Paris Paris Paris

So, I live in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, on my own in a small former maid’s room (dit chambre de bonne en français). Naturally, I don’t have particularly close relationships with my neighbors on the lower floors of the apartment building, who are all much more francophone and much older than I am, so I was delighted to see a poster on my building welcoming all in the quartier to a small Christmas decorations celebration Friday night (with free snacks and hot drinks, of course. The 5th arrondissement is, as we would say in either language, très chic).

 

I got to the small get-together about 40 minutes late, and instantly noticed that everyone there was a minimum of probably 35 years old, and on average probably over 60. Not that that’s bad, but immediately I felt very timid, and could feel most of my usual extraversion fly out the window. I stayed anyways, waiting in line for some refreshments and peanuts, and marveling at the locale (it was at the Place Alphonse Laveran, which is right in front of Val-de-Grâce. No one is really familiar with Val-de-Grâce, but it’s a gorgeous church/military hospital/museum that is beautiful and surprisingly under-appreciated. Seriously, look it up. I’m going to mass there tomorrow).

Fortunately, after about 10 minutes of standing on my own and enjoying my nice winter evening, a very nice older woman struck up a conversation with me (in French! yes! And, she was a Parisian who liked foreigners! Even better!). We ended up talking for about an hour, as she waxed poetic about her experiences in Denver, DC, the West Coast, and her favorite place in the US, New Orleans. I talked about the normal conversation things too – Sciences Po, my studies/career plans, the complex answer to the question “Ca te plaît, la France?”. She got one last cup of warm mulled wine (before deciding she had already drank too much) and we walked to the métro together. We also got some delicious samples of prosciutto outside of a boucherie on our way there. Again, perks of the 5th arrondissement! It was a short experience, but it felt satisfying to have a simple, innocent conversation with a stranger who really did just want to talk to me as if I were another equal human. I really started to feel as if I lived here, in a way that I haven’t before.

 

Paris is a city of contradictions and representations; so much has been written, filmed, and spoken of the city, and so many come expecting to be marveled. So many are marveled, but equally, so many may be disappointed. In the past months, I’ve had to struggle with coming back to a city that I loved on my first visit, and feeling uneasy settling in.

 

And adjusting to life in Paris is difficult. Parisians are actually nice, but mostly to those with whom they can relate. (I.e., not you.) Furthermore, the bureaucratic struggles and even daily cost of living are severe: I’m currently typing out and signing a letter just to cancel my phone bill, laundry costs about 7 euros per load, and friends of mine have had to walk into banks to contest unforeseen 190 euro charges. And what’s more, there’s also a ton of dog poop in the streets. Ca m’agace.

 

But it’s a city that I’m also really starting to deeply love, again. As I mentioned, Paris is full of contradictions. It’s a world tourist destination, but also a national capital, but also a normal city with some quarters that are extraordinarily quiet and family-friendly. The Eiffel Tower is one of the world’s most beautiful monuments. The Tour Montparnasse…. certainly isn’t. There’s Asian areas, black areas, poor areas, rich-as-could-be areas, embassy-filled areas, and migrant-heavy areas. All in a city 1/10th the geographic size of London. At 3am on any given night, you might find 50 people hanging around the Châtelet bus area (the geographic center of Paris), some drunk, some sleeping, some heading to work in a warehouse, some returning home from a night out, some heading out to the airport at an ungodly early hour.

The Tour Montparnasse, which many consider to be the ugliest building in Paris, to the left of the Eiffel Tower.

All of these contradictions make the city so rich, weird, and worth living in. And now that I’m finally comfortable enough to go a market by the Bastille to get some cheap gloves and scarves, or to go to a boulangerie and actually know what sweets I want to order, or to simply tell someone how adorable their dog is, I’m starting to love it again.

 

All that said, my experience of Paris has been but one pathetically small snapshot. By the time I leave, I’ll have spent 4 months here, and can really only say that I’ve barely scratched the surface. My experience has likely been vastly different from any other exchange student’s, and has been equally vastly different from that of a “true” Parisian. But I’m still delighted to have had it.

Liberté, Inégalité, Fraternité

Hi. I’m in France. Did you know France has a different society than the United States? Wow. Surprising, right?

Sarcasm aside, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about how French society treats class differences and inequality. The treatment is weird and complex, and much like France as a whole, I still don’t know what to make of it. So I figured we could work it out in another nice little blog post.

