I Wanted To Love Paris, But It Didn’t Love Me

When I went to Paris for a semester abroad, I thought I would find the truer, best version of myself. But I didn't realize that you don't get to choose how you'll be seen.

Before I left New York for Paris, back in 2005, I prepared myself for what I believed was attainable — full, seamless immersion. I purchased a set of used conversational French language CDs to brush up on my high school–level comprehension. Within weeks, I could identify all the fixtures in a bathroom. I learned how to request a sleeper car for possible long-distance train journeys. And I could count out change in francs. None of these outdated touchstones struck me as off-kilter, as I fancied myself the adaptable type. I took pride in my convincing accent, too; unlike Korean, my parents’ mother tongue, the rhythm of French came naturally to me. This only continued to fuel a fantasy I’d had since childhood: that I’d been born into the wrong family, in the wrong place, and that in Europe, at 20 years old, I would finally arrive to a kind of homecoming.

On my study abroad application, I ticked the box for a homestay living arrangement, and daydreamed about my potential Parisian house mother. Some days she was a poet, other days a painter or chef. She lived in an effortlessly chic flat in the Marais, fitted with a book-lined salon, cheery floral fabrics, tiny sculptures, and old world maps. At her doorstep, she would greet me with her arms open wide: “Ma chère! Come in, come in. I want to show you everything!”

Perhaps deep down I knew my experience in Paris couldn’t really be the way I had imagined. But I was steadfast in my delusions. My parents had recently separated, and on the heels of our family’s final, ugly collapse, I hoped to fall into someone else’s happy home, miles away from what little remained of mine.

A semester abroad hardly qualifies as an authoritative introduction to any city. But like many of my travels in the years since, I hadn’t flown to Paris to become an expert on its streets or history. I went, instead, equipped with the foolish notion that a change in location and context could suddenly stir to life my truer, best self — and that I could present that counterfeit iteration to the world, and people might believe it. I didn’t know then the impossibility of such a pursuit; that you don’t get to choose how to be seen, or whether you’ll be embraced or discarded — that neither the city, nor the mirage of reinvention, can ever really belong to you.

When I meet strangers, I often wonder what about me they notice first. Perhaps that I have my grandfather’s cheeks, my mother’s nose, my grandma’s eyes — traits physical anthropologists once used to codify the early Mongoloid (or yellow, or Asian) race: “fairly large and protruding cheekbones,” a “slightly concave nasal bridge,” “epicanthic folds,” and hooded eyelids said to have formed into their lightly oblique shape due to frigid windstorms in the Ice Age; the flattened features of some Eastern curio. They might assume I speak an exotic language, and so possess all the answers to their questions, owing them explanations of where I’m “really” from, to better align with a past they can understand, but one I’ve never identified as my own. These cheeks, nose, and eyes were passed down to a little girl who grew up watching Duck Tales, devouring Big Macs, born with only an American name.

I hoped to fall into someone else’s happy home, miles away from what little remained of mine.

In high school, white classmates who opted to cheat off my geometry tests felt shortchanged by our middling marks. The parents at my family’s all-Korean church harangued me each Sunday for never properly learning Hanguk-mal (though I understood just enough to discern their disappointment). Everybody expected to engage with a more Asian register in me that didn’t exist. So I began to dye a flap of my jet-black hair Manic Panic Pillarbox Red; I wanted a palpable way to signal my difference. I chopped off my long locks, spiked the back with clay. “Looks like rat chewed your head,” my mother observed. And in a sense, she was right: For once my outside appearance mirrored the mess beneath the surface.

By the time I moved to Paris, I’d resolved at least one part of me: I had decided I wanted to be a writer. I’d even started a draft of a novel; the kind of thinly veiled nonfiction one attempts with brief but arresting enterprise in their early twenties. The main character was an Asian girl adopted by Caucasian parents — a distinction I’d then believed most clearly conveyed how abstract I felt about my own cultural identity. She was Korean (the nonspeaking kind like me), struggling with who and what she ought to be for her family, for the outside world, for herself. The adoption component had been a clunky workaround for what I couldn’t yet articulate. My real-life, immigrant parents had afforded me a privilege unavailable to themselves in America: immediate assimilation. But in trade, that act also engendered a seemingly irreparable distance, between me, and them, and where they came from; an often profound, mutual, alienation.

