If that’s not French, then what is?

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.

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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.”[1]

– 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[2] 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.”

Next.

“Salut, je m’appelle James et je suis Australien.”

Next.

“Je m’appelle Tracey, je suis Australienne.”

Beat.

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.


[1] “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

[2] While this sounds like a racist thing to do, in context, it was not.

B to the D to the X!

Pizza Pepperoni on Rue St Remi (the end closest to Rue Ste Catherine)

It has occurred to me that I haven’t posted a whole lot about Bordeaux despite having lived here for most of the year. I remember at the beginning of the year I wrote something to the effect of “Oh I don’t know what I think of this place; it seems cute and quaint but I am not sure how it compares to Sydney, blah blah blah”. I was basically trying to suss out whether or not it was somewhere I would be able to live permanently, or at least for a long period of time (say, 3+ years). Any time I visit any city, it’s something I always have at the back of my mind: how livable is this city? Would I be able to do my job (effectively) from here? Will I be missing out on anything or am I giving up something important to be here? I haven’t been able to answer these questions about a lot of cities. I’m still undecided about Paris, even though I love the place. I’m not sure what I think of London, either. Edinburgh seems livable, I think. Lyon is great, although I’d need to spend more than a weekend there to see what it’s really like. As for Bordeaux…

 

The fountain at Place de la Bourse. A few weeks ago they dyed the water that the statues were pissing pink to support breast cancer awareness. I made a bunch of jokes about urinary tract infections and everyone got very uncomfortable.

I don’t think I could live in Bordeaux. It’s a beautiful city – one of the most beautiful I’ve seen during all my travels – and I’ve met some lovely people here, but for someone who actually wants a career outside of working in a pub, running a shop, or working with wine, there is nothing here for me aside from delicious food and architectural eye-candy. Bordeaux is simply too small; everyone knows everyone else, you can’t walk down the street without bumping into someone, all the foreigners know each other’s business, and there’s a certain laziness to the lifestyle here that bores me. It’s fine as an exchange city – I’ve enjoyed my time here as a student! It was a refreshing change when I first arrived here from Sydney, but I’ve come to realise that I like working and making progress with my journalism a lot more than I enjoy not working and making progress with my drinking.

 

Place du Parlement, a square full of restaurants and cafés

I do realise how boring this makes me sound – that I’d rather be working than drinking, that I prefer a fast pace and editorial deadlines to… doing nothing. I know the point of this year was to not work and just be a silly student, and I did that, but it got boring after a few months. Right now I can’t wait to get back into a big, multicultural city where there are actual career opportunities, Japanese restaurants that know the difference between sushi and maki, and where I can wear shorts without strangers calling me a salope (slut/whore). Actually, that’s one thing that really annoys me about Bordeaux. It is noticeably more conservative than Paris, or any other city I’ve been to this year. During the summer, I could walk down the street in Paris in shorts or a skirt and be left alone (except on one occasion when I was walking down some stairs from Montmartre and a 13-year old said “belle jambes” [nice legs] to me), but in Bordeaux, wearing anything above the knee solicits crude and sexist remarks from strangers. It’s kind of awful. And when the Bordelais get drunk, sometimes they also get racist. I’ve had people call out “LA CHINE! LA CHINE!” at me, and I’ve been told that my “eyes don’t look Australian”, and thus I must not actually be Australian.

Now that I think of it, Bordeaux annoys me a lot. I never had to deal with any kind of racism in Australia, and we’re supposedly a massive island of racist bogans. I’ve had people from all over the place express curiosity about my ethnic background, but until I came to Bordeaux no one had ever suggested I wasn’t Australian because of my eyes. I’ve never had to deal with so much sexism, either. The attitude towards women that some of the men here have is absolutely appalling. And what’s the deal with half the supermarkets here not knowing what ginger is? And why does the bakery near my house close for two hours during lunch time? It’s a fucking bakery – they sell food. During lunch time people buy food. It’s like a restaurant closing during dinner time so that the staff can eat dinner. On top of that, Bordeaux’s La Poste has lost a whole lot of expensive packages sent to me from Australia, one containing a bunch of Nintendo DS games. And why is beer more expensive here than in Paris? And why do the trams break down every week?! SWEET JESUS GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER, BORDEAUX.

