time goes flaccid late at night dragging its feet through a shimmery summer hanging up its keys reluctantly just for a few hours its thumb presses the eye of the sky shut and the blues become shot with darkness. some soul-explorers arrive to poke holes into the pooling liquid of black – the color of something closing, a departure.
they are searching for treasure it is rare and precious and they think it to be light. so they sail in search of pinpricks and secrets and winks, of openings of wings. they chase the beautiful things they make maps and join dots to connect the stars together to gather so much happiness in their fists and their bags and their breasts and their mouths and their insides
so that they will balance. so that they will not fall over before time comes shuffling back thumb out for ID inspection pressing down on the glass of these wanderers’ skin-thin eyes till they are once again blind servants to the sky and the house that keeps it as a carpet to the hanging lamp dreams faded from disuse to time’s pedantic ancient shuffle and to all the stars they could not muster however much they took an axe to the walls screaming a name to make it exist. pounding out throbs of joy or the other.
Whenever I crave a taste of home or something close to home in Paris, I seek out a Southeast Asian or East Asian restaurant. I am Malaysian Chinese, a confused, hybridized daughter of British Malaya. Chinese food as I know it is very different from what I can find here. Nevertheless, beggars can’t be choosers.
Same, but different.
One restaurant that I keep going back to is located ten minutes away from New York University Paris, where I take classes. I am a regular customer at lunchtime.
“Ni hao, bonjour!”
I pushed open the glass door and Mr. Wei greeted me from his usual spot behind the glass counter, which divides the small space in half. A man in his forties, he manages the restaurant alongside his family and two or three staff members.
He moved to Paris from Zhejiang, China, over thirty years ago. Seventeen then, he was very much in love with his childhood sweetheart, the now Mrs. Wei. They have known each other since they were six. Mrs. Wei only comes to the restaurant on Sundays, Mondays and public holidays. She manages a luxury handbag shop two hours away from Paris. The couple looks like what people back home would call, in Malay, “a betel palm fruit split in neat halves”, bagai pinang dibelah dua. In other words, they match perfectly. They share the same warm demeanor that will make you drop your guard willingly.
The space is dimly lit by two glass chandeliers. An earnest effort had been made to decorate the restaurant. The result is an awkwardly charming juxtaposition of European and Chinese aesthetics: still life paintings hang from tiled walls and fake leaves cascade from the red pillars, while Chinese porcelain and Buddhist statues sit humbly on the wall racks.
“Many Paris Sorbonne students had their first dates here. Sometimes they come back years after to reminisce. Paris is a romantic city, after all.”
Five months in and I have felt little of the romance. My dating experiences? The first one was an Italian café owner who compared me to a “Chinese factory worker who makes iPhones in a sweatshop.” The second one was a French IT student who joked that I reared cats to eat them. The third one was a Moroccan Jewish real estate manager who said that he was allowed to make racist jokes about me because he was part of, I quote verbatim, “the most persecuted peoples on earth.”
Acts of microaggression like these chipped away at my mental health, like a constant stream of water dripping onto a rock, slowly but steadily. Homesickness began to infect my mind. It was a symptom of feeling constantly misunderstood. There were other problems besides those men as well, like my inadequate French which rendered everyday tasks, from doctor visits to grocery shopping, a constant struggle.
A month into my stay in Paris, I started looking for comfort in anything remotely East and Southeast Asian. I explored Franco-Chinese bookstores to look at comic book characters drawn with facial features like mine. I took long walks in Porte de Choisy to eavesdrop on fragments of conversations in Mandarin, Thai, Cantonese and Vietnamese. And then, of course, there were the Asian restaurants.
I confided in Mrs. Wei once, “I started coming here because I was homesick.”
“Come here whenever, you’re always welcome.”
I looked up from my food. Her expression was not one of sympathy, but genuine understanding. Homesickness—it was something matter-of-fact. She knew the yearning.
She empathized because of our shared ethnicity, and as a result, shared experiences. But I felt undeserving—I thought of all the times I emphasized the Malaysian in Malaysian Chinese, all the ways I tried asserting my Southeast Asianness by denying my East Asianness.
Same, but different.
I tried explaining it to a friend once:“It’s like we still keep a lot of the Chinese culture, but we have no ties or loyalty to mainland China anymore.” I don’t think she understood. I am a third-generation immigrant. During the British occupation, many ambitious young people from the provinces of Fujian and Kwangtong were seduced by the promise of job opportunities in Nanyang, orThe Great Golden Peninsula. Hundreds of thousands sailed in by steamships, each nursing a little flame of hope. My maternal grandfather was one of them.
“I had nothing on me but an extra set of clothes,” he had told us on Chingming festival ten years ago. An annual event, Chingming is a day of remembrance– of people who had passed, and of things the family had seen. I remember his back bent with the weight of history, sitting on the side of the large tomb of my great-grandmother. We scattered colored papers on her grave and burnt fake cash as offerings. My grandfather held my hands as I held incense sticks, and we prayed for me to be “good and obedient.”
When he passed away, our last ties to China died too. He was the only person who still knew anyone back there. He left my uncles an old but functioning coffee factory, an expired Nanyang dream, like the blurred, yellow photographs of the unknown relatives he left behind. We know nothing of them.
The same empathy I found in Mrs. Wei that day, I had experienced a few weeks back. It was lunchtime and I stumbled upon a store half the size of Mr. Wei’s at the corner of the famous Place Maubert farmer’s market. The owner was a sixty-odd-year-old man from Kwangtong. We could not decide on a language to communicate with. He didn’t know Mandarin and I knew little Cantonese. My French was inadequate, his English was fragmented, leaving our interaction riddled with hand signs and hesitations.
