French Colonialism and Racism Lived

Editor’s Note: This is the latest of 12 installments in our series on AAPI identity. Amanda Ong is our 2017 Mike Honda Writing Fellow. She is an undergraduate in Ethnicity and Race Studies and Creative Writing at Columbia University, a copy editor for the Columbia Daily Spectator, and an organizational chair member for Columbia’s Asian American Alliance. We’re honored to have her writing and storytelling skill enhance our mission to increase AAPI representation in American political life.

This past week, I was in France with my family visiting my best friend for spring break. There were so many things that I loved about France; it is bright, and cavalier, and beautiful in every crevice of its earth, it breathes bread and butter, and exhales art and all fine things. I’m already so incredibly privileged to have experienced going there in my lifetime, and infinitely more so to get to with my family over spring break as just a college student. 

Of course, there were moments still that tore me away from my romantic view of the country, that made the bliss of a vacation feel null. They were the same kind of moments that tend to tear me out of mid-day reveries in my every day life. Namely, microaggressions and the “otherizing” of Asians I experienced. 

Of course, this kind of experience is not wholly specific to France in any way. If you read my last blog post or some of the one’s before that, you will have read about many of my prior experiences with the otherizing of Asian Americans in my own home country. In fact, in the United States we sometimes think of racism as pertaining only to our country and its history. 

​But racism is larger than just America. It is a part of the world, of histories of imperialism, colonialism, of immigration and following xenophobia, in cities, and countries, andevery which place. 

​When I was in France, vendors on the street would try to get my family’s attention by saying, “Ni hao!” or more crassly, “Ching chong ching chong!” I’m not sure whether or not they genuinely thought they were speaking Mandarin in the latter, or if they even knew that their actions were offensive at all. I suppose it doesn’t really matter much what they thought in the end. While their words were not violent, they reminded me of two things: that people like my family do not look like they belong in a country like France, and that while many people aren’t explicitly violent in their racism, they do not care about being respectful to people of color, because we don’t merit respect to them

​Waitresses and waiters would offhandedly call me a word that my friend told me meantsomething like “Chinese princess”. It was meant to be a compliment, but it still left me caught off guard and frazzled.

​When I met my friend’s French teacher for the first time, she asked me, “Are you Chinese?” I told her yes. Then she turned to my friend and said, “Your Chinese girl is very beautiful,” as if my friend owned me. It was something we thought laughed off—in many ways, I still think it was funny, the ridiculousness of her statement laughable—but it also left me feeling more exoticized than beautiful, more owned than self-possessed, too othered to be flattered. 

​The kind of casual racism I experienced in France was by no means intensely painful for me, or and was nothing I am not already used to. But it did remind me that racism is not solely an American vice. It exists internationally, across countries and miles. It knows no borders. 

​As an Asian American in France, I felt more aware of the history of European imperialism that has existed and effected people of color worldwide—and how that history has been the most important in the construction of racism. The microaggressions I experienced there were distinctly rooted in xenophobia and exoticism, in the distinction of Asians as “different” and inherently foreign. While tensions exists with Asians in America in the permanents existence of Asian America itself, tension exists in France in both the active exclusion of what is Asian as foreign, and the exoticism of what is Asian as beautiful and cultural. 

​While I will always, from the depth of my soul, be most concerned with and involved in the ongoing plague of American racism, it is also important to me that if we want to change racism in our country we also must have some understanding of its history and function in the world. And we must be ready and willing to look to people of other nationalities and listen to their stories, learn from them, and when needed, lend them a helping hand. 

​America tends to have a reputation as isolated. Our people speak only English, only are knowledgeable on the customs and affairs of the American people, and sometimes not even those. Whether that’s true or not, I would like to think that as Americans we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to try and improve our country, and to me, part of that comes in understanding the world as a whole. So may we learn from each other, may we learn from the world, and in the end, may we all come back and use it to make our country the best place it can be.