First, I wanted to commend you on your wonderful blog! I love returning to the site to see what new information you have to offer us. It’s incredibly enlightening, even for a “halfie” (I’m half French, half Vietnamese) as myself! =P
Second, I have a question for you, though I know this might be hard to answer without some generalities. My question: I have visited the south of France (in particular Montpellier) with my family on several occasions. I’ve never noticed any dislike for Asians while visiting (though I also didn’t notice too many Asians period), but I thought I’d ask anyway. What do the French think of Asian people?
Thanks for your consideration.
I hope to hear from you soon,
(asked by PDD from Vietnam)
Thanks for the kind words.
It’s actually pretty hard to answer your question accurately because I don’t feel that there’s a consensus about what the French think of Asian people.
I’m gonna try to cover all the different aspects of the topic, and if I miss some and somebody wants to jump in, feel free.
Let’s start with the fact that most French people are pretty ignorant about Asia and Asian cultures. Most of them can’t distinguish different Asian people, or worse, different Asian countries and cultures. I feel that for most French people, Asia, and by that I mean East Asia (I know the Brits tend to think India and Pakistan when they hear “Asia”, but the French are closer to the Americans on that issue, for us “Asia” means more or less “East of India,” although technically, we’re all aware it’s actually “East of Istanbul”) is just one big blurred entity where names of countries are pretty much interchangeable, except maybe for former French colonies of course (Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam).
Thing is that most French people are very unfamiliar with Asia and Asian people, although this has been getting better in the past few years, partly because of globalization, partly because of the rise of China as a prominent country.
Before continuing any further, I think we need to distinguish between different parts of France and different Asian countries and people.
Let’s start with different parts of France.
As you mentioned in most of France there are little to no Asian people. Of course, this is in those parts of the country where people are mostly ignorant about Asia, but as you also mentioned, there aren’t really any prejudices against Asians beyond “they are rice eaters.”
I grew up in the South West of France, where a few refugees camps for people from Vietnam were set up after the Indochina war, so there is a significant Vietnamese minority in the area (There aren’t any statistics and I could be wrong, but I’d be tempted to say that people of Vietnamese descent constitute the second largest minority in South West France). There may be other parts of France that are in a similar situation, I’m not too sure. There, in the South West, Vietnamese people are now a part of the local culture (don’t get me wrong, they’re still a very small minority) and don’t really face any prejudice. The fact that they’re not technically immigrants may have helped, as they always were French citizens, especially nowadays, when the ones who were born in Vietnam are very old, and their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren are nowadays as French as they are Vietnamese, or actually even more French than Vietnamese. I’m talking about culture here, in terms of nationality, they are 100% French.
And then we have Paris.
There’s also a significant Vietnamese community in Paris, but it has recently been overwhelmed by the Chinese community (I feel that both are kinda merged as the same community nowadays, but maybe I’m wrong, I’m not sure). There are actually, not one, but three Chinatowns in Paris!
The first and original one is very small, as it’s only made of two small streets in the 3rd arrondissement (rue Volta and rue au Maire, near Arts & Métiers metro station). I don’t know the exact history of the place, but it’s basically people from that one town in China who moved to Paris about a Century ago and all settled down together in those streets. Nowadays, the descendants of those people still live there.
Then, we have the most famous one, that is south of Place d’Italie, in the 13th arrondissement (for most people in Paris, just saying “13th arrondissement” implies: “Chinatown”) I feel that it actually was the Vietnamese immigrants that started it, as there are a lot of Vietnamese people there, but nowadays it’s really the main place for Chinese people in Paris, although they don’t all live there, far from it, this is a place to shop, socialize and all. From what I understand, back when Vietnam was a French colony, there also were a lot of Chinese Vietnamese there and I believe that they are the ones who settled there first after the Indochina war.
The newer one, that has been “Chinatown” only since the 90’s I feel, is Belleville, which is actually a very diverse neighborhood as there are also a lot of African people there, but the Chinese are more and more prominent in the area.
