On Being Asian in France: My Experience

Me with my back to the camera posing in front of the Parisian architecture view from the Palais Garnier balcony

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 encounters 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. 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.

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  1. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. Ugh, what a frustrating reply to the review! I’m sorry that it tainted living in France and I’m sorry you had to deal with it. I’m a white Canadian (I found your blog via your post about Aura Montreal) and I think the answer to your question “Bad customer service, or racism?” might be both? I’ve had some memorable instances of great customer service in France, but your experiences under that heading reminded me of the first time I was in France, with some Canadian and American backpackers I’d met at a hostel in London. We were grocery shopping in Paris for a picnic and one of the Americans (white, and didn’t speak French) got charged the price per kilo for a 100 or 200g of cheese. She mentioned being surprised at the price and I looked at it and went back to politely argue with the woman at the shop that she’d ripped off my friend. She claimed that my friend had just misunderstood but because I had the bill and the cheese right there, plus I was able to argue the case in French, after several stressful minutes she agreed to refund the difference. In that case it definitely felt like the woman at the shop was disdainful of Americans generally, and that if I hadn’t been fluent in French and stubborn she wouldn’t have refunded the money. Anyway, reading about your experience at the gym and the phone company reminded me of that feeling of frustration of negotiating with someone who just doesn’t see the customer as right, and having that on top of suspecting you’re getting different treatment because of your appearance/race sounds awful.

        1. Thanks for leaving a thoughtful comment, Christina! I can totally see it being both racism and bad customer service – France is definitely not known for its customer service, and they can be pretty rude to foreigners sometimes, especially if they don’t speak French. I agree that it’s just even more frustrating and alienating when you don’t know whether people are rude to you because of your race. I’m glad to hear you could stand up for your friend and get her money back!

  2. 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…

    1. 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.

  3. 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!

    1. 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!

  4. wow! interesting read! I’m so sorry about the way you were treated in France and being treated differently just because of your race… 🙁 I’m also Asian and I stayed in France earlier this year. Maybe because it was Paris and there was more diversity, but I definitely got the impression that there were quite a handful of French-Asians around and that people were generally nice to me and treated me fine – although, I was only there for about 2 months (because of COVID and the lockdown). I also lived with a white host family in Chinatown, so it could also very well be that the people I was around were used to seeing French Asians! The only time I experienced some racism was right before the lockdown due to the coronavirus. I was on a run around Chinatown and there was this black man who yelled “Corona Corona” at me as I passed (but what were you doing in Chinatown though??). Really grateful I had an understanding host family who, when I told her about it, she was really mad and apologetic about my experience.
    Coming from Singapore, where being Chinese is the ethnic majority, I would consider myself privileged (at least, in my country’s context), so it’s really a different experience living somewhere else where I’m a minority. Anywho, thank you for sharing your experiences! Hope you’re staying safe amidst the current pandemic!

    1. I’m glad to hear you had a really supportive host family! I do agree with you – I think there is more diversity in larger cities like Paris, so people are more used to seeing Asians and might be less ignorant. Thank you for sharing your experience with me, and hope you’re staying safe and healthy too!

  5. Thanks so much for sharing, this was fascinating to read. I’m also an Asian-American living in a francophone region. My experience has been different in some ways. For instance, for the first point you raised about how annoying it is for people to assume you don’t speak French, I can totally understand that. For me, on the other hand, because my French is so bad (I’m studying every day but am finding French to be really difficult to pick up as an adult while working full time), when I walk into a store and people talk to me in English, it actually makes me feel better, because to me it feels like they’re saying “I am happy to accommodate you by speaking a language you’re more comfortable with.” Seeing your experience definitely gave me a whole new perspective on this issue and made me remember how infuriating it was to literally be asked all the time “But where are you really from?” back in the States. I’m sorry that you had to deal with this.

    1. Hi Summer! Thanks for reading. I can totally see how being spoken to in English is actually more convenient – when I was in the Balkans, I didn’t mind if people just spoke to me in English because I didn’t know the local languages. But I think it can also send an unwelcoming message (perhaps unintended), as the person greeting the Asian person in English is assuming that they can’t speak French, based on their appearance. It makes it feel like an Asian person can never “belong” in that place.

      Either way, thank you for reading and sharing your story! I truly appreciate it.