As he turned to heat up my takeaway box in the microwave, I caught a glimpse of my paternal grandmother, who used to cook lunch on the sticky stove when I came home from school, mumbling to herself in Hokkien, the family dialect. It is a language that I never had the chance to master, as my parents only spoke Mandarin to my sister and I. They wanted to make sure that we would not be left behind in the globalizing job market. My grandmother is senile now, and she does not speak Mandarin anymore. Our phone conversations have become increasingly basic since she started losing her memory.
The restaurateur from Kwangtong caught me mid-thought when he asked, “Baguettes?”
“Baguettes ou couverts?” (Baguettes or cutlery?)
He was holding bamboo chopsticks in one hand and a pack of plastic cutlery in the other. It was a test of my loyalty. European or Asian? Colonized or Resisting Colonization?
Labels. I needed to claim mine.
But they call chopsticks baguettes? The classic stick of French bread? I could see the resemblance, je pense. But the scales do not match. The bread is many times larger than the chopsticks, of course. But also, a stick of bread? To describe the familial bliss at Lunar New Year’s Eve at grandma’s, tossing Yee Sang with chopsticks while exchanging blessings for the new year? A stick of bread, to describe a shared heritage between East and Southeast Asian peoples, and the conflicts and relationships between them? A stick of bread, to describe all the times white women violently jumbled up “oriental” aesthetics, stuck chopsticks into their neat little hair buns as finishing touches, and in their delicate, blameless glory paraded around at themed parties? A stick of bread, to describe entire traditions and taboos of several eating cultures across oceans and diasporas?
The baguette was a plain stick of bread that hurt my jaw, whereas the chopsticks were my political statement that afternoon, in that tiny shop.
Same, but different.
But I was talking about empathy.
The restaurateur from Kwangtong asked me how much French I knew. “Uhh… un petit peu. Je suis en train de l’apprendre… lentement” (Uhh… a little bit. I am learning it… slowly.)
“Ah,” he nodded. Just like that. No irritation like the receptionist at my gynecologist’s when I stumbled over words to make an appointment. No condescension like the French boys who thought my struggle cute, and would not stop correcting my pronunciation. No anxiety like whenever I was in line at the boulangerie, planning the words to say that I knew would come out wrong.
A matter-of-fact “ah”. It meant the world to me.
I did not meet Mrs. Wei until my fourth month in Paris. It was a Sunday, I remember, because Sundays at the Wei’s are family days, when. They gather for family lunch at the restaurant. I bumped into Mr. Wei while walking up the slope leading to the restaurant. He greeted me first, holding a takeout package he was delivering.
“You’re headed to the restaurant? The women are here today. I’ll be back in a bit.”
I pushed open the glass door and a middle-aged woman greeted me. The small space was unusually crowded, and I heard an unfamiliar language. I later learnt that it is Wenzhounese, a dialect in Zhejiang.
All the Wei children were there: a young boy played video games on a tablet, mirrored by his older brother who had earphones plugged in, eyes on a phone screen; a young woman of my age was checking the cash register. I noticed she was wearing a modern version of the Qipao, a traditional Chinese dress. She is the daughter Mr. Wei talks about often. She liked the Mandarin language more than her brothers, who preferred to speak French with their parents.
“My daughter won a scholarship to study at Sorbonne. But her friend needed the money more. She could not afford college otherwise. We let her have the money instead.” Nonchalance. A generous act talked of like it was a daily routine.
The Weis’ daughter is a future doctor. To have your child become a doctor is the ultimate Chinese immigrant’s dream. My parents would have loved a future doctor, although they gave me my autonomy to choose. So, they now have a History major with a love for poetry and an uncertain future. My sister though, is studying traditional Chinese medicine in Shanghai. She is rising to become a relative-favorite.
Mrs. Wei took my order and we chatted about her luxury handbag business. I told her that my parents might be visiting this summer. She shared my excitement.
“I can send you my catalogues, and your mom can have the family discount! Half price for some of the bags!”
I was very amused by the thought of my practical mother who has little interest in fashion browsing through a luxury handbag catalog. I switched topics.
“We’ll come here for Chinese food. They’ll get bored of pasta and sandwiches eventually.”
“You can call and let us know if they have any special requests. We can cook up something specifically for them.”
Kindness and empathy. And excellent, excellent customer service. I thought of all the times I have seen Mr. Wei open the doors for exiting customers, most of whom are regulars.
“I am an attentive person, that is why I manage this restaurant quite well,” he told me once. The word “attentive” is an insufficient translation of the phrase he used, “yòng xīn”, which literally translates into “use heart.” To pour all your heart and soul into doing something. To really, really give your best. It was the first lesson I learnt in elementary school. The first time I was hit in class was because my handwriting was messy. It was a light tap on the hand with a ruler. Do better. I remember crying from shame after. But I have been excelling academically ever since.
“As a businessman, I need to be far-sighted. Profit does not come first, treating my customers well does. This value, ‘仁’ (rén), is very important. The first part on the left, ‘亻’ refers to being human. The second part on the right, ‘二’ is the number, two.” The word itself means to treat other people with kindness and empathy. But the composition of the character has a deeper implication.
“‘Rén’ is a two-way street. Both parties are on equal, respectful rounds. The patron and the service provider share a reciprocal relationship. Treat them well, and they will keep your business secure.”
Mr. Wei’s business is very secure. He has a steady flow of regular customers,. some of whom he even has affectionate nicknames for. One of them is an ancient, grey-haired French lady with a walking stick, who sometimes pulls a small shopping trolley bag behind her. Mr. Wei calls her “Mami”. The first time I encountered Mami, it was rush hour. She stood outside waiting expectantly, and upon realizing that Mr. Wei was very busy, walked in. Immediately, she was served. After, she was escorted outside with her takeout box.
