Constructing my own safe space
(Places I visited before the episode in this post happened. Paris really is a beautiful and enlightening city to live. All my thoughts and experiences below are very personal, and can be different from what most other people have felt here.)
Ni hao? Korean? Annyounghaseyo? Yeppuyo! said the guy standing behind the display stand, which made my friend and I put down the bracelet and leave the tent. I had already given up counting how many times I have heard ‘greetings’ and ‘compliments’ on my appearance in random Asian languages while walking through the night market. I had already gone through a number of Parisians catcalling at us on our way to the market. What I was looking for at the market was some fresh air and late night snacks, not the feeling of unidentifiable discomfort and insecurity.
We left the night market much earlier than we planned and walked back to the subway station, talking about why we found such comments so much more offensive than usual. The most distressing fact was that we unconsciously came back to self-blaming: Was it because we were not speaking in French to each other? Or was it because of our clothing and make-up that are so Korean? Did we deserve to be perceived as strangers because our French was not fluent enough?
Our conversation was interrupted by two white males who were coming from the other side. They gave us a loud shriek all of a sudden. Too frightened, speechless, my friend and I stopped walking. My brain stopped functioning, unable to come up with any proper response. Looking at our reaction, the guys chuckled and walked away.
Something even worse happened right after that. With our legs too trembling to make it to the subway station, my friend and I looked for a place to sit down. While we were walking to a nearby bench, a black car coming from the other side pulled over to the shoulder of the road. The driver reversed his car after us. Not sure whether he was actually following us or we were being too sensitive, we sat down on the bench. The car also stopped. We could see the driver looking at us. Without any hesitation we ran to the subway station.
It was definitely the worst day I had ever had in Paris. I knew that I would not go through such series of disturbing encounters everyday. But I could not help but refrain myself from going out of my room, meeting other people, and exploring new places, because I did not want to put myself into such distressing experiences again. I did not want to bring misfortune upon myself. It felt like simply being in public spaces could lead to disturbing experiences.
I could not understand why I was being ‘oversensitive’ at being treated as an ‘Asian female tourist.’ I knew that it was not my fault. I did not want to blame myself for being too Korean or for not speaking perfect French. I knew that it was impolite to assume someone’s nationality simply based on his/her appearance, especially when random strangers ask such questions as if they are ‘generously showing some interests on foreign countries’ or ‘kindly recognizing my value as a young Asian woman.’ But I still wondered why I could not detach my inner peace from such external absurdity. If they are being impolite and discriminative, it is their problem. Then why should I be so stressed out? Why can’t I be in full charge of my own happiness? Why can’t I control my emotion?
What also made me feel confused was that I thought I would be completely fine with ‘studying abroad’ in Paris, because I had already been ‘studying abroad’ in Amherst. I thought I had already learned how to deal with the feeling of insecurity and the sense of alienation. I thought I had enough practice of giving up my expectations and accepting disappointments. Clearly I had not.
I am not saying that Paris should be blamed for what I felt. This is not a problem particularly severe in Paris. I did have similar experiences in the U.S. and other countries that I visited. Street harassment and otherisation of foreigners happen everywhere in various forms and degrees. Even in the country that I am not a foreigner, there are people who suffer from the same struggles that I have had here, and even in that country I also had to endure the troubles for being a young woman.
This made me feel even more melancholic. If all these problems that I have to face exist everywhere, where should I go to feel safe? All my friends were envious after I had decided to study abroad in Paris, as I would spend a semester free from heavy load of Amherst college in a a city renown for its rich culture and gastronomy. If I cannot be ‘happy’ during this semester in this city in which I am ‘supposed’ to be happy, what can I do?
I have yet to find the solution. It often feels like I will never be able to find one. I still do not know how to separate my mental stability from external factors that I cannot control. I am still wondering about how to maintain my everyday life despite external disturbance, how to construct my own safe space regardless of where I am. But now I know for sure that simply avoiding somewhere and looking for a new place cannot provide an answer for a question. These conundrums are not ditchable from my life – I need to either solve them or carry them.
What I have tried so far, to build a better relationship with the entire world that I cannot escape from, is to separate my ‘assignment’ from that of the world. However violent and discriminatory the world acts in this relationship, it is not my responsibility. My work is to make my existence sustainable by managing my mental and physical health, and keep myself from contributing to the solidification of such oppressive structure. I have decided not to put too much attention on the assignments of my surroundings that are all out of my hands.