A graph from the New York Times, showing income growth by percentile of family income. The graph shows a growing concern in the US – rapidly growing income inequality. The topic is relevant to the politics of both nations.

For example, the French are attentive to some language nuances in ways that Americans aren’t. It’s not necessarily polite to say “les pauvres” (the poor) or even “les quartiers pauvres” (poor areas) in French – preferred is the “quartiers défavorisés/classes défavorisées.” One of my friends told me about a class discussion where her French professor objected to referring to black people as “les noirs,” preferring some translation of “of African descent.” From my experience, neither of these would be particularly ‘mal vu’ in my home country.

 

Yet on the other hand, I’ve observed a unique sort of valorization of wealth that’s difficult to explain, but rather striking. A prior blog post of mine was about a casual conversation I had with a Parisian woman; I remember that as soon as I told her about where I went in the U.S., and that I was going to Sciences Po in Paris, she asked me “well then you must come from a great family, is your father a doctor?”

 

The answer is no – my family’s [expletive] awesome, but my dad’s definitely not a doctor. I get similar responses when people ask me what my parents do, and I explain that they are divorced, one is currently mostly on disability benefits, and the other does internal product movement (“purchase orders” she’s told me) for a company, in a job that she doesn’t really like.

 

People here seem to expect that a certain type of accomplishment is accompanied with a certain type of family wealth and stature. And what’s more, they don’t question it – every time I’ve met someone who’s been like “Oh, well he’s rich” or “Oh, well students at Sciences Po are usually quite well off,” their observations don’t seem to come with a critical tone. If anything, they’re positive, even though inherited affluence likely isn’t the result of that student’s own, independent work and intelligence.

 

Of course, seeing an open dialogue about wealth is really cool. (I could write another whole blog post about how our country’s lack of true dialogue about wealth leads us to valorize the ‘middle class’ when actually there’s a huge group of people who call themselves ‘middle class’ who make ridiculous money and are actually upper class and participate in politics I strongly disagree with but…. maybe here’s not the place. I’ll direct you to my NU Speech Team work on that). It’s nice that this society seems to know and acknowledge what affluence looks like.

 

 

But I’ve also met a few people who have reacted weirdly when I or my friends have mentioned financial constraints – in buying suits for a Model UN conference, in restaurant decisions, or in searching for lodging. As if attempting to live life cheaply and being so brash about it were slightly… familier. It’s a little bit off-settling to be given the implicit idea that since I don’t come from a prep school with a lawyer father, that I’m not chic. Or that I’m abnormal, or that I’m not well situated, or that I’m… not worth being where I am.

 

More reflection on this subject is needed, but it’s one of the most interesting differences I’ve found in my new environment while abroad.

Becoming francophone

I have a lot of respect for those who go to countries where they don’t speak the language at all. I took French all throughout middle school and high school, and though it was a big help in figuring out my life here in Paris, I still felt like I was constantly running into language barriers.

While my French hasn’t mutated itself into the natural and easy fluency I was hoping for, I definitely think being here has been instrumental for my language skills. It’s one thing to spend years studying a language in a country where no one speaks it anyway, and another to actually see the language used in practice. Words and expressions have taken on new meanings and contexts while I’ve been here. My French is still very English-influenced, but more and more I’m seeing how actual French people speak French. However, one of my friends put it very well by saying that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. As I begin to understand how certain words and concepts are utilized in French, the more I’ve realized how limited my perception of the language is and how much improvement there will always be left to do.

Despite the seemingly endless stumbling blocks and the sheer speed with which French people talk, I managed to find some stride with the language a little over a month in. Less French people started making the automatic transition into English when they hear me talk (it’s especially frustrating when I only say “bonjour” and they immediately know ), and it feels like I’m learning a bit more everyday.

 

Affirmative Action, dit “Discrimination Positive”

 

“What do you consider yourself?”

“Probably a liberal.”

“Oh well, you know we say that the American left is about the same as the French right.”

– an excerpt from a recent meeting I had for a group project.

 

I’ve had various opportunities through my Legal Studies curriculum and my Speech Team experience to engage with and listen to interesting, thought-provoking scholarship about our country’s problem with race. These experiences have changed the way I’ve viewed politics in the U.S…. but I’ve always wondered how one might compare that to France. At Northwestern, my French classes have made occasional allusions to the most important moments in French race relations – the Algerian War, the riots of 2005, the current migrant crisis – which have given me the small lenses into the Fifth Republic’s own racial problems.

