Five years ago today Sion Dayson moved to Paris, the last move, so far, in a peripatetic existence. This essay is Sion’s contribution to Numéro Cinq‘s What It’s Like Living Here series, a vivid, intelligent meditation not so much on place but on the deeper implications of belonging, of identity and strangeness.
Sion Dayson is an American writer living in Paris, France. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Smokelong Quarterly, Six Sentences (Volume 3) and the anthologies Sounds of this House and Strangers in Paris: New Writing Inspired by the City of Light. In 2007 she won a Barbara Deming Award for Fiction. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently putting the finishing touches on her first novel. It recently placed as a Semifinalist in the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition (novel-in-progress category). You can read more of her experiences in Paris at her blog, paris (im)perfect, and find out about all of her work at siondayson.com.
An Alien Feeling
By Sion Dayson
When I was a baby, I had a nanny named Josephine who came from the Dominican Republic. My family lived in New York then – the mythic New York of the ‘70s that I would love to have known.
Josephine spoke to me in Spanish, long before I could understand or form words. There’s no doubt, however, that this early exposure stayed with me. When I started studying Spanish formally in junior high school, the language came easily, my accent hardly noticeable. Vocabulary stuck like scotch tape.
Cara K., my best friend, took French classes and I teased her endlessly for it.
“What good will French ever do you?” I ridiculed.
In fact, I charged anyone who chose not to learn Spanish as elitist. By that point we lived in North Carolina where the Latino population was exploding. Spanish was not only useful, but to me, completely beautiful.
I can tell you it’s true: karma catches up with you. Spanish had seemed wrapped up in my destiny – yet here I am living in France. For all my former mocking of budding Francophiles, the laugh is now on me.
The question of language looms large in my life – as a writer, even larger still. But the fact of living here centers even more profoundly on a feeling – that of being a foreigner, forever awkward and strange.
* * *
In the United States, official forms ask for the measure of a person one multiple-choice question at a time. From school applications to the Census, SAT tests to scholarship funding, you’re placed into small square shapes. The resulting profile, we’re assured, is “for informational purposes only.”
The possible answers have expanded now, but growing up, the choices in the race/ethnicity category always posed a problem. By default I selected “other;” it was the only box that could hold me.
Perhaps this is why I’ve never been too fond of labels. Anything I might call myself – black, white, biracial – means little to me, these definitions speaking only a partial truth. Embodying seeming opposites, ambiguity is my familiar.
Now in France – it’s been five years already – I need not chase slippery identities as I am considered only one thing: a foreigner. Full stop.
Here they keep no statistics on race or ethnicity. This is the land of liberté, egalité, fraternité, after all. Everyone is simply French. It would be “racist” to demand any further information from people, as if those answers mean anything.
Only, our origins do mean something. As is often the case with grand principles like equality, the reality proves dirtier than the ideal.
When I lived in a Mexican barrio, then worked with migrant farmworkers in North Carolina’s fields, it was obvious I came from outside those communities, that my situation did not resemble theirs. Yet no one sought to exclude me; I was invited to share in their world from the start.
When I open my mouth in Paris, the first response is not “welcome,” but “where are you from?” If it were simple curiosity, that would be one thing. (I am a curious person, too.) But there are no follow-up questions, no real interest. Only the need to establish a distance and an unspoken message: You are different from me.
There’s a distinction between a foreigner and a stranger (though “foreigner” isn’t a word I ever tended to employ before). A foreigner is a person from somewhere other than the home country, wherever that home country may be. A stranger is someone unknown.
I have many foreign friends; that is, they are from a country other than mine. Because they are friends, they are not “strangers” to me.
Yet linguistically in French, “foreigner” and “stranger” are the same word: étranger. For me, the subtext is clear: Foreigners are people who are strange. People who cannot be known.
Of course, I am an outsider. I don’t come from this country. So what is my complaint?
* * *
In 2000, I spent five months in Cape Coast. I lived with a host family, interned at a traditional dancing and drumming center, and tried my hand at Fante, a local language, though English is the official language of Ghana.
Every day I heard my new nickname chanted several times a day: brouni. “White woman.” I simply laughed it off, but I found the nickname unsettling. Though I’m mixed-race and never considered myself simply “black,” I am a person of color. In the United States, my skin is too dark, my country’s history too plagued to ever have thought otherwise. In Africa, I was white.
