Reflecting on the Netflix Show as an American of Color Living in France
By Santosh Muralidaran, Editor-in-Chief.
Many diamonds filled my backpack that day of school. Not real diamonds—although still very much symbolic of wealth, just a different type—instead, edible ones. In a container that was the stereotypically immigrant tupperware. I was 11-years-old.
“It means cashew slice,” I affirmed. And it was made of cashews too (hence the translation), with a very much cashew-type taste to it.
I wrote down the actual name on a piece of paper.
“Kah-joo,” they tried. “Bah—”
Not quite, I thought, yet I had little to no clue either.
They liked the taste, nonetheless. I was glad.
It was “culture day” in my fourth grade class, and I brought one of my favorite South Asian sweets, Kaju Bharfi, which is shaped like a diamond, to school to share with my classmates. I had eaten it very frequently while growing up—yet I never succeeded in pronouncing it correctly. To this day, as I write, I am unable to string the letters together in a way that would resemble its correct pronunciation, whatever that may be.
To be fair, I was unable to string the letters together to speak any word in virtually all South Asian languages, let alone my mother tongue, Tamil (spoken in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu). Born and raised in the United States in an Indian household, I was blessed with an ability to understand it, yet cursed with an inability to speak it.
“Representation” – Or Not
Emily in Paris touched my heart when Emily unknowingly stepped on a pile of dog poop on a French street. For someone whose experiences of inadvertently stepping on dog poop in French streets may well be in the double-digits, as silly as it seems, witnessing another American having to maneuver the abundance of dog poop on French streets all while facing the larger, more pressing issue of having to assimilate into French culture provided me with a sense of comfort. In my initial stages of watching the show, I indeed sought these moments of connection; after all, Emily in Paris was the American’s story in France, the lost, non-Francophone American attempting to assimilate in a land in which their American-ness is no longer the norm, much less the center of the world (as it so very much is perceived to be in America).
I am hit, upon my arrival back to the United States each break, with questions on how much of Emily’s life resembles mine, and yet each time the only story that appears in my mind is that of the dog poop.
As a racial minority in the outside world, the best part of growing up in a place where people look like you is that they look like you. The worst part? That they really do, indeed, look like you. The Silicon Valley is renowned for its technology industry, where the famous line from Hamilton “Immigrants: We Get the Job Done” resonates deeply, for at the very heart of the area lie companies who owe their very existence to immigrants and/or their children: Steve Jobs (son of a Syrian immigrant, founder of Apple), Stergey Brin (Russia-born immigrant, founder of Google), and Eduardo Saverin (Brazilian native and U.S. immigrant and later citizen, Facebook co-founder), to name a few.
Yet Silicon Valley’s immigrant population today is a tad bit different than the image you would get from the individuals above—perhaps a little spicier*, if you will. In this year’s census of my high school, located in the heart of the Silicon Valley and not too far from the Apple headquarters, students under the “Asian” category constituted approximately 72% of 2,195 total students. America’s history and nature of dominant whiteness, the same whiteness that 60.1% of the population** bears today, according to the latest national census, is a reality so detached from the rigid bubble we lived in that it could only be conceptualized rather than seen (or experienced). Thus, when the idea of it permeated within the student body, school culture depicted it as antithetical and innately threatening to our Asianness—our successful, scholastic, Stanford-aspiring (and Stanford-attending, if we’re exceptionally lucky) Asianness.
Not being able to pronounce Kaju Bharfi was the beginning, it portrayed a lack of genuine connection with my supposed culture. And yet, it was this same “culture” which I was expected to disassociate from when it was deemed to be “too much”.
The ability to speak fluent Tamil was thought of as paying respect to my heritage, yet when speaking English, it was necessary to speak with an American accent because an Indian accent indicated a lack of necessary assimilation into American culture. My lack of knowledge in the vast film industry, Bollywood, meant I spent my time consuming more American media (it’s true), rendering me a disgrace to my culture, and yet obsessing over classical Indian musical instruments such as the tabla (drum) or Indian flute was too Indian, with no place in the Indian-American narrative.
