Below is an assignment I submitted to my university in Sydney in March 2010. The task required me to reflect on my first impression of my host country (France), focusing on one particular issue. I figured I’d post this up because I’m about to revisit this topic in a follow-up critical reflection assignment, which will cap off my year abroad. Also, it’s Australia/Invasion Day, so it seems a bit relevant.
If that’s not French, then what is?
A reflection on race and cultural diversity in France by an Asian-Australian
“La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale. Elle assure l’égalité devant la loi de tous les citoyens sans distinction d’origine, de race ou de religion. Elle respecte toutes les croyances. Son organisation est décentralisée.”
– Constitution de la République française, Constitution du 4 Octobre 1958, Préambule, Article 1er
It all started as a bit of a joke.
“Look, there’s an Asian person walking down the street! That brings our total up to five,” said one of the other UTS students who came to Bordeaux for our In-Country Study (ICS).
“I saw three in the Asiatique grocery store – that makes it eight,” said another UTS student.
It was our first week in France and my two ICS friends had been keeping track of how many Asian people they’d seen in Bordeaux after I’d made a comment about how few I’d seen myself. Their aim was to use this ridiculous method to show me that there were indeed Asians in Bordeaux and that my observations were silly and pointless. I need not worry about being an Asian-Australian in France, they assured me – I would be treated like all the other Australians here who spoke broken French and craved a morning hit of Vegemite.
But I wasn’t worried. Or, at least, “worry” wasn’t the catalyst for my observations. The catalyst was simply noticing the difference in cultural diversity between Bordeaux and Sydney. Back home, I lived in Sydney’s SW and grew up in the incredibly multicultural suburbs of Cabramatta and Fairfield. At university, I studied right next door to China Town, and everyone I encountered in the streets and shops were of all ethnic backgrounds. My own Chinese appearance never made me feel any different; I never felt that I was a part of an ethnic minority or that I even stood out in any way because there were always lots of people of Asian heritage in my community. I was Australian – there was no doubt about it. I’d come to assume that Sydney’s ethnic diversity was the norm and thus, despite having attended classes on the cultural differences between Australia and France, I wasn’t quite prepared for anything so different.
By the end of the first week, our “Asian count” was at eleven. I was over the initial surprise of how Bordeaux’s ethnic make-up seemed to consist of the French, North Africans, and people of Middle Eastern descent, and I’d slipped back into the comfortable mentality that I was just another Australian studying in France.
But it wasn’t long before my Asian heritage was brought to my attention again. It was the first day of university and the class was having an ice-breaking session. Being at a language school meant that everyone there was an international student, so we sat at our desks and each person would say their name and where they were from. They started with the left row.
“Bonjour, je m’appelle Atsuko, je suis japonaise.”
“Salut, je m’appelle James et je suis Australien.”
“Je m’appelle Tracey, je suis Australienne.”
A few eyebrows were raised. The Japanese and Korean students sitting at the front of the class whipped their heads around to look at me before looking at each other. The teacher looked somewhat amused. James, a fellow UTS ICS student who had gone just before me, had received no such attention. While his large coat and furry hat sometimes had people ask him if he was Russian, his blonde hair and freckled skin had no one doubting or raising any brows when he told them he was in fact Australian. But it would be a different story for me.
Fast forward a few days later. I’m at a party where French students are mixing with ERASMUS students. I begin a conversation with a native Frenchman whose name has far too many R’s for me to properly pronounce. The conversation eventually leads to where I am from, to which I respond with “Australian”. He makes an inane remark about the distance, the climate and the kangaroos, after which he asks:
“But where are you actually from?”
It takes me a moment to figure out what he has actually asked me – while he speaks (bad) English, it’s not the words that confuse me as much as it’s someone suggesting that I am not actually Australian – whatever that even means. Had anyone else in Australia asked where I was actually from, I may have given them a good spray and told them that I was born in Australia and lived there all my life, making me just as Australian as anyone else with an emu and a kangaroo on their passport. But I knew what the man with too many R’s in his name really meant. He was curious about my ethnic background because I didn’t look like my ICS friends or Steve Irwin.
“My grandparents are from China,” I finally said to him – an answer that he seemed satisfied with.
At a later point I brought up this questioning of my nationality with some of the other UTS students living in Bordeaux with me. By this stage, I’d had more than a handful of encounters with French people who had asked me where I was from and continued to press the point until I gave them a spiel about my family’s immigration history. My grandfather went from China to Vietnam. My parents fled Vietnam after the Vietnam War and arrived in Australia in 1979. My brother and I were born in Sydney where we grew up watching Looney Toons and Cheez TV and ate burgers and chips alongside the obligatory rice-based dinners, noodles, soy sauce, and other foods that often made some of our non-Asian friends cringe. But regardless of what we ate at home and what language we spoke with our parents, we were never considered to be not Australian. So to have a group of French people bring my nationality into question frustrated me, especially since I’d never had such a problem at home.
