An American in Paris: An Alien Feeling

From Numéro Cinq magazine, an interesting article by Sion Dayson about what it’s like for a biracial American to live in Paris:

Now in France — it’s been five years already — I need not chase slippery identities as I am considered only one thing: a foreigner. Full stop.

Here they keep no statistics on race or ethnicity. This is the land of liberté, egalité, fraternité, after all. Everyone is simply French. It would be “racist” to demand any further information from people, as if those answers mean anything.

When I open my mouth in Paris, the first response is not “welcome,” but “where are you from?” If it were simple curiosity, that would be one thing. (I am a curious person, too.) But there are no follow-up questions, no real interest. Only the need to establish a distance and an unspoken message: You are different from me.

There’s a distinction between a foreigner and a stranger (though “foreigner” isn’t a word I ever tended to employ before). A foreigner is a person from somewhere other than the home country, wherever that home country may be. A stranger is someone unknown.

One thing Dayson’s essay does well is highlight the difference between the French and American views as to how immigrants should be integrated. In France, the presumption is that a person who immigrates does so because she wants to be French, and few accommodations are made for people who do not speak French or wish to preserve a major part of their culture.

In the US, the presumption is that we are all to some extent immigrants. Moreover, not only is it fine to preserve the culture we came from, cultural diversity is actually celebrated. This is why one often see references to Italian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and so on in the media and elsewhere in the US. Accommodations are often made for people who do not speak English. This difference in approaches can partly be explained by the fact that the US is a much younger country than France is.

As a French-speaking Canadian, my experience in France is similar to Dayson’s. Rarely do complete strangers not comment on the fact that I am Canadian when I first speak to them. In ten years in the US, I can count on two hands the number of times someone asked me where I was from within the first few minutes of talking to me. Rather, people wait until I mention where I’m from to say something like: “Ah, so that’s the accent I’m hearing! I wasn’t sure.”

(HT: Janet Hou.)

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