Still, I understood that I stood out, how different I was. But once I made inroads in my neighborhood and built relationships with the people, I became more than just the brouni. I was Ama Sion, sister born on a Saturday.
I remember myself there, the humid heat making holograms of the air, eating fufu with my hands, all of us neighbors sharing from the same bowl. I picture us: we are laughing, making each other laugh. In this scene, it seems almost as if we consider ourselves – at the base – not so different in the end.
Even in Ghana, where a hundred schoolchildren chanted “white woman” to my face, I never felt as foreign as I have living in France.
* * *
I was married to a Frenchman and we spoke only French together. My accent remains thick, my grammar sometimes faulty. Still, my communication skills are more than proficient: French is now the language of my life.
And yet, no matter how well I speak or how many local habits I acquire, my one defining quality is that of being foreign. Even members of my husband’s family had simply called me L’Américaine. Also la métisse. (The mixed-race woman.) This is how they often spoke of most people, and I’ve heard it from plenty of others, too. Tell a story and the person’s ethnic background serves as the quick character marker: ‘the Portuguese’ [person] did this. ‘That Chinese’ [person] did that. (Anyone Asian is Chinese, by the way).
I know that these references are often used as a term of endearment, a way to show affection. Our little American. When it’s offered in that way, I have learned to put any reservations aside and accept it as such. But it remains that my daily interactions – whether buying bread or picking up prescriptions – are mediated by an invisible shroud of alienness.
Coming to Paris from New York, I was used to hearing accents of all kinds, seeing people of all shades. It would never have occurred to me to ask someone where they were from as soon as they spoke. We could all be New Yorkers, by mere fact of living there. We not only contributed to it, but we made the culture. The sheer diversity fed a dynamism I have not experienced elsewhere.
People from many different backgrounds make their home in Paris, too, but the separation between groups is palpable. The African women of Barbès-Rochechouart don’t often find themselves in the tony sixteenth arrondissement (unless it is to take care of the bourgeois’ children). The inhabitants of Chinatown do not tend to stray far from their invisible boundary in the thirteenth. No one would ever accuse Paris of being a melting pot.
On my first visit to Paris in November 2005, there were riots on the outskirts of the city. Ever the sociologist, I wanted to know why. When I asked people, they said not to worry – it didn’t concern Parisians. There were just kids from the banlieue acting up. (Parisian ‘suburbs’ are nothing like the American conception of prim residential areas, but often depressed regions, home to poor communities).
No one would say it outright – in fact, they meticulously avoided the subject – but most of the young people involved in the unrest were North African. No one talked much about the triggering event, either: two teenagers who had died as they ran away from police. Anger ignited, an enduring image a mass burning of cars.
I can guess why those young people took to the streets, why they burned cars.
If your name is Mahmoud, or you live in Clichy-sous-Bois, or you have dark skin, chances are, you face discrimination in France. Only, since “everyone is French,” no one is supposed to notice these differences – even though they do. How do you speak of racial profiling when there is supposedly no race?
Defining people by race alone has always been an issue, no matter the context. But denying people a means to identify can carry heavy consequences, too. Imagine that you live at the margins of a society that treats you differently, yet pretends that it doesn’t. You feel excluded, but you can’t specify from what exactly, because there is no group to be excluded from. Everyone is French, remember? There are no words for your experience. No proof to make your case.
It seems there are certain French people who feel foreign, as well. I am Algerian, I am Tunisian, this a more common sentiment than I am French for many, even when they hold a French passport and France is the only country they’ve ever known.
Perhaps this inability to pair names with feelings, ideals to realities fosters a rage that has been left unrecognized for too long. An incident – one too many – makes you pick up a match, set fire to what’s close. You watch flames engulf the object, as you yourself feel enflamed. The swift burning turns to a smoldering. The embers are slow to die out.
* * *
Before I think of myself as anything now – an American, a woman, a daughter, a friend – I think of myself as a foreigner. The alienness has seeped so deep that it is not only the French who regard me as one, but me myself.
And yet, for all of this, I live here. I love here. I write and create my world here. Leaving Paris is not in my plans. It was my choice to come and my choice to stay. I am a privileged being in the City of Light.
How do I call a place where I am alien home?
By embracing the possibilities of this fact: if the root of étrange is strangeness, that grants me license to be strange. If I am already abnormal, then I can create my own norms. There is shelter in my status, an “exotic” artist doing what I please.
