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The racism I encountered in France felt all too familiar

World Cup tourists typically see the charm in France, but everyday racism still lurks behind that facade.

Global Reaction To The Terrorist Attack On French Newspaper Charlie Hebdo Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

France is charming. It’s hard to deny, with Paris sitting all gorgeous in the midst of abundant green countryside and the welcoming surrounding cities connected by a rail system that I literally have not shut up about since I took my first train to Reims and it went so fast.

But like any country — and I’m highly aware that no stones should be thrown from the glass house that is the United States — France has its problems. I explored some of them when speaking with Veronica Noseda of Les Dégommeuses about the gendered imbalance of power and resources in French soccer. Noseda touched on how the French concept of nationality contributes to the erasure of diversity by refusing to acknowledge it — for example, if I lived here, I wouldn’t be “Franco-Korean.” I would just be “French.” These are symptoms of a broader systemic racism in a country with a huge immigrant population, many of whom originate from former French colonies and other areas in Africa and Asia where France exerted its influence.

Living in my World Cup bubble, I had only experienced this tangentially through talking with people like Noseda, or listening to the stories of Muslim women discussing the hijab ban in football at a Fare Diversity House event. If you’re a tourist, or here working the tournament like myself, it’s easy to experience only the positive side of France. People put on a shine for travelers out of kindness or pride or entrepreneurial thinking, and with so many English-speaking people at every event, I’ve hardly been immersing myself in French daily life.

I got a glimpse behind the curtain on Tuesday as I wearily made my way back to Paris from Reims, the day after the United States’ Round of 16 game against Spain. I was tired from covering the game, and from sleeping poorly, and from taking an early train out of Reims. At my Metro exit, I held open the gate for the older man behind me, only to hear him mutter darkly. My French isn’t the greatest, but I know what it means when someone gives me a dirty look and says “les Chinois” at me with a dismissive gesture.

Reader, I’m not proud of it, but I gave him the finger. I wanted him to know I had heard and understood him and that he was an asshole for it. I fully intended to just keep walking and go about the rest of my day, but he shouted in surprise and dashed after me, marching up the steps of the escalator to get in my face by standing on the step directly below mine. “That was for me?” he demanded angrily in French.

“Get the fuck out of my face,” I told him in English, and turned around and kept walking.

He followed me, spluttering indignantly. And that was when I began to feel really uneasy.

At home, in Boston, I have no problem telling off creepy men who follow me. It’s easier to defend yourself on your home turf, in your native language, where you know how the systems work. But in Paris, where my French is piecemeal and I’m a tourist, I had no idea how the situation might play out in a worst-case scenario. What if he trailed me all the way to my hotel? Would I have to just wander until I lost him, or until he got tired of following me? Would anyone in authority even be sympathetic to me explaining I had flicked off someone for a racist remark?

These are all things I think any woman, and in particular any woman of color, must consider when traveling in a foreign country. Hell, not even a foreign country — like I said, I’ve had my share of men following me around at home, including one who thought it was a game and gleefully repeated “I’m gonna catch you!” as I power walked through the dark to my subway stop. He only stopped when, furious and near panicking, I turned around and yelled as loud as I could, hoping that bystanders would hear, that there was no reason for him to need to catch me, so he needed to leave me the fuck alone. So before I left for France, I was aware that I needed to contemplate what I would do in case I got harassed, whether verbally or physically.

But with all the additional problems of a language barrier and being in a city where I only had a vague idea what the balance of power was like between white people and the Asian community, I sensed this could really snowball into something that I didn’t have the energy to handle. I hoped that being a credentialed American journalist here for a big tourist event might give me some minuscule protection in the event authorities were called, but it was no guarantee.

And then things died almost as quickly as they started when a young woman saw the man angrily following me and intervened. She asked him what was wrong, but as he began stammering out how I had been rude to him, I sharply interjected in French, “He’s a racist. Don’t talk about Chinese people. And I’m not Chinese.” Not my most articulate moment, but I was too infuriated to do more than construct the basics on the fly.

He protested, but the woman defused him with a couple of conciliatory sentences and he seemed to accept he should go on his way. I kept walking, hoping to just leave it all behind. The woman caught up to me. “Ça va?” she asked me. Are you ok?

I felt a wave of relief sweep over me. She understood what had happened. She had taken time out of her morning to check on another woman, a stranger. Maybe the same thing happened to her before, some angry old man following her out of the subway. I hope not. Whatever her reasons, she was kind to me. “Ça va,” I responded. “Merci.”

She nodded and kept walking, headed to work. I branched off and walked to my hotel, ready for a shower to wash off the stench of travel, then to begin prep work for the World Cup quarterfinals. On my first day in that neighborhood, my head was on a constant swivel as I admired the shops and restaurants; but on that morning, at least, it had lost some of its charm.