This is Asia Diaspora: Elaine in Europe & Asia

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The irony of how I’ve met Elaine has never been lost to me. It was 2015 and we were both living in Paris. My days were consumed with grad school classes, picnics in the Marais and we all naïvely believed that President Hollande’s scandals were the worst thing to have happen to a Western world leader. I was cranking out a research paper in my tiny apartment in Paris’s septième arrondissement when I decided to take a quick study break to skim through one of my favorite expat groups on Facebook, when I saw a new post:

Hey guys! Asian-American here. Looking to see if there are any safe spaces for expats of color living in France? Thanks!”

No one replied yet, but I decided to check back later to see if there were any responses. By that time, I’ve been living in Paris for a few months and like so many other expats of color, my experience was vastly different from what I expected; I imagined falling in love with a local, practicing my French with my new Parisian friends, and feeling completely in love with the culture. Instead, I was processing my emotions after being called the “n” word for the first time in my life, struggling with my French being constantly critiqued (and laughed at) and battling the worst bout of depressed I’ve ever had. Needless to say, finding a safe space was greatly needed.

It came to my surprise when I returned to the Facebook group a few hours later to see a medley of messages, many stating:

What do you mean ‘safe space?’ Why do you think all of us white people are racists?”

“This is reverse racism!”

“Isolating yourselves doesn’t help anyone.”

“I don’t see color! Why should you?”

A few folks from this group (including myself) were so appalled at the amount of vicious attacks that we ended up building that exact safe space requested  – and thus Expats of Color in Paris France was born. Through this group, we went on historical walks around Paris to learn about its hidden black history, discussed counteracting post-colonial racism over Korean BBQ, and worked on our conversational French at nearby cafés. I had a chance to meet and become close friends with Elaine, an English teacher and fellow American expat.

Fast forward to 2019: We’re now both living in New York and had the chance to talk about her experiences teaching English in both France and Taiwan, Europe in a post-Trump world, and of course, living in Asia. Here’s Elaine:

Hi Elaine! So I know you’ve taught English first in Taiwan, then later on in France. Have you ever been to Taiwan before that time?

Yes, my family is from there, so I’ve been there when I was very young. Maybe around four, then seven years old and finally around nineteen. So there was a big gap.When I moved there to teach, I was twenty-three and just graduated college.

Can you talk about your process on applying to teach English in Taiwan?

So I applied from the US to teach - it wasn’t with an in-person interview, but a paper interview that I had to send back and forth to an the school. I remember I had to send texts and emails constantly, they even asked me to send in a voice recording of myself reading a few paragraphs.

By the time all of that worked out and I got there to start teaching, I learned that my interview process was very different from other people.  While I was working at the school, I had to work with this white guy. So when he arrived, I talked to him about the interview process, and mentioned, “Oh that voice recording – crazy right?” and he was like, “What voice recording?” and I realized he didn’t have an interview or anything. They saw his picture, they saw he was white and American and went, “OK, you’re hired.”

What was really annoying was that I was put through a more rigorous process, even though I studied English and taught before - I’ve had four years of tutoring experience, He had zero teaching experience and studied sociology. He asked me questions like:  “So what’s like, ‘the simple past participle’?” So, he didn’t know how to teach English, he had no idea what he was doing, just because he was a native speaker and they just think, “Oh so you can teach English.” but that doesn’t mean anything.

And – can I ask – the ID you showed, it was an American ID? You’re born in the States?

Yes! They knew that! I’m American - but still, it wasn’t enough. So when I was at the school, there was a couple of times where a parent would ask for an “American teacher.” And that was a way to say “white.” Because I would say to them “I am American.” and they would say, “No...American,” and point at a white person. And that was frustrating too, it was weird because you’re an “other” in America and you get to Taiwan and you’re still not fully accepted by “my people” so to speak.

There was also so many white guys like that other teacher – they had no skills for teaching, did not study English, and they had these random majors...but [a lot of these men] come to Asia because they want to chase after women, like these very unsuspecting Asian women and they all keep to themselves. Like, there were so many white guys in my school, and they were trying to date these poor women... because a lot of Asian women don’t know what yellow fever is, they don’t know that concept or who to look out for.


“…. because you’re an “other” in America and you get to Taiwan and you’re still not fully accepted by “my people” so to speak.”

Did you feel like your view of Taiwan changed after that experience?

Oh yeah, before this I didn’t really have a strong opinion on Taiwan, since I was so young. When I was nineteen I thought, oh this was fun! But when I lived there, then I realized I was more American in ways... I think Americans are more opinionated on more “uncomfortable” things like politics. And in Taiwan, people just don’t want to talk about it. They might hear you out, but they won’t join in. So I noticed that about myself, what’s different about me.