I think in English, speak a French that is accented and imperfect, yet undoubtedly mine. Josephine’s voice and the Spanish that sounded as natural as my real native tongue – I know they are in there, too. Outsider, observer, I walk wide boulevards and cobblestone streets, sit invisible on the metro, this distance almost a gift as I watch and write everything down. Born “other” in one place to become “foreign” in another; somehow it all starts to make sense.
I am a foreigner floating through the City of Light, the one whose dreams are collage. A dream of displacement, beautiful but odd, a mélange of everything my conscious and subconscious experience as true, my heart and mind, too. I could be anywhere – or nowhere – or everywhere all at once..
(Post layout by Natalia Sarkissian)
Saw this linked to Ben Marks’ profile. Intended to glance at it and read ever word. Well written and thought provoking. Good job!
Beautiful and insightful, Sion! And I’m glad to see that you’re still enthusiastically writing post-MFA (of course!)
How fascinating that the French language doesn’t differentiate between “strangers” and “foreigners.” Thank you for this meditation on language and alienation in Paris. I love how you find the freedom in being “strange,” and wonder if this is the same freedom that writers, artists and musicians have habitually sought in Paris. Although I doubt that it feels like freedom for the kids in the banlieue.
Really a beautiful piece, Sion. Wonderful for you to bring it to NC.
I should have said (or meant to say!) wonderful for us that you brought it to NC! 🙂
Sion. I’m so glad you wrote about living as a foreigner in France. So much of my life has been spent overseas that I could relate to the emotions you portrayed in the piece. Hope all is well with you in Paris.
Thanks, everyone, for your kind comments. It was a pleasure to share some of my ruminations about living in Paris – especially on my five-year anniversary of making the move!
Really fascinating and well-written piece that pinpointed a major difference between French and American identity beautifully! I’ve traveled to France (including Paris) quite a bit in the past decade or so, as well as taken conversation classes at the Alliance Francaise in San Francisco. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with one of my instructors there. She kept questioning the notion of hyphenated Americans, after I told her that I teach at a school with many Asian-American students. “What are they, really,” she asked (all this in French). “Are they Chinese? Or are they American? I do not understand.” I tried to explain to her that the term designated an identity that is distinctly American but with connections to the Asian-American experience (not just Chinese!), and that, truly, I didn’t understand her lack of understanding. “In France,” she said, “we are simply French.” All this just a few months before those riots in the Parisian suburbs!
Jennifer, thanks so much for your comment. What a perfect illustration of what I was describing in the essay. Wow, right down to assuming that all Asian-Americans are Chinese! The sentiment that everyone is the same – equal countrymen – can of course be seen as coming from a very nice and idealistic place. The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t play out that way in reality. Thanks for adding your example to the discussion!
Loved this post Sion, you capture so much of what I feel as well. 🙂 Beautiful writing hon, inspiring too!
Beautiful piece, Sion. I didn’t know about this French dichotomy regarding racism and foreigners. That you choose to stay says so much about you, gives you so much to work with in your writing. Perhaps you’ll be the light that inspires change. It only takes one.
Thanks, Tina. I’m not sure what it *does* say about me – or that it’s even good! I’ll stick with the positive: perseverance and learning new cultural cues. Putting yourself in a different (alien) situation will always give you new material for writing and a new way to see. I’m grateful to be here.
Sion, such a thoughtful essay and keen perspective. I appreciate your prismatic point of view on cultural/racial identity … thanks for sharing it with NC.
Thanks, Mary. Gosh, I love that you used the word prismatic to describe my POV!
Sion, another NC resident saying ‘well done’. When you have been in another place for years, it seems odd to think of you as ‘foreign’ to that place, but even here in the states I have heard people referred to as ‘not being from here’ after as long as twenty years in that same city – especially in the south. Beautifully written piece!
Thanks, Renee! At first I didn’t know whether NC referred to Numero Cinq or North Carolina! 🙂 Either way it works for me!
You say french imigrants often describes themselves as “I’m a tunisian” but i’ve met people in the USA that describes themselves as french because one of their ancestor came from France 200 years ago.
Since the WWII, there have been a lot of immigrants in France. Where are the polish, portuguese, spanish or italian towns ?Those people were integrated as french people despite hard feelings when they came.