One of my UTS peer’s reasoning was that the French weren’t trying to be racist or give me a hard time for being Asian, and it was simply that they had such a strong sense of national identity that they couldn’t get their heads around a country like Australia not having one that was just as strong. We made some quick comparisons between France and Australia.
The former was a country that has been around since ancient times, it had endured wars and revolutions, known the likes of Napoleon and Joan of Arc, and undergone years of change and country-building to refine its identity as a nation. The indigenous tribes inhabited the latter for thousands of years before White Settlers/Invaders stepped foot on it just over 200 years ago. It was only brought together and properly recognised as a country just over a hundred years ago. Bar the indigenous population, most Australians are immigrants or the children of immigrants, or the children of the children of immigrants etc.
We witnessed more examples of this strong French national identity over the following weeks. At language school, my friend Emily was in a class where they were having another ice-breaking session. The teacher called upon a student who wasn’t Anglo-Saxon or Gallic in his appearance and he introduced himself, saying that he was French. The teacher asked him why he was at language school if he was indeed French, to which he explained that he had French citizenship but had grown up outside of France learning a different language. She proceeded to grill him on his origins, repeatedly telling him that he wasn’t actually French given that he wasn’t from France – all this despite his citizenship.
Coming from Australia and having known no different to Australia’s lack of a national identity, I couldn’t get my head around why national identity even mattered and why it was so important for this teacher to make a distinction between who was French and who wasn’t.
At a rendez-vous that Emily and I had with a French person named Sébatien to practice our French in exchange for us helping him practice his English, the topic of immigration and multiculturalism emerged.
“Do you have many étrangers in Australia?” he asked us.
Emily and I looked at each other. He’d asked us if we had many “strangers” in Australia (I.e. foreigners). Earlier in the conversation, he’d said that people like the North Africans and Middle-Easterners were étrangers in France, even though many had French citizenship. Emily and I found the use of the word étrangers offensive because we felt that it carried connotations of an “us” and “them” mentality. But Sébastien didn’t seem to pick up on our discomfort, possibly because it wasn’t actually a negative word in French. Or, at least, we didn’t think it was a negative word to them. And that was itself part of the problem; we were never sure whether someone was saying something racist, simply being French, or if racism was an inherent element in being French.
Had Emily and I not discussed the concept of French national identity earlier in the day, I may have been more offended by his question, but having a bit of knowledge about the importance of national identity to the French helped explain what Sébastien had said and his attitude towards to the issue. I still felt that it was wrong of him to speak of people of non-Gallic descent as being “un-French”, but I was also aware of my own cultural biases, so I tried to answer his question in the most diplomatic way possible.
I tried to explain that the concept of having “strangers” or “foreigners” in Australia was a bit of a foreign concept to us. After all, aren’t all Australians immigrants in some way or another? Emily and I were both used to anyone being able to be Australian regardless of race, origin, or accents. We tried to explain this to him; that there were no étrangers en Australie except for, say, tourists and people on temporary VISAs, and even then we couldn’t think of a commonly used word that described non-Australians, at least, not one that created the same “us” and “them” effect as étrangers.
In our conversation with Sébatien, it seemed that he himself had no issue with étrangers; he was just using the word that the French use to describe those who aren’t French. There appeared to be a criterion of some sort that I’d never heard about, and while I didn’t know which boxes one had to tick to be considered French, it was clear that ethnicity was one of them.
After all of this, I still wasn’t sure what to think. In Australia, the things some of the French people we’d encountered said would be considered racist, but in the context of being in France and the people we’d spoken to being French, it wasn’t. What was it about national identity that was so important to these people? What did it give them that we Australians were missing out on by not having one? And, more importantly, how could they have a constitution that stipulates that anyone can be French without distinction of race when all they seem to do is focus on racial differences?
These are all issues that I will have to do further research into in order to gain a greater understanding of them. Living here for two months hasn’t given me any answers as much as it has raised questions about what it means to be French and, more significantly for me, how my own Asian-Australian identity translates to others when I am not in Australia.
 “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs. It shall be organised on a decentralised basis.”
– The French National Assembly, Constitution of October 4, 1958, Preamble, Article 1
 While this sounds like a racist thing to do, in context, it was not.