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When I Lived in French

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Waiting for a Métro train at the Bastille stop, Paris, France, January 17, 2013

A year or so before I left Paris, and France, for good, in 2004, I was on my way home after an evening at a friend’s place in the Belleville neighborhood. As I approached the moving walkway in the long subway tunnel connecting Châtelet–Pont au Change to the RER train platforms at Châtelet–Les Halles, I was vaguely aware of a group hanging out near the wall to my left. In the corner of my vision, I saw one of them step away from the group. I assumed she was headed for the walkway, as I was, and didn’t pay much attention.

The days were cold, and I was wearing a scarf, which—it took me a moment to realize—someone had just yanked on, hard, from behind. As I turned around, stumbling, I saw the rest of the group making its way toward me. At that moment, I heard someone call out the French equivalent of “gook.” I didn’t wait for any of them to reach me.

I ended up losing my pursuers among the corridors of the Forum des Halles. Moments later, I arrived at the Place Carrée (a regular meeting spot for me and my friends when we went to watch a movie at UGC Ciné Cité), and in that enclosed space, surrounded by oblivious passersby, I must have stood for some moments catching my breath before heading back to wait for my train.

There is no way to be certain, but I am convinced that I had encountered the one who yelled “gook” some hours earlier that same evening, not far from my friend’s apartment. He was alone, as though waiting for someone, standing on a street corner. As I walked past, he threw out a casual “ching chong” (or in French it would be “tching tchong”).

Rather than pretending I hadn’t heard (as I often did), I turned to him and, raising an arm in a Nazi salute, I said loudly, “Heil Hitler.” He was so surprised that he actually raised his own arm and muttered a half-hearted “Heil Hitler” of his own. I continued on to my friend’s place, where I helped her and another friend make crêpes, which we ate while discussing the antics of a then up-and-coming politician named Nicolas Sarkozy. My friend chided me for pouring too much sugar on my crêpe, in a moment of distraction.

I didn’t tell anyone about the incident. During all my years in France, I don’t think I ever really brought up the subject of racism—much less of racism directed at me—with my French friends. Most of it was “ordinary,” as in the French expression le racisme ordinaire (an American equivalent might be “microaggressions”), involving, for example, cashiers’ disdaining to say a word to me as I paid for my groceries, or strangers addressing me as tu (in French, there is a friendly tu used among peers and a not-so-friendly tu used by those who aren’t your peers).

Did I think my friends wouldn’t understand? I knew that some of them, maybe most of them, thought of racism as something that happened to Arabs and Blacks.

Or perhaps the reason I kept the incident to myself had less to do with them and more to do with me. Being around my friends was my antidote to the racism I encountered, my protection from it, in a way. Their presence didn’t always protect me, of course, but by and large it had the desired effect. No one ever spoke to me in English when I was with my friends, which is what the French generally do when they’ve decided that you don’t speak their language.

In the company of my friends, I became one of them, French like them. I perfected my accent, scoured dictionaries, and never read a book without taking notes, so that when my friends blanked on a word, they often turned to me for the answer.

I had no wish to compromise the image they had of me. I remember a friend’s voicing her astonishment that I never seemed to get the gender of a word wrong (a word’s gender is something that’s interiorized while learning the language as a child), not realizing that I avoided saying a word when I wasn’t sure of its gender. To introduce the subject of racism into our conversations would have been to contaminate what was good about my life in France with the very thing that wasn’t.

It makes me wonder: Would my friendship with my French friends have been the same if we had spoken English to one another? Given that most of them have fluent English, such a scenario is not, I suppose, impossible. But I can’t really imagine it, any more than I can imagine speaking English with my mother, whose very personality is defined, in my mind, by the Korean that I’ve always spoken with her. Which leads me to ask myself: Was I friends with them for the French they spoke, or for them? Where does the language end and the friendship begin?

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A third possibility for my silence about the attack in the underground tunnels is that it simply never occurred to me to tell someone about what happened, a result of my Korean upbringing and the fact that you don’t air dirty laundry in public. In some ways, I understand why so few Asians who are victims of aggressions in France go to the police.

*

French is my third language, but it’s the first language that I chose to learn and master. “Master” (like “learn”) is a relative term: one might say that I’ve “mastered” French, in the sense that Québécois and French literary reviews have started to publish my work—modest publications: there is no Francophone equivalent of The New Yorker or The Paris Review—but I’ve never stopped being a student of the language. Not a day goes by when I don’t learn something new, something that I didn’t know (a word, an expression, a syntactical nuance).

I started learning French at the age of nineteen, half a lifetime ago, as an entirely personal choice—one of those fateful and fortuitous encounters that can forever alter the trajectory of a life, like stories of love at first sight, except that mine was with a language. It might have had something to do with the fact that, even before my encounter with French, I never felt that I possessed a language, neither the Korean that was always mine, nor the English that was imposed on me after I immigrated to America with my mother. One I spoke at home, but nowhere else; the other I spoke everywhere but at home. There are things I said in one language but never in the other.