Obviously, a reference, 25 minutes of class time, or one news article of required reading does little to truly depict how one country’s political axes compare to another. And while I’ve always heard comparisons between France and the USA that insist on French’s free-spirit liberalism, I’d rarely had the chance to get a more nuanced understanding of how the societies’ politics map on to each other, and I’d hoped to get a sense of this at Sciences Po.

That’s exactly what happened in one of my classes last week, when we discussed the documentary Noirs en France, which (obviously) focuses on the recent history of black integration and experience in France. What immediately struck me in the ensuing discussion with our course professor was the discussion of “affirmative action.” In our discussions of how to remedy the effects of past discrimination, our professors and presenting students immediately used the word “quotas” when discussing American affirmative action. Being the defensive American I am, I immediately took the opportunity to shoot my hand up and clarify that “ACTUALLY, quota systems are explicitly illegal and have been ruled as such in multiple forms – ‘affirmative action’ in higher education only takes the form of ‘holistic admissions’.” The professor remained firm. In his argument, since American universities nonetheless kept racial statistics of incoming classes, the usage of any race still constituted a sort of divisive “labelling” and “quota.” To me, this was insane. A simple awareness of racial statistics is in no way the same as explicitly delineating quotas, and numerous cases have established that college admissions must only consider race as a holistic factor (which, by the way, tends to help minority representation in a way that not doing so has failed to remedy).

This instance reminded me of another event from course a few weeks ago, when my pro-European history professor, who appears to be tout à fait left in her national outlook, mentioned that she was about to say something “politically incorrect” before merely acknowledging some current political tensions and stereotypes between the French, Germans, and British. Her use of the term struck me as bizarre, but not completely novel. I had heard before, and have heard since, French adults say that they might not be “politically correct” when discussing politics when, to my eyes, they’re simply acknowledging frank interests and actions in a political or national situation. That is, it seems that there’s a French conception that “political correctness” means avoiding even the discussion of difficult subjects or frank political differences (where, again, I would define it as simply a manifestation of not calling people what they don’t want to be called, or perhaps setting boundaries for language we use to discuss difficult subjects. But that’s another subject).

I’m sure that to a French person’s eyes some of my political views might seem odd. For one, France doesn’t like to keep racial statistics; nowhere in the Noirs en France video or presentation did we discuss statistics of average racial wealth, educational achievement, or even presence in educational achievement. So, when we were discussing racial demographics in Paris for another of my classes, there was a notable lack of, well, real demographics and maps of race. Our discussion focused on hearsay and general observations of where were the “African” and “Asian” quartiers. Those in my classes ardently argued that under la République, each citizen was no more than a citizen, and so such statistics are only divisive. Yet for me, the first thing I think of is the extraordinarily low number of (visually apparent) black, Asian, or Arab students I see at Sciences Po outside of the exchange population. I can’t get over the feeling that such an aversion hides patterns of discrimination that we haven’t even thought to study, but I’m sure another student might not be able to get over the feeling that such study in and of itself would damage the république’s guarantee of equality.

What’s so interesting to me is that both of these strains have seen French liberals making arguments I would more expect to see from an American conservative. The basic insight is in no way novel – “Wow! French people think differently about politics than us!”. But it’s much more complicated than the simple “the French right is the American left” cliché. The French “république” has a different poids than the American “republic,” the idea of “le libéralisme économique” is about the inverse of a Democratic “economic liberal,” and most importantly, conceptions of how a political space should operate are grounded in different axes. The American left isn’t the French right; they’re two entirely separate coordinate systems that demand a nuanced conversion.

My professors actually look like me…?

Unlike the many exchange students I’ve met in Singapore, who often tell me about how conspicuous they feel in their classes, I’m happy to say I’ve experienced the exact opposite.

As an aspiring teacher, I’ve done lots of reading about the positive impact teachers of color have on students of color. But as a Chinese-American, I’ve wondered why there isn’t much research on the subject with reference to Asian American students. Because of this, I decided to look back on my own experiences. Did having Asian teachers make a difference in my education? And then I realized: I had no idea, because I’ve had so few in my entire educational experience.

No wonder there isn’t much research about Asian teachers in America – they only make up about 2% of all teachers in the US.