I have always been slightly uncomfortable with this “respect” Mr. Wei showed his customers. It reminded me of how my usually vocal mother became quiet at a feminist meeting in English I brought her to, even though she was fluent in English. Or of how I came to adopt the American accent, twisting and contorting my tongue to adapt. I need to conform to be heard. Or of how taxi drivers in Malaysia would be excessively helpful towards white tourists, but dismissive towards the others. Or of how white foreigners were often praised for donning our cultural garbs. The same clothes they shed off and forgot after.
But I could not articulate how these observations strung together.
Same, but different.
I saw Mr. Wei push back. Once.
I was due to return to Malaysia that weekend. I decided to pop by the restaurant, my little safe space, to say goodbye.
They were two French men. The tall, well-built, and imposing type. They wanted some dumplings as starters. “Ravioli poulet?” (Chicken dumplings?) “Oui.”
Later, when the food was served, one of them pointed at the pork dumplings in the glass counter and said that he had ordered those “chicken gyozas” instead. Mr. Wei looked confused. Perhaps purposefully. The man, who was sitting less than two meters away from the glass counter kept trying to point out which dish he was referring to, but Mr. Wei was slow to relent.
The game was delightful but painful to watch. I stepped in. In Mandarin, I declared that the pork dumplings are indeed what the French man wanted. Mr. Wei gave in, but he clarified that they were made of pork, not chicken. Yes, you may have that instead. No, chicken dumplings do not look like that.
The French man was stubborn. “We had chicken dumplings like that at another Asian restaurant yesterday.”
“Those were not chicken dumplings.”
“Are you sure?”
I held my breath.
“Yes. But maybe you went to un restaurant IndoChine. It’s different.” He sounded so patient, but he was looking down, replacing the real chicken dumplings with the faux ones. I could not see his face.
Pride in his food. I respect that.
About two months ago MasterChef UK came under fire when the judges chastised Malaysian contestant Zaleha Kadir Olpin for serving Chicken Rendang that was not crispy. Netizens from Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, and of course, Malaysia went berserk. Rendang is a dish in which the meat is cooked soft in gravy. The claim that it should have a texture anywhere near crispy is absurd.
But of course, for a Malaysian dish to be anything, a Malaysian chef to go anywhere, we needed the recognition of a former colonial power.
Food has always been emotional to the subaltern. Food has always been emotional to the diasporic community. Our rage was justified.
Growing up, I was taught to be non-confrontational. It was cultural. As such, my acts of resistance and solidarity often consist of words in written form, or humble actions, like using chopsticks in posh Paris. With the added challenge of speaking in a second language, I have always found it hard to participate in debates. I recognized the same quiet resilience in Mr. Wei.
One very late night early in the semester, a few of us were sitting in the communal kitchen at my dorm. Someone said something about race. And my white European friend responded defensively, “I wish I was not male and white. I feel like I cannot say anything because of my identity.”
Where do I begin? I had no words, although I felt like swinging a wok onto his face.
My Sudanese friend, the only other person of color in the group, stepped up to the debate. Patiently, she explained white privilege to him, as well as the concept of listening to minorities instead of talking over them.
After an hour of fruitless conversation, it happened. “We should ask Jiun what she thinks, she has been very silent.”
All eyes on me. I could not breathe. All the times I have written against racism threatened to go null in that moment. They will think that I am a faux activist. They will think that I have nothing to substantiate my anger.
They don’t understand how hard it is for me to articulate myself.
I haphazardly put together some words on how I wished racism was not even a debatable topic. But I thought I concluded well. “What is for you an exercise in free speech, is for me a painfully real experience.”
And still he did not understand.
My Sudanese friend and I hugged for a long time after the conversation. “Was I coming on too strong?” she asked. And still she doubted herself. And still she prioritized his feelings.
“No. But at least you knew what to say.”
Same, but different.
There was always a language barrier when Mr. Wei and I conversed. We spoke Mandarin with one another, but our accents and vocabulary differed. I lost about a fifth of what he told me, and vice versa.
“You speak really good Mandarin,” he had said to me on my first visit. Every mainland Chinese I have spoken to had told me the same thing. But I am Chinese too. Yes. Not really. Chinese, but Malaysian Chinese. I grew up speaking a hybrid type of Mandarin—it was the same Chinese words, but pronounced in an accent formed to accommodate the other languages in the mix. Malay, English, Hokkien, Cantonese, Tamil, Mandarin et al. I switch between them in every sentence.
Hence, it took effort to speak in Mr. Wei’s Mandarin, but it was a small price to pay.
I once got lost at Porte de Choisy looking for groceries. The Chinese PhD student who lived on the same floor in my dorm had told me about the supermarket called Tang Frères (Tang brothers). Mr. Wei had mentioned it before. It was where he got all his ingredients.
“The Tangs are your family.” He chuckled. True, I shared their family name.
When Chinese immigrants poured into the Malay Peninsula, then known as Malaya, now known as West Malaysia, the immigration officers had to transcribe their names in the English alphabet. Most of them spoke their respective dialects instead of Mandarin. They did not even identify as “Chinese” back then. Ask them where they were from and they would tell you the titles of specific provinces. The same surnames sounded different in different dialects, and so they were transcribed differently. The same change happened to other Chinese immigrant populations around the world. To complicate things further, different surnames in Chinese would have the same phonetic transcription as well. Hence, there are now different versions of my surname, as well as former family members I cannot recognize.
Tan. Tang. Chen. Chan. Chin.
Same, but different.
I asked for directions from two old women who looked Southeast Asian, in French. They told me to follow them.