  6. Thanks for sharing your experience – I found it insightful. Keep in mind, though, that white Europeans are Indigenous to that part of the world. To claim it’s “staggering” that France has a white supermajority is a bit out of touch with European demographics. It wouldn’t be staggering for me to travel to an East Asian state and notice that I’m belonging to a racial minority, or to find, naturally, that I’m “perceived as different” by locals – wouldn’t we expect to be perceived differently when visiting societies in which we’re a minority? Any non-white state that I travel to, that’s part of the deal. It’s understood that I’m visiting somewhere in which I’m a racial minority and I understand that I’m going to stand out and will be treated differently. That’s one of the pillars of tourism.

    1. Hi Lee, I think you’ve missed the point of my post. I used the word “staggering” in comparison to my experience as an American, where the population is much more diverse. I also pointed out that people are naturally going to be curious about the ethnic minorities, and perhaps treat them differently because they mean well (like the example of Chinese people in China assuming that white people don’t speak Mandarin).

      That said, this is no excuse for racist behavior, which is what this post details. We also have to keep in mind that treating minorities differently sends the message that they can never belong. If someone in Paris greets me in English and assumes I don’t know French, that’s annoying, but I’m just a tourist there anyways, so whatever. If I were a French-born Asian living in Paris, I would hate for people to constantly assume I’m not French and don’t belong. Hope this clears things up, and thanks for reading.

      1. I found your blog when I was curious what French locals think of Asians in their country. so far I in my first 2 days of touring paris, it’s been well received. however, I come from the states, don’t speak French, look Asian but speak English with an American accent. I appreciate people here greeting me in French and when I reply in english, they switch to English as well. it is probably also Paris is a popular tourist city and the locals probably assumes I am not from here. as a white nation for most of modern human history, I wouldn’t be surprised if they treated non whites differently (but not ill-intended) simply because they either don’t know what we want or because they are scared to offend ( the latter, in the case of foreigners in Japan). I would expect the same even in China or any other countries and how they would treat a white person eg. here in the states, I don’t experience much racism for the most part as I am in California. racism against Asians isn’t very big, however, it very much goes unnoticed, and very little effort goes into address any racism against asians. when they do, it’s 99% lip service for the media. sorry to hear about how you were treated in France, I shall keep that in mind for the remainder of my travel. thank you.

        1. Hi Alan! I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying your time in Paris. I agree that most times people greet Asians differently because they assume they don’t speak English and want to make it easier for everyone. I’d expect the same to happen for a white person in China. I don’t think it’s ill-intended, but I do feel bad for the local Asians who must constantly experience feeling like an outsider because of their race. I hope you enjoy the rest of your travels! Thank you for sharing your experience with us!

  7. Wow I was planning to study in france for my law degree but I heard about the xenophobia of french people and now Im so scared that I will experience this. I dont think I want to live or study in a place that is this dangerous for asian people

    1. Hi Archer! I don’t want to dissuade you from studying in France. I never felt physically unsafe there, though I know this may not be the case for everyone. It can be emotionally taxing to have these experiences, however. I encourage you to hear from others and maybe find a place where foreigners are more common, if you decide to go to France (such as Paris, which has a pretty strong Asian community).

  8. Keep in mind that I am interested in hearing people’s experiences, but I am not interested in having people tell me that my experiences are “not that bad” (learn about gaslighting). I also will not tolerate any rude or passive aggressive behavior on my site and will delete your comment if I feel that it is unproductive. This is my space and I am not paid to argue with you. If you’re going to hide behind a fake name and bully someone sharing vulnerable experiences, you are not welcome, and I hope you find peace in your life.

  9. Thanks for sharing Lily, I’m Chinese, and was raised in the U.S. , but you know being Asian isn’t American enough so I’m thinking of going somewhere more liberal and open minded. Any recommendations? Are there any parts of France that are super liberal and open minded to Asians.

    1. Hi Mike! I wouldn’t call France in general particularly liberal-minded, especially when it comes to issues of race/ethnicity/religion. But, Paris is probably all right since it’s a big city with a decent Asian population.