Also, in Paris, there’s a significant Japanese population (there are about 20,000 Japanese people in France, most of them in Paris and Paris area), but the biggest difference from the other Asian communities is that very very few are actually immigrants, most of them are just expats that live in France for just a couple of years, and one cannot really talk about a community at all.
All in all, there are about 1 million Asian people in France, most of them in Paris area, most of them Chinese (I think France has the largest Chinese population in Europe), so it’s not uncommon at all to run into Asian people in Paris.
But the relationship between White France and its Asian population is strangely very different than the relationship it can have with North African and Black people.
I think it’s because the history is not the same.
The relationship between France and Africa (and the Caribbean) over the Centuries (colonization, slavery, etc.) has shaped the relationship between the people of those areas in different ways than with Asia. The different ways different cultures have shaped people’s behaviors must have played a role too. Of course, the way immigrants arrived in France plays a huge part too.
So nowadays, I’d say that the way French people interact with Asians is very strange. On the one hand, it’s true that Asians seem to experience less racism and discrimination than North Africans and Black people do, on the other hand, I feel that a bunch of French people are patronizing and condescending and generally they disrespect Asian people in ways that would be deemed totally unacceptable against other minorities. It’s never violent, it’s never open, but some behaviors, comments, interactions are very racist, but strangely somewhat socially acceptable. It’s a general attitude towards Asian (from White French people, but also from North Africans and Blacks). For example, I advise you to read this excellent blog post from an Asian-American in Paris talking exactly about that.
Finally, I cannot talk about the relationship between the French and Asian people without talking about the strange love affair France and Japan have these days.
On the one hand we have two countries that don’t really have any kind special relationship (I’m talking on political, historical, official levels), but Japanese people (especially women) seem to be obsessed with France, and love France and move to France, etc. Of course, they have a very unrealistic view on the whole thing.
And on the other hand – and it’s a very new phenomenon – younger generations are more and more obsessed with Japan, and fantasize about it, idealize it in ways that remind me of the way many Americans idealize and fantasize about France.
The reason is simple: pop culture.
Japan is a strange country on the international scene on many levels, mostly because it’s an economical (and technological) super-power, but it’s a very minor country on almost every other level. Except that there’s one domain that has been overlooked for a long time, it is its “pop cultural” influence. Nowadays, I feel that French kids are more interested in Japanese cartoons, comic books, music even than in the ones coming from the US (that was my generation, although to be fair my generation is at the crossroads).
The consequence being that nowadays the French youth seems to have an extremely positive (although sometimes unrealistic) view of Japan and Japanese people.
And while we’re on the topic of “geopolitics”, the rise of China has also an influence on French people that become more and more anti-China the same way there were anti-America not too long ago. But this is more about countries than the people. But I’m not sure what the future will bring on that issue. While there was a strong resentment against the US as a nation, it didn’t really translate against Americans as individuals, mostly because the US and Europe are still roughly the same civilization, we have roughly the same history, and while our cultures are different, they’re not that different. Things are very different with China and Chinese people (not the immigrants in France, the ones that live in China), we don’t really seem to have anything in common, Chinese tourists (I know Chinese tourism is brand new, so it will evolve) don’t interact at all with the French, it’s really two worlds that are colliding.
What the future has in store on that issue is a big mystery to me.
Finally, I didn’t mention anything about Korea. But the thing is that the French don’t really know anything about Korea, they don’t really care either, and they don’t seem to be a country and a people that the French really think about at all… (I could be wrong, and I have heard that some French teenagers are starting to become interesting in Korean pop culture, as the new “cool” thing, Japanese pop culture having now become mainstream among teenagers and young adults).
Also, concerning South East Asia, French people don’t really have any opinion about it, except maybe a few clichés about Thailand (which is a quote popular tourist destination).
(note: this text was written almost three years ago. While most of it is still valid, things may have evolved a little with Korea and China)