Do you know Janus? It’s a Roman god usually depicted with two faces. One of the things he symbolises is, unsurprisingly, duality. Don’t you sometimes feel like your personality has two opposing sides?
It’s not uncommon to feel an inner struggle between two forces: optimism and pessimism, determination and procrastination, or…wanting to eat a cookie and keeping your dietary commitments. Perhaps less common is a feeling of belonging to two different cultures. As we constantly strive to balance these opposing forces we learn a lot about ourselves.
Kim is French, but from early childhood she was drawn to Asia. Step by step, the affinity evolved. Each decision, each trip, each person met along the way connected her deeper with a country so different from her own.
Now, like Janus, she can look both ways. What’s the message she will deliver to the French people, and what about to the Chinese people?
By Kim Fabri
Falling For China
You could say China is a “romantic interest” of mine, since it starts from…meeting a boy. His French name was Lucas, and we were both five years old when we met. Because of this “relationship” it was already at the age of seven that I felt I had to explore the story of the country Lucas came from—China.
It started with films and books, but when my parents noticed an interest sprouting, they started taking me for family holidays to South East Asia.
I remember my first trip to Vietnam—the feeling of being welcomed, fascination with the differences, praying, in my childish way, in the Buddhist temples. I felt a strange connection with the place, and still remember I was crying when we had to go back to France!
Ten years after meeting Lucas, I decided to study Chinese in Paris, at a university specialising in Oriental Studies. Apart from the language, which I now practice speaking ten hours a week, we learned about the history, the economics, and the international relations of China. I had wanted to visit China since the age of five, but it was only after my first year at university that I finally had the opportunity.
Flying to China
My interest was already pretty deep to have picked Chinese as my university degree, but my first visit to the country showed me both how little I knew about China, and how much I loved the place. This trip, to Beijing, was the first and only organised one I took—it was a language course, and I stayed with a host family.
I have fond memories from this trip. My Chinese wasn’t very good at the time, so I had to do a lot of hand-waving to communicate. Thankfully, I could rely on my Spanish flatmate, whose Chinese was better. Neither of us however could pronounce our host mum’s name—it was just too complicated!— so we just called her “mama”, 妈妈. Talking about mama, you can’t not mention her cooking skills. Everyday she’d start preparing dinner already at 5pm, and the result was some of the best food I’ve ever eaten!
What I remember strongly from this stay is the kindness and openness of the people I encountered. I made a lot of friends, and also met someone who became my boyfriend. It was thanks to him that I was able to see China almost like a Chinese person.
Hanging out with his friends, I realised my Chinese was lacking conversational fluency—an essential component if you want to maintain friendly connections. I had to practice talking casually with my peers.
Chatting with China
Looking for opportunities to practice Chinese, I discovered HelloTalk.
Initially, I replied to all messages I received, but that got too time-consuming pretty quickly. Now when I chose people to connect with, I pay a lot of attention to self-introductions. The app occupies me a lot and I usually have to uninstall it when preparing for university exams. Rather than studying official Chinese, it’s tempting to just go online and chat casually with my Chinese friends!
But, you can’t deny the value casual conversations bring. My HelloTalk friends taught me how people my age speak. For example, funny words like 哎呀 (āi yā) which is what you say when you hurt yourself or when something surprises you, or nicknames that you give to people your really like as a mark of respect, like 哥哥 (“big brother”) or 姐姐 (“big sister”). They taught me some swear words too! My French classmates are often surprised I know such colloquial expressions and say I’m the most Chinese person in my class.
Thanks to HelloTalk I’m the most Chinese person in my university class.
Connecting with China Apart from the study benefits HelloTalk brings, I also made several stronger connections through the app. For example, 嘉, Jia, learning French, who I stayed with for a week at my second visit to China, or Taison, (泰生, Taishen), from Australia thanks to whom I can learn about both Chinese and Australian culture.
There are many more people who I met on HelloTalk, but there is one who clearly stands out. HelloTalk connected me with Forrest—my best friend, and the best friend I’ve ever had. We met through moments. I commented, he replied in such a hilarious way I thought I had to send him a message. We wrote back and forth for over a year, even had some arguments!
I met the best friend I ever had on HelloTalk.
One situation that exemplifies our connection is when once my plane in China was cancelled. I needed a new ticket, they were not accepting foreign cards, and my Chinese just wasn’t good enough to resolve the situation. The first person who I called was not my Chinese boyfriend at the time, but Forrest. He stepped in, called the Chinese airlines, helped me buy a new ticket, and get home.
It took almost two years before we finally met last summer in Guangzhou where Forrest lives. He waited for me at the train station when I arrived from Chengdu. First thing I did was to give him a big hug! We immediately felt very close, we already knew so much about each other.
Although initially I was supposed to stay for two days, I ended up cancelling all my plans and staying for ten! During that time our friendship grew stronger—we promised we will help and support each other forever, and keep in touch until we are old.
Hearing how well he hosted me, my parents offered him to stay at our house, in Saint Raphaël, in the summer. I really hope he will come visit me this year!
Travelling with local friends, you can easily deepen your connection with the country. Alone, you don’t have many chances to discover a city.
I prefer to get to know each place better; rather than just tick locations off a travel list, at each trip I’d pick three or four cities and spend a week in each. Of course, I try to choose places where I already have friends on HelloTalk! Experiencing city life with them makes me feel like I’m Chinese—we go to small, noisy local restaurants and sing loudly on KTV.
These experiences also illustrate to me the differences between the French and the Chinese people. In China foreigners are still treated like something exotic—in a very positive way, I mean! People are not only curious about discovering where you come from and who we are, but they also strive to show you the best side of China. Strangers invited me for dinners, offered to host me, or to show me around, and that’s even if they didn’t have a lot of money to spare.
China Meets France
There is also a certain obsession about France in China—so many clothing and perfume stores use the symbol of the Eiffel Tower. The fascination can be seen in Paris—there are many Chinese people visiting or living in the city, and there isn’t a single day when I don’t hear Chinese on the subway or bus.
It’s sometimes funny how, after learning I come from France, Chinese people would ask me if I eat snails, or exclaim “Wow, you must be romantic!”. Well, I don’t really know about that!
My Chinese tattoos say 相信(xiangxin) on my left hand, which means “believe”, and 梦想 (mengxiang) on my right one, which means “dream”, because I really think you need to have dreams and to believe in them. As for me, I dream of China and living there, and because I kept believing in it since I was child it’s now coming true.
Interestingly, many people in China think France is dangerous—because of what they see on TV. To all Chinese people I want to say two things: Paris is beautiful, of course, but France is not just that—there are many more places to visit! You are right to want to come to France and I want to say “Welcome!”
There are also several stereotypes Western people have about China. We often see China as an economically aggressive country, and can also be afraid of its people, but China is made of humans too! We should be curious to explore this powerful place, rather than be afraid of it.
Before my first trip, I had several preconceptions too. I feared people will keep to each other, not want to interact, and that I’ll end up lonely and bored. The opposite was the case! When I came back to France I told myself I had to put what I learned from my Chinese experience into practice and help people when they are in need. One word, generous, is the best way to describe the Chinese people who I met.
I wish I could be the same.
At the moment I’m saving money for Forrest’s visit to give him as warm of a welcome to France as he gave me in China. When I graduate my plan is to work in global development with children or the poor in China. I want to help those who welcomed me so well.
Interviewed and written by Marta Krzeminska
Featured image from Flickr.