Leave a generation and I hope african descendants will be part of France like everyone else.
Maybe watching people in silence and writing about them as something to do with the feeling of being out of the french world.
To finish and as a remark, we don’t really use the word “étranger” for someone we don’t know, we use “inconnu” (unknown). An “étranger” is always a foreigner (from the village or the country)
Hi Vincent. Thank you for chiming in with a French perspective. Issues of assimilation face any immigrant to any country, you are right.
For the record, I don’t actually go out in Paris as a sullen, silent type writing about people as I watch them 🙂
Thank you also for your correction about “etranger.” Translations can be tricky sometimes. We call L’Etranger by Camus “The Stranger” in English, for example, so perhaps these two words just stick in my mind that way.
As for being out of the French world as you put it, I wrote this essay as simply a way to try to process and understand my own feelings of estrangement in France – feelings which I can report have lessened greatly over time. When I wrote it I was married to a French man, part of his French family, at a job where I spoke French, so I wasn’t purposefully putting myself out of French culture. The feelings were hard to deal with precisely because I wasn’t in an expat bubble, but trying to be conform to the culture. Once I accepted that I just wasn’t going to be able to integrate in the way I thought I “should,” much of my alienation actually disappeared.
Such a beautiful piece of writing, allowing me not just to get to know the author but see a world both physical and emotional through her eyes.
A lot of thoughts occurred to me in this piece, including: 1) Why is it that so few French people emigrate to the US compared to other European ethnicities? The two French people I know here in DC left because they couldn’t stand France, quite different from my friends from other countries, who still love their homeland but seek what the US. has to offer. Is it because if you are truly French, you can’t imagine being a “stranger” elsewhere? 2) Why is it that Sion stays? With the marriage over, it is now solely of her choice. Paris offers much, to be sure, but it must really be something to outweigh the feeling of always being disconnected from the society around her. Or has she simply chosen that disconnection over a disconnection she felt in the US? We learn this is at least the third time she’s lived abroad.
Thank you, Sion, for sharing.
So as not to write another essay here in the comments box, I will just thank you, Patrick 🙂
I probably should have added an addendum that this essay was written a little while ago. Always interesting to look at our writing and see how it captures a moment in time and how we have changed. I did still want it out in the world, though, because it was an honest appraisal of how I felt for a long time in France.
I do not feel this same high level of disconnection anymore. Though strangely I feel less alienated because I have become quite involved in the expat scene which I hadn’t been before (that’s a whole other essay and I know sounds kind of contradictory. Wait, I feel more included because I hang out with a bunch of other people from foreign countries? 🙂 )
Anyway, I’m sure there will be essays in the future about the marriage, my changing identity, all that. But I’m glad to have received such interesting remarks on this essay. I am grateful for that – and yes, for the opportunity to live in France, too. How else would I have experienced all this?
Bonsoir, Sion! I read this essay on the bank of Lac Lucerne at sunset. So glad you wrote about your identity and place, my far away friend. Wonderful pictures. My next trip across must include a few nights on your couch.
I see you Sion, as the season changes, the nights turn colder and the leaves fall from chestnut tress in Parc Montsouris. I see you similar to James Baldwin, as you so eloquently profiled in your summer VCFA lecture in the summer, more able to capture the clarity and nuance of the US from a distance in your novel in progress, as well the adopted city you’ve settled into. A special place to be capturing the world from indeed. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you, Sion! You put into words exactly how I feel so much of the time here in France. While I am settled with being “an alien parisienne” in many ways, it is the undercurrent of being ever an étranger that makes me feel I am the clichéd square peg fitting into a round hole. Thankfully, I have come to meet a lot of people, foreign and French alike, who kind of like square-shaped things, so it is all good! But I admire so much the truthful words here of what it means to feel foreign in France.
Thanks for this great essay, Sion. Topics of race, nationality, and belonging — always good fodder for thought, and for pondering our own place in the wide world.
What a wonderful essay. Thank you for writing about your experience and sharing it with the world. I hope to live in Paris some day, and appreciate your insight.
I loved your essay on being’etranger’ in Paris.But there are people who are treated that way even if they are born in Paris,speak fluently the language,and are totally encultured. We suffer from(what one religious leader said is)” A globalization of superficiality”. Just watch T.V. for an hour–you’ll see! I wish you luck and happiness.Paris is a wonderful city Enjoy!