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French Asians: Identity crises, belonging and bananas

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Yingke Zhao


Asian communities in France started reversing their image of being 'docile' when, in 2016, the tailor Chaolin Zhang was killed. A few months ago, the perpetrators were finally put to justice. Still, racism against French Asians prevails. We met with Sacha Lin-Jung, Mai Lam Nguyen-Conan and Kei Lam, who have been battling their identity crises in Paris in creative ways.

Sacha Lin-Jung always knew that, sooner or later, his son would start questioning his identity as an Asian French, but D-day came much earlier than he had imagined. “At six years old, he already suffered from discrimination at school. One day I asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, and guess what he answered?” Sitting in his Chinese restaurant in the heart of Paris, Sacha takes a pause for a few seconds, inhales a ball of smoke, and continues, “He said: ‘How am I going to have a successful life, dad? Did you not see my face?’”

“You are not French enough to be here”

Sacha is the first one in his family to have been born in the country, in 1976. Growing up in a traditional Chinese settlement in the third arrondissement of Paris, he had a more appeased childhood than his son’s. He doesn’t recall any “memory about being discriminated against or excluded”, and most of his childhood friends also have foreign origins. “Paris was a cosmopolitan environment back then.”

Asian immigrants started to set foot in France as early as the 19th century, when Indochina became a French Protectorate. Its people, known as Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians in our days, were the first ones to arrive. Then, leather and ceramic traders from Wenzhou, in southeast China, began to settle in the third arrondissement of Paris from the early 1900s onwards. During World War I, the British government recruited over 100,000 Chinese workers and formed the Chinese Labour Corps. After serving the British and the French armies, most of these men were repatriated, while some, married to French wives, stayed. Sacha’s grandfather also had a short-term stay in France during WWII, but his family didn’t move to France until the end of the Cultural Revolution, in the 1970s.

Today, France is estimated to have around 1 million citizens of Asian origins, or roughly 1.5% of the country’s total population. There are no official statistics, though, given that France doesn’t allow for censuses based on race or ethnicity.

For a long time, Asian communities lived in peace with local Parisians. “It [only] became problematic rather recently,” Sacha reminisces, “not until the Chinese started to get rich and transformed the once halcyon neighbourhood into a somewhat commercial hub.” The French were “quite welcoming” and willing to help Asian newcomers who they imagined all to be “poor political refugees”.

This vision of French people turns out to be the reality for Mai Lam Nguyen-Conan, daughter of a Vietnamese businessman who fled to France in 1976, a time marked by massive influxes of Asian immigrants in France. Large numbers of political refugees, fleeing from turmoils like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the fall of Saigon in Vietnam, and the Cultural Revolution in China, came to France in search of asylum.

After spending several months in refugee camps in Laos and Thailand, the Nguyens obtained refugee status and arrived in France by plane. “We were among the first refugees and we were incredibly well taken care of upon our arrival,” Mai Lam recalls. She then stayed in a resort-like refugee camp in Creteil, in the Parisian suburbs, before they were accepted by the region of Normandy, in north-western France, where everything was well prepared, for free. “Public housing, furnitures, jobs for parents and school for kids… We received much more than we actually needed.” An “immeasurable feeling of debt” burgeoned in little Mai Lam’s head. “How am I ever going to be able to pay it back?”

But fear and trauma soon took over excitement and gratefulness, when Mai Lam started school and was separated from her family. “At that time, they believed it to be a good thing to keep the kids away from their origins and put them with a French family.” For a whole year, Mai Lam stayed with a “violent” host family where she constantly witnessed the mother beating her kids. “Every immigrant child went back home crying, so did I,” she recounts, “but I never talked about my suffering because they said it was for my own good, at least for the sake of learning French.” Today, Mai Lam is the only one in the Nguyen family to speak French without an accent.

In her school days, the young girl was mocked by her peers for her accent. “Every night I studied French in tears because speaking perfect French seemed essential to me,” Mai Lam continues, “I was convinced that being French was somehow superior to being Vietnamese, that I need to be only French and not Vietnamese. I always wanted to be more French than the French, and I believed I was.”