 

Upstairs at "Karl's"

Needless to say this year has been one of extremes. While I can honestly say it has been my best year yet, I’ve also been at some of my lowest points. Friendship dynamics changed, my relationships with people changed, and I spent a lot of time being anxious about everything. All those things have been kind of awful. But I’ve loved the independence I’ve had and the opportunity to travel everywhere and experience new things, and I cannot get over how awesome it has been to be able to go to Paris so many times and even live there during the summer.

Ultimately, I am both grateful and glad that I had the opportunity to live in Bordeaux for my year of exchange. I definitely want to return to France and spend more time in the bigger cities, especially Paris and Lyon. I’ve changed the name of one of my savings accounts to “Return To France”. But I am equally as grateful and glad that in six days I’ll be in a different French city (Nantes) and, after that, home.

Warsaw – Summer and Winter

Warsaw is a fairly ugly city. The Old Town, which is what I photographed while I was there (images posted here), is very pretty and quaint, but the rest of the city – Centrum, the business district, the shopping district, pretty much every place that wasn’t a park or Old Town – screamed “Ohai, I’m a communism and I humped these buildings real good!”.

Apparently, if you want to see a picturesque city in Poland, you go to Krakow. I didn’t go to Krakow. The first time I was in Poland I was meeting a friend in Warsaw, and the second time I was there for work purposes (also in Warsaw), so no picturesque Krakow for me. But whatever. I can appreciate that Warsaw was, at one point, completely levelled. I can appreciate that they had to rebuild the city after WWII, and that their Old Town isn’t actually old at all. It, along with most things in Warsaw, was rebuilt after the war ..

On both occasions I stayed in the city centre near the Palace of Culture and Science and, having wandered around the city, the one thing that came to mind (aside from how ugly some of the buildings were) was how sparse the city felt. There aren’t a lot of skyscrapers, there’s no congested metro, everything feels quite spread out. It reminded me of a map I worked on in Sim Town where I kind of went “herp derp” and just started randomly placing things everywhere instead of creating some sort of dense urban hub. It was weird. Coming from France, where everything is so compact and cramped, even in a small city like Bordeaux, Warsaw was a city with a lot of space and seemingly not a lot of ideas with what to do with it.

But hey, I really like Warsaw! It’s a cool place.

I came back recently during winter for a Witcher 2 press event and the city was very different. It felt much less touristy than it did during the summer, the temperature was -4 degrees instead of low +30s, and my heat sweats were replaced with cold panic sweats. (Also, meat sweats from all the meat that I was being fed.)

So yeeeeeeeah. Warsaw. Do eeeeetttt!

A Farewell Fête!

We are more disgusting than this in real life. Yes, it is physically possible

In exactly three weeks, I will be in Sydney. Man, that is bat shit. I’ve been in France for almost a whole year and what do I actually have to show for it? Okay, quite a bit, mostly in the liver damage department, but it’s only dawning on me now that I’ve spent a year of my life on a completely different continent, learning a different language, zipping around to neighbouring European countries whenever I feel like it, being away from my family (this part has been nothing short of a-m-a-z-i-n-g), and living in a colocation. Bat. Shit. Crazy.

So, how am I spending my final weeks here? Tomorrow I am flying to Poland for a studio tour of CD Projekt and to see The Witcher 2. When I get back, we’re throwing a fête to farewell ourselves from this highly inefficient (although strangely endearing) country. Then I’m off to Nantes to spend Christmas with the part of my family I never really got to know.

Here is an exchange that Emily and I had on the event to our house party. I think I am actually a laugh riot.

Oh, and before I forget, I came across the travel blog of a fellow UTS student who is doing her year abroad in China. I sometimes forget that there are a lot of UTS students located around the world on academic exchange and it’s always interesting seeing how their experiences have differed to mine. Here is her blog.

Slovenia – Ljubljana

This is me standing in the artists' squat, Metelkova, in Ljubljana. The name of the city is pronounced "loo-bli-ana" as opposed to "Lub-jub-jana", which is what Emily and I spent most of our time calling it because we're obnoxious like that. Obnoxious and unedumacated.