The book I elected to write was doomed anyway, as it contained zero plot. Still, I’d envisioned working on my opus in Paris, sipping cognac in my own Café de Flore or Les Deux Magots, belonging to a new, artsy expatriate coterie of Hemingways and Steins and Fitzgeralds. James Baldwin had been only four years older than I was when he relocated to Paris in 1948, albeit under far more dire circumstances: to escape the maelstrom of racism swallowing America. But like him, I hoped to enter upon a rich, creative spell — in my case unfettered by the thorny racial expectations I longed to leave behind. I wanted the chance to just be.

Upon arriving in Paris, my university’s administration matched me to an apartment not in the Marais but in Passy, a neighborhood in the Right Bank’s 16th arrondissement reputed for its upturned-nose affluence. I stayed optimistic. Maybe I could actualize some modern day rags-to-riches story? I walked along my new street, Rue Raynouard, admiring the stately stone buildings that trimmed each side of the block. Centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin had lived at 66 Rue Raynouard, Balzac at 47. When I reached my address, I halted, dumbstruck. Behind a wrought iron gate stood a six-story, regal, balconied building, with a tunnel vault carving through its center, front to back. On the far end of its archway I could glimpse a courtyard and an immaculately manicured garden where pergolas trussed with woody vines hung above a stone parapet. Further, just beyond the courtyard’s edge, a section of the Seine coursed. I punched the code at the gate, and tried to enter the garden, but a security guard stopped me — no trespassing. This struck me as unreasonable, to dangle the prospect of a beautiful thing, only to deny access to it.

When I knocked on the apartment upstairs, a woman answered. Her sharp, penetrating eyes took hold of my face at the doorway. She said crisply, “Bienvenue,” and let me in.

I lived at one end of a narrow corridor in her creaking Victorian apartment, and she and her estranged husband lived at the other. Though she possessed an exquisite-sounding Portuguese name, which translated to “Two Kings,” I was to call her simply Madame. Each month I paid Madame cash rent for a twin mattress that lay on the floor. Stacy, a high-strung, loquacious student from Westchester, whose wardrobe consisted solely of pastel velour tracksuits, lived in the room next to me. Of wealthy, Jewish stock, Stacy visited Paris every year with her mother, strictly for museum and shopping purposes. “There’s a mezuzah on their front door,” she noted, in one of our first conversations at the apartment. “That means they can’t be racist.”

I wanted the chance to just be.

Stacy and I did not cross paths often, save for a few memorable moments, like when she insisted on showing me how she’d learned to cook “authentic” Asian rice. Nor did I often encounter Madame, although I did spot her on many mornings, seated at the head of an empty dining table, a Chinese cast iron teapot at her hands, the thrum of Tchaikovsky concertos muffled by old, lace drapes. As the tea steeped and the overtures swelled, her solemn gaze remained transfixed somewhere beyond the window’s horizon, and I knew never to disturb her.

Madame alleged that she did not speak English, which I believe was one of several ploys to avoid conversation with her lodgers. Our chattiest exchange occurred shortly after I moved in, when she escorted Stacy and me on a walking tour of the neighborhood. Madame looked only at Stacy when pointing out the grocery, the bakery, the post office. She looked to me once, to remark upon the quality of a local Chinese restaurant (“pas mal”).

I shrugged this off. The suggestion of Madame’s underlying, troublesome nature seemed too disheartening to acknowledge at the time. This was my first trip alone abroad; so much to see and do. Steps from the apartment, the Place du Trocadéro’s sweeping esplanade unveiled an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower. I explored every day, gazing up to Beaux Arts cornices, perusing antiquarian hardbacks at the Bouquinistes along the Seine, enjoying obscure film retrospectives (Joseph Losey, Jon Cassavetes) at the cinema on Rue de Christine. At the Champ de Mars, I watched old men in their flat caps and pilly wool sweaters, engaged in a match of pétanque. At the Pont Neuf, I passed French students drunk on cheap wine. And like the subject of some budget Truffaut montage, I pondered if I could ever be one of them.