FOB (fresh off the boat, a derogatory term used to describe immigrants who did not fully assimilate into their country) was the term used to describe those who crossed the line, who were too brown. Coconut—brown on the outside, but white on the inside—was as well thrown around amongst the South Asian community so frequently. It was fluid enough that anyone could be labeled it, but also rigid in the sense that those who were deemed it had recognizable characteristics that the others knew how to hide.
On the flip side, those who swerved too far in the opposite direction bore the label whitewashed or uncultured. It was crucial to internalize some aspects of American culture (if that exists), yet not all.
America was white, the outside world’s image of a typical American was a white person (not one with a long and difficult-to-pronounce last name who brings food that has a peculiar, unfamiliar smell to school everyday)—and we knew, but we didn’t experience. We didn’t experience, so we pretended, and threatened to tear each other down in the process. This was our story—perhaps almost utopic, for there may not be another time in our lives where we are a majority and not a minority—but we still yearned to fit into thite America, to reach the perfect equilibrium point at which both our American and South Asian identities were just right. The point, however, was as unattainable as it was fantasized.
I remind you: the worst part is that they really do, indeed, look like you.
*This is a joke tied to the fact that South Asians are stereotypically more tolerant of spice than other races, and no, you cannot use it if you are not South Asian or of South Asian descent. Feel free to laugh now that you understand (if I can be considered funny, that is).
**In the official national census, this percentage excludes Americans who are Hispanic or Latino but includes Americans of Middle Eastern or North African descent
Emily, Mindy and the World in between
“You think you can change the whole French culture by sending back a steak?” Mindy, a Chinese national living in Paris who quickly befriended Emily, asked as they sat in a restaurant.
Emily, frustrated that her steak was not cooked properly, demanded the chef make a new one on the basis that “customers are always right.” She was reminded by Mindy that this principle does not hold in France.
Apart from a short scene in which Emily was portrayed taking a French class in the beginning of the season, and the few times she used Google translate to talk to the few people at Savoir (the company where she worked) who did not speak English, Emily largely expected French culture to adapt to her overt Americanness. In a restaurant, Emily yelled at a waiter who “mixed up the dates” when it was she who refused to acknowledge that, in France, the dates read DD/MM/YYYY rather than MM/DD/YYYY, as in America. She constantly viewed Paris as an amusement park and glorified the aspects of its culture which pleased her (the pains au chocolats, the wine, the men who she slept with — who all, coincidentally, spoke perfect English), while she could not stop complaining about minor aspects of the culture that inconvenienced her.
Mindy, on the other hand, experienced an entirely different French expat story. Whereas Emily was offered the privilege of demanding the French change their culture to accommodate her, Mindy had to bow down to the French as they were the ones who saved her from the backwards Eastern world from which she escaped. Whereas it was impossible for Emily to get fired, it was considerably easy for Mindy—because, of course, it is Mindy who holds the expired visa. Whereas Emily’s national origin gave her the confidence to provide an “American voice” to Savoir, Mindy was used to perpetuate Asian stereotypes through the mouth of an Asian herself (“If she’s mad enough, a chopstick can puncture your skin, don’t ask how I know that” / “Chinese people are mean behind your back” / “You can’t punish people for their thoughts. I’m from China, we’ve tried”). And while Emily was played by an American actress with a strong accent, Mindy was a Chinese character played by a Korean-American actress who has a thick, noticeable accent when she attempts to speak the unfamiliar language of Mandarin.
When others asked me why I had not applied to the Euro-Asian Sciences Po campus of Le Havre, I often responded with “too many Asians”—and it doesn’t help that I would also be enrolling in the dual degree with the University of British Columbia, a university that, too, has its fair share of Asian domination, nicknamed the “University of Billion Chinese.” Although I (thankfully) broke myself out of this toxic Silicon Valley-induced mentality and it was my growing passion for the Middle East, cultivated by previous visits to Egypt and Morocco and books about the Arab Spring that led me to choose the Middle East-Mediterranean campus of Menton, I originally believed transitioning from one highly Asian-concentrated environment to two others would lead to my blank face when future job interviewers ask me what helps me adjust to different environments or how I value diversity. What “different environments?” What “diversity?”. And yet, when I was finally one of the faces of the student body diversity that Sciences Po so proudly promotes, a cold reality check quickly hit.
