What They Don’t Tell You About Exchange

Written by: Emily Reynolds

On January 4th 2020, I embarked on one of the most ambitious journeys of my life thus far. Armed with two suitcases, my trusty backpack, and my brand new money belt, I flew across the Atlantic to Lyon, France, for my winter semester abroad. My exchange was one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve taken part in, even if it did get cut short (shoutout to Miss Rona!). I remember sitting on the plane too excited to sleep. All I could think about was my future life in France; the numerous croissants I’d eat, the exciting weekend trips I’d take, the classic French berets I’d buy and pull off flawlessly. 

Somehow, I never considered racism. 

A little bit about me: I was born in Toronto to a Korean mother and an Italian/Irish father. While my South Korean family and heritage have always been a big part of my life, I have never felt like I could strongly identify with the culture. Maybe it’s because my mom came to Canada when she was six years old, and adapted to the Western way of life almost instantly. Maybe it’s because I’m white passing, all the way down to my fair skin, brown hair, and even my name. Maybe it’s because I never learned the language. Maybe it’s because I hate kimchi. Whatever the reason, I’ve never fully considered myself “Korean”. I have a complicated relationship with being biracial. I frequently tell myself I don’t deserve to call myself Korean, that I’m not really Asian. I’ve blindly agreed with people who have told me I’m whitewashed or “basically white”. I tell myself that it’s wrong to identify with a minority group because I’ve never actually experienced racism or discrimination. At least not until France. 

Before leaving for exchange, numerous friends and family members warned me to be safe and cautious. “It’s dangerous out there”, they reminded me. “Young women travelling alone in a foreign country are prime targets”, they told me. I knew I needed to be smart abroad, but I privately thought they were overreacting. I had talked to plenty of girls who had studied abroad and come back unscathed. 

I guess I didn’t take into account that most of these girls were white. 

It was a crisp Saturday night in January. I had gone out into the city with my friends to experience Lyon’s nightlife. We had started by bar-hopping, and ended up in the centre square, intent on riding the iconic Lyon ferris wheel. As we were standing around in the square, deciding if we were willing to pay the €10 ticket fee, a group of men came up to us. Drunk, loud, young men. Naturally, my first reaction was panic. When groups of strange men approach me, even when I’m with friends, I immediately feel uncomfortable. I know I’m going to have to engage in a conversation I want no part in, which will end in me having to excuse myself as politely as I can. I was a few drinks in, so my next impulse decision was to walk away from the group, even my friends. I’m not dealing with this shit. Not tonight. A few steps away, I heard him:

“What’s with the Chinese prisoner over there?”

I stopped in my tracks, realizing he was talking about me. I turned around and walked back to the group.

“What did you say to me?” 

“Why aren’t you talking to us?” the guy asked me. 

“Because I don’t want to,” I shot back, willing myself to look him in his eyes. He was wearing a backwards baseball cap and a Gucci belt. I caught a whiff of his strong cologne. 

At that point, my friend had the sense to move us away towards the ferris wheel. When I asked if I had heard the stranger correctly, the other girls confirmed it. 

“What’s with the Chinese prisoner over there?”

The words played in a loop in my head.

“What’s with the Chinese prisoner over there?”

My friends laughed and moved on to getting money out for the ferris wheel. I joined in and tried to push it to the back of my mind. 

“What’s with the Chinese prisoner over there?”

I tried to find a way to laugh about it. I’m actually Korean, you asshole! 

“What’s with the Chinese prisoner over there?”

It was the first time I had had my race used against me. In Kingston and Toronto, it was unfortunately normal for men to catcall me, to approach me and my friends. But this was the first time my race came into play. I was the only non-white girl in a group of blondes. I felt embarrassed, ashamed, to have been singled out like that in front of my friends.

While we didn’t talk about it, the comment stuck with me for the rest of the night, until I got back to my student residence and got into bed. 

If I’m being honest, I wasn’t surprised. This was normal for France. A man once pulled his car over to the sidewalk where I was walking just to try to talk to me. The salesmen at the Foot Locker downtown had been overly interested in my “beautiful” Canadian accent. One of the first questions my new roommate asked me was if I was Asian. People (especially men) were always very forward in France. But it didn’t make hearing that comment any better, especially when I had been having such a fun night. I look at the photo taken of me on the ferris wheel with my friend Anna, and one of the first things I think of is “What’s with the Chinese prisoner over there?”

I told my brother about the incident that night, but asked him not to tell my parents. I knew they were already worried about me being in a foreign country alone, and I didn’t need them worrying about me even more. Every time I told someone else about it, I framed it as just another funny exchange story. Can you believe it? They’re like, hardcore racist over here!

A strange, twisted part of my mind wanted to shout about it proudly to all the people from my high school who told me I wasn’t a real Asian. If only they could see me now, I thought. I’m so Korean, I get mistaken for being Chinese. Guess I don’t look as white as they thought I did. 

I wish I could say there was a happy, inspirational ending to this story. In a way, there is. I’m still here. I’m alive and healthy and happy. I’m lucky I was with a group of friends and that nothing worse happened that night. I live everyday with the privilege of being a white-passing, able-bodied woman. But in another way, this is an unhappy ending, because when I think about my exchange, I inevitably think about this night. And it’s weird to think that one of the people that left the biggest impact on me in France probably doesn’t even remember that I exist.

I feel a sort of connection now to other non-white girls who have studied abroad, especially in Europe. We know what it’s like to be singled out. We know what it’s like to have two defining identities for creepy men to prey on. We know what it’s like to laugh along with our white friends while silently processing our own pain. We know what it’s like to hear outrageous travel stories from our white male peers, knowing full well we could never do the same. We know what it’s like to have to worry about our own safety while travelling alone in a foreign country as both a young woman and a person of colour. 

So maybe this story doesn’t have a happy ending. But I hope that if another young woman of colour reads this, she will feel understood and seen. The world outside of Canada can be a cruel and lonely place for young women of colour. But at least we have each other. 

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