I’d loiter, too, at various local watering holes, on the periphery of lively conversations, eager to chime in with a quippy remark I’d practiced in French. But either too tipsy or shy, the opportunity never emerged. Though I desperately wanted to make a French friend, I mostly wandered the city solo. Being on your own is a kind of liberty you learn to appreciate — a sensibility, back then, I hadn’t yet fully grown into. I was lonely, toggling between extremes, feeling at turns invisible and utterly exposed.

I was lonely, toggling between extremes, feeling at turns invisible and utterly exposed.

Somehow I managed to occupy both these states during Madame’s mandatory bimonthly dinners. The stiff affairs began in the parlor room for aperitifs hour, where I joined Stacy, Ian (a French literature student who lived in the maid’s quarters upstairs), Monsieur (Madame’s portly husband), their three children, and corresponding significant others. We took seats on a tattered fainting couch beside a picture window, with a view of the off-limits courtyard garden. Conversations were to remain strictly spoken in French; in theory a positive exercise, but one that rendered me often bereft of meaningful nuance.

During one dinner, I was asked where I was born; I said California. But where was I from, originally? In Asia? I said my family was from Korea. North or South? The last question seemed preposterous, but I answered it anyway, “du Sud.” And they replied with a skeptical, “Ahhhhh, oui?”

On another night, Monsieur asked to top up our wines, but turned to me, chuckling, to say in French, “Maybe not for Jennifer — do they even drink wine in Korea?”

I said, “Euh…oui…oui!” but hesitated, and by the time I spoke, he’d already disappeared for a new bottle.

My face flushed. Monsieur’s question had rattled me. Initially, I thought, Yes, you idiot, of course Koreans drink wine. But then a current of intense humiliation gripped me: I was a fraud. I had no idea if Koreans drank wine. My father drank Mexican beer. My grandparents drank rice liquor. I had never been to Korea. I knew nothing.

The group shifted into the dining room, settling into assigned seats for dinner. They asked Stacy about her parents’ occupations (“They’re lawyers. Very successful lawyers!”) and the room went quiet after my turn (“My father is a mechanic. My mother is a nurse. We don’t speak much anymore.”) And after another round of wine, Monsieur inquired about the Korean Peninsula (“How is it over there, politically?”) Once I admitted that I didn’t have a clue, I stopped talking altogether until, two weeks later, we repeated the whole charade again.

The city broke me altogether, eventually — first, in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Constructed in 1612 by King Henry IV’s widow, Marie de’ Medici, today the 23 hectares of gardens, owned by the French Senate, are lined with picturesque promenades open to the public. There, decades ago, in the throes of starvation and poverty, Ernest Hemingway supposedly strangled pigeons and smuggled them out of the park in his son’s pram to later cook for dinner. I wasn’t an avid scholar of his work, but Hemingway’s legacy had retained a folkloric quality of expatriate vagabond glamour in Paris, the embodiment of some hyper-American tenacity and grit.

I moseyed through the leafy parterres one day, as little kids sailed model boats on the basin’s water. Suddenly, I heard a twangy, “Ni hao ma!” from a white, mustachioed man who stared at me from a nearby flowerbed. He said it again while I walked away.

Next, outside a boutique in Montmartre, or by a wine bar in Oberkampf, or in the maze of booths at the Saint-Ouen flea markets, different strangers, mostly men, shouted: “Konichiwa!” “Hi China.” “Hello Tokyo!” They looked me in the eyes each time, never pausing to say more.