Although the school district I grew up in has a relatively diverse workforce, I only had nine teachers of color out of the fifty teachers who taught me over thirteen years. Of these nine, although a few were Indian or Filipino or Asians of mixed race, none were the image of what I hope to be someday: a Chinese-American teacher.

This hasn’t changed in my six quarters at Northwestern, where I’ve had twenty-four professors. Only two of them were professors of color, and both were Black.

Now that I attend a school where I blend in and all of my professors look like me, I can genuinely say there is a small yet positive change in my learning environment. In a subtle way, I feel less worried about how my professors see me. Because I care about my academics and work hard in school, I know I play into the studious Asian stereotype. In America, this stereotype often makes my genuine interest in learning look like a narrow-minded attempt at making it to the top. I worry that my non-Asian professors falsely perceive me in this way. And even though the same stereotype is also prevalent in Singapore, I don’t spend nearly as much time worrying about how it looks on me, because my professors also know how it feels to be subjected to that stereotype.

So one day, when my genetics professor commented, “Most of us are Chinese, so our alleles differ…” I had to stop for a second to process what he said. “Us”? That included me.

In that moment, I felt freed of being noticed as “Asian.” For once, I was just the average student.

Midterm Wake-Up Call

Midterm season in Milan is finally over and what a wake up call it truly was. Classes at Bocconi are very comparable to Northwestern classes in terms of difficulty, but not so much in terms of how you are assessed. At Northwestern, your grade is typically broken down into multiple categories including but not limited to: homework, quizzes, group assignments, participation, essays, midterm/final exams etc. This diversification not only ensures that you steadily keep up with the materials, but also relieves some of the stress that comes along with a majority of your grade relying on one exam or essay. After midterms here at Bocconi, I am realizing how much I took homework or as I called it, “busy work”, for granted. At Bocconi, your grade is pretty much determined by one or two (if you’re lucky) exams — talk about pressure! If you’re really lucky, you can find classes with group projects that could ultimately boost your grade. But for the most part, there is virtually no homework at Bocconi. So not only do you not get those opportunities to improve your grade, there is a lot of temptation to take advantage of your freedom here and to cram everything in the night before the exam — especially if you’re a non-attending student. Speaking from my own experience here, this does NOT end well. My excitement of being on another continent and my overwhelming desire to travel every weekend unsurprisingly shifted my focus away from academics.

That is why I took this midterm season as a wake up call and as an opportunity for me to shift my priorities. Bocconi has such a wide range of classes that would appeal to anyone looking at a career in the business world. I am thoroughly enjoying my classes (leadership skills, management of fashion companies, business strategy, and financial markets and institutions) and I look forward to taking advantage of being at such an elite European business school and truly engaging with the material that is inherently applicable to my career goals. For the second half of my semester, I will fully dedicate myself to trying to find a balance between academic  success and cultural immersion and exploration.

 

From finding the perfect balance between travelling every weekend and exploring your host city (maybe studying a little bit…or a lot) or the balance between eating pizza and pasta everyday and eating a carbless meal every once in awhile– a semester abroad is a balancing act.

arrivederci America!

I have always been obsessed with Italy and it’s culture and have always had a deep connection to Italian culture and arts. For these reasons, my decision to study abroad in Italy was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. I will be attending Bocconi University in Milan for the fall semester, and I am feeling ALL the emotions about it.

First, I am head over heels thrilled. I have always considered myself a city girl trapped in the suburbs. Every time I would make the trek to Chicago, the liveliness and the diversity of the city and the people always left me with a feeling of this is where I’m supposed to be. Being able to explore the fast-paced city of Milan, and being able to call it my home for a whole semester excites me to no end.

However, with extreme excitement comes some nervousness. I have never been to Europe before, and have never even been out of the country without my parents. So this is pretty much my first taste of complete independence. Don’t get me wrong, I have definitely become more independent my first two years of college, but there is still comfort knowing that your parents are a phone call and a 45 minute drive away. So I am ready to embrace the full independence and to be completely on my own for the first time in 20 years.

Despite this whirlwind of emotions, I am ready to experience the best semester of my life. The people I’m going to meet, places I’m going to see, things i’m going to eat will culminate into one of my most cherished experiences. I am excited to leave Milan feeling inspired, more knowledgeable, and more aware of my capabilities as both a student and a twenty year old GAL.