And then I heard them spoke my grandmother’s language. They were speaking Hokkien. I had not heard its music for too long.
In my broken dialect, I explained where I came from, and they started to speak to me in Mandarin. But it was not Mr. Wei’s Mandarin. It was my mother’s Mandarin, an accent I had not inhabited in a while. No need to twist my tongue or stiffen my jaw. My shoulders were relaxed. No instinct to assimilate. No fear of being exposed. Mother tongue.
The ease with which I built a rapport with the old ladies in that short walk felt surreal.They were Cambodian Chinese. Hybrids, like I am. Southeast Asians, like I am. We chatted about the absurd price of durian here. They advised me on which brand of rice to buy. I told them I was struggling to cook Malaysian Chinese food here because ingredients were difficult to find. They commented that my mother must be worried about me, living alone in a foreign city. I assured them that I call her often.
“But she’ll know you have eaten well when you go home. You don’t look skinny at all.”
Their bluntness reminded me of home. Of the aunts and uncles who mean well but insult you instead. A comment that would have offended me back home made me feel fuzzy instead, just at that moment.
Same, but different.
My favorite dish at Mr. Wei’s is the poulet au champignon noir(chicken with black mushrooms). The mushrooms are very different from the ones used in European or American cuisines. They are thin and irregularly wavy. Their texture is a mix between rubbery and crunchy when cooked. In Mandarin, it is called Hei Mu Er, which directly translates to “black wood’s ear”, as the fungi tend to grow on trees.
“Champignon noir”. Black mushrooms. A translation so violent, it chopped off the wood’s ears. The result is deafness, like my white European friend, like the racist French men I went out with, like the French customers who wanted “chicken gyozas”.
But listen. Mr. Wei had many a fascinating thing to say. Mr. Wei the restaurateur transforms into Mr. Wei the scholar when he is in a chatty mood. He is very well-read, but I don’t think his customers usually quiz him on what he knows about the Chinese dynasties or Babylonian architecture. He found a willing audience in me, and had been an ever-flowing fountain ever since.
“Cause and effect, and then there is balance. Like the Yin and Yang symbol in Taoism. In Yin, there is always Yang. In Yang, there is always Yin. The Koreans got it wrong, look at their flag. There is no balance.”
“Parents are everything to their children. The father is like the sky. Whatever comes, he shoulders. He must make his kids feel safe. The mother should be the provider of love and care. Whatever comes, she is there for you. But when you should always teach your children to be independent.”
On Chinese horoscopes—
“I am the Cow. Hardworking and honest. She’s (points to his staff, Ms. Phan) the Dog. Loyal. You’re the Rat. Sharp and smart.”
On history and Buddhism—
“Studying history is a good exercise in learning Buddhism. You learn the cause and effect of things. It’s a mirror of the human condition.”
“The West stole many things from us. Like football. We invented football.” He then proceeded to name a list of inventions claimed by the West that I cannot recall.
On the Malay Peninsula—
“You had the Malacca empire. It was a prosperous trade port. It connected the world. Your ancestors were businessmen.”
And then a customer would come in, and our conversation would come to a halt. I did not have time to clarify that my ancestors lived close to his, and that they were farmers instead of traders. But to be honest, I could not be sure. My grandfathers took our family histories to their graves. All of us were trying so hard to assimilate, to succeed in a land where we are still not granted equal rights, that we have forsaken our past. Amnesia. Like my grandmother fading away from my life. My dialect. My East Asianness. Erased slowly. The old photographs. Are they all gone?
My mother once said to me, “When you go overseas, never say that you are Chinese. Say that you are Malaysian Chinese.”
Same, but different.
Yet I seek refuge at Mr. Wei’s. When it rains hard in a European city, familiar food is familiar food. I refuse to discriminate.
What a creature
Wavy-haired and slim-hipped
Tapping cards at metro stations and cafes
Flitting from one end of the city to another
Muscular strides and an air of uncertainty under her skirt
Like those pet Labradors on red leashes
At thrift shops for gems
She likes to twirl to the tune of Piaf in front of
Applauding screen audiences
And flirt with silent strangers on grimy streets
What a creature
Her poetry scribbled on the back of grocery receipts
Her love scribbled on the cheeks of men she kissed
The mark left somewhere between her breasts
The hurt quickly swept under expensive carpets
Only to surface
At some Jardin Luxembourg or Butte du Charmont
Where cigarette smoke hovers above lying bodies and
Children in little jackets run to catch the ball and
The grass leaves a rash behind her thigh
What a creature
Intoxicated on Thursday nights stumbling beside the Seine
Perhaps contemplating suicide or yet another shot of cheap vodka
Aged men she got to taste before her time
She kissed goodbyes so casual
Like an afternoon masturbation
Back then the pond looked okay to swim in, and it never really was, but we still did, me and the other boys. The ice would melt in the springtime and on a day when the sun came out and there wasn’t a trace of snow left, we would all gather around. We didn’t even have to say it, we just knew we would. All the boys in the neighborhood, it was like the pond was calling to us. The older ones would tow the younger ones along, kicking and screaming—they’d heard the stories.
We would gather around at the edges, looking down and puffing our chests out. Once they got there the younger ones wouldn’t cry anymore—they knew what would happen if they did, and nobody wanted to get pushed in. Some boys would hum to themselves but the others hated that because we thought it might call them up from underwater. Whoever they were. We sometimes felt their strong fingers on our calves, when we let ourselves wade up to our necks. The older boys said to never go far enough that you can’t touch the ground anymore. Our mothers forbade us from doing it at all. The factory was pouring something in the water that made your skin feel slick and sticky afterwards.
