Author Jean Lee Explores Ethnicity in a Foreign Land

I’m one of many American students in Paris, and one of twenty in my program. But unlike the typical American student studying in Paris, I’m not white. I’m the only minority in my group of twenty students, and one of the few at Reid Hall, a centre for a handful of American colleges. It’s still shocking to me that this imbalance exists and that no one talks about it.

When studying abroad in a European country, it is considered important to integrate. When we arrived, we were advised to dress, speak and act like the French to avoid standing out. This well-intended advice touches upon a minor problem: as a Korean-American, how do I blend in? It would not matter if I spoke French perfectly or dressed impeccably following Parisian trends. One look at me and a French person knows I’m a foreigner.

The question I hear most often is the most difficult to answer: Where are you from? It is a friendly, basic question that likely poses few difficulties for my classmates, but for me, it is not so simple. “I am an American,” I say. “No, where are you really from?” the person asks. “Well, I was born in New York, raised in Oklahoma, went to high school in New Hampshire and go to college in Massachusetts, which sounds pretty American to me. And if we’re going to talk about ancestral roots, no one is American.

When it comes out that my ancestors were Korean, the response is usually, “Oh, I’ve met someone else from there.” Already feeling slightly offended by their prying, it disturbs me, even more, to be catalogued in this person’s mind as another example of someone from Korea. That’s what seems to happen when you are in the minority; you’re swallowed into your race, and the collective identity takes priority over your individuality. Why is it that race is never used in Western countries like the U.S. and France to identify white people? For instance, no one says “my white friend,” or “my boyfriend is white.” I have heard countless references made to ethnicity or colour to describe non-white people, as if this makes up their identities.

This mentality is less hidden here in France; whether that’s better or worse, I don’t know. If I have fewer unpleasant experiences in the U.S., it’s because racism is tempered with political correctness. Here, I’ve been forced to face the ugliness of ignorance and bigotry.

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 12.36.18One afternoon, I was walking around my neighbourhood behind a group of workers from the public sanitation department. One of them saw me and said hello in Chinese. He must have thought he was hilarious because he kept repeating it. It was infuriating because I couldn’t think of a response that would change anything. It stung because he didn’t care about who I was—he just thought he was clever because he could say one word in an Asian language to any Asian person who walked his way.

I was aware of the risks of investing a year in France. I debated over it for a long time last year. It would be hard enough to be immersed in a foreign culture and language, let alone feel isolated because of my race. Luckily I had studied for a few months in Grenoble, France during my senior year of high school. It was probably just this previous glimpse of the potential benefits that made me want to come back.

Living in another country has given me a basis of comparison to analyse my own country’s faults and virtues. All the racist remarks I hear, for example, help me appreciate the most open-minded atmosphere of the U.S. At the same time, the fact that everyone in my program is white except for me reminds me of the disparity between the ideal of diversity and the reality at most small liberal arts colleges.

Studying abroad is not just about learning a different language or comparing cultures. It is a deeply personal experience. Being forced to adapt and change teaches you about yourself.

I’ve already noticed a unique benefit of my year abroad. I heard the same racist comments when I was a kid. I thought that as I got older, these things would become easier to deal with. What I’ve realized here is that it never gets easier to hear a stupid joke. The French have taught me to be assertive. When my classmates are treated rudely by French people because they are American, it’s shocking, but most of the time they do not react. For myself, I’ve realized that it only hurts more in the long run if you let these things happen. These incidents don’t go away if you ignore them. Each time they do happen, you feel a little more powerless if you don’t stand up for yourself and let people know that the way they’re treating you is unacceptable.

So maybe I’ve had more negative experiences than my classmates, but that doesn’t make my time abroad better or worse. It is different to be here as a minority—and maybe harder at times—yet no less rewarding.