Dreams of Dreams

An Asian American in Paris’s perspective on race, migration, and illusion.

7 years ago

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Roma settlement in Carrière-sous-Poissy
Roma settlement in Carrière-sous-Poissy — June 3, 2017. After Romania joined the European Union in 2007, the incoming population from Romania to France shifted from wealthy tourists to economic migrants. This population included the Romanian and Bulgarian Roma minority, whose constituents were leaving a country by which they had originally been enslaved.
“When I contemplated for the first time the European spectacle from the Sahara, surrounded by a civilisation which has more or less the same relationship to ours as Roman antiquity has to modern times, I became aware of how completely, even in America, I was still caught up and imprisoned in the cultural consciousness of the white man. The desire then grew in me to carry the historical comparisons still farther by descending to a still lower cultural level.” — C. G. Jung

A season ago, late May, I left for Paris. I had no expectation for romance, luxury, or sophistication. The need to gather intellectuals into one place, one city, had vanished along with letters, recorders, and vinyl. The last year in my personal life passed on clean, no fuss, so I had nothing to run from, and consequently, nothing to run to. Political fatigue was redundant and stationary. I had no real goals for the summer besides getting through my internship. The last months of school slung past easy; New England’s early spring teased, subsided, and grew, while we hopped through various schools’ spring flings to watch Tinashe dance filthy one last time. The days got longer, the mood, lazier. Small classes were held outside, in the shadow of tall buildings. Sun bled into my dorm room post-dinner while the Yard filled with tourists, food trucks, lawn chairs. The days were monotonous and grew into each other. At a time of national change, it felt a crime to be so still and constant. Like a wildflower in the midst of a red red war. As I told anyone who asked, our axes were in need of tilting.

France in the American imagination is a haven. In the beginning, France served as the midwife to a mother country in violent denial of her child’s birth. Classically told, France was a midwife of remarkable power, breadth, and empathy, which fueled her ability to resource such a political project, unprecedented in its ambition. And so, America was born. The Declaration that transformed our country from land to nation was positioned in the mind of a Francophile who crafted his home as Versailles and dreamed Virginia a wine-producing American Burgundy. The Statue of Liberty that serves as our nation’s personification was a gift from France, as well as all the land west of the Mississippi. But in our modern sensibilities, France maintains herself as America’s alternate reality. France, and especially Paris, is the America that would be if our cuisine was more elegant, women slimmer, men classier, coffee easier, politics cleaner. France is also the America that would be if we treated our black population as true strangers, if romance was not tied so strongly with religion, if we treasured intellectualism as much as we did our flesh. If Americans would pay their taxes, if Trump was not our president. The land gifted with the bodies of Nina Simone and James Baldwin, where W.E.B. DuBois held his 1919 conference on Pan-Africanism, where Miles Davis fell in love. The French invented style. A place where hedonism, gluttony, sex hold both less consequence and more poetry. This is the space France occupies in the American mind.

In Paris, I stayed with a family from Cameroon. Their apartment was a gray building twenty minutes away from the Eiffel Tower on Balard Street, full of bistros, cafes, and cheap Chinese food. There was a bakery, fruit stand, and supermarket within a block from our place. You look exactly like your picture,my host mother told me over coffee in her kitchen the first day, fresh from the airport. I called her Madame. Madame’s husband was in the hospital receiving treatment for skin cancer, so she lived alone with her middle daughter and one-year-old grandson Laurence. The morning routine consisted of Laurence howling awake at 6:30AM sharp, and in the process, waking up everyone else. His mother helped him dress and walked him to the crèche, the public nursery school, five minutes away by foot. When she came back, Madame would have already put the coffee in the machine and baguettes on the table. She took her bread with butter; her daughter took it plain, without condiments. Madame ate standing up, flitting from room to room, leaving her coffee cup half full in the salon, on the bookshelf, at the bathroom sink. Often when I took my breakfast, Madame would walk the dog in the park nearby. She gave affection to those who demanded it. The dog barked. Laurence slammed doors, dropped food, and cry-laughed when he was home. Neighbors knocked on the door for advice, wine, or company. I worked with the Roma population living in informal settlements; Madame’s daughter interned at a fashion marketing company; and Madame was a lawyer. We came back to the apartment at approximately the same time. When Madame’s daughter took Laurence out of the crèche for the day one could hear his distinct au revoir through the window, reverberating in the spacious city street. Weekends were reserved for visits to the hospital with her husband while Laurence visited his father. The news channel was on all day and night.

When Madame’s husband returned back home from the hospital, around early July, the changes to her routine were subtle. She woke up earlier and brought him breakfast on a tray in the mornings. She smiled easier, and when I asked her how her days were, she would say busy, busy but the words relaxed as if the question was easy. She sat in the living room with her husband until midnight, watching news. She knew his preferences and cooked the steak rare, prepared the rum with limes, cut big slices of goat cheese. They called each other by their full names. It shocked me sometimes, how aged their love was. The summer felt endless. Growing up, I, like most children, saw my parents in the younger throes of love, filled with arguments and tension, passion and duty. They were not settled because they had just started their American lives, careers, and family. Their love was clear to me because it was loud; they declared and denied it, they argued for days then held hands in the car, on the street, in the house. But even when I came back from college on vacations, I saw that their love had aged too. Your dad and I are like one person, my mother told me and my sister at the end of winter break, that’s how we know each other. I was never home long enough to observe them the way I should have. Without language, I was quiet. My French skills were sufficient enough for me to describe what I saw and what I did but not the more abstract ways I thought. My presence faded into that dichotomy as well. You are so shy, Madame told me near the end of my stay. The time was post-midnight. I’d searched for a glass of water. We’d surprised each other when she was in the kitchen and I’d opened the door. She kissed me good night. When I was back in my room, I stared out at the streetlamp and the black sky. Across the street, on top of the pharmacy, a black woman smoked a cig with a white man on the balcony. They clung to the wood.

But I was head-spun in Paris. To walk next to the blue-green Seine, across cobblestones, on short espressos, with thin-blessed women and suited-up men. Sand in parks found its way into my shoes. I emptied them into my palms. I churned music boxes that tinkled “La vie en rose” in the pretty corners of St-Michel. The trees were pruned as squares. People read novels on subways, listened to the streets when they walked. The sun set at 10:30PM, so on Fridays, midnight felt young. I told my sister I never wanted to leave, and she told me that I was a living cliché. I laughed. I was genuine. I meant it with all my heart.

A staircase inside the iconic bookstore Shakespeare & Company
A staircase inside the iconic bookstore Shakespeare & Company — July 13, 2017. The New Jersey native who founded this bookstore was named Sylvia Beach. The bookstore was a gathering salon for The Lost Generation, including writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. Other American writers who frequented the store during their times of necessity were James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Henry Miller.

I spent many weeks in Paris, especially my last ones, reflecting on one of Toni Morrison’s quotes in her critical book Playing in the Dark. She defines American blackness in relation to whiteness and states that “the subject of the dream is the dreamer.” Which is to say when Fi Xiaotong arrived to America in 1944 and described the country as a “land without ghosts”, perhaps the better interpretation would be that China was permeated. In the city, the sun doesn’t set but fades. I spent many of my last weeks at cafes near a metro stop called Mabillon steps away from the Seine that leads to the Notre Dame which leads to an American bookstore called Shakespeare and Company, created by a New Jersey native. The bookstore attempts to be what it had been during the Hemingway era, a home of wanderers. If you are a writer with no place to stay, you may find yourself living in one of the bookstore’s upstair lofts gratis, ironic because, in this age, few writers are truly wanderers, and even fewer travel by necessity. A Vice article written on the bookstore by one of these wanderers stated it was “a socialist paradise masquerading as a bookstore”. The place is decorated with typewriters, decrepit stained class, and Walt Whitman quotes. Its patrons are mostly tourists, mostly Americans, as the large majority of books are in English. During the times I went, I watched the writers who could be found staffing checkout lines or pretending to read books at the eyes of more transient tourists. When the girl across the register stuck my card in the reader she mentioned the person of color book club she was in had read the book I bought the previous week. But the term “person of color”, which I used liberally to describe my position of psychological otherness in the United States, seemed foreign and misplaced in Paris. Visiting Roma camps for work, settlements of a population that survived enslavement, the Holocaust, and genocide; whose majority still did not have running water in Europe; who were characterized as “untouchables” by the politicians; who claimed no homeland in a continent they had traversed for over one thousand years; one of my first observations was that many of the community’s members could have passed for white in the United States. I remember very distinctly a light-skinned Roma boy who had found a Canada Goose coat. In a settlement with dirt floors and blue plexiglass walls, where housing construction was nailed together temporarily with the expectation of evacuation by the French government, I wondered if the boy, slinging his arm casually over his uncle’s shoulders, knew the wealth, literal wealth, he carried on his shoulders. A weight that even in my campus, one of the most prestigious in the world, was coveted as a symbol of privilege. Walking out of the bookstore, the inadequacy of the term “person of color” in Paris burned itself in my mind. It struck me as incredibly American that a group of young writers would vacation to Paris in the footsteps of their own icons, to discuss their own politics, read their own books, chase after their own American ghosts. They were the dreamers, and Paris was the dream. Paris was not a place. It was socialist and not capitalist, colorblind and not colorhaunted. And therefore Paris was paradise.

I went to Paris as some form of escapism because I hadn’t known an existence outside of the suburban American coming-of-age. My town was Asian-and-Jewish, separatist, and rich, meaning we stuck with each other, imitating outfits on the school concrete with cheap Forever21 knockoffs while the Jewish girls got spray-tans and nose jobs before prom. Our sixth-grade class gathered in the dingy auditorium to watch Obama swear on a Bible to preserve, protect, and defend our nation’s Constitution. The president of our ideological formation was black, meaning, our lives felt light. Our own skin was worthy enough to explore, praise, and coddle. Politics were exercises in optimism — they dripped lazy and unstated in our personal lives. Sundays my sister and I drove out to Parsippany for math classes with the private-turned-corporate tutor that everyone whose mom had an active WeChat knew about. She shared a white office building with insurance companies. After, I sat by the Wawa with a cold chicken sandwich, listened to the radio, watched the boys pump gas. Weekday nights I took Python at my dad’s school in Newark; I talked with the Sri Lankan boy who could only marry brown girls, discussed his brother stuck on steroids, and when he wasn’t there, the white one from Pal Park, who said his hair was getting so long his mom thought he snuck in girls. I fucking love Koreans he’d said once, after I told him he was the first non-Korean from Pal Park I’d ever met. I had existed almost exclusively in the context of other yellow American children my first eighteen years of life, and so, my social status had been defined, from the beginning of my time in school, by how likely I was to get into an Ivy. We searched for survival instinct — perfect AMC scores and libertarians. Weeks into my stay in Paris, my adolescence felt like my own dream. No one leaves the Jerz untainted, I wrote to a friend. I remembered facts and impressions, but my adolescent world felt so far away. My language was too soft to tell anyone about it. Instead I told a coworker that separatism was good sometimes, if it made you more confident. She looked at me, said, well you learn more if you talk to other people. I nodded and smiled. Of course, I said, of course.

At work I took regular visits with my colleagues to the immigrant Roma settlements around Ile-de-France. The first time I did, my boss told me to meet him at Porte de Bagnolet, eight in the morning sharp, in front of the pharmacy, and when I slipped into his car, we rode an hour and a half out to Triel. It had just rained and the air was thick with mist. When we got to the camp the mud smelled like fish. Trailers filled the place neat and cuffed. Dogs ran up to cars and tugged rags with each other between mountains of old washing machines. Men crowded around one of the women workers, full-blooded Roma with the hazel eyes, dyed red hair, and a quick tongue to prove it. She told them she was going to get them jobs, and one of them lingered, asked, well how about a wife, Len, why don’t you give me a wife. We tracked mud into trailers, lazy with the clean-up, while women eyed us and carried the children. The workers attempted quick chat. I watched the same ad with a white girl in a tight black dress six times on the Romanian television. When the sky cleared, the sun hardened the earth, and the place smelled of near-lunch. I cracked open an Orangina with one of the camp boys. I watched as he turned on his car and toggled the radio. He asked me where I wanted to go while I rocked back and forth on my feet. America? he asked. I nodded, then he leaned forward to turn the volume up. If I remember the camps I’ll remember them like this. New Rihanna on the radio, summer brimming new. Kicking the dirt up, messing my