Anyone's an outsider

One American's experience with xenophobia in Paris

A six-year-old Shivani in Paris. 
Supplied by Shivani Gonzalez

Before I was born, both my parents had separate love affairs with the city of Paris. A high school French teacher and a renown philosophy professor, the city of love had provided them a haven of amazing literature, art and food to continuously appreciate.

In 2001, they both received news that for the first time in their seven-year marriage they would be getting a sabbatical — a paid year off of work — from their respective jobs, at the same time. It wasn’t hard for them to decided that they were going to take this opportunity to move to Paris for the year. 

So in September 2002, just twenty days before my sixth birthday, we packed up the majority of our belongings, drove from Upstate New York to JFK airport and set out on our trip to Paris.

When we arrived my parents grappled with the idea of sending me to an English school that existed mostly for politicians’ children. After all, the only French I’d ever heard was during the few times I went to my mom’s classes when I had the day off of school and she didn’t. 

They ultimately decided that the best thing for me would be to send me to a public French school.  At the age of five, a child’s brain is able to pick up languages more easily than an adult’s so they figured, why not have me become fluent in French.

The first few weeks of school were terrifying. My friends now know me as a loud, outgoing person but when meeting people I don’t know why, but I get pretty quiet and reserved. Being five and being in a foreign country made that all the more real.

Everyday for the first few weeks I sobbed when my parents dropped me off at school, one time so hard that I actually injured myself from screaming — hey, I never said that I wasn’t dramatic.

Three weeks after the first day, and around my sixth birthday, I came home speaking fluently. My mom was surprised but also happy that her initial thoughts about sending me to public school were right and that my initial struggle was worth something.

Though I’d managed to figure out the language, my struggle to fit in was only beginning. 

The date was September 11, 2002, one year after the deadly 9/11 attacks in New York that changed everything for Americans. While I was in Paris eating croissant, baguette and macarons everyday, my home country was struggling to feel safe and struggling to figure out the next move. 

By September 2002, President George W. Bush was trying to convince the people of the United States that Iraq was protecting Saddam Hussein, the man believed to be responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

At this point, it was obvious to the rest of the world that invading Iraq was an awful idea, but the Bush administration was using the fear rhetoric to gain the support of terrified and upset US citizens. The United States was also trying to garner the support of their allies and France was not shy about voicing its opinion on the stupidity of this war.

As a six-year-old, I didn’t understand the politics at work, and neither did the kids in my class. I remember seeing news reports or hearing my parents talking and being a bit scared, but not really understanding what was happening.

Around a month after beginning at my new school I’d made a couple of really great friends. I was also aware that a lot of my classmates hated me. They would refer to me as “the American” and not my name. Even as a six-year-old, I was very aware of the fact that they hated me, not because of who I was as a person, but because of where I was from.

Being “the American” and the person who was an outsider was something I’d never experienced before. The United States is a world power in more ways than one. We have one of the loudest voices on the international stage, our music, movies and books are embraced by most of the world and many people in foreign countries are learning English as their fluent second language.

Even though most of these kids were six or seven, because of the state of international affairs, their parents had taught them that Americans were bad for starting the war and that translated to many children that it was okay to bully someone just for being American.

Being American didn’t automatically mean that my family supported the war. In fact, it was the exact opposite. My dad said from the beginning that it was an awful idea for the United States to go to war with Iraq even though he too had been pretty shaken up by 9/11. My Canadian-born, United States resident alien mother didn’t even slightly understand the rationale behind the war.

But the bullying wasn’t just teasing and hitting, one incident stands out the most for me. That November, I was sitting at my desk, business as usual, when a girl in the class who clearly didn’t like me, turned around from her desk in front of me. 

She told me to smell her scissors because they smelt like strawberries and as a six-year-old that can be very enticing. As I leaned forward, she swiftly leaned closer to me and cut my cheek with her scissors. And I don’t mean like a small cut, I mean blood everywhere and me blacking out from shock.

The concept of feeling so strongly about a group of people, the way the French judged Americans at the time, can be pretty damaging for not only world relations but someone’s life and experiences in France. 

While it was completely justified for the parents of all the kids in my school to feel frustrated and upset by the fact that the United States was starting a war for no reason, it’s never okay for parents to teach their children to blindly hate anyone.

People often refer to the United States as a ‘melting pot’ of cultures, but it has been proven time and time again that the world is more exclusive then we’d like to think. I understood this when I was seven in Paris and I’m seeing it again in the current election cycle in the United States. 

Hateful rhetoric against Muslims, Mexicans and anyone who is considered “other” proves to me that this divide is a transnational issue. 

Luckily for me, the bullying I experienced in France didn’t have a long term effect on me. 

As an American student attending school in Canada, I proudly tell people I’m from New York. But, what I thought at the time was just the stained relationship between France and the United States is a much deeper issue about the lack of understanding that is so prominent between many people and cultures. 

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