I wasn’t tailing a flag-wielding tour guide, or funneling out of a sightseeing coach, snap-happy. Nor had I kitted myself out like my grandparents did on family vacations, loaded with fanny packs, sunglasses, visors, neck wallets, and brand new sneakers. If anything, I looked like I’d stepped out of a time machine, not a tour bus. I’d worn an argyle sweater vest from a vintage store near the Pompidou, eyeglasses from my favorite retro optical shop in the East Village. I convinced myself that perhaps a more conspicuous Asian tourist had been lurking somewhere close by each time, directly in my blind spot.

Different strangers, mostly men, shouted: “Konichiwa!” “Hi China.” “Hello Tokyo!” 

Then, one overcast afternoon, I sat in a Latin Quarter café, in an empty section surrounded by windows. After ordering an espresso, I had begun outlining a chapter of my book when a teenage boy walked up to one of the windows and placed his hands palm to palm, into a prayer position. Eyes squinted, mouth pursed, he bent over slowly and bowed. It was the kind of bow that accompanies the clash of a gong. His friend stood a few feet away, cackling, the noise muted by the glass between us. They looked oafish and simple, but long after they’d left, I was the one staring at their abandoned patch of pavement feeling ashamed, wondering what I’d done wrong.

I thought that if I did everything right, the city would suddenly unlock itself. Young French people would befriend me; they’d be impressed that I knew so much and spoke so well. They’d see me the way I wanted to be seen, and they’d finally let me in. I religiously referred to five guidebooks throughout my stay. One was called Access. Another was called the Irreverent Guide to Paris, whose cover blurb alleged, “It’s like being taken around by a savvy local!” I brought Paris Classique with me everywhere, a pocket-sized collection of maps I was told even Parisians used. I’d scoured online forums: How to fit in, in Paris?

Strategies and tips were numerous: Move against the flow of tourists. Be casual, but elegant. Wear scarves. Don’t laugh too loud. Don’t speak too loud. Don’t smile on the street. Greet friends with kisses on the cheek (but don’t actually kiss the cheek). Say Bonjour Monsieur/Madame before asking a question. Use vous form when speaking, until given permission for informal tu. Try the nightlife. Above all, ease in. Relax.

By the end of the semester, I owned many scarves, and I no longer smiled on the street, but I hadn’t found a single person who’d given me permission to use informal tu. I’d read that if I did my job well, if I managed to truly blend in, someone would ask me for directions. Once, in the 4th arrondissement, a disoriented Japanese couple stopped me. We couldn’t understand each other, but I knew where they wanted to go, and pointed them in the right direction. Then I resumed my path to the Metro, walking the whole way with my eyes to the ground.

Here’s a little-known statistic about the City of Light: During the late 1990s and early 2000s, more than 600 people a year were sent to the hospital after slipping on dog shit. Various city ordinances have perhaps since altered those numbers, but for a time, Parisian dogs freely deposited 16 metric tons of crottes de chien annually onto the streets. I encountered an active offender one day back in 2005, on Rue Raynouard: an elderly lady wrapped in furs, with gauzy hair teased up like cotton candy. Her frisky Yorkshire terrier left a series of peanut-sized turds in their wake. Soon after, I began to notice an alarming amount of excrement, along the sidewalks, between cobblestones, in Passy and Opéra, in the 1st and the 5th. There was shit, quite literally, everywhere in Paris. Edith Piaf never sang about that.

A year after I returned from France, several news outlets published articles about a peculiar malady known as “Paris syndrome.” This transient psychological disorder afflicts certain tourists whose quixotic notions of Paris clash, to disastrous effect, with reality. Fantasies of dreamy moonlit strolls, charming cobblestone streets, and easy banter with locals quickly disintegrate in the midst of crime, city filth, and the deep chasm of language. Shock sends the visitor into an altered state: acute delusional episodes, feelings of persecution, dizziness, heart palpitations, vomiting.

