Runner-Up in the Privilege & Identity Abroad Narrative Writing Contest. See the announcement for all of our winners here.
Until I moved to France, I never realized what it meant to be treated like a perpetual foreigner, a common experience for people of Asian descent in both the U.S. and Europe. Despite my mixed-race background (my mother is Chinese-American and my father is white), I never had to confront this issue because I look white enough to “pass.” But one incident in particular, when I was visiting a tourist site in Lyon with my Vietnamese-American roommate, Huang, reminded me of the privilege I took for granted.
We were walking around an old Roman amphitheater, taking pictures, laughing as we climbed the ancient stone steps like children on a playground. A man with a scraggly beard and a radio propped underneath his elbow approached us. His clothes were wrinkled, his hair was mangy and gray. We recoiled instinctively as he drew nearer.
“You are what?” he asked in French, not even bothering to give us a polite greeting.
“You are what?” he repeated and he turned to Huang. “Chinese? Japanese? Korean?”
“American,” I interjected. “We’re American.”
He was not satisfied with this answer. He didn’t want to know where Huang was from, he wanted to know what she was.
“Vietnamese,” she told him curtly.
“You’re very beautiful,” he said and he included both of us now because he was ready give his spiel.
“You need boyfriends?” he asked. He ran a matchmaking group for young singles, he explained. Two couples from his group have gotten married. He wanted to know if we would join it.
“We already have boyfriends,” we said, and we tried not to turn our backs to him as we inched away, down the steps and away from the exposed amphitheater, putting as much distance as possible between him and us.
On the metro back, we speculated about what he wanted from us, whether he was serious or just a crazy person.
“I think he was a human trafficker,” Huang said.
“No, he couldn’t have been,” I said. “He just came up to us in broad daylight. That’s not how those things work is it?”
“I don’t know,” Huang said. “But he was definitely interested in me.”
I repressed a shudder.
During the four months I studied in Lyon, I saw how French people treated my friends who were also Asian-American, but who, unlike me, looked the part. My Korean-American friend was serenaded on the metro by a stranger; he told her she was his “belle chinoise.” My landlady treated my Japanese roommate as an imbecile because she couldn’t speak French very well. She instructed me and Huang to pass on the messages to the Japanese girl, assuming, for some strange reason, that we spoke Japanese.
Sometimes strangers approached me to ask for directions, not realizing that I was a foreigner. At least until I opened my mouth, people didn’t suspect that my words would come out garbled. One day, when I was riding the metro, a worker in a safety vest came up to me to ask me to participate in a survey. When I responded in an American accent, I expected the woman to turn away, to say, no thanks, we don’t need your opinion, we need to hear from the people who live here. But the interviewer stood attentively, and I had a chance to complain. The bus is sometimes late, I said. I stumbled over words, but afterwards, after the woman in the vest left, I tucked away the memory, a shiny souvenir of my time in France. A souvenir, that I knew not all my friends could take with them.
Molly Montgomery is a fiction and nonfiction writer currently pursuing an M.A. in Creative Writing at UC Davis. Originally from Oakland, she received a B.A. in English and French from UCLA. Her writing often touches on her mixed race identity and her travels around the world. She is a contributor to The MFA Years and French Quarter Magazine.