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