Hanoi, Paris, and somewhere in between.
By Ngan Vu
1. Hanoi, Vietnam
On the night before I was to depart for France, my father treated me to something special: escargots à la Bourguignonne. As I closed my eyes to savor the chewy texture of the snails, their earthy flavor mingling with parsley and garlic butter, I couldn’t help feeling that I had already reached the Paris that he had rhapsodized about: an urbane city so exquisite that it renders even the merest morsel of snail sublime.
For as long as I could remember, my father had always wanted to bring a taste of the Paris from his time at the École Polytechnique into my life. Through the simplest details – like his morning café au lait, his extensive collection of French CDs – he hoped to instill in me a love for Paris, which, to him, had what we did not: a true refined culture. Sometimes on Sunday mornings my dad would take me to the small café across from the Grand Opera House of Hanoi, which was modeled after the famous Palais Garnier in Paris. He would smoke a pipe, while I tried to gently hold and sip a cup of black coffee – brewed with a small metal French drip filter – without grimacing from the bitterness that kept lingering on the end of my tongue. Occasionally, we would dress up and go to a fancy French restaurant, where I learned how to use a knife and fork, to hold a wineglass. We talked about the way the French architects had perfectly organized the central quarter of Hanoi, one that surpassed the chaotic rest of the city.
And he succeeded. My father was proud that I performed at his beloved Grand Opera House, embraced the work of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Gérard Presgurvic, taught myself the language in order to be able to read classics in their original French and to sing my favorite songs instead of just humming their melodies.
2. Paris, France
Paris was in summer. I, a fifteen-year-old dressed in bright pink, landed in Paris for the first time, eager to immerse myself in a 2-month intensive summer language program, hoping to finally see the City of Light that lit up my whole childhood. Yet, from the moment I lugged my bags down the stairs of the “La Chapelle” métro station to head to my host family’s house, I knew that I would not be strolling down sparkling grand boulevards, but instead, would be wandering lost and exhilarated through open-air bazaars full of fruits I had never tasted, dazzlingly colored textile patterns I had never seen, and a rich, complex history I could not begin to fathom.
This was Goutte d’Or, the African district of the Eighteenth Arrondissement. Here, there was no trace of the Paris of Gustave Eiffel, Edith Piaf, or Carla Bruni. Monochrome refinement gave way to a cornucopia of African shop stalls of the open-air market Dejean, local residents in striking traditional clothing, and African street artists who filled the air with enrapturing rhythms of the bèlè, ka, subb, and rouleur tambours.
I stayed with a family of five on Rue Philippe de Girard. My host family was of Algerian ancestry. Natalie and David, my new parents, both came to Paris when they were children. Éloïse, Loan, and Rio were all born in France. They spoke impeccable French, dressed in Western-style clothing, and greeted me with bisous when we first met. But there was something about them, and about the people of this neighborhood, that made the Eighteenth Arrondissement challenge my expectations: it lay in the colorful abstract artworks of Mohammed Khadda that David put up around the house, in the countless Arabic poems that Natalie had on her bookshelf, and in the catchy pop songs by the Algerian raï singer Khaled, filled with pounding African rhythms and Algerian folk melodies that Rio danced to all day long.
On my first night in Paris, my host family treated me to something special: traditional Algerian couscous. It was the third-favorite dish of French people that year, according to the French culinary magazine Vie Pratique Gourmand.
3. Somewhere in between
Less than one hundred years ago, Vietnam was still under French rule. The French brought modern political ideas, social reforms, industrial methods, and new technologies. The most talented students were sent to France to study. Everything coming from France seemed to be better and more advanced, even the culture. The French Tricolor was pulled down from Flag Tower of Hanoi in 1954, but for more than a half century since that day, Vietnam has never been liberated from French occupation in any real sense. Another battle still perseveres, a struggle for cultural sovereignty, inconspicuous yet more serious than ever.
Perhaps it was the history of colonization that made me glorify the French culture, and draw myself away from all other cultures that did not have the same prestige, including my own.
But the Algerian War against the French colonizers did not end until 1962.
Colonialism remains today, not by the power of states, but by the captivation of the eyes and by the training of the taste. Colonialism persists, ironically, even without the presence of the former colonizers. Colonialism comes in many disguises: not only in a trip to France for the sake of “going to France”, but also in details as subtle as the sophisticated grip around a wineglass, or the stacks of French classics, or the knowledge of operas and musicals, or the way I always wrote French words, but not Vietnamese, with their appropriate accents. Colonialism left me wounded even though I was born in an independent country years after the war ended, and instead of trying to heal and embrace the part that I have left, I cut myself deeper with the fork and knife.
Yet colonialism did not, and could not affect my Algerian-French family. They were living in the very capital city of their former colonizer, retaliating cultural imperialism with pride in their own culture. It was their decision to treasure their identities.
I came to Paris to see the true, the good, and the beautiful. It was undeniable that everything about France that I learned from my father had opened my mind and made me a cultured being. But I went beyond to see the narrowness of that seemingly broadened mind – to see that in fact, the true, the good, and the beautiful can take different forms. And when I came home, there was yet another culture for me to explore.
Ngan is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at email@example.com.