Examining my privilege as an American studying abroad in Paris
I have been enamored with Paris for as long as I can remember. My romanticized idea of what it would be like to live in Paris as a young woman led to my decision to study abroad there this semester. I have now lived here for two months and have to admit that the carefree, idealized experience I had imagined hasn’t exactly come to fruition. Instead, I have found myself critically examining elements of my own privilege as an American from a metropolitan area that I had previously taken for granted.
First, I have recognized just how much my native language underscores my privileged status. My French has improved significantly since I arrived in Paris, but when I was initially struggling to communicate, Parisians would often switch to English to help put me at ease. While I’ve found that Parisians take great pride in their language and often prefer to speak in French, English is also an essential part of their educations and careers, and most can speak it well. Yet I have met other international students, especially those from the Global South, for whom English is not their first language or who don’t speak it all. These students have reported that their interactions with Parisians have often been very stressful, and that they have even been treated with less respect and patience because of the language barrier.
In addition to my language skills, I have come to realize just how lucky I am even in the context of other Americans abroad, due to past travel experience. While I had already traveled to a number of countries in South America, Asia, and Europe before coming to Paris, many other students haven’t. For example, I recently met a student from a small women’s college in Virginia who had previously never traveled farther than the state of Pennsylvania. I’m from San Francisco, a large city in which I’ve had many experiences with international cultures without traveling. That upbringing as well as my travel experience are privileges I hadn’t really recognized I possessed.
Of course, I have also faced unique issues in Paris because of my identity. I have found that France has a “color-blind” public policy model that prioritizes addressing social inequality through the lens of class more than race. Essentially ignoring racism and ethnic discrimination in public policy, however, seems to have only made Parisians more interested in these constructs on a social level. As a half-Chinese woman, I have been asked, “Quelle est ton origine?” which translates to “What is your ethnic origin?” much more frequently than I ever did while living in the United States. When I visited Caen, a small city in the Normandy region of France, a man at a club asked in English, “Why don’t you wear eye makeup? You’re Asian.” A friend from India also recounted being ignored by Parisians on the street when she was lost and tried to ask for directions. She has also felt fetishized by men in Parisian night clubs who flirt with her by making comments about her skin color and race.
These experiences with racism and racist microaggressions reflect a broader problem with study abroad programs in general: Black, Hispanic, and first-generation student populations participate in study abroad significantly less than white students. Surveys consistently rank cost and lack of funding as the main concerns of students who refrain from studying abroad. Increasing scholarship funding for study abroad generally and specifically providing support to POC students to make them feel less marginalized could increase the equity of the study abroad experience and expose more students to other systems of education, governance, and culture — and, in turn, expose other cultures to diverse American students.
Although my experience in Paris has not been exactly what I imagined it would be, I still feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to live here with the sole purpose of studying and learning about a different country and culture. I only hope other students, especially those who haven’t traditionally been able or wanted to study abroad, have this option, too.
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