In English, I didn’t know what it was like to talk about the things one talks about with one’s parents; just as, in Korean, I didn’t know what it was like to have a conversation with people who weren’t family (that is, until I came to France and met a group of Korean students). Both languages were “given” to me, one when I was born, the other when I was eight years old, after my family moved from Seoul to the US. I didn’t have to go to either language; they each came to me.

As a child, the choices one makes are never really one’s own. I learned English without ever questioning what I was learning. I still remember the very first sentence in English I understood, as well as the first word in English I said out loud. But I don’t remember what I felt, what I thought of the language, whether I thought it sounded nice, or strange, or funny.

I also accepted, without question, the way a child does, that the Korean I had spoken with everyone and that had been my entire linguistic reality would henceforth be relegated to the background, spoken only with my mother and with certain relatives. The result of such an arrangement was that both languages felt borrowed, temporary, albeit in different ways and to different degrees. With both, I felt like an actor repeating his lines, pretending to be an American (an Asian American, a Korean American, a Korean) but never quite fitting in anywhere, with any group.

Not that I was able to “fit in” in France, which doesn’t view national identity in the same way as the US does. Even if I had acquired French citizenship, even if I had lived there for fifty years as a French citizen, I would not have been accepted in the way that someone, after five, ten, fifteen years in America, can be accepted as an American. (This is obviously contingent on one’s skin color, social milieu, physical appearance—in the US and in France—I am not so naive as to think otherwise. But there is a difference, despite both countries’ having a large immigrant population.)

Where I did find acceptance was among a group of aspiring writers, fellow members of a creative writing workshop organized by the CROUS, a student center tied to the different universities throughout the city. Outside of the workshop, I would meet up with my newfound friends, each of us taking turns hosting a soirée atelier, as we called them (atelier as in atelier d’écriture, or writing workshop). These get-togethers were no different from any other between friends, except that, at some point in the evening, we would each try to write something based on a theme one of us had chosen. Afterward, we read to one another what we had written.

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There is a photo one of my friends took of me during one of our get-togethers. I am looking down at a piece of paper; it is not clear if I am reading my text or if I’m in the middle of writing it. I recognize my favorite shirt at the time—a light-green plaid number, bought at a Kilo Shop in Lille. The expression on my face is one of happy concentration. On the table between me and my friends is a bottle of wine, three-quarters empty.

Could I have met such friends in the US? Probably. But the fact remains that I met them in France.

Living in Southern California, where no one I know speaks French, and the closest thing to France is a pastry shop called “Paris Baguette” in a strip mall, I sometimes question my desire to practice a language I am so thoroughly cut off from and which seems, at times, like a futile undertaking. Or like an invisible fortress I’ve built around myself. No one seeing me in public would suspect that I live in a Francophone world (population: one) composed entirely of books, Internet radio, occasional emails, and, of course, my own writing in French.

Sometimes I feel like the only one of my kind, by which I’m not trying to imply that my love of the French language is unique or special. (For one thing, French isn’t exactly a little-known language.) But there are times when I can’t help wondering if this is what the last speaker of a language must feel, the loneliness that comes from knowing that there is no one to answer you in your language—or, in my case, the language I chose for myself.

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In 2016, a seamster (couturier) named Chaolin Zhang was assaulted by three young men while on his way home from work in Aubervilliers, a Paris suburb. Five days later, he died from his injuries in a hospital.

Zhang, like others, had come to France seeking a better life. He wasn’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, despite the commonly held myth about Asians in France: that they’re rich and walk around with large sums of cash on them—easy pickings for anyone wanting to have a go. There’s even an expression for it: se faire un Chinois, the way one might se faire un ciné, “take in a film,” se faire un resto, “go out for a meal,” or se faire un FIFA, “play a game of FIFA” (se faire can also mean “fuck,” as in “fuck someone”).

In response to Zhang’s death, members of the Asian community in Paris marched in the streets to protest against the unsafe living conditions in Aubervilliers. It was quite possibly the largest demonstration by a demographic group that had always been omitted from multicultural slogans and ignored by left-wing organizations. (Unlike their counterparts in the US, Asians in France never knew a civil rights movement.)

At the time, I had started writing what would eventually become the second chapter of my novel, Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost. I found myself wishing that I was still there, in Paris, the Paris I had known, if only to take part in the protests, to march alongside them, though I am not French, though I didn’t grow up in France as they did.

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Shaoyao Liu’s widow next to a placard bearing his image at a protest against his police-involved killing, Paris, France on April 2, 2017

I had been working on the book for close to a year when I read about the death of Shaoyao Liu, who was shot and killed in front of his family by the French police. Officers had been called to his home in the nineteenth arrondissement of Paris by a noise complaint made by a neighbor. There are conflicting accounts: the police claim that he came at them with a knife; according to Liu’s family, he was in the kitchen prepping a fish for dinner when the police shot him down.