But then that summer there was a boy called Jack Hadley. He didn’t believe in the stories. His mother and little sister were making dinner at home while he went out exploring. His sister called him “Jackie” but he’d pinch her if she did it in front of anyone else. Jack liked swimming and when he showed up at the pond, one of the boys dared him to go first. He’d never been in before. He was a new kid trying to prove himself.
We were impressed. He didn’t even wince from the cold water, and he wasn’t ashamed to strip to his boxers in front of everyone. He had one curly hair on his chest, and was skinny enough that you could see his ribs. He went calf-high, knee-high, waist-high. His legs looked like bendy straws. Nobody had ever been that far into the pond alone. By now you were supposed to call on someone else to join, and he would call another, until all of you were in. But Jackie was alone. He pushed a floating can aside and pretended to smoke on one of the reeds for our entertainment.
“What do you all look so scared for?”
He twisted a reed into a gun and aimed it at my chest. We locked eyes. There was silence.
He pretended to shoot me and even though I wished I hadn’t, I jumped. A bird flew away with a twittering disapproval. I felt the others’ eyes on me. I was torn between telling him not to go any further, and proving that I didn’t care about him, didn’t care about the gun or any of it. I wasn’t a baby.
“I dare you to go out to your neck”. I regretted the words as soon as I said them because his expression had already accepted the dare before he could. All the boys bit their breaths back. He walked backwards, facing me. He went elbow-deep, nipple-deep, shoulder-deep. He was going too fast. The pond looked like it was breathing hard. Like a woman in porn. Each of us started to feel a shard of ice burrow deep into our hearts.
The word burst out of the boy beside me.
I echoed it with my own weak “stop,” as another step had him up to his ears.
Jackie started laughing, and was still laughing when the pond water started to seep into his mouth. His mouth got bigger and bigger, like his jaw was unhinged. Like a reverse fountain, like pulling a plug. His mouth was still laughing when his eyes started to panic. When his face changed colour. His mouth was wide when the water went up his nose and poured into his ears. Then he disappeared with a little pop, leaving a pretend reed-gun behind.
Jackie’s mom and sister moved away. They made a grave for him but the truth is nobody took the body out of the pond. Nobody could dare to drag along the bottom to see what’s in there. It took them a week to get us to even admit that we’d seen Jack the day he went missing. I told my Mother over and over that I was the one who killed Jack but when I tried to speak my voice collapsed. No sound came out. My mother begged me to speak. Couldn’t I become a little clearer? Couldn’t I just tell her somehow what happened? Couldn’t I stop being so angry all the time?
When winter fell I went back to the pond for the first time. I walked out onto the ice, cleared a patch of snow and looked down. I could see straight to the bottom through the green murk. I lay on my stomach and finally spoke, but all the words that came out were not what I wanted to say. I heard myself, and realised I couldn’t connect a meaning to a word anymore. When I spoke, sentences came out like [apple] snow. Machine. I. quiver. [HELP] no less than . golf . falling. The more I spoke the less sense it made. The more I spoke the more I tasted blood.
Jackie floated up to the surface eventually, like I’d known he would, and we lay face to face, staring at each other through the ice. His skin was bloated and his hair moved like the weeds at the bottom of the pond. His mouth was still unhinged in a grotesque smile. A beer label had attached itself to his thigh. He was so beautiful. And marred. I pressed myself against the ice and hoped to warm it enough that I would sink through. They found me almost frozen and unconscious, with raw knuckles from trying to punch my way through to him. They told my Mother I’d been in a fight. When I spoke, it was with someone else’s voice.
Stretching along the Bassin Louis Blanc in Paris there are clusters of multi-colored tents, sitting idly, practically steaming in the May heat. The canal water lurks by quietly, and next door, Parisians sip beer or coffee at a trendy bar turned breakfast spot during the day. The bar is called Point Ephémère, French for ‘ephemeral’: fleeting, transient, temporary.
“I was going to have my throat cut in Afghanistan.”
It’s one of the first things he tells me. His assertion that he deserves refugee status, that he was in real danger — he will say it to some student who is not even French. I imagine he’s said it over and over again.
“I am a translator by profession. I speak five languages.”
His resume, his proof that he’s not a migrant worker. France is friendly to refugees, or so she claims, but wants to stop the flow of migrant workers, especially into Paris.
“In Afghanistan, I had a big villa, a nice car…”
He is not moving to Paris because he was poor at home and wants to make money. He is an intellectual, a skilled worker. He is useful. He is not a leech. He is more than his situation.
“This is not my life”.
While living in a temporary shelter beside the Bassin should have been a situation “ephémère,” Ahmed has lived on the street for over a year. After fleeing his situation in Afghanistan, he finally arrived in Europe and made it to Paris: the city of love, the city of lights. Stickers on the door outside Point Ephémère advocate for refugees, “J’existe”; around the city there are stenciled graffiti cutouts that have cropped up all over Europe — “refugees welcome”. He tells me that he wants to stay in Paris. He is good at French, he has family who have settled here, he wants to stop moving.
Immigrants in France who do not have documentation are called sans-papiers, the majority of them refugees, and while they wait for the government to determine their status they are not allowed to work. This means they are at the mercy of charities and a government allowance to stay alive. For the entire settlement of refugees in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, there are a few portable toilets and there are the tents. While French President Macron had promised to see refugees housed by the end of 2017, thousands are still sleeping rough in the streets waiting for their fates to be decided. The ultimate requisite is, did you suffer enough at home to be allowed to stay here? Are you worthy of Paris?