Take the Time

One thing that has been interesting about being abroad is seeing how it is really up to you to define your priorities — want to travel all the time? You can do that. Want to fully immerse in the city where you are? Go for it. Maybe you really want to take maximum advantage of all of your classes. What I have found is that my schedule is a lot less demanding than it is at Northwestern and it has taken some reflection to decide what to do with all my time. First, I am trying to strike a balance between traveling abroad and immersing in Paris.  So far I have traveled to London and Amsterdam and have had a great time exploring both. I am also trying to push myself to not settle into too much of a rhythm when I am in Paris and continually make an effort to explore new neighborhoods and buildings, because it is easy to get stuck in the familiar. Because I have had some extra time, I have decided to look into exploring certain interests I usually don’t have time to devote to. Just yesterday, I spent an hour in an art supply store trying to pick out a medium to explore. I settled for charcoal and a sketchbook made of brown paper (new to me) and am looking forward to sketching around the city. I also plan to head to Station F, the world’s largest startup campus, to explore the entrepreneurial environment here. I also discovered a Salsa Club that has free classes Wednesday and Thursday. Basically, there are a million activities to explore, and where better to do that than in the enormous and bustling city of Paris? Not to mention, it is a great way to practice my French!

Arriving à Paris!!

I never saw myself as someone who would get culture shock, even though I had only left the country once in my life – and I was 10 years old so it didn’t really count. Students have been studying abroad since forever, and if they could do it there was no reason I wouldn’t be able to also. I decided to embrace the big question mark lying beyond August 22nd, the date I would arrive.

So when I got to Paris, the reality that I had to make everything happen for myself hit me almost immediately. The first thing I had to do when I got there was find a way to charge my dead phone, since I didn’t even think about the outlets being different in France. I was overwhelmed making my way through the streets, both by the sheer surrealism of just being in Paris and by the sheer density of my physical surroundings. Everywhere there was somewhere to look at. It felt strange to be in such new and unreal surroundings while doing something as mundane as getting an outlet convertor, and this contrast would come to dominate my time here. 

Since my phone was dead (and didn’t have phone service anyway), I had to rely completely on myself to navigate these foreign streets. I managed to somehow successfully use my French to get some directions, but considering these directions were in French, the street names were muddled sounds in my head I had to match up to the signs I saw as I walked around.

Needless to say, adjusting to being in a new place was more of a hurdle than I expected. It was an exciting kind of stress though.

The view from my window!!

One Month In

Bonsoir! It’s Sunday evening here in Paris, and I’m finally taking some time to sit down and stream-of-consciousness out some little sentences that will eventually get strung together into a coherent blog post. But first, some scene-setting: it’s cold, gray, been sprinkling all day, and I feel mildly sick. But I also had one of the best crêpes of my liiiife today (buckwheat galettes, potatoes, duck breast, and sauce au poivre) and I still feel great. Somewhere in that scene lies the magic of being excited about the novelty of where you’re living and what you’re doing every single day.

One of my favorite pictures from my recent adventures – the ramparts at Provins, a small town near Paris with a large medieval heritage.

If there’s anything I need to talk about first, it’s the time – it’s been over an entire month that I’ve been here. Ridiculous. On one hand, that feels long. I feel comfortable travelling in the city, I’ve been touristy enough that every day doesn’t feel like a magical adventure, and most importantly, ¼ of my program is already over (yikes!). On the other hand, it’s rather short – I still have a list of dozens upon dozens of restaurants that I’ve seen and noted but not visited, I still have a long list of nearby places in Ile-de-France to visit, and I still have almost 90% of my big academic assignments left to complete.

That said, it’s been an amazing month. The past week and a half have started to help everything really settle in – I feel comfortable with my friends, excited to leave the house, and could probably (stilly only probably) make my way back home from anywhere in central Paris without using my phone. I’ve picked my topics and groups for all of my large class projects, and have already started delving into the readings (it seems that French undergrad education assignments are much more often “find some books about this or that yourself and read them all”, but more on that later…). I’ve successfully given 2 (two!) strangers directions to the nearest metro station.

The past month has SOARED by at about 250 mph (although, to be European, that’s 402 kmh). There’s so much left to do, and so many small daily happenings that I woulda-shoulda-but-haven’t written about. Hopefully I’ll be able to use this upcoming month of October to blog even more. Fingers crossed…!

 

PS., yes, the featured image is taken from Snapchat, but it’s the best picture I could find of the view from my chambre de bonne (a small maid’s chamber above the more regularly-sized Parisian apartments).