Going to Paris had always been a dream for me since I was a little girl. I imagined it being a euphoria, food, fashion, art. All the things I love combined into one and I never imagined it ever being possible to not enjoy my time there. I feel like dreams are meant to escape reality, so it never crossed my mind that maybe Paris isn’t perfect, maybe social issues exists there, maybe pollution, bad habits and bad people can exist anywhere. It goes without saying, that my experience abroad had highs and lows, but it taught me a valuable lesson: “it’s not about having the experience, it’s about what you make of it.” I could’ve let my lows ruin my entire experience, I could’ve detested the thought of ever returning, but no. Despite the trouble with adaption and facing the reality that every place has it perks and problems, I can still come out of my program saying that I had a great time, I’d do it all over again, and I have a greater sense of appreciation for America.
I’d like to start with my lows, because they are what made me grow the most. A lot of problems I had coincided with my identity as a Black American woman from a low-income background. I was very fortunate to be in my program thanks to OVPDEMA and many other scholarships, so I always felt guilty whenever I wasn’t completely enjoying myself. However, there comes a point where you have to let your unhappiness run its course. I was living with a wealthier white family and the majority of my program was composed of white students with a higher financial background. None of my program’s staff looked like me or reflected my social struggle, so it was difficult confiding in them. I had a difficulty seeing myself in French/Parisian society. No one around me looked like me, I wasn’t fluent in the language. I went from a safety net of representation to a completely different life.
It felt like no one was there who could completely understand me. Hair products where extremely hard to find, my host family did not seem to be very fond of me. I just felt out of place all the time. I eventually found a safe space by building great friendships with other minorities in the program, but beforehand I really struggled. I felt invisible. I would go into heavily Black populated areas and they looked very dirty and impoverished, I realized that a social system existed there, similar to the US. People of color were generally nicer to me than white Parisians when they realized I couldn’t speak the language really well. My host dad would sometimes say problematic things. I was sent to a counselor and she used a racial slur during our session. I felt like I was in a colorblind society, where social issues exist, but everyone ignores them and pretends everything is okay. At least in America, we acknowledge that everyone is not synonymous.
To rid myself of this sadness I built a network of friends of color to confide in that were having similar experiences, I reached out to a Black American woman who had lived there for years where I received validation for my experiences, I had personal self-care days where I did something I enjoyed by myself and just for me, I talked to my family regularly to vent, and I explored the beauty of Paris.
The architecture was incredible. It might just be what I loved the most. Every building had its own personal charm and character, nothing seemed cookie cutter or replicated. That’s the thing about Paris, there is always something to do or see. I still haven’t seen everything I wanted, and I had been to sooooo many museums and parks. Sometimes I went with friends and sometimes I went on my own. I also took it upon myself to strengthen the relationship I had with my host family and that made things a lot better. I feel like we both got a better understanding of each other. My host mom was amazing. She even got me a gift for my birthday. If it wasn’t for her compassion and homemade meals I wouldn’t have survived, but that brings me to the food. The food was not the best for me. I am used to a lot of flavor and spices, but French food is typically bland, less fattening and probably healthier, but bland none the less. Most of the meals I enjoyed were cooked by my host mom. There were only a few meals I didn’t enjoy from her, but of course homemade is always better. I really recommend host families, it helped me with the language, and it saved me money. Lastly the fashion, I adored shopping here. The stores had a better selection than America, and with the help of other low-income friends, it was easy to find good deals. Everyone dressed so chic and sophisticated and I really believe it improved my personal style. Lastly, I traveled outside of Paris when I could afford it. I went to London, yes, an English-speaking country, where I could get a break from the constant criticism of my French speaking skills and my “Americanness.” It was a breath of fresh air, literally, because Paris was extremely polluted. It also gave me time to think and truly accept my lows and turn them into highs. It was my peak and it was much needed.
In conclusion, if you’re a student of color and your going abroad, there’s one thing you must consider, “you cannot escape oppression and social issues in regard to your specific identity exist everywhere.” I learned this the hard way, no one really prepared me for it. My euphoria was turned it to a crushing reality. However, it is also essential to note that if there isn’t a seat at the table for you, you can always pull up a chair or build your own table. I had to find where I most felt comfortable while also leaving a little discomfort for room to grow. It took initiative for me to get the most out of my experience and it proved successful. I won’t be returning to France anytime soon, but when I do, I want my mom to be by my side. For now, I will enjoy being an American in America, a place where my ancestors contributed to so much and a place that I will always hold closest to my heart!