Stumbling

Lyon

During one of my many aimless strolls the other day, it dawned on me that I have been in France for 6 weeks, which is the midway point of my sojourn here. Encountering this realization left me with a lot of mixed feelings: shouldn’t I have drawn or written or eaten or met more people or spoken better French or done more of this or that? I was catching myself comparing my expectations of how I thought things would be like when I planned this trip months ago, to how things were panning out.

It reminds me of myself when I was in college. I’d have this urge to express the fact of the moment out loud. Even while in the midst of it — holed up in Olin Library at 11pm with another 30 pages to read, walking across snow-blanketed Foss Hill in the heart of winter after a blizzard, having the first heart-to-heart with an acquaintance that’d turn out to be a true life friend — I tried to actively acknowledge the unique, time-boxed ephermality of the quintessential American college experience. How? I would blurt out to whomever I was with:

“you guys, we’re in college!”

And I keep having a similar feeling while I’m here in France (except I don’t exclaim anything out loud because these moments occur most often when I’m alone). Such quiet moments feel like any other I’d have in the states, but they feel different simply because I’m living amidst the backdrop of a foreign country.

Knowing that my stay in France has a clear end date makes me feel guilty for not doing “more.” Right now, I’m sitting in my apartment and writing this blog entry, instead of being out and taking in the lively European nightlife. And perhaps I feel guilty about not having eaten at enough fine dineries here in the reputed food capital of France (though my wallet certainly doesn’t feel guilty about that!).

The way these minor pangs of guilt coalesce with other hiccups throughout my stay — trying to find housing last-minute, getting lost in translation with complete strangers — feel like stumbling. To think you’re moving forward, until something grips you in your tracks and trips you up. Like when you begin to have more comfortable interactions with strangers in French, yet suddenly, when a young woman at the gym accidentally bumps into you and apologizes with a French “pardon”, you find yourself startled, voiceless, inarticulate. The moment passes and you didn’t respond to her apology.

Stumbling is moving along confidently, only to slip off from an unforeseen crack on the sideback. To advance towards your destination, only to miscalculate how you’ll get there or how long it’ll take. Stumbling can feel like a lot like stillness.

But here is the thing about stumbling too: it opens new possibilities. When you misstep, you’re poised to observe an ordinary situation from a different angle. There have been many instances in which someone has bumped into me and apologized, to which I’ve subsequently responded: “no worries”, “no problem”, “don’t worry about it”, “it’s okay”.

How easy is it for me to automatically conjure these idiomatic English phrases. Perhaps it’s because I had already stumbled through this exact scenario before: I can’t recount when, exactly, but perhaps maybe when I was 3 or 4 and was learning how to express manners in English. When I reflect on not having responded to the French woman at the gym apologizing to me what I fear most is having come off as rude or impolite.

This distinct moment of a minor stumble reminded of me of own values and principles. It’s inevitable that I’ll uncover more of the worldview I’ve already constructed and probably take for granted as I continue to stumble, particularly during the second part of my stay in France.

I’m not sure what I will unfold in next few weeks, nor do I want to imagine that they’ll materialize as something conspicuously grand or dramatic or thrilling. I want to be open to anything in my path - big and small, loud and muted. I hope that as I stumble, I can rise again and continue on the path that I am on and, in fact, have always been on.

Why France?

Ever since I decided to go to France, people haved asked me:

Why France?

… And everytime I answer the question to a different person, my response modifies slightly as I tacitly reflect upon my reasoning through quiet moments here.

I linger on this question because each time I think about it, I acknowledge the contractions within my reasoning. Half of me is in France because there are many aspects of French culture that I appreciate: its food habits, its language, its art movements and its philosophies. I love easily picking up rich, affordable baguettes from the plethora of available boulangeries, as well as how people seize the moment and taste of their meal and their drinks. I love the sound and grammar of the French language, despite the frustration that the countless verb tenses cause me. My first art history class happened in the 3rd grade, when my teacher introduced the class to Claude Monet and to Impressionism. Moreover, I romantize how some of my favorite artists and writers are either from France, or have spent time in France, including James Baldwin, Angela Davis, and Henri Matisse. Is there something hidden within the melange of the food, the language, the art community, and the way of being that enabled such revolutionary thinkers and artists to develop and refine ground-breaking truths? I wanted to see what they saw, to feel what they felt, hence why I decided to come to France.

I can acknowledge all of this and recognize how this culture has molded itself over centuries from its absorption and willful domination of other peoples, given its position as a dominant Western European country. In “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”, Stuart Hall asserts that cultural identity is “not an essense but a positioning.” And I’m interested in comparing how the two countries’ positioning of one another shapes its inhabitents’ understanding and embrace of the other culture. Having grown up and been educated in the United States, I have observed America’s admiration of French culture — perhaps something I have also internalized. As twin peers of Western hegemonic power, the United States and France straddle a similar level of global dominance — economically, politically, culturally. Perhaps it is this ability for United States to regard France as an equal that such porous exchange of the cultural value (shall we say — democratic?) exists between these two countries.

To materially trace the beginnings of my Francophilia is to revisit moments of my youth in which France’s cultural values had already permeated my education — from the public classroom, to what I listened to and watched in the media, to the laws under which I was governed.

Case in point: from my observation, the typical art history course in an American high school isdominated by the stories and portrayals of mostly white, Western male artists (unless you specifically sought out the “specialized” histories of those in Asia or Africa, for example). That’s perhaps why it’s been easy for to gravitate towards Monet, Renoir, and Cezanne as models to follow: because my Western education has been shaped by white, straight male hegemony to prioritize and diffuse the stories of those like them, all the while portraying other voices — those of women, people of color, queer, immigrant — as exotic “others” that remain on the outskirts of the creative canon.

