On my first day here, I scared my flatmate. I realised that there was no water dispenser and I really wanted a glass of water. Bear in mind, my French was that of a one-year-old child. Just imagine this strange person who can’t even form a sentence coming up to you and saying, ‘excusez-moi! boire! uhhh Perrier?’ (‘excuse me! drink! uhhh Evian!). She looked at me confused with a shock-plastered face. Then she spoke in English. What a relief!
The next two months I would question myself on why I had come to a country where I could barely speak the language. It was a constant struggle doing even the most basic of tasks like going to the bank or simply the inability to understand someone when they tried to strike up a conversation with me. To everything, I responded with ‘oui’ (yes) or ‘je ne sais pas’ (I don’t know) and I was often left feeling vulnerable and dependent. Yet, it was the very feeling that fuelled a desire in me to learn the language. As of now, I can get around with relative ease and sometimes have conversations that are beyond small-talk with French people.
Here is an anecdotal, slightly sensationalist account of what I find different in Toulouse being a KL-raised Malaysian. Hopefully, it is new and interesting – rather than something you already know like ‘cars actually stop for you in Europe!’.
Disclaimer: these are just my thoughts and are by no means a representation of ALL French people. As you know, France is made up of many states and the south of France may differ vastly from somewhere like Paris.
1. Men peeing everywhere
Where there is a tree, by the side of the road, in the back-alleys, and even when people are just passing by. This is an exaggeration but I do see let’s say… four to five people minimum a week doing their business (I lost count). Occasionally in broad daylight, but mostly in the evening. Never have I seen any man urinating in public in Malaysia or any other country I’ve been to as frequently as here in Toulouse. If you were to walk around down the Garonne early in the morning or the back-alleys, it stenches of urine. Really.
Unpleasant point for a first!
2. People acknowledge your existence
Whilst walking down the hallways of my accommodation or just around the building, it is common for people to say ‘bonjour’ or ‘bonsoir’ without even knowing you. While they are just being polite, I’m used to just a half-arsed smile or let’s-just-avoid-contact (I’m so guilty of this too).
Likewise, usually if a guy is walking before me, he would often open the door for me. A few days ago, a rugged-hobo looking guy, cigarette in his mouth, tattoos and dreadlocks that I’ve never seen before was walking at the opposite side of the hallway and as usual, he said ‘bonjour’ from a distance. But he went a step further. He waited for me to reach the door for at least 15 seconds (I walk slow, I have short legs) and he held the door open for me. I thought the gesture was unusually kind, especially for him to go out of his way to open the door for a complete stranger.
3. Warmth and kindness
A city can be characterised by the general aura or the vibe of the people. Now, this is a hasty generalisation but I would describe Toulousians as warm and easy-going. There were so many times where I’ve been just stunned by an act of kindness.
There are countless examples. The bus driver offered to drop me directly at my destination rather than the bus-stop. I was lost and a stranger walked me all the way to the metro station and took the train with me. Then, he walked with me directly to my location (three different strangers in separate occasions walked with me to my location when I was lost). A random person insisted on helping me to carry my groceries back. The list goes on.
It is also extremely easy to strike up a conversation with anyone. One could be waiting for the bus and easily strike up a conversation with the person beside you or someone might just randomly ask ‘how are you?’.
4. Offending people by saying the word ‘race’
‘What’s your ethnicity?’ The guy looks bewildered for a second. I thought he didn’t understand so I said, ‘I mean, like race’. His jaw dropped. Then he explained… ‘actually in France, these words are offensive. You shouldn’t say it. Instead, you should ask a French person about their origin and they will like it. You should also avoid saying ‘black’’.
In Malaysia, ethnicity is such an integral part of our everyday lives. Our ethnicities are even stated on our birth certificates! However, this is not viewed the same way by the French people.
This can be attributed to France’s history of universalism. Hence, they don’t believe in the concept of ‘race’. The idea is that you do not have to look a certain way to be French, rather you are French when you believed in the French principles and when you are part of the shared national identity.
As my French Politics lecturer says, ‘la France est fille de son etat’ (France is the daughter of the state) and ‘the only dichotomy in France is between a national and non-national’.
The attitude towards immigrants also reflect this – assimilationist- rather than the differentialist and embracing multicultural aspects of people, like the British. Likewise, the universalistic ideal is also apparent in the banning of religious symbols such as the 2010 banning of the Muslim veil, the niqab or burqa.
4. Political cleavages
From fascist to communist, France is deeply politically divided; political cleavages from the right to the left exist. In fact, many historians speak of a ‘two France’ – the France of the right and the France of the left. It is not just a mere political view but it has become integrated into their lifestyles. Some families associate themselves with being right or left – they call themselves ‘Le famille de droite ou de gauche’ (A family of the right or of the left). Furthermore, students are also very involved in politics – here there are communist and fascist student unions who have regular meetings. In my limited experience, I’ve never met a student back home who associate themselves with left, right, fascist or communist to an extent where it becomes a fundamental part of their identity.
5. The names in originally English nursery rhymes are substituted with French names
There is no ‘Brother John’, no ‘Simon Says’. Instead, it’s ‘Frère Jacques’ or ‘Jacques a Dit’.
6. Flirting on the Streets
Yes, I mean a stranger walking up to you on the streets and asking for your number.
This morning I had an interesting encounter whilst walking towards the metro station (which I translated from French to English).
50-year-old looking man: There are a lot of people today.
Man: What are you? Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese?
Me: Malaysian. * trying to quicken my pace*
Man: *catches up with my pace* I think you are very, very pretty!
Me: uhh thanks. *quickens my pace again*
Man: Grab a drink with me?
Me: No, you are very old.
Man: *laughs* you are funny, okay bye.
C’EST BIZZARE!! He’s probably older than my father.
In Malaysia, it would be a rarity that a stranger asks you out while walking on the streets.
With every good, there comes a bad, and sometimes it’s ugly. Walking out alone at night occasionally leads to random men asking me if I ‘give service’ – in other words, they think I’m a prostitute. Either that or trying to talk to me when I clearly don’t want to engage in any form of conversation. I definitely think that being a Chinese looking girl in a predominantly white country has attracted a lot of attention that I did not ask for.
And since we’re on about some of the uglier aspects, it’s not abnormal to have racial slurs thrown at me.
7. French people don’t like their accent when they speak English
Really? Because French accents are so cute?!
Once I mocked a friend about her accent and I could tell that it stung. I regretted it instantly. Similarly, someone told me he was ‘allergic’ to English because his English teacher was nasty and often mocked his accent. Whilst doing a part-time babysitting job, the family told me that one of the main reasons they hired me was because they did not want their children to take after their ‘terrible accents’ when speaking English and they liked how my accent was that of a native English speaker. Some people would rather not speak English simply because they dislike their accent.
It didn’t take me long to realise that French accents can be quite a sensitive spot. So, don’t make too much fun of a French person’s accent!
By Emily Chen