Slovenia is one of those places I knew very little about prior to my travels but somehow felt comfortable making the assumption that it was some Eastern European hole that was full of gypsies. For a start, Slovenia isn’t even in Eastern Europe. It’s more Central Europe. Second, there were no gypsies in Slovenia. At least, none that I could see. I was probably the most gypsy-looking person in the country with my stupid head-scarf and peasant-like dark skin. In fact, I’d go as far as to say I haven’t seen fewer gypsies in any European country aside from, say, England. Oh wait, they’re not a part of Europe. My bad.

There weren't even any gypsies on the church stairs. My goodness!

I didn’t expect the country to be so advanced, the city to be so beautiful, and for everyone to be so culturally aware. The capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, has a population of approximately 700,00 people, but there were galleries, cafés, theatres and museums on every street corner. During our time there, the government had set up an enormous stage in the centre of town to host various ballet and theatre performances for the public to enjoy, free of charge. These were all really weird postmodern performances that were kind of painful to watch, not so much because I don’t understand postmodernism, but more because they were actually quite bad. But whatever. Good on the government for supporting the arts. The churches and buildings were in pristine condition and most people could speak English incredibly well, except for the old dude at a café we went to whose solution to our inability to understand him was to yell at us in Not-English. Good one, mec.

We’d been in Croatia before we went to Slovenia, so thoughts about the war of Yugoslavia were still fresh on our minds when we arrived. But as we wandered around town we couldn’t help but be surprised at how unscathed the entire city was. On a free walking tour, our guide informed us that Slovenia’s involvement in the war was minimal compared to Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia. It was and, to my knowledge, still is the wealthiest country in former-Yugoslavia. And it shows.

HELLO I AM A WEALTHY CHURCH IN SLOVENIA HOLY SHIT LOOK AT THE GOLD HERE YEEEEAH I AM RICH YO.

A river that runs through the city.

Here’s a cool thing: there’s an artist’s squat in the city that is a former military garrison transformed into artist studios during the day and individual bars and clubs at night. It’s called Metelkova, and it was probably one of the coolest things I’ve seen in my time in Europe. We could tell we were getting close to the Metelkova because the amount of street art and graffiti increased. Inside were lots of little studios occupied by painters, sculptors, and graffiti artists. The smell of hash was strong.

Posters in Metelkova.

We came across an African/French artist who had been invited to Slovenia to work on some paintings; he told us that of all the places he’d travelled to in the world to work as an artist, he had never encountered a squat as dynamic, creative, and lively as Metelkova. He may have been rolling a joint at the time, not that this is relevant. He then shook our hands and we continued on our way.

Metelkova

We also went on a day trip to Lake Bled!

Lake Bled? More like LAKE BORING.

It was pretty but not particularly interesting. So, moving along!

!

Ljubljana is a cool place! It was very, very small, though. Morgan and I managed to explore the entire city in a day. It may have taken longer if we’d entered all the big galleries, but we didn’t. It’s definitely a place worthy checking out, although a weekend there is probably all you’ll need. So yeah. EXCLAMATION!

 

 

Switzerland

FAT CAT IS FAT.

You may remember a few months back I wrote that I was stranded in London with no money and a cancelled flight, which left me mildly traumatised, like a tit flapping violently in the breeze. You may also remember that I wrote about an incredibly kind woman who took me back into town from the airport, put me up in a hotel for the night, and then advised me on how to get back to France by train. Well, last month this lovely woman (Ba) and her equally lovely husband (David) were in Bordeaux. We caught up over dinner at Chez Edouard and they invited me and my friends to stay with them in Switzerland. I’d been to Switzerland before, with my parents, and that sucked some fierce donkey balls. Morgs, Em and I had planned to visit Zurich during the summer but accommodation in the land of the neutral was far too expensive. So when the opportunity to stay in this awesome couple’s house for FREE came up, we booked our Easy Jet tickets faster than we could shower in a communal bathroom.

