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.

A beautiful city built by kind people

The more I live and learn about Singapore, the more I believe that it was built by kind people. By that I am referring to the societal infrastructures and constructs that have manifested throughout history. Many countries that I have previously lived in have had corrupt, selfish leaders that marginalize the socioeconomically, physically, and racially disadvantaged. Singapore is the opposite.

What I have learned most recently is the urban planning initiatives surrounding HDBs. HDB stands for “Housing and Development Board”, which are essentially government sponsored condominium / apartment residences in which public housing is offered to those who cannot afford private housing. These HDBs look just like any other apartment buildings surrounding it — clean, well facilitated — but the considerations involved in building Singapore as a ‘kind’ city are what surprised me most. The HDBs are all built around the public transport systems, closest to sheltered passageways and public transportation services because the urban planners are aware of the fact that those living in HDBs would be least likely to be car owners in Singapore.

Today as I was riding the MRT, the subway transportation system, I looked around to see kindness again — plastered on the walls were not advertisements but posters advocating equal treatment of disabled individuals, slogans fostering safety for women who felt they were molested on public transport, and phone hotlines for the elderly who needed assistance in transport. Because the Singaporean government has these systems in place, it more than encourages Singaporean civilians to be kind to those who are in relatively disadvantaged positions. I was both astounded and inspired. It was the kindness that I found so important, but severely lacking, in the modern world.

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!

Nature and the forest

At the school I get to call my own for the next few months, there is a forest in its back yard. A real life, bird chirping, beast lurking rainforest. A few steps down the stairs of the central library is a passageway into greenery — and all of the students here walk by, unmesmerized, occupied in their own business. I for one linger and stare at nature’s creation up close and personal, and feel humbled by the weight of the trees that stood above me.

The nature in Singapore is not limited to the periphery of urban infrastructure. Instead, it coexists with everyday life. There are plants that fill the crevices of walkways, subway stations, office buildings, and tropical forests conserved in the form of botanic gardens for the average metropolitan adult to find peace throughout their busy day.

The impact of coexisting with nature was stronger than I had imagined. The olfactory influence was the largest — everywhere I walked I was greeted with the smell of fresh grass and musky flowers, and after hours of sitting in class, I stepped out to the open, humid air that shot oxygen through my bloodstreams.

I made it a habit to visit the botanic gardens, to exercise, socialize, and to build a routine. Walking through the forest and seeing the individuals interact with the nature around them was fascinating, and again, humbling. The sheer size of the Banyan tree loomed with such strength and gravity that just the sight of the branches that stretched over me made me feel incredibly grounded in the real world.

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).