Also, the beauty standards in Asia really messed me up, because I grew up in California where the aesthetic is being tanned, healthy, and fit. And then in Taiwan, they were looking almost sickly, so thin. There’s no muscle mass- it’s not about you being physically healthy or fit. They like women who are extremely pale. Eyelid tape and glue [to form double eyelids] – all of that I wasn’t really exposed to in California and began to think, “oh, here are a ton of things wrong with me, and this is what an ideal Asian woman should look.” It all got to my head.

Just jumping in here, do you feel that when you see ads in America, do you think the fact we don’t look anything like these women - who are mostly white- we just don’t place ourselves in that standard. But say, if I lived in a place where I see the ideal black woman everyday, surrounded by people who are predominantly black- as for you in a predominantly Asian experience, I would feel more pressure to look like what I see in the advertisements?

Yes! Exactly. Because before, I just thought, “This is unattainable- this ‘Brooke Shields’ look or something.” But in Asia I could compare myself to these women on TV and advertising. I didn’t expect that to happen to me. I thought I knew myself enough.

Did you see other Asian-Americans during your time in Taiwan?

Hmm, the ones I met were mostly friends from back home who came to Taiwan to visit their families and we’ll always meet up. A lot of the Americans I met in there were white. But I wasn’t seeking out an expat group specifically at that time, I knew there clubs but it was usually white guys. I didn’t even think about an Asian-American community existing in Taiwan. It is unfortunate I didn’t seek that out since I felt we could have understood a lot of things together.

I’m also trying to learn more about American-born Chinese/Taiwanese folks going back to Asia, and the opportunities they might have there since they typically know the culture better than the average American. But, I can see that it might be harder to adjust since they juggle the lines of being “too American” or “too Asian” depending on what space there in… I would love your thoughts and insight on this.

Going to Taiwan I realized that I wouldn’t be able to fit in anywhere. In Taiwan I felt like an outsider. Even as my language skills got a lot better – I still can’t read or write so that really limited me –  I was always reminded I was an outsider. Even the little things, like the way they communicated, I always knew I would be treated better since I wasn’t raised there, and realizing that - I think it makes a lot of Asian-Americans sad. So many places in America where there aren’t large Asian-American groups, there’s this thought that you can return to the “homeland,” even if we don’t fit in America, we can go back to this idealique “motherland” and all your problems can be solved. You can fit in! You’ll be with your people! And that’s never the case, I’ve never met anyone who actually had that experience. You go, and you’re now “The American” and you hear things like, “Why is your Chinese so bad?” or “Why do you talk like that?” you’ll never be Asian enough either, unless….I don’t know maybe if you stay there for the rest of your life. So that’s what I learned, like OK I’m still an outsider here. But I still love Taiwan so much, so visiting is so fine, I don’t know if I would be there long-term though.

So shifting gears to France – where you’ve also taught English…. I would love to hear your experience in comparison to Taiwan.

Definitely! So despite the Taiwanese parents telling me once or twice, “I want an American teacher,” the Taiwanese students were just adorable. I wasn’t questioned or anything from them. It was a complete 180 in France. They were so hostile. Well, actually, so I taught almost every grade from kindergarten all the way to graduate level and levels in-between. I remember the little kids, since they were so young, they weren’t mean or anything. It was definitely the university kids who were the worst to me.

Like, on the first day of class I walk into my classroom – by now they’ve seen my name since they’ve signed up, so they know I have an “Asian” sounding last name. So when I walked in, this girl looked up and me and said, “I thought this was English class, not Chinese class.” And then everyone laughed. This was my first day meeting this class and this was their first impression of me….. it was horrible. I felt like there was this suspicion, all of this lingering suspicion of how good my English was. I remember one student asking me, “So what accent do you have?” and I replied, “hmm American?” and finally I said, “Well, maybe a Californian accent, if that.” And you could just see the suspicion on their face, like that they wanted me to say I had some sort of Asian accent, and joke, “Oh you got me! This is my actually my real accent!”

Oh, and I remember this one student, who was in my class…. it was during a time I was living in a very small town so I’d see the students out and about outside. One day in a bar, during an Exchange Night he sees me at the door and just out of nowhere says to me, “It’s so weird hearing perfect English coming out of an Asian face” while gesturing at my face and eyes. And I was so mad, I just ignored him. There was definitely this pushback, like “How can you think you can teach us English?” because when they see someone Asian they think of that moment on French TV with that guy who did that horrible yellowface with the really thick accent. So for me, to come into a room and correct them and teach them, and basically have a power over them, they really struggled with that.

I forgot to ask, how was your relationship with your Taiwanese students?

They were really sweet and adorable. I had the really young ones, who were just totally divorced from understanding nationality and race. In general, they never questioned me. So I have great memories of them. And I have sweet memories of young French children, it’s really when they get to the high school and university-age that their biases come out. They have defined stereotypes of Asians. So it’s sad to see that childlike openness change.

Outside of the teaching space in France, how was your general day-to-day life in comparison to Taiwan?

