One A-Line writer shares her unique experience studying abroad in France. This piece also appeared in the Fall 2009 issue.
By Alice Feng
“Welcome to British Airways. We will be boarding all passengers for flight number BA 327 in 10 minutes. Please have your tickets and passports ready.”
On June 3, 2009, I found myself at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York with two other students also participating in the SU Abroad summer program, Paris Noir: Literature, Art and Contemporary Life in Diaspora. I had wanted to be a part of Paris Noir ever since freshman year when alumni came to talk about their experiences during my African American Studies class. I recall them mentioning that class was held at a café and that their classroom was literally Paris itself. It sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. However, I thought it over and decided not to do it that summer because I wanted to continue some work at a prostate cancer research lab.
Things changed after the first semester of sophomore year ended. I changed majors from Biochemistry to African American Studies (AAS). I no longer wanted to pursue a career in science. After that one course freshman year, I fell in love with my AAS classes and continued to take AAS courses from then on. I decided to go with AAS as my major. My parents were not happy at all with me shifting gears. They had thought that I was well on my way to becoming a doctor. Unfortunately, it was not going to happen for them.
Enter opportunity to study abroad in Paris. In the syllabus that was sent to the 16 multi-disciplinary students — 1 Asian, 1 Latina, 4 White and 10 Black young scholars — Professor Janis A. Mayes, the director and founder of Paris Noir, described the program as having a jazz theme. By this she meant that our experience will be multidimensional and layered because of the different people we will meet, which included activists, artists, writers, and ourselves as well as the environment that we would become a part of and the institutions, such as museums, that we would visit. All that we see through our eyes will come together at the end of the journey.
We were all trying to pull ourselves together on the first day we arrived in Paris. Despite our differences, we were all experiencing a cascade of emotions, especially after we arrived at the restaurant we had to find on our own (Professor Mayes and our TA purposefully left us to rely on our own devices so that we would learn to use the Métro). It finally hit us that we were in Paris. After the first week or two, all of us were quite comfortable with taking the Métro. By then, I realized that I could not eat at restaurants every day because I could not afford it. My roommate and I decided to make food instead. However, both of us did not know how to cook. We became experts at making salads, improvising with whatever food we had in our refrigerator. We were also very lucky to have two Chinese supermarkets a block away.
By some twist of fate, I was actually living in the heart of Chinatown for the duration of the trip (I guess we Asians are everywhere). I was surprised because I’ve always had the image of wealthy Caucasians sipping coffee in a café in Paris; I would never have imagined the enormity of the Asian population there. As I struggled to trace back to the origins of that mental image, I found myself feeling relieved to see so many Chinese people in Paris. Being that I was thousands of miles from home and deprived of home cooked meals, it gave me a sense of comfort to be surrounded by my people.
After getting adjusted to the change of atmosphere and time zones, my classmates and I attended seminars in Café de Flore, Monday through Thursday. This alternate classroom setting was a place that provoked thinking and stimulated conversations on various books, such as James Baldwin’s “No Name in the Street,” Boubacar Boris Diop’s “Murambi, The Book of Bones” and Tyler Stovall’s “Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light.” Sometimes we would even have a discussion with the authors of the books that we read. There was so much within the classroom but there was a lot more going on outside of the classroom; the two locales of learning were never disconnected.
I did an independent research project on images of African American jazz musicians in Paris, where I met and interviewed one of the best bassists living in the city. Although I did not read about this African American jazz musician in Tyler Stovall’s “Paris Noir,” I read about people like him. Meeting him was like having Stovall’s text come alive. The jazz musician’s exact words to me were, “I was floored when you said you were an African American Studies major.” People are always taken aback when I tell them what my major is. There was one substitute speaker who actually asked me why I majored in AAS when I introduced myself at a panel session. Then she immediately asked jokingly if I had a Black boyfriend. I doubt she would have asked this question had I been a Black student. Nor would she have responded in the same manner had I said I was a Biochemistry major. Aside from that one speaker, no one has asked why I majored in AAS. Instead, most of the people I’ve met gave me encouraging nods.
What I experienced in Paris changed me. It was an experience that taught me that I do not always have to know what’s coming next but to take opportunities as they come. As soon as I arrived home, my mother asked me for the first time, “What did you learn in school?” Although I can communicate fairly well in Cantonese, nothing I could say would do justice to how I lived my five weeks in Paris.