A Minority Status
Menton was the first place in my then-18 years of living where I had to confront the reality of being a minority. In August 2019, I left my hometown as the only one to venture across the Atlantic Ocean for my undergraduate studies. Gone were the days of balancing two identities: here, I am the brown South Asian among very few others, I am the representative of South Asian culture, I am the Indian until it is revealed I am in fact from the United States—or, if the latter is revealed first, there will always be a need to respond to the question: “but where are you really from?”
I watched Emily in Paris with the hope that I would see myself and my experiences on television, only to quickly be struck with the realization Emily’s French experience simply cannot be translated into that of an American of color, who is a child of immigrants. It is simply not (and for good reason) in the immigrant’s place to enter a new country and demand that the population forgo their language and customs after having endured those very same rules being imposed on themselves, resulting in an internal identity crisis that is as foreign to Emily as the pains au chocolat she immersed herself in for the first time in France.
It is, instead, to watch Emily discuss how she hopes to travel Europe while you can not go anywhere without your passport in Europe in case your legality is questioned; it is to watch others upset with Emily’s Americanness only because of her accent while a waiter asks you if they even wash their hands before eating in restaurants in India or Pakistan or Bangladesh; it is watching the actress Lily Collins herself (who plays Emily) talk in a LIFEKellyandRyan interview that she hopes to do a season 2 because everything is just so much more “local and romantic” in Paris, and be hit with the truth: the American romanticization of Paris and the rest of France is a reality reserved to Americans whose skin color does not scream “refugee” at the French-Italian border, whose “culture” so perfectly fits into the American archetype that it never sparked internal identity crises, and whose biggest fear on the streets of France just may be dodging dog poop—and not the fear of the police who patrol the streets nearby.
A Letter to You Emily
So, Emily, if you do choose to venture southwards from Paris, the highly scenic TER train ride from Nice to Ventimiglia (in Italy) awaits you. If you encounter the French border guards, they will only speak English to you if your appearance suggests you might hail from a ravaged third-world country of brown or Black people whose foreign customs are antithetical to the average Frenchman’s. Use, therefore, their “Bonjour” or “Bonsoir” greeting to let go of your culture—being the English language, and more (if more exists)—and instead immerse yourself in the Frenchness that surrounds you. Act accordingly and respond with a kind greeting. You may even be able to grab a coffee with one of the guards later, but beware if it’s in Ventimiglia! Having to so suddenly switch to “Ciao” after barely learning the proper pronunciation for “Bonjour” will put the list of challenges you faced as a foreigner in France at a grand total of two, which may just be the tipping point that pushes you over the edge.
But should you fall, there are many of us whom you will encounter who yearn to climb up. We may never be able to do so as your status may always be unattainable, but bring the cameraman of your show down with you and let us pitch our own “American in France” story. I assure you it will receive as many (probably more) watchers as your Instagram posts do with likes. Why? For starters, it’s more interesting; after all, you taught me important life lessons:
You can try, but the outside world may forever think of you differently because of the color of your skin.
You can (and you will) succeed, yet it may always be stories like Emily’s that earn the spotlight, and Mindy’s will be on the sidelines.
People like Emily may forever be barred from understanding your struggle (not that you will always be in a place where you can thoroughly explain it to them, either), and among your immigrant background identity and your passport identity it is the former that will be recognized more often than the latter—and not in a good way. For you are your skin color first, then you are American. Yes, they are one and the same, but how can you expect others to think of it as such when you couldn’t even do so yourself, even while growing up in an environment where you were demanded to do exactly that?—
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and it whispered
where does it hurt?
– Excerpt from “what they did yesterday afternoon” by Warsan Shire
—and that’s why, Emily, it’s just not the same.
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