Those most susceptible to Paris syndrome are said to be the Japanese, particularly young women, whose romanticized impressions of French life are ubiquitous back home, rosily rendered on billboards, commercials, or in glossy magazines. In one reported case of Paris syndrome, two women believed their hotel room had been bugged in an elaborate conspiracy plot. In another case, a man professed to be the reincarnation of the Sun King, Louis XIV. And in another, a woman claimed she was being attacked by microwaves (whether by wavelengths or actual kitchen appliances, it remains unclear). Depending on the publication, anywhere from 12 to 20 Japanese visitors a year are diagnosed with Paris syndrome, a handful of whom even require repatriation under medical supervision.

I thought that if I did everything right, the city would suddenly unlock itself.

Some reporters describe Paris syndrome as too privileged a condition to sympathize with, merely a laughable first-class problem afflicting fragile travelers. One journalist wrote: “Coming to grips with a city that is indifferent with their presence and looks nothing like their imagination launches tourists into a psychological tailspin.”

I did not mind when, for me, Paris’s shiny artifice eroded. I had seen the prostitutes on Saint-Denis in broad daylight, leaning in shallow doorways, tired, ravaged. And one day, in the 12th, two boys tried to shove me against a wall to snatch my purse. But once, in the 3rd, as I snacked on a warm pain au chocolat, a voice loomed over me, repeating, “Chinoise, Chinoise, Chinoise…” I spun around, frantic. “Did you hear that?” I asked my classmate Grace. “Where are they? Who said it?!” My own voice, which sounded deliriously shrill, I hardly recognized.

“I dunno,” Grace said. And her green eyes scanned the block, as if searching for a ghost.

What the journalists did not take into account is that perhaps it is indifference itself that the Japanese desire, the ability to walk the city alone without the constant reminder of their displacement; to experience the same mundane disillusionment as a visitor with green eyes or blonde hair, who holds the same unreasonable fantasies that Paris evokes in us all. I’m not Japanese, but American, and I couldn’t seem to convince anyone of that fact while in France. Everywhere I went, someone reminded me that I didn’t belong.

The irony is that when I visited Seoul for the first time, shortly after Paris, every Korean I encountered spoke to me in Japanese. They knew I didn’t belong there, either.

Dye your hair red, dress up in scarves, read all the guidebooks — none of it matters. I see now that my problem could be traced back to Madame’s parlor room. I’d allowed myself to admit to an unyielding shame: of not being Korean enough, or American enough, of not holding all the answers. I hadn’t yet realized that I didn’t need to be simplified for the ease of others. Or that maybe the coterie I’d been seeking required a different kind of people, those who could meet me and look beyond my cheeks, and nose, and eyes, and let me in.

I didn’t find that in France. I did have tea once with a Vietnamese-French woman, born and raised in Paris. I asked her, “Do people consider you a Parisian?”

She scoffed, and said, “Not when you look like this.”

Beneath the serpentine pavé footpaths, and Bateaux Mouches sunset cruises, and Gothic vaulted arches, is the churning hidden matter that shows all the ugly, real business of a city and its people. But isn’t that the truth, anyway? I desired to know Paris firsthand, like a local. I suppose, in the end, I got exactly that.

Before I left France, someone stole my laptop and with it, my novel. For the best, I think. If I were to write that story now, I’d have the girl realize that there is no secret code to learn, no trick to be accepted. Access granted or not, she will be seen as she is seen, which might usher in a series of disquieting revelations, or outright defeats. But these are risks worth taking, all part of the unavoidable gamble that comes with choosing to expand your slice of the world. There are good days, and rough days. There are gardens you can enter, and some you cannot. But fuck it — run through them. No one needs to give you permission, anyway. ●

Jennifer Hope Choi is the recipient of the Carson McCullers Center's Marguerite and Lamar Smith Fellowship, the BuzzFeed Emerging Writer Fellowship, and the B. Frank Vogel Scholarship at Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Her essay, “My Mother and I Went Halfway Around the World to Find Each Other” is anthologized in Best American Travel Writing 2018, selected by guest editor Cheryl Strayed. Her writing is forthcoming or has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Scholar, Lucky Peach, Guernica, BuzzFeed Reader, Catapult, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a memoir.

This essay is part of a series of stories about travel.

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