Oh my God. France was where I became truly angry for the first time. It forced me to become more socially aware and angry about racism. Because it was so blatant. Just walking down the street was such an ordeal. My first year in France I was in a really small town, and I can’t remember the amount of times I’ve heard,: “Where are you from? No, where are you really from? Where are your origins?”

Oh yeah, that’s a common phrase we all heard in France, “Your origins.” The most flimsy excuse of saying: “You’re not really from here.”

Right? They wouldn’t ask my white friends next to me. My friends have “origins” too. I remember this one time I went on a bus and out of nowhere my driver began shouting Asian countries at me, like “China! Japan!” and goes down the list to see if I would make a reaction.

Many people also never even asked me my ethnicity and just said, “So you being Chinese..” and I’m like, wait – what? I’ve never said that. You’ll also hear “Ni hao!” and “Konichiwa!” all the time in the street, and at first I thought it was a weird form of catcalling. But one time I was in a Zara and group of white teenage girls came up and surrounded me, then shouted “Ni hao!” and just left. It was so startling, and shocking and just...demeaning. I was with other [white] women who I thought were my friends and they didn’t say or do anything. No one spoke up. They didn’t comprehend how awful it was for me to be singled out like that.

It’s hard when you’re with a group of people just trying to enjoy living in France and it’s only you that’s targeted and questioned about your background. By the time I left France – I was there for seven years– my way of handling these issues was just not answering people. And I loved seeing people’s anger. They feel that they’ve earned this right to know like some sort of census bureau when funny enough, it’s illegal for the French government to collect racial backgrounds in France! So I just respond, “That’s not a question I want to answer.” and people get so indignant.

I think [ethnic origin] is something that a friend gets to know. When you become friends with someone it comes up naturally because you’re getting to know someone. But a stranger? Who just comes up and thinks they deserves to know? No. But there’s so many instances in France...not only me, but also seeing how my Muslim and black friends were treated by the police or shopkeepers. But France didn’t have civil rights movement – so look at how America is so racist, even after our major civil rights movement. But this country still thinks that colonization was this great thing that they teach in schools. So when you’re starting at that level it results in mind-blowing racism. And I used to idealize France before moving there because all I’ve seen were movies like Amelie and Truffaut films of people being cute and quirky and yeah, you don’t see any racial problems. So that’s what I thought France was like – cultured and better.

Do you think that viewpoint goes back to the way we’ve been taught, that the ideal aesthetic and life to live is a Euro-centric life? Do you feel that your big letdown in France happened due to this, which didn’t happen in Asia?

Definitely. I was never taught to be interested in Taiwan. So my original plan after graduation was to go to France, but I was rejected from the teaching assistant job I applied for…. I was so heartbroken. It was my dream. I even studied French for three years. I was disappointed when I realized I had to go to Taiwan. I had never been proud of being from Taiwan, my parents never taught me to be proud. My dad idolized Europe. I think for a lot of Asian-Americans, “Asia” and your “Asian” side is taught to be seen as “lesser” than your American counterpart. So when I was growing up, [Asia] was always described as a dirty place where we eat dogs and that we were subhuman for being like that and looking all the same. That we weren’t individuals with complex feelings like white people. So all these ideas were pushed unto me so that I had no interest in Asia or my own country. So all of that was pushed down into me, that France was something so different in terms from Asia. Like if Asian countries are dirty, then France must be clean and elegant. And maybe I was searching for something that was so different from what I knew. So yes, what you’re saying is very very true.

And right now you’re in New York, where there’s a blend of Europe and Asia and something else in between. What do you think of the city so far? Do you have any other plans to move somewhere else to live?

That’s a great question, since it’s something that I’m thinking about all the time since being back in the States. I have one more year in my graduate program, so I’m already thinking about where I would go next. I can’t see myself living in Asia forever, but maybe that would be different if I could find a strong Asian-American community. The hard thing about France is that the country itself is beautiful and great. The social benefits are amazing! But only if we could change the French mindset, it could be a great place. I remember I started to make plans to come back to the States right after Trump became president and placed the Muslim ban. A lot of people asked me if I was insane to go back, but it showed me how much I needed to be somewhere where I was more or less understood.

I knew in New York I could order at a restaurant and no one will make a comment, while in France there was always that risk- anywhere I went, the bakery, pharmacy, someone will have to say, “Oh I hear a little accent! Where are your origins?” and it was just so exhausting to live in a place where people were constantly trying to categorize you and couldn’t accept me as a person. So I thought to myself that the next place really needs to be a coastal city in America, where they are exposed to Asian-Americans. But, it’s still so hard being here. New York is such a capitalist society, the wealth gap is so awful, and there’s so much unfairness here. But no matter where I go, there’s always going to be some good and bad things. There’s no perfect place! But I’ve lived in New York for over a year now and not once has someone yelled out “Ni hao” at me, so that’s progress [laughs].