  10. I’ve been to France and both to the countryside and cities. I was just there to visit my family who lives there and all my cousins were born in France. We are of Vietnamese descent. I grew up close to one of the largest Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam in California. I had quite the opposite experience in France and in US (but of course you had the disclaimer about relative to liberal state in US). Even in California and pretty much every time I’ve been outside of California I’ve been asked in some way or another. Where are you from? And when I say California, the response is no where are you really from? I’ve been stared at like an alien just walked in. Even talked to some people who have an adopted Asian relative who begged to move to California because “there she is treated like a human being”. Unless you are in a city or in a liberal state most people assume I’m a foreigner. Even been told how good my English is. In France, most people tried to speak French to me and when I responded in my broken poor French complimented me and thanked me for at least trying unlike “other Americans” they have interacted with. Have I had frustrating interactions, yes but that was because of the language barrier, not because of where my family is from. In general, Parisians are getting less patience especially with anyone who appears to be a tourist so unfortunately there’s been a lot of Chinese tourist over the last decade there who speak some English at best. My cousins are Parisians and apologized on behalf of their own people but admit it is true that people should not assume their experience in Paris reflects all of France. To me, it’s no more than thinking NYC reflects the rest of the US. Like you said, it’s all relative. I’ve probably spent about 8 weeks total in France over the two trips but I was amongst the locals. Everyone I spoke to was highly opinionated and other than being curious as to what I was doing there, the topic of my “race” never felt like a consideration. Not like in the US. Even in California, I still get men who tell me openly that they like Asian girls even though they never dated one. We know what they are thinking, oh she’s submissive, etc. it’s pretty disgusting and discouraging as someone who periodically dates. I even talked to some guys in France and went out with two and they didn’t objectify or fetishize me at all which was nice for a change. French people do seem pretty private and they generally think our “American” politeness is weird. They just say what they think so that may come off as rude but I found them much more personal than most people I meet here. Kind of disappointing to read your experience since I’m considering moving there to be with my cousins and aunt for a few years. Asian men there don’t have the same trouble with dating as in the US which was interesting to me. One of my cousins is married to a French women of tunsian descent and another married to a Columbian woman. Look up Fu manchu and yellow peril and the US has a long history of fetishizing Asian women and opposite of Asian men. Literally one of the guys I went on a date with had a half brother who was born from his mother and an Vietnamese man. How often does that happen in the US? I think I know of a few cases but the opposite where an Asian women married to a white man, plenty. I don’t even have white woman friends because they see me as a threat to their relationship. The number of times I’ve had a white woman forbid her bf or husband from being friends with me is appalling. The assumption that I love their whiteness and will steal them is silly. Just my two cents. Still considering moving to France despite living in a very liberal town in California.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience, Sandy! I’m so sorry you’ve been treated this way in the US. It is sad and frustrating how Asian women are fetishized. I’m glad you’ve had a better experience in France and hope you continue to enjoy your time there if you move!

  11. Thanks for sharing as I was curious about this topic myself. I think context matters. Also, I don’t think the national population of a certain race has much to do with racism in a specific city. Most Asian Americans live in major, liberal US cities where there is already a relatively high concentration of Asians. If you stayed in one of those Asian hotspots, comparing your experience in the US vs Paris would make more sense. Been to Paris a few times now, and I’d have to say that the locals are definitely more neutral with Asians vs San Francisco where there are just constant micro aggressions, at least with Asian men within the last decade. Some of the more conservative cities in America are actually less racist.

    1. Hi Jorge, thanks for sharing your experience with us, and I’m sorry to hear you’ve experienced many microaggressions in the US. I think you misread my post though, as most of these experiences in France that I wrote about did not happen in Paris but in smaller cities like Bordeaux, Dijon, etc.

  12. Hi Lily, thank you for sharing your view about life in France. I know these microaggressions can really affect the quality of life. I’m in Lille and I’ve noticed something that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. On multiple occurrences, I’ve been asked by the staff at supermarkets to check my tote. The occurrences are about 90% of the time, which is a little high to go unnoticed. At first I thought there might be a theft issue in Lille and it was a precautionary measure, and as I hadn’t purchased anything from the trip. But then it happens when I’m already in line to checkout, and when I’m about to pay for my items. So here I am a little puzzled, and I wonder if anyone else has experienced this.

    1. Hi Olivia! I’m sorry you’ve experienced suspicion in grocery stores! I think this is more common in France than in the US at least (for checkout people to check totes). But I honestly don’t remember this happening every time.

  13. I’m a Malaysian-Chinese and I’m planning to study abroad or travel to France since it’s one of the countries that I really admire.
    I’m currently trying to learn French by my own now and I suddenly thought about the racial issues that might occur and that lead me to finding your blogs.
    Do you think it’s a good idea for me to study there in the future? Is French hard to learn? Or is there any advice that you would like to share?

    1. I think it’s still worth considering studying in France as long as you’re aware of the potential issues. I don’t love the school system in France, however, so you have to consider whether you want a smooth educational experience or the cultural/language immersion. French can be hard to learn, but it’s always easier when you’re immersed!

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