What has stayed with me is a headline some two years later from a news site reporting on the dismissal of the case against the police. The headline originally read “Chinois tué en 2017 par la police à Paris” (Chinese killed in 2017 by the police in Paris), before it was changed, the next day, to the more detailed “Mort du Shaoyao Liu, tué en 2017 par la police à Paris” (Death of the Shaoyao Liu, killed in 2017 by the police in Paris). The typo of du (of the) instead of de (of) is a likely sign that the person making the change was still thinking Chinois in his head, from the original headline—just the death of a nameless Chinois. (In French, the word means “Chinese person,” but it can be used with a derogatory intonation—something along the lines of “Chinaman,” for lack of a better equivalent.) You could say that Shaoyao Liu didn’t have a Chinaman’s chance against the police.

*

In addition to making me want to become a writer, my time in France also taught me to think about myself, as an Asian, in a different way.

My first experience of meeting an Asian European (or European Asian) took place in Rennes, Brittany, during the Transmusicales festival in the winter of 1996. I had just transferred—on my own—to the university there, leaving behind the American school system with its student loans and ivy-covered campuses. I’m not sure how she and I got to talking, but I imagine I simply walked up to her in the street, which was full of people and music and stands selling mulled wine.

Back in the US, I would never have approached a stranger like that, even at a music festival; but something about speaking a new language, one that I’d chosen for myself, enabled me to display a confidence that had never been mine in English, in America. Perhaps it was because I felt protected when speaking French: I had no past in French, nothing that tied the language to the “me” I knew all too well. French was like a mask I could put on over my English (which itself had been a mask–a different kind of mask—covering up my Korean).

For me, despite what French represents for many people—either a symbol of elitism or an instrument of colonialism—it was, above all, a neutral language, neither the language of my upbringing (Korean) nor the language of my immigration (English). In other words, it was an idiom that belonged entirely to me, because I was the one who had chosen it. According to Akira Mizubayashi, a Japanese author who writes in French, a language is something that exists outside of national borders: you can come and go as you please, without answering to any higher power or authority.

It turned out that the girl I had started talking to was from Denmark: a Danish Asian. Accompanying her and a friend she was with to a nearby restaurant for something to eat, I would learn that she had been born in Korea and adopted by Danish parents. In the months and years to come, I would meet other Korean adoptees; a few would become friends, apartment mates, though I never saw the Danish girl again. But that initial encounter—otherwise unremarkable—signaled the beginning of something new in my life.

At the restaurant that day, the other girl, who wasn’t Asian, wanted to know where I was from, and her question—a typical enough thing to ask between newly arrived foreign students—had none of the connotations it might have had in English, back in the US. Growing up, I had wanted nothing more than to be seen as a full-fledged American. The question of my origins had always put me on my guard, but it was enough, in France, to answer “the US.” No one thought to approach the magnifying glass any closer—perhaps because being American was already foreign, “other,” outside the US.

At the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where I finished my novel about Paris, I had a conversation with the partner of one of the other fellows. I had been telling him about France, and I must have let myself paint a darker portrait than I had originally intended, because he asked why I would want to live in such an unpleasant and hostile environment. No doubt, I stammered something characteristically inarticulate in response—but it was hard to explain.

Would he have understood if I had answered that the best thing about France, for me, was being able to live in French every day, the same French language in which I had composed my first literary texts, in which I had experienced my first real friendships, as well as my first romantic relationships?

*

Valéry Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

Riding the Métro past the Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, November 10, 2017

Last year, I had planned to spend four months in Paris, my first prolonged stay since 2012, but because of a family emergency, I had to cancel my plans at the last minute. If I had gone, I would have been there for the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Around that time, a French newspaper ran a front-page headline “Alerte jaune” (Yellow alert: maybe some editor thought he was being clever with the wordplay). In schools all over France, Asians were being singled out and ostracized by their classmates. The first viral hashtag against the amalgam that people everywhere were making between Asians and the coronavirus was a French one—#JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I am not a virus)—started by French millennials of Asian origin.

None of this, at the time, came as a surprise to me: it was indeed the France I had known. Reading about the rise of anti-Asian sentiment in France resulting from the pandemic, I couldn’t help but feel something like relief at the thought that I had at least spared myself further encounters with racists there.

In the end, what made me leave France all those years ago was a letter of acceptance from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to say the least. Of course, I could have gone back to France after the program. So why didn’t I? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself more and more lately. Despite attempts, over the years, to return to France, I have been repeatedly “thwarted”—by fellowships falling through, by a lack of funds, by a lack of a place to stay. I’ve come to understand that, for a foreigner (for this foreigner, at any rate), it is much easier to leave France than to go back.

A language does not exist in a vacuum but is the product of a culture, a people. It is impossible to say where one begins and where ends the other. The French language that I continue to keep alive inside of me, despite having no one to speak it with, is the same language my interlocutor used to engage me in a one-way conversation as he and the others chased me through the underground tunnel of Châtelet–Les Halles. It is the same language whose grammar is exhaustively and meticulously accounted for in the pages of my Grevisse (fourteenth edition), which I consult even when I don’t need to look up anything–like wandering among the labyrinthine streets of a ghost city.

It is the French language that I love, not France. Or so I tell myself. But a part of me knows that there is no separating one from the other.

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