Conversely, I’ve observed how American cultural dominance has also penetrated that which people choose to consume here. Sometimes, I find myself in conversations where other French peers my age know more about certain American movies and TV shows than I do myself! When I went to an underground, alternative, music event, I was amused to find that all of the musicians sang their song in English. All in all, there is a demand and appetite for embracing American culture — because for all the negative reputation that American has deservedly garnered, it still uploads itself as a beacon of progress and democracy, constructioning and spreading evidence of such political and cultural capital through Hollywood and other popular media.

I’m continuing to observe, experience, and understand my time here as an Asian-American woman from California in France, but that deserves its own post.

Two Weeks

Lyon

Today marks two weeks since I’ve been in Lyon, France. People have asked me how it’s been and what I’ve been doing. Frankly, it’s been quite mundane: getting groceries, drawing, going to the cafe to read, climbing at the gym. Here, I do all the things I was already doing at home. However, the mere fact that this all takes place in a foreign country has accentuated such quotidien experiences. Here are some musings from my life here so far:

The language barrier is frustrating, but it’s not insurmountable.

Even though I’ve taken about 4.5 years of school French and have practiced on-and-off over the years, I struggle a lot with conversational French — mostly in my listening comprehension. As someone who prides herself on being a warm and attentive listener to her peers, it’s been a huge blow to not be able to always understand what people are saying and to misinterpret the context. Often this leads to frustration, but then I remember that this frustration stems primarily from the pressure I put on myself and from my ego to escape shame or embarassment. In moments where I remember this, I try to laugh about it with the person I’m talking with as well.

And so, in order to improve my French, I’ve sought out language conversation exchange partners, and have been watching and listening to French media on YouTube, Netflix, and podcasts with subtitles and transcriptions. I’ve also been reading more in French in order to augment my vocabulary and grammar comprehension. Lastly, I will begin a 2-week crash course in French starting Monday at Alliance Française.

Slowing down feels foreign.

I came to Lyon in the middle of August, which is the time of the year when locals go on vacation and businesses close down for the summer. With the city quietly resting, I’ve experienced bouts of restlessness in this stillness. As an American who was living a fast-paced life back in the Bay Area, I wasn’t acclimated to a pace where people take time to feel the moments of a moment, to enjoy the espresso while looking outwards with no specific goal or vision in mind, to create space for conversation and for dining. My favorite part of the day is apéro — the time of the late afternoon/early evening when people join their close ones to enjoy a drink and snacks before dinner.

While this slowness has perturbed my over-active, over-stimulated brain, I also think it’s been healthy for me to internalize an approach of living that isn’t always goal-oriented.

Lyon

Despite having 100% of free time, priorities and structure still reign.

I’ve found it helpful to build some structure into my day in order to have some sanity. I organize my days into 3 main chunks: the morning, the afternoon, and the evening.

Mornings

I spend my mornings working on my art practice (en plein air or on other projects), reading, writing, and hanging out at the local cafe. I’ve always loved mornings, and that doesn’t seem to change even in a new locale.

Lyon

Afternoons

I can’t quite recall what I’ve done in my afternoons, but it’s been filled with miscellaneous activity: going to the museum, shopping for groceries, running errands, and apero! When I start my French course next week, I will be spending my afternoons doing that.

Lyon Me with my two friends, Jorge and Amy, at Musée des Confluences.

Evenings

After apero, I might do a number of things: meeting up with a friend, getting dinner with people, watching a free music show at l’Opéra de Lyon, enjoying the sunset, sitting by the river. When the city picks back up, I look forward to watching more live music and other entertainment.

Conclusion

Overall, it’s been quite lovely, and also mundane and true and simple in the way life just is. Everyday I wake up surprised and grateful that I get to have this experience that I’ve thought about for so long.

Transitionally

Broc'Bar

Seated with a tall beer in this damp, warmly lit Broc’Bar in Lyon, I’m debuting my updated website with its updated blog, so: welcome! Bienvenue! I’m happy that you’re taking the time to read this.

I updated my website to reflect a new chapter in my life, one in which I’m hopeful, grateful, and open to whatever may come. This past year, after turning 27 (also my golden year, since my birthday occured on a 27th of a month), I encountered a breakthrough that it was imperative to test many assumptions, expectations, and fears that accumulated over the years. As I was entering into greater stability in my life, I felt like it was important to not fall into my comfort zone, and to remember to attempt doing things that have always seemed challenging and scary to me.

So far, what that’s looked like is that I quit my job to take some time to pursue my artistic/creative projects, and to travel. I’ve always wanted to live outside of the United States for a considerable duration of time longer than a typical vacation, so I’m in France for at least 2.5 months doing just that. I’m spending a majority of my time in Lyon, where I’m drawing, painting, exploring, writing, climbing, and meeting new people, and some of the rest travelling to the South of France, Spain, and Portugal.

It’s been less than a week since I’ve been here, and it’s been a whole experience of excitement, adjustment, anxiety, beautiful sunsets, sweaty walks, and meeting new people. And I’m so excited to see what more will unfold over the next few months.

More on that for later. As I’m soaking up this apéro hiding away from the rain outside, tucked into the interior of this cafe, yet still connected to everyone sitting outside, I’m going to spend time on one of my artistic projects.