Mai Lam eventually mastered the French language, blended into French society and grew familiar with French culture. Vietnam became a faraway land she knew little about, and she didn’t change her mind until the age of 19, when the high schooler was in prépas littéraire, a post-secondary cram school for liberal art students. “I had such terrible grades. They wouldn’t accept the slightest mistake in French,” she explains. She felt a perpetual denial from her entourage to accept her as a peer, and was even told she “had nothing to do” there because she wasn’t “French enough”. “One day I stood in front of the mirror and told myself: ‘Wake up! You are not French, and you are never going to be!’”

“In France or in China I was always a tourist. I could never find my home.”

While first generation immigrants usually retain strong affiliations with their origins, their children, having grown up in France, find themselves mixed up in an amalgam of different cultures, deprived of any identity at all.

Kei Lam describes herself as a “banana girl”, who is “yellow on the outside and white on the inside”, and gives this title to her autobiographical comic book. In 1991, at six years old, the Hong Kongese girl arrived in Paris where her painter dad had already settled down to “pursue his artist dreams”. Kei only sensed an “identity crisis” when she became an adult, in engineering school, where she was “the only Asian of the class”. “I found myself in a mixture of both cultures but I feel rejected by both sides. I was neither French nor Chinese.”

The real trouble emerged when she went back to work in China, trying to reconnect to her home country whose language has become “a kind of noise” in her French years. Unfortunately, this journey “only made things worse”. The Chinese saw her as someone “from the countryside” because she has tanned skin and speaks Mandarin with an accent. Most of the time, she is not considered a member of the French group she usually goes out with, but just a translator for them. “The most difficult thing is when you feel like a total stranger in a place you are supposed to belong to; when you realise you are always in between.”

Not knowing where she belongs, Kei has constantly tried looking for a pop culture role model to follow, only to realise she has no one to learn from. “Where is the Lucy Liu of France? Do we have any Asian characters in superhero movies? Will French people even watch a TV series about Asians? We are not sufficiently represented in society.”

She then decided to quit her job in an urban planning firm and became a comic artist. In her first illustrated book Banana Girl, she recounts her first years in Paris: “[It] is the story about someone who doesn’t have her place. It’s the discovery of myself.”

With a certain degree of Chinese-style humility, Kei admits her first book doesn’t sell well. Nevertheless, her work has drawn French mainstream media’s attention to the underrepresented community, and the young illustrator was invited to TV5Monde and Radio France Internationale to address the issue. To her surprise, the term “banana people”, common slang in the English language, was unfamiliar to French journalists. “They told me they’d never heard of this, while they all knew about ‘coconut people’ that refers to black on the outside and white on the inside. You see how important it is to have representation in the society.”

France is a “jealous lover”

In France, integration has long been a keyword for public debates on immigration. Politicians tend to focus on how well immigrants adapt themselves to the society, or, in terms of Mai Lam’s experiences, how ‘French’ they have become. Newcomers find it difficult to completely discard their identity as France supposes they would, or should.

Mai Lam calls this “a vision of civilisation” where the host country hopes to assimilate young immigrants to its own culture, starting from the language. “And this does not date back to yesterday,” she explains, “France is a very centralised state established upon linguistic domination of the French language that crumbled regional identities.”

In her eyes, France is like a “jealous lover” who needs to constantly hear words of affection and for whom any kind of distance is seen as “betrayal”. “It’s a typical French characteristic to mix up things of affection and those of mind. Immigration and integration are things of mind, but France deals with them with emotionally.” This is one of the main ideas of Mai Lam’s book French I used to love you so much, a narrative of her self-discovery, but also a manifesto and a reclamation of her identity. “Today I don’t need to use this language of love to prove to you that I’m French.”

More and more Asian French have come to this conclusion in recent years, perhaps ‘thanks to’ relentless stereotyping, discrimination and even violence inflicted upon them. When the tailor Chaolin Zhang was killed in 2016, the Chinese community in Paris organised an unprecedented protest against “racism towards Asians”. This condemnation was confirmed by a court decision about two months ago, on the 19th of June 2018, putting the two wrongdoers in prison for four and ten years respectively.