This year Paris saw an unusually cold winter. The snow made the city picture perfect, but while many Parisians marveled at city dressed up in white, French police were spraying asylum-seekers’ blankets with water. The water would freeze, making it impossible for them to stay on the street and be warm, with the idea that they would go to immigration centers. The question the police never asked was why people would be sleeping on the street if there was space for them to be anywhere else. There were accounts of police telling immigrants to disperse, and when they asked where they should go, the police officers said, we don’t care, just somewhere else. I wouldn’t meet Ahmed and the other Afghan refugees until the snow had already melted, but they told me that it was Parisians, and particularly people who are of immigrant descent who helped them to make it through the cold. It was Parisians who brought blankets, food, water and winter jackets. Meanwhile the shelters were at full capacity. Temporary settlements cropped up and were treated like weeds by the police. Sprayed, cleared, and the people shuffled along. Sometimes they had to sleep standing up to avoid being noticed by the police.
I first encountered Point Ephémère accidentally, on a night out with two friends in March. I was on my way to a jazz club near the Stalingrad metro station; night had already fallen, and the Stalingrad area is already a little sketchy to begin with. When you exit the metro, you pass a neon “Paris Fried Chicken” shop, and are dwarfed by a grey bridge with peeling posters and graffiti.
It’s easy to get confused on the Parisian streets, especially when it’s nighttime and your mobile map app thinks you’re floating in the Seine for some reason. It took us a long time to find the jazz club, so we were disappointed when we looked through the window and saw a lone musician and an empty restaurant. The music that floated through the glass was sub-par, and my jazz-expert friend deemed it “not worth it”. We decided to go to a different place, Point Ephémère, which popped up as a suggestion on the internet.
We stood on the bridge, looking down at the club and I pointed out four rats to my friends as we paused at the bewildering scene below. On one side of the rat meet-up there was a line to get into the bar. On the other side of them there were tents, sleeping bags and a canal with the most overpowering smell I’d encountered in Paris thus far.
My friends and I looked at each other, and then looked back at the scene. This place was beside the water, a prime location to party, but didn’t these club-goers notice the slum beside them? Didn’t they care? Across the canal there were about a dozen police vehicles. Unsettled, we followed our map up the wrong street, and then down that same street, and then up it again. We were sure that place below couldn’t be where we were trying to go. A smiling stranger walking his fluffy white dog stopped us, “You seem lost!”
We explained what we were looking for. He frowned, “That’s it, it’s right by the canal.” He pointed to some stairs we could take down to the water. When we peered down onto the alley below we saw three men peeing against the wall.
Some people come to Paris because it’s the city of love, the city of lights. It’s easy to see Paris through these rose-coloured glasses. You smell something funny and breathe through your mouth, you hear something scuttle in the corner of the metro and you choose not to look. Why ruin an otherwise perfect place by paying attention to those little flaws? Other people, the artsy types, come to Paris because of that layer of grime. It seemed we had found one of those places; the kind of place where the music is loud, the hipsters are chatty and artists float in and out with ideas spewing from their multi-coloured lipstick mouths. Point Ephémère calls itself “a center of artistic dynamics”, with visual artists and musicians in residence, rehearsal studios, a concert hall and a bar. As with so many places in this city, you never know who you might meet there.
We descended the stairs, careful to avoid puddles of anything at that point, and entered into a crowd by the canal. People were drinking and smoking, talking and laughing. We weaved our way through and approached the bouncer, but paused when we saw the tents.
“Why would they camp next to a river?”
“Well they need somewhere to go to the bathroom.”
“I wonder if they’re immigrants.”
“I wonder if they’re gypsies.”
Someone was barbequing next to a tent. We debated whether the people in tents were actually a bunch of hippies who were choosing to sleep outside of the club.
“Is that allowed?”
The smell told us otherwise. These people were living here at least semi-permanently. We looked at the bright lights of the club and the fog of people pressed against each other. I kept thinking I could see a rat in the corner of my eye. We decided to leave, with our heads full of questions about Point Ephémère. I knew that we would be back.
Homelessness and poverty in Paris are two things that you can choose to confront or ignore. I’ve noticed that many people tend to pretend not to see it, or they romanticise it. In the Châtelet metro station there is a woman who lies with her forehead to the ground and her hands stretched out in front of her, a coffee cup balanced in her fingers. People mill right past her. Entire families sit on the stairs in the metro, children asleep on their parents’ laps, signs stating that they’re Syrian refugees, or that they just need a meal balanced on their knees. Sometimes people come onto the train with cups, declaring their need for food, or quietly asking each person for a euro. There is a particular question, when the beggar or homeless person is a person of colour, about whether he or she is a refugee or not. I didn’t realise how important that question was until we returned to Point Ephémère for a second time.
When I returned, I brought the same two friends with me. The Stalingrad area looked totally different in the day. It felt like it had its arms open; there were people with babies in strollers and groups standing outside smoking and chatting. Even the “Paris Fried Chicken” shop that had seemed so comically seedy at night looked like a nice place for a fried chicken sandwich during the day.
We approached the tents and the bar and noticed that there were people sitting outside, having lunch and chatting. Once again, I was shocked by how little they seemed to care about the people in tents beside them. The club-goers or hipsters and the people living in the tents came from two different worlds: one of abstract care for immigrants among little-known musical beats and one of homelessness. Two worlds that don’t mix.
We approached a man having breakfast, and asked him if he knew a little bit about the club and the people living near it. We were surprised to learn that all the people in tents were “Syrian refugees”. He told us that they were being supported by NGO’s and they had to live there until they got official refugee status. They sometimes came to the club for Wi-Fi. We asked him what he thought the solution to the problem could be and he said that the only solution was to end the war in Syria. Then we clarified that we’d meant what was the solution to people living outside in tents, and he shrugged, “the situation is so complicated, very complicated. The NGO’s do good work for them.”
