Last Friday was Chinese New Year, and for the next two weeks, there are various public events in Paris to celebrate. The parade near the City Hall the past Sunday was truly a spectacle. At 2:30 p.m., the crowd gathered in front of l’Hotel de Ville surged as the parade moved through rue du Temple.
Thousands of people turned up on the cool Sunday afternoon, many of them youths and children, but also a surprising number of adults who went alone for a chance to see something they do not see often. The parade was composed of some 20 contingents of performers dressed in festive or iconic clothing, shouting Bonne Année. It was loud, it was busy, and it was a great deal of fun.
I found it interesting that the roads on which the parade passed were not closed off. While I waited at a street corner with my friends and countless others, we saw cars driving through the crowds at glacial speed 30 minutes before the parade was scheduled to pass.
Going to the Chinese New Year parade reminded me of a topic that I feel might be important to briefly address. Coming from one of the most multicultural and accepting cities, Europe may seem a bit homogeneous and unwelcoming. Eurocentrism and orientalism are just some of the terms that come to mind. The reality, of course, is quite complex, and I can only speak from my personal experience. In terms of population, Paris is a very diverse city, and with it comes some degree of cultural desensitization. It is also a large and busy city. People have treated me the same way as they would anyone else, often because they do not have the time to act any differently.
But there have been occasions where people came up to me on the street, speaking the few Chinese or Japanese words they know. And there have been occasions where people invoked negative racial stereotypes in throwaway comments. These occasions are far from the norm and do not occur often, but it has happened enough times to me and to my friends to warrant this discussion. If you are an exchange student who is also a visible minority, you may very well encounter similar situations.
It is up to the individual to decide if these actions are condescending or an awkward attempt to be welcoming. In many cases, I have been told that these people are simply curious. Their clumsy and culturally insensitive approaches can be attributed to the fact that they do not often interact with culturally different people. It may well be that a good way to deal with these situations is to believe in their lack of sinister undertones. Ultimately, these situations affect individuals differently and it would be absurd to tell everyone to just ignore and brush aside racially and culturally offensive behaviour. The individual exchange student will have to make his or her decision on possible exchange programs with this in mind.