what it means to be French and Chinese
December 4, 2019 8:27 AM   Subscribe

“French identity is an incredibly powerful idea. Being French is a notion that is inculcated within us from the earliest days at primary school, and it’s a really attractive principle: a project of assimilation to push aside cultural origins to create one single nationality, one people. But the problem is that differences persist, and as my teenage years went by I suddenly began to think there’s something missing, some part of myself that is not acknowledged, and that’s when I began to interrogate the Chinese part of myself, and learn how to be culturally Chinese as well as French." (SL The Guardian)

“After I became a full French citizen at the age of 18, I started to think more deeply about my identity – about what it meant to be French, and also Chinese. By that time, I and all my cousins and friends, people who’d been brought up or even born in France, had experienced racism in France – casual insults, people mocking our accents, or more serious incidents like being robbed because we were seen as weak and docile. And then, during the Beijing Olympics, we saw how the French media talked about China and the Chinese, as if we were one kind of people, who acted in the same way, always in the image of the Communist party. That got me really mad, so together with other friends like me – young Chinese people who considered France their only home – I formed the Association of Young Chinese of France. I was at university at the time, at Paris Dauphine, and reading Marx and Bourdieu – people who helped me make sense of my childhood, of the way my parents’ experience conditioned mine. I wanted to change things – for me and also for them."
Tash Aw shares prospectives from various young French people of Chinese descent on how they're navigating their mixed identities, dealing with stereotypes & racism, and ultimately coming to own their Frenchness.
posted by devrim (8 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
This is the ugly side of laicite that doesn't get talked about - cultural erasure that never quite extends to the aspects that would impact white French citizens. It's why France has a continuing endemic issue with racism, and why the FN continues to have political clout.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:42 AM on December 4, 2019 [10 favorites]

This was fascinating - the stories were really powerful, of a diaspora with a fading history, the shift towards revolutionary pride over just pure academic excellence. Thanks, devrim
posted by popsciolist at 8:47 AM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

That was a really amazing read, and thanks for sharing. I wish there were books about things like this - I like speaking to French people about identity.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 11:28 AM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

This feels like the right place to put in a plug for one of my favorite French-language podcasts, Kiffe ta race (literally, 'love your race' but also wordplay for 'love very much') which explores issues of race, racial identity and intersectional issues in France. (And as a bonus, now that I check, they've got a bonus first-ever episode in English on being Asian in France vs. in the US).

It's hosted by French authors/journalists/podcast co-hosts Grace Ly, of Chinese-Cambodian descent, and Rokhaya Diallo, of Senegalese-Gambian descent. I've never seen/heard them in another context but their on-audio rapport and interaction with the various guests is very intelligent and fun to listen to.

If you understand French well enough to understand the podcast, I'd really recommend it -- I'm an unabashed Francophile but it is really, really nice to read/listen to French-language media that takes a critical eye at race.

And as a Chinese-American who has French extended family of Chinese descent (so I read the FP article with great interest!) I also find it fascinating to get an eye into race and racial issues in a Western country that in some ways is quite similar but in other ways is very different from the US on these issues.
posted by andrewesque at 1:31 PM on December 4, 2019 [13 favorites]

Thanks for the link, it was a great read. I think I might have posted this kind of comment before, but it is really strange how the idea of integration is taught in French schools, or at least was taught when I was in school. There is an explicit comparison between the French model of individual integration and the American "melting pot" model of community-level integration. I may have misunderstood, but from my experience the French model is taught as being superior, based on the same reasoning as human rights being defined at an individual level. This stayed with me for a while and it took me a long time to reconsider. This also shows a strong contradiction between this stated ideal and restrictive immigration policies:
Before we got our papers, I lived constantly with my father’s shame – the shame of being a poor clandestine. We lived entirely within the Chinese community – that is to say, entirely within the Wenzhou community.
and after becoming legal immigrants:
All of a sudden, we became normal members of society, and that changed everything for us.
This reminded me of Lou Dobbs saying something like "Immigrants want all the benefits of citizenship but none of the responsibilities" which made me go crazy, because it doesn't make sense, but also because if that is the problem for him, then the solution is clear: make them all legal immigrants and make citizenship easier, then they have both the benefits and the responsibilities. I would hope that some of the people in France now complaining about "communautarisme" would read the linked article and think about making it easier to get legal papers.
posted by anzen-dai-ichi at 6:15 PM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

I may have misunderstood, but from my experience the French model is taught as being superior, based on the same reasoning as human rights being defined at an individual level.

The problem is that in practice, it winds up being "you have the right to Be French", which leads to human rights violations like Muslim prisoners starving because the government refuses to provide halal meals for them out of a mentality of "you should Be French and accept the food we offer."
posted by NoxAeternum at 6:28 PM on December 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yes. As you said in your first comment, this is a problem with the rigid application of laïcité, also coupled with the hypocrisy of not being bothered by the lasting cultural presence of Christianity.
posted by anzen-dai-ichi at 7:09 PM on December 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

“Then, not long before proceedings were due to wrap up, a huge swathe of protesters dressed in black descended towards the Place de la République, shouting slogans against the establishment. All of them were young Chinese people, angry with the inaction of the older generation. They wanted change, they wanted it urgently. All of it was calculated to make the elders lose face, to show how powerless and pointless they were.”

Purposefully embarrassing your parents through street theater … that’s about as French as it gets.
posted by Kattullus at 12:55 PM on December 7, 2019

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