This is a post about identity. It’s a bit complicated and I don’t know if I have all of the theoretical terms down, but maybe that’s the point.
My study abroad experience in France came to a close about two weeks ago. If you’re interested in reading about my experience, feel free to check out the blog I updated here: http://iaufrance.weebly.com/justher.html
During my time abroad I ran across this blog post entitled “Race and Study Abroad,” written by a USC student who studied abroad in France. Then I followed the comments to another blog post by an Asian American student studying abroad. I was simultaneously touched and bothered by these posts; I was touched because they shared their experiences so openly and angered that these experiences had happened in the first place. But this was not new to me. After living in France for a couple of months, I had experienced more microaggressions (and some not-so-micro) than I was used to.
Needless to say, people calling out your Otherness? Pretty exhausting after a while. And dehumanizing to boot.
I alluded to this in my previous post, but it bears repeating: After all of these icky things happening again and again, it really just hurts and you want to find a way to make it stop – or just relieve some of the pain. And that’s when you seek out a community who gets it. Myself and a handful of Asian/Asian American students found solace in each other and it was so comforting to have that safe space to just talk freely about the nonsense we were dealing with. I think that sense of comfort and safety made it that much more difficult for me to step outside of that space. In other words, I knew I could trust the people in this group – I wasn’t sure I could say the same about everyone outside of it.
The biggest lessons I got out of my study abroad experience had nothing to do with conjugations or historical landmarks. Rather, they had to do with my identity and how others perceived me. In the San Francisco Bay Area, I blend in pretty well, almost to the point of fading into the background. I don’t get noticed much. France was a different story.
It took me a nine-hour time difference to realize that my face, my body, my gender, my identity as a whole does not exist in a neutral space. It took me an entire semester in Europe to realize the power that can be gained through community.
I’m hoping I can bring these lessons back to my own campus. I hope that I continue to grow. I hope this experience has changed me for the better.
“You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.”
“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” (1968), Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s no secret: I love talking about issues of identity. My two great loves at the moment seem to be race and gender. It’s fascinating stuff, and pop culture often provides us with a myriad of incidents to discuss. But lately, after spending a few months abroad, it seems I’ve become more and more aware that these -isms don’t only occur on the entertainment blogs – they’re happening right now, in our daily lives. It happens when some of us are asked where we come from and “California” isn’t a good enough response. It happens when people suggest that your “no” wasn’t clear enough. It happens when people try to label you instead of you defining yourself. This stuff happens. It’s happening in France, it happens in the States, and I’m positive it happens everywhere.
It happens. It happens and it builds up and it weighs on you and before you even realize it, it starts to hurt. So what do you do?
You scream. And shout. And let it all out.
(Literally, figuratively, whatever works for you)
But really, all will.i.am and Britney Spears collaborations aside, screaming is a form of expression. It indicates that something has happened. It indicates that you’re feeling something, and more often than not, that you need support. I’m finding that right now, with all that I’ve learned and encountered, I cherish these support groups and safe spaces a great deal.
Every time I swipe into my tablet, I’m greeted by a red calendar widget that tells me how much time I have left in the States. Today the bold, round numbers declared 37 days. After winter break it’ll be 18 days. After my last day of work on campus it’ll be two. Needless to say, I’m nervous and excited all at the same time – the smaller the numbers get on my calendar widget, the more I realize that this study-abroad-in-France-for-a-semester thing is finally and actually happening.
I picked up my French visa at the post office last Saturday, since nobody was here to sign off on it last week (Sidenote: Going to the post office during the holiday season is not something I can say I endorse). It was funny picking up the unnecessarily large Express Mail envelope that day and looking at the mess of stamps along the side – squares of Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Washington, and various birds of prey stared back at me as I broke the seal.
There was my passport, and within that was my French visa. As I looked at my photo and lamented my messy hair, I smiled remembering that day in the city. I’m lucky enough to be studying abroad with four people from my French class, which is a pretty sizable number given the fact that there are ten names on the class roster. I remember stressing over the visa application process with my classmates, but it all worked out in the end – I was just so concerned that I might mess it all up or miss an important deadline. Luckily, each step along the way wasn’t so bad. Each item took about a week to complete and to receive confirmation, from all of the CampusFrance stuff to the actual visa appointment.
In fact, the visa process had an extremely fast turnaround. Two of my classmates and myself made our appointments together, and if the tracking on the envelope is correct, we were able to go in for our appointments on a Wednesday and have our visas delivered to our addresses by the Saturday of that same week. Awesome.