawing of the Native American genocide to stress that white Americans are also immigrants, at least I got to watch students utter “Ahhh!” in understanding. If the next assistant is a person of color, hopefully they won’t be subjected to the same racism.

Catcalling in French is still catcalling
I’d been studying French for many years, so I didn’t face the challenge of not knowing the local language—but that also meant I understood all of the unsolicited and creepy things that men said to me. Multiple old men stopped on sidewalks to ask me out for a drink, including one who told me, “Once I had Japanese conquest.” A bartender who called me a “yellow girl” refused to let me leave until I did la bise, or cheek-kissed him. I can still feel the phantom scratch of his whiskers against my skin. As I picked out vegetables in a grocery store, a man walked behind me and said, “Tu es bien jolie (You’re very pretty),” rudely using the informal tu instead of the polite, formal vous.

Despite all of the street harassment, I still travel solo because I refuse to let men win. Women of color exist in France, and we’re here to stay. Catcalling is all about male power, so I viewed traveling as a mental middle finger to the men who hinted that I didn’t belong on the streets. But as a safety measure, I always made sure that my family and friends knew where I was.

Finding acceptance
Living in France has its ups and downs, but I’ve also had some amazing interactions. My Airbnb hostesses and BlaBlaCar drivers were delighted to meet a French-speaking American because it meant they didn’t have to deal with the language barrier—and not a single one questioned my race. The sweetest teacher I worked with asked for my consent before he cheek-kissed me. In Lyon, a dad jokingly photobombed my picture, and then he and his family gave my friends and me directions. While waiting for my flight home, I cried in the airport because one of my students told me via Facebook, “You were an amazing assistant. We are so lucky that we had you!”

I also learned that no matter what country I’m in, I’ll always share a bond with people of color. Whenever I ate at Chinese restaurants, the owners were so excited to see me they promptly switched to Mandarin, even if I had to fill the hollows of my vocabulary with French. Other women-of-color assistants and I bonded instantly over churros, sushi, and being minorities. One of my happiest memories of France occurred over midnight pizza in Paris, when eight other queer women and I shared coming-out stories after a Tegan and Sara concert. Whatever your experience, I promise you’ll always find somewhere you belong.

To my fellow Asian women, whether you’re looking to study, work, or travel in France, you might have to take off those rose-colored glasses. But don’t let that deter you from exploring the country! Across the 11 cities I visited, I’ve made lifelong friends and scrapbook-worthy memories. My spoken French became fluent, and I’m applying to French PhD programs—to advocate for intersectional feminism. Just faites attention, s’il-vous-plaît—be careful, please—when it comes to romanticizing France. Racism exists at home and abroad, but what makes living in France worthwhile is being able to stumble upon medieval ruins in every city and stuff yourself with fresh 50-centime baguettes.