“Ethnocide is racism, so is mockery”

What really exacerbates the community is everyday misunderstandings and insults that have developed to such an extent that people don’t even realise it’s racism. In 2016, the French television channel M6 diffused a “comical sketch” in which two famous comedians parodied what they deemed to be Chinese, from facial traits and typical accents to clumsy costumes and props (joke’s on them, though, as the hat and the garment the two comedians put on don’t really appear in the same period in history, FYI). Mai Lam published several op-eds in the French media to remind the country that “laughing at Asians should not be tolerated”. “It’s not because we lack humour,” she says indignantly, “but that they make fun of our efforts to fit into society, they ridicule what’s deeply rooted in our identity. We cannot overlook such acts just because they are ‘less serious’ compared to, say, an ethnocide. Ethnocide is racism, so is mockery.”

The quest for a true identity

Sacha also takes part in direct actions to bring awareness to the community, and co-founded the Association des jeunes Chinois de France (also known as AJCF, Association for young Chinese of France, ed.). In 2014, the organisation helped sue the weekly magazine Le Point over a racism case and won.

“This was a victory on multiple levels,” the ex-activist explains proudly, “on the first level, the society and mainstream media began recognising our existence and tackling racism issues. More importantly, it raised awareness among young Asians.” For Sacha, the ideal scenario would be that everyone from the community takes heed of the Asian identity, knows the rights and cherishes the cultural heritage he or she bears. “Better to teach them how to fish rather than just give them the fish,” he concludes, citing a famous Taoist maxim.

When asked about the objective of integration, both Sacha and Mai Lam agree that it’s not just about becoming French. “It’s about personal blossoming,” he adds, “not teaching young Asians to deny their origin but to be proud of it. You are French, with a plus.”

And this is precisely what young Asian French have been doing. Growing numbers of them take active part in the awareness raising process, some of their work becoming even viral videos on Youtube. France has also started showing off its Asian stars like Frédéric Chau, who played the Chinese son-in-law in a white Catholic French family in Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au Bon Dieu, officially translated in English as Serial (bad) weddings. The AJCF that Sacha co-founded is still active and its leadership has already been passed onto the next generation.

But how can you be proud of being Asian in a country where people have grown accustomed to stigmatisation and misrepresentation, even most Asians themselves? As an expert of cross-cultural exchange, Mai Lam considers open-mindedness and tolerance to be a key element. “We cannot lock people up in the cage of French identity. We need to allow young people to embrace their origins and then come back.” She herself studied a Vietnamese philosopher and went on a six-year “odyssey” in Vietnam, where she worked as a manager and constantly tried to live in the country instead of simply remaining a tourist. When she returned, she grew “proud to be French with Vietnamese origins, in [her] own way.”

The publication of Banana Girl brought Kei some unexpected joy and encouragement, for example when she received feedback from readers who are ‘just like’ her and who thanked her for finally telling their story. Chinese, Koreans or Japanese alike, young Asian French sympathise with Kei’s story that they, too, experience in everyday life, and they are deeply touched by the narrative. “I realised I’m not alone and that there are quite a lot of ‘banana boys and girls’ just like me out there. It’s probably with them that I belong.”

As for Sacha, he first went back to China at the age of 22 and learned Mandarin in a university in Beijing. Although he still feels much more comfortable speaking French, this experience was a sort of “epiphany” for him and a chance to “reconnect with the family”.

For what his son has already lived through at a much younger age, Sacha doesn’t think of it as a bad thing necessarily. “He has to go through this period sooner or later, and thanks to this experience, we have been discussing history, colonisation and psychology. Now the boy is more sophisticated than his peers, and, oh, he always has the best scores in French in class.” After all, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

Cover image: illustration from Kei Lam's Banana Girl © Kei Lam

Story by

Yingke Zhao

Made in China, assembled in France, inamorato in Italia. Passionate about visual and all kinds of fresh stuff. Amateur chef of (authentic) Chinese and Italian cuisine. Trying to cultivate a more mathematical brain as well.