We walked past a man sitting cross-legged on the slope leading up to the bridge. He was wearing round John Lennon-style glasses, had long flowing blond hair and was eating his lunch with the view of the slum below. Another hipster who wanted a taste of the grimy layer of Paris, yet he was still elevated above the slum-dwellers of course. I felt uncomfortable looking at him.
We stood on the bridge contemplating how to approach these “Syrian refugees” when my friend, Chiran, caught their attention. They waved to him and he waved back. Then we stood, awkwardly staring at each other. My friends and the people near the tents below were all laughing and glancing at each other, unsure of how to handle the situation socially. Chiran broke the impasse by waving for them to come up onto the bridge. They did, and what we learned was surprising.
Around ten of them came up to talk to us, and at first it was difficult to navigate through a sea of French and English. We found ourselves miming to them. Finally, after the men clarified that they’re from Afghanistan, my friends realised that they had a language in common: Hindi/Urdu. My friends spoke to everyone this way, but especially a man named Malang. That was when I met Ahmed.
He tried to speak to me in French first, since it was obvious that I didn’t understand Hindi. Then he switched to English. For some reason he thought, or maybe hoped, that telling me his story would bring about some change. He had spoken to journalists and government officials, people who were full of promises.
“They take our fingerprints and our pictures and they tell us soon, soon, soon. I’ve been living here for a year.”
Meanwhile, one of the men said to my Indian friend, “India and Afghanistan are brothers. You have to help us.” She was lost for what to say, and only gently reminded him that we’re students but we would do what we could.
Some of the men watched my conversation with Ahmed intently, adding pieces and weaving strands into his story. They took us seriously. I asked what happens once they get refugee status; do they get any more help?
“Sometimes people move in with family once they get the papers but some of us already have them,” one of the men passed his to me gingerly, “and we still live here, we have nowhere else to go.”
For the group of people that I met as well as asylum-seekers all across Paris, health and sanitation are rapidly deteriorating. Public bathroom facilities are available but you often have to pay for those. Without being able to wash themselves properly they risk skin infections and scabies. They also live in fear of the police, who slash their tents and force them to move on. Immigrant centers turn them away because they’ve been maxed out. Police will show up without warning at temporary shelters like the one along the Bassin Louis Blanc and force immigrants onto buses to temporary shelters. People who don’t happen to be at the camp when it’s rounded up can be separated from friends and family, and risk losing the few possessions they do have when the entirety of the camp is thrown into dumpsters. Police have been known to tear-gas the groups as well. Sometimes they don’t send them anywhere in particular, they just tell them to disperse. Immigrants are treated like criminals in Paris, for all of the artists’ insistence that “immigrants are welcome” and Macron’s claim that France is “honored to welcome refugees.”
Roundups have created a vicious cycle for refugees of flitting from under one bridge to another. They go to immigration centers only to end up on the streets again. They are photoshopped out of the pristine Paris and are weaved with flower crowns in the hippie wonderland. Ahmed told me his greatest annoyance was that people from the bar would come to take pictures of the camp.
“When we ask them why, they say they will make a Facebook post so people know about us. But people already know, and it is not dignified.”
The life of the refugee is transformed again, into a sad story that is shareable. A thread in a night at an artsy bar that you visited. A grimy layer in a tapestry. But the people living in those tents are not just a backdrop. They are not ephemeral men.
The problem with awareness campaigns and Facebook statuses is that these people are already very visible. They are so visible in Paris that it becomes possible to have a cigarette next to their living space. To have a cocktail and talk about contemporary art. To piss a few meters away from where they have to sleep at night, seeing them but not understanding what their presence really means. They become reduced to the way they look, flattened into ‘Syrian’ refugees who “we”, the true Paris, can do nothing for. In Paris, people view immigrants, especially immigrants of colour in two ways. They are refugees, who only matter because of their sad situation, and there are economic migrants. I met one man in the Paris flea market who, when I said I was from Abu Dhabi, told me he wanted to go to Dubai.
“Paris is racist. They don’t like me because I am Arab, because I am Muslim, because I have a beard.”
The man we met was not a refugee, so he is seen as a leech. Taking “true” Parisians’ jobs. Not French. Not worthy. His journey has been deemed not sad enough, not enough of a struggle. His story is a thread that so many would like to tear out of the tapestry. He is a beard, a religion, an “other”. Ahmed’s thread, by comparison, is a little blue one, a thread that we’re used to seeing and can’t distinguish from all the other refugee threads. I’m surprised when he tells me that he goes into the bar sometimes, that he parties, that he hates his boredom the most out of everything he has to deal with in Paris.
I left my conversation with Ahmed with a head full of questions. I had wanted a neat narrative, the kind of story that would help me to understand him and use him as a lens to see all refugees through. I wanted to write a story that would also act like a manual for how we could help “them”. Instead I was confused. The story was messy, and facts conflicted from one person to the other as I spoke to them. My friends got the phone number of the refugee they’d spoken to the most, named Malang. He said to call him any time. We promised that we would. I was determined to retrieve a “classic” refugee story, to dig out that blue thread and twist it around my finger.
A couple of weeks passed. When we called Malang he said of course he remembered us. We asked to meet at a McDonalds in Stalingrad, but he said to come to the camp and pick him up from there. I had a list of questions ready for him. I wanted to know who his family was, how he’d come to Paris, what he was running from, the smallest details of his life in the camp. I wanted a beginning, a turning point and a journey. I wanted trauma. I wanted a checklist for how to help.
When we arrived in Stalingrad we called him, as he’d told us to. A different voice answered the phone.
“Can we speak to Malang?”
“Malang. The owner of this phone.”
“This is my phone. I don’t know a Malang.”