OMG A CIVILISED LIVINGROOM SANS STOLEN ROAD SIGNS. AMOIZING.

Ba and David live in a village not far from Baden, which isn’t far from Zurich. The area they lived in was what Ba described as the Swiss countryside – it was fairly rural, but we didn’t spend a lot of time there. We divided our days up between trips to Zurich, a day in the Alps, and a day in Basel.

We could hear COW BELLS from our rooms. SO MUCH COW BELL.

At this point I will quickly switch into dot points for maximum efficiency.

– A lot of people have told me that Switzerland is a beautiful but incredibly boring place. Perhaps this is true of the western, French-speaking side of the country, but I found Zurich in particular to be a thriving big city with lots happening.

– Holy shit this country is expensive. Over dinner one night we asked David how much it would cost to have dinner at one of the better-known pubs in Zurich. “Quite expensive,” he said. “You mean, like, 15€ per person?” we asked. “More like 80,” he replied. We spent the remainder of our time in town eating roasted chestnuts off the streets (they’re not very nice) and falafels from kebab shops. For some reason we also bought lots of crisps from vending machines. I don’t get it – I don’t even like crisps, and here I was eating them like they were delicious or something. Note: they weren’t.

– The Swiss sure are conservative racists! On our drive to the alps, Ba and David told us about some very racist political campaigns that the country has run in the (recent) past. For your viewing pleasure:

I wasn’t aware that the Swiss government was so conservative. Silly, un-informed Tuppences. Switzerland was also, notably, one of the least multicultural places I have visited. At least France has a large North African population and, while they may face a lot of discrimination, at least they exist. In Switzerland? Not so much. As I am writing this, Em is sitting opposite me trying to finish an assignment. She has just interjected and said: “I don’t think I could live in Switzerland – it’s too mono-cultural and racist”. SAYS SHE, THE WHITE GIRL. So if whitey can’t handle it, I highly doubt chinky winkle would be able to.

IT IS A CORNER OF A STREET HOLY SHIT!

I think a lot of people have this idealised image of Europe – I know I certainly did when I came here – and it’s a bit of a nasty shock to realise that most countries in Europe have serious issues, whether they be political or otherwise. Those issues are easy to gloss over if you’re only here for a few months, but having now lived in France for a year, I can say that I have received some frequent and unwelcome reminders that I am not really Australian (because my “eyes don’t look Australian”) and that because of my physical appearance, it is unlikely that I will ever truly be accepted as anything else other than “that Chinese girl”. This isn’t to say every European I’ve met has been a racist jerk – the majority have been delightful and I wish to take them home with me to Sydney – it’s more of an under-current that I have felt from just living here.

WE DRANK HERE. I HAD APPLE JUICE.

BUT HEY, THIS DIDN’T STOP ME FROM HAVING FUN TIMES IN SWITZERLAND, YEAH! Seriously, Zurich in particular was a very cool place. We bought chocolates. We drank in a sex cinema bar (which is to say we drank alcohol, as opposed to…oh nevermind). We visited the Cabaret Voltaire. We hung out with Ba and David. We went to the alps and any time I saw snow I’d run up to it and stomp on it while saying “POW-POW-POW-POW-POW”, before singing the LCD Soundsystem song, Pow Pow (Pow Pow Pow Pow).

Zurich

POW POW POW POW

In terms of being a beautiful place, I award Switzerland succulent brownie points. Succulent, moist brownie points. Lol, I said ‘moist’. And I didn’t actually experience any problems at all while I was there – people were friendly enough. It’s just sometimes you visit a place, learn of their politics, and realise that it’s probably not a place that you’d be able to live happily while feeling completely accepted. At which point, you realise how lucky you are that you can always go back to Cabramatta.

 

 

I ARE GLUTTONY

My friends often give me grief for taking photographs of food. Morgan, in particular, doesn’t understand why I do it. One time Em took a photo of a pizza – her birthday pizza – and we ended up having an argument at the table that went for half an hour about why it is/isn’t stupid to take photos of meals. I JUST DON’T KNOW, MANG. Stupid or not, I figured I’d post some photos I’ve taken in the past month. Man, October was a delicious time.