When you’re travelling, the “where are you from?” question is pretty much expected several times a day. For an immigrant or anyone with a multicultural background, it’s a tricky one—there’s where you grew up and where you currently live, plus possible assumptions based on ethnicity, race or accent.
Almost involuntarily, I tend to pause for a split second before replying, long enough to raise even more questions and suspicion. After all, your citizenship, like your name or your age, is a piece of personal information you should be able to disclose without thinking.
As a general rule, if I’m travelling with my Canadian passport, I’m Canadian. But once in a while, I introduced myself as French.
And this is what happens.
People say something completely random in French, like “j’aime Paris,” “les croissants,” “une souris verte qui courait dans l’herbe” or “voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir” (the last one is probably not an offer, unless the person is fluent in French). Worst-case scenario, people start singing in French—Frère Jacques is taught in an awful lot of places around the world, this madness must stop!
People ask where you live. I never understand why because the next question is always “don’t know this place… how far it is from Paris?” Generally, I reply “not far,” which is kind of true considering the size of France.
Women, especially in Asia, longingly whisper “Dior, Chanel, Louis Vuitton…” as if they were naming close relatives of mine. Then, they eye my bag suspiciously as if wondering if it’s from an exclusive made-for-French-people “grungy” collection and mentally assess how much my outfit cost (total is usually a disappointing $50).
People tell me they learn some French at school, then apologize because they can’t remember any of it. I get it—there are plenty of French grammar rules I also learned at school and promptly forgot.
People name a few French “stars.” Gérard Depardieu, Brigitte Bardot, Napoléon, Victor Hugo and Édith Piaf are apparently among the favourite—or most famous—worldwide. Amélie and Ratatouille are occasionally brought up. I do my part for tourism, I never point out that French rats can’t cook and that Amélie can’t afford to live in Montmartre unless she moonlights as a prostitute.
People tell me they would love to go to Paris. Don’t say “me too,” you’re French, you’re supposed to hang out on the Champs-Élysées every day, even if you live hundreds of kilometres away.
People detail this one trip they took to France a long, long time ago. If you’re in Asia, tough luck—chances are, the lucky tourist did one of these 15-European-countries-in-two-weeks tour and they have no idea where they’ve been exactly, so you might have to nod along when told that the French city of Rome is great because it’s old and picturesque and the French city of Amsterdam was nice with plenty of canals.
People ask you how you find local cuisine as if you were a culinary authority. This conversation can be awkward if you’re caught eating fast food or street food.
People ask you if France is a dangerous country, especially if they saw footage of protests. “Don’t worry, it’s just a French game we play with… ahem, the police. And the government. Yes, when it’s cold, we burn tires… and cars.”
English-speaking Canadians always want to know if I can understand Québécois and “how bad it is” compared to “proper French.” Glance around to make sure there are no Québécois nearby if you feel upset every time you hear “t’es ben cute, toué.”
People tell me I don’t look French, even when I’m not tan. Must be because I’m not half-naked, crying in bed like most actresses in French movies. Or the lack of the typical Parisian French scarf, this tiny piece of fabric used a fashion statement but impractical when it’s actually cold. “Funny, I thought French women were thin,” one of Feng’s relatives also commented when we were in China in 2014…
People ask me how tall the Eiffel Tower is. Note to self—must check Wikipedia for exact height in metres and feet. I still remember that the Mont Blanc’s highest peak is 4,807 metres (as reminded yearly from grade 1 to 12) but clearly, French curriculums aren’t designed by big fans of the famous Parisian landmark because we don’t learn about it.
People seek wine or food advice. I have no idea how to make macarons (I think almond powder is involved?) and I can barely tell red and white wine apart. Note that many French do drink wine but aren’t super knowledgeable about it—I mean, I eat eggs, doesn’t mean I could manage a poultry farm…
People… okay, mostly guys, attempt to cheek-kiss you “like you do in France.” Frankly, this is the one custom I miss the least. Leave my face alone.
People inform you of a French person sighting—“the house over there… a French guy rented it for a week, five years ago” or “a French couple asked me for directions, once.” This is probably so that you don’t attempt to plant the flag—clearly, you’re not the first national on the territory, now leave peacefully and don’t establish a colony, thank you.
Maybe I should just go with “I’m Canadian,” next time…