We had just called less than an hour ago to arrange the meeting. We wondered if Malang’s phone had been stolen, who was that other voice? We decided to call back a little while later. This time a different voice answered.
“What do you want with Malang?” … “I don’t know who Malang is.” … “My name is Walih Khan” … “Who are you?” … “wrong number I think.”
Everything we asked was met with increasing suspicion. We told the voice we were students, that we’d arranged to meet him a little while ago.
“Malang got his papers and has a house now, he can’t meet with you because he has his papers.”
The voice hung up and I stood in a McDonalds in Stalingrad with a list of questions and no answers. I had wanted to learn the story of a refugee but realized how short-sighted I’d been. Of course, strangers asking for him by name would be suspicious. Refugees in Paris get treated like criminals. Men who don’t have homes and papers disappear, not worthy of the city or too afraid of the system to continue to trudge through it. They become ghost people, ephemeral and flittering, bounced from place to place without dignity. There is no one story of being a refugee, and there are no true answers to the who, what, when, where. There is especially no answer to the question why.
Just like the people at Point Ephémère, who had infuriated me, I was flattening the refugee story. I tried to whittle it down to one man, and I colored the entire experience blue rather than accepting complexity. When Ahmed told me that he hated that people came to the slum and took pictures I was confused about why it would bother him so much. I thought he was worried people might see him living in such conditions, but it was so much more than that. The attempt to take a snapshot of the refugee experience is futile, not only do we see it all the time, we also fail to see it because we’ve decided, like the French man who told us that they were Syrian, that we know the truth already.
I’m not the only writer who has tried to tell The Refugee Story. In our compassion, we often try to dig up the people who are suffering, already having decided what the narrative is going to be. We think that in telling their stories we’ll make some change. What we create is an easily-consumed mistruth.
Popular newspapers and magazines have focused on the widespread refugee situation, collecting heart-wrenching quotes from asylum-seekers about feeling like animals, being mistreated, being exhausted. The Independent writes about the “trail of misery”, City Lab writes about the asylum-seekers hope “unraveled” in Paris. They take a snapshot of the lives of each refugee and we read the newspaper and sigh. Then it becomes part of the picture of Paris, a part that you step over just like you step over the woman bowed with a cup in her hands in the Chatelet metro station. An easily-consumed story is also an easily forgotten one.
When Malang-not-Malang instructed me to meet him in Stalingrad and then another-Malang-not-Malang said he didn’t know who Malang was, it frustrated me. I imagine that I got a small taste of the frustration Malang and Ahmed and other asylum-seekers feel in Paris. They’ve lived on the street for over a year and there are no answers. They do exactly what they’re instructed to do but there is no neat ending in sight. While they’re very visible as a group, the individual man is a ghost. His story is too complex, too difficult to write, especially when we expect him to speak for the entire group. It’s easier to take a picture and let it speak for him, it’s easier to collect quotes that only depict suffering, as if everything about him is his pain. Statistics and snapshots are important. It would be much worse for the refugee to be invisible because nobody wants to try to depict the complexity of his story. Brushing it into a different alley, or under a different bridge, is exactly what we don’t want to do. Awareness is important, but it has to be accompanied by the individual story.
The first thing Ahmed told me about himself is that he is a translator. He can speak five languages. I learned from him that our compassion can also rest heavy on the shoulders of people who are suffering. In an effort to understand, or even help, we flatten. Malang and not-Malang taught me how difficult Paris has made it to know refugees because they’ve been dehumanized to the point of self-silencing. Discovering the individual refugee has been made into a near-impossible task because we’ve expected them to speak for the entire group, and because the city has been so hostile to them that they have to hide in case the truth has them deemed unworthy.
Be careful; your skeleton
Might jumble those nights when
Your skin feels so loose without
Hold you together.
So in bed you will hold a body or
Hold an extra pillow
To stop yourself from turning
Too quickly in your sleep
You could lose a rib
Or a femur in that nest of blankets.
Hold a hot water bottle to your burning chest and
Imagine a heartbeat
Imagine a fever.
Find a person who is like a fever to burn love out
Through your sweaty forehead.
Tell yourself that the fever is love too.
Let the jungle creep over you.
Take an icy shower. Wash weeds away.
Let cold close its fist.
Smirk when someone soft approaches.
Settle like snow
Over a city and feel the boots trudging through you
Chew on ice shattering in
The glaciers of your mouth and erase the blue from the sky
With a big pink rubber eraser.
Swipe that niggling eraser dust from the page.
Just when you think warmth has seeped away
Those underground springs will rise again
The grass will unfurl
You’ll grow into your bones and
The soft creature in the den will open its eyes
To feel the hunger of springtime.
A dandelion fluff A red jacket hung soaking from a tree The golden light and A baseball game in the distance Summers, I used to alight Big jet planes streaky messes in the sky Insect colonies above and below The moon a vegetable print on the blue.
Three body prints in tall grass Summers later it’s just one, bigger print Like one swallowed the others Or like the ground swallowed the two Or like life segregates children and the Grass gets cut from under your ankles.
But the robins are the same still Moving twitchy like they’ve been Reanimated from a frozen death and the Suburbs still seethe like a dully regular Unhappy marriage.
I used to sit on these stairs and read About animal anatomies And this town smells like the girl who died Here When she nose-dove into the void It wasn’t poetic like Virginia’s pockets full Of stones or The heat around Sylvia’s ears;
But poetic like a scream that never ends Only you stopped listening.
A Labrador with a grey muzzle and Ski-slope eyes An old woman with mashed potato hair And a guilty smile when she leaves her dog’s poo In the child’s playground. A man whose breakfast is the lonesome wolf cry Of liquor that goes down smooth. I know my town with the same bewilderment As reading the diaries of my young doubled self