When asked if I enjoy my stay so far, I feel a flush of hesitation before I chirp “oui.” Although I love the sights, art and especially French food, I’m still unsure if I could really love France itself.
The one aspect that struck me the most was the French men. I have only been in Perpignan for a few days and already experienced catcalling, flirting and ogling. I feel in this culture there is an encouragement for men to be more aggressive in how they express themselves towards women and girls.
The students of the Perpignan Project often travel as a large group whenever we head to an event. I learned that there is an impression in Europe that American women are “easy,” and because all of the students are female except for one, we attract a lot of attention.
Sometimes construction workers stop their work to stare; I saw one of them smiling in a way that made me uncomfortable as we walked by. One café owner near ALFMED kept shouting at a small group of us, offering free coffee at his shop. Two boys, who looked like they could be in middle school, made sexual comments in broken English as they tried to follow us back to the hotel. Men, old enough to be our fathers, hollered and whistled at us – inappropriate even in another language.
I wonder if those men – and boys – would do that in front of French women and whether or not they would allow the same treatment to happen to their own sisters and daughters. I am crushed by the fact that I used to think of France as the culture, thriving with style and passion, not this place where I’m all too wary of its people and who I am to them.
In Collioure, I passed by a group of five to six young men. They were making noise, trying to get my attention. I attempted to ignore them but as things got rowdier, I followed a piece of advice an assistant from the program gave us, which was to give them a single disapproving look so they would stop.
However, I didn’t expect to see one of them placing his palms together in a prayer gesture and bowing in front of me. Realization didn’t strike me until after they walked off howling with laughter and I was left with a face reddened with anger.
What possessed him to do that? Was it supposed to be funny? The “joke” probably lasted a minute for them before they turned their attention elsewhere and yet, here I am still mulling over what they did.
Since that incident, I find it difficult to make eye contact outside and feel afraid that each passerby must be thinking the same thing: “What is she doing here?” I don’t understand why they would do that. Do they treat black or other non-white French people like that? I thought of the gypsy, African, and Arab communities in Perpignan and of the growing Vietnamese population in France. Nobody should feel ostracized in his or her own home or anywhere else for that matter.
Even though I didn’t want to, I started to think of myself not as an American but as someone who not only doesn’t look “French” also isn’t white. The more comments and stares I get, the more thoughts of geisha and Dragon Lady stereotypes about Asian women race through my mind.
I became much more aware of my gender and ethnicity, how foreign and far away from home I am. I am indeed what the French call an “étranger.”