On Being Asian in France: My Experience

November 17, 2018

Fellow Asian-Americans often ask me what it’s like to live in France as a minority. My response usually begins “Well, it’s not bad…but it’s not great…” France has a reputation for being one of the more xenophobic countries, and while I haven’t experienced blatant racism, I definitely feel more day-to-day discomfort than I do in the States.

I think part of this discomfort arises from the lack of diversity in France. It’s estimated that only 15% of the population is non-white, versus 47% in the US. Even more staggering, Asians only make up about 1.5% of the French population, almost four times less than the 5.6% in the US. My classroom demographics corroborate these statistics: of my 200+ students, only two are Asian.

Non-tourist Asians are pretty rare in France–so much so that when I see one, I notice and feel a sense of shared identity (“oh look, there’s another Asian, just like me!”). In America, it wasn’t unusual at all for me to run into other Asians (but that’s not to say that diversity isn’t a problem in some places). When there are fewer minorities, there are fewer opportunities for non-minorities to interact with different cultures, so ignorance is more likely. When there are fewer minorities, minorities are more likely to feel like outsiders.

I can’t speak for all Asians in France, and I don’t want to generalize. Instead, I want to share my unsettling experiences as a snapshot of life in France as a minority.

Just so you have some context, I’ve spent 7.5 months in France total–4 from study abroad (2016), 1 from travels (2017), and 2.5 while working (2018). I won’t share these microaggressions in chronological order, but rather on a scale from ignorant to hostile.

My Experience as an Asian in France

I speak French, thank you.

In the more touristy parts of France, shopkeepers and restaurant employees often address me in English, before I’ve even spoken. Because of my ethnicity, they simply assume that I don’t speak French. Some people may argue that their actions are justified–if most Asians who frequent their stores don’t speak French, it’s easier to start with English (would you speak in Mandarin to a white person in China, for example?). But, you can’t deny that this is only a reminder that you “don’t belong” and that people perceive you as different.

Another time, I was on the tram in Bordeaux, and I noticed girls about my age looking intently at me. As they got off, one of them brushed past and said sorry/excuse me in Mandarin. I could’ve been Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian, etc., but they assumed that I was Chinese and that I didn’t speak French. I think they had innocuous intentions–maybe they just wanted to use the Mandarin they’d learned–but this interaction nonetheless made me feel like an outsider.

 

Not microaggressions, but more like plain rudeness or lack of empathy

A couple months ago, one of my temporary roommates and her boyfriend were over when we were having dinner. Naturally, we offered to share with them. I had made one of my signature dishes, broccoli and tofu, and everyone expressed enthusiasm for the tofu–except the boyfriend. He tried some, then declared that it was “weird” and refused to eat the rest. Keep in mind that we were under no obligation to invite them to join us in the first place, that his presence was announced pretty last-minute, and that the couple did not contribute to the meal in any way, even the dishes.

When I lived with a host family in Bordeaux, the mother and I were discussing refugees one day. Her response shocked me–she said that she understood they needed a place to go, but that they often ended up on the streets, and it wasn’t “very pretty to look at them.” She was thinking only of her own (minimal) discomfort and totally ignoring the life-threatening situations the refugees may have fled, and the difficulties of being homeless.

Again, on the tram in Bordeaux, a 5-7 year-old boy remarked that he “didn’t like the lady sitting next to him.” I was right next to him. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t smell that day or didn’t dress funny, so I can only attribute his remark to my Asian appearance. Also, since he voiced that thought audibly, he must’ve assumed that I didn’t understand French. His mother tried to play it off as “oh, you think the lady is pretty?” and I was too unsettled to say anything.

I’ve also experienced several instances of general yelling in Mandarin. I’ll run to catch the tram, and someone will scream “faster, faster!” in Chinese, or I’ll be jogging and people will make remarks, or strangers will greet me with “Nihao.”

Bad customer service, or racism?

When I arrived in Bordeaux, one of the first things I had to do was get phone service. I signed up with a company that offered 1GB of data and unlimited texts and calls for 20 euros a month. Ten days later, I was out of data–and I had only used 500MB. When I returned to the store, they claimed that I “must’ve misunderstood” the man who had set my plan up. I was fuming–even if I was a foreigner, I could definitely understand the difference between 1GB and 500MB. The store refused to give me more data, even though it was their mistake (which they also refused to admit). I left and changed service providers.

At the Dijon market, I was once looking for peaches near the end of season. One stand had some inexpensive and fresh Saturn peaches at first glance. But, as I was picking some up, I noticed most of them were moldy. So I did what anyone would do–I inspected the ones I’d already selected, and put the moldy ones back. The seller brusquely told me to stop (“arretez, arretez”), and confused, I asked “What? Stop picking?” He said “No one wants to buy the peaches you touch” (notice the “you”). So I put all my peaches down and said “Okay, no problem, I’ll go elsewhere.”

Another time in Dijon, I went to my private gym with a friend who was visiting from the States. He obviously wasn’t a member, but I figured it wasn’t a big deal if he didn’t use the gym equipment. There were very few people there since it was late at night. On our way out, one of the owners ran up to us and asked if my friend was a member. When I said no, he blew up and said he’d cancel my membership next time I brought non-members. He talked over me when I tried to explain that this friend didn’t even use the equipment, and I had only brought him along since he didn’t speak French and I didn’t want to leave him on his own. The owner continued to chew me out when we hadn’t disturbed anyone or anything in the gym. I doubt he would’ve treated me so poorly if I had been French. I doubt he would’ve even noticed my friend if we both had been white (my friend is also a minority).

The Bottom Line

I don’t want this to read like a list of complaints, or to give the impression that all of France is discriminatory–the country has plenty of open-minded, progressive people. Most days pass without incident. But, it’s undeniable that I experience uncomfortable encounters at a higher rate in France than in the US. In the 7.5 months I’ve spent in France, I faced 10+ microaggressions (or just plain racially-motivated aggressiveness). In the 13 months I spent in the US (July 2017-September 2018), I experienced 3 unsettling situations (1. “Nihao” as a greeting, 2. “Welcome to America” as a greeting, 3. “Are you Korean?” as a greeting).

Basically, if you’re an Asian-American in France, you should expect ruder and more frequent microaggressions than you do in the US, especially if you’re from a more liberal part of the States.

Some of the encounters I describe are ambiguous, and could actually not be motivated by racism. I’ll never know for sure. What I do know is that all of these encounters made me self-conscious of my Asian identity. All of these experiences made me feel like I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t respected, or that I was perceived differently.

If you’ve experienced similar displacement and this post resonated with you, I’d be happy to chat with you in the comments or via email. If you’ve experienced otherwise as an Asian in France, I’m glad that you’ve been well-treated–I’d also love to hear about your experience.

Cheers,

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6 Comments

  • Kezzie January 23, 2020 at 3:04 pm

    That is very interesting to read of your experiences. It is not nice to think of people being deliberately rude because of your appearance and a perceived sense of you being a helpless tourist.

    • Lily Fang January 23, 2020 at 3:08 pm

      Yes, it really doesn’t feel good! I think this is honestly one of the biggest drawbacks of living in France–it’s difficult to constantly be so aware of your race and wonder whether people are treating you differently because of it. French people can also be very difficult when it comes to talking about race. I mentioned in a Google review once that my family and I had gotten racist vibes in a pastry shop, as we’d been treated rudely for no reason, but the same staff was very polite and smiley with a white customer. The shopkeeper replied to my review and had the audacity to tell me that what I experienced wasn’t racism, but just an unfortunate circumstance, and that I didn’t understand the weight of my statement! The truth is that racism is often very subtle, and even “good” people can act in racist ways. Denying racism isn’t going to improve anything.

  • Rachel G January 23, 2020 at 3:05 pm

    Very interesting to read your experiences! It’s fascinating how culture impacts the way foreigners are treated. Angel gets the experience of being just about the only Mexican anybody’s ever seen around here. While playing neighborhood basketball a couple months ago a guy that he knows only a little called him “Speedy Gonzalez”…

    But mostly, nobody even knows he’s Hispanic. He is often asked where he’s from by random strangers in elevators–most of the time the question actually looks more like people pointing at him and saying: “Oman? Yemen? Saudi?” Malaysia is a big tourist destination for people from the Middle East. But Angel acts like and sounds like an American, so that confuses people. A couple months ago he tried to buy a snack bag of pretzels at a store and the check-out lady put it to the side and didn’t scan it with the rest of the groceries. He asked if he could have the pretzels, too, and she just shook her head. He was really confused, and asked again, and this time she said, “Non-halal.” That’s when we finally figured out…she thought he was Muslim and shops here aren’t allowed to sell non-halal items to Muslims. He then told her, it’s okay, I’m American, you can sell them to me, and finally she scanned the pretzels.
    The most dramatic event happened when we were out as a whole family, my dad had parked the van and we’d all gone into an office together, Angel walked back to the car first and instantly some guard was shouting at him at the top of his lungs–apparently we weren’t supposed to park there. Oops! But it wasn’t Angel’s car and he wasn’t driving and didn’t have keys to move it. The guard was still yelling in Bahasa and we were all kind of frozen–Angel doesn’t speak any Bahasa but the rest of my family does–and then my dad walked out and was like, “Hi, what’s happening?” and the guard instantly walked away. So my dad was the one who actually made the mistake of parking where he wasn’t supposed to but because he’s white, everyone will leave him alone.

    Another funny story, but this one is about my mom, who I guess doesn’t look like what Malaysians necessarily expect a white person to look like. My Dad and Mom went to the US embassy to do paperwork stuff and the security guards told my dad he could go in the entrance for citizens but told my mom she’d have to wait in the line for non-US-citizens. Even though she had her passport right there…

    • Lily Fang January 23, 2020 at 3:05 pm

      I think I remember you telling the story of the pretzels! It is funny how people make assumptions just on the way you look. I’m glad he go the pretzels in the end 🙂 And it’s also funny how some people act more polite or ruder to others based on their assumed race. I think most countries treat white people with a lot of respect, especially majority non-white countries. But if you’re black, Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, etc., you might get a totally different response.

      Thanks for sharing these stories! I’m glad that these really weren’t malicious. I hope that the more we talk about this, the fewer assumptions people will make and the less ignorance there’ll be.

  • Adriana Langa January 23, 2020 at 3:05 pm

    I have been to France, and as a black woman I think they assumed I was a local — they’d often speak French to me and I knew little to none. I guess this is a positive but as a black woman in the states I definitely experience micro aggressions like being followed in a store or asked if I’m going to purchase the things I’m holding.

    I think for my future travels I will have to keep in mind that I won’t always look like I belong in that space and take peoples efforts or encounters with others with a grain of salt. Thank you for sharing your experiences!

    • Lily Fang January 23, 2020 at 3:05 pm

      Yes, I think most French will treat a black person as a local, especially since the blacks make up 5-8% of the population and many were born in France or come from French-speaking countries. It’s funny because I have a Nigerian-American friend who speaks French with the same strength American accent as I do, and many people mistake her for a native speaker, which people never do for me.

      I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had similar negative experiences in the States. Racism can have a profound impact on our health and well-being–a friend was telling me about a study that followed African families who immigrated to the States. They had been totally healthy for generations, but within a couple generations, they began experiencing a ton of severe health issues–and scientists think it’s likely due to the stress of racism. I’m glad you shared your thoughts with me–I’m hoping that the more we talk about it, the more educated people will become!

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    About Me

    I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it).
    As a liberal arts grad/endurance athlete/travel enthusiast, I find beauty in many spheres. Consequently, I have no idea where life will lead me. Here is where I document my (mis)adventures and try to offer some helpful advice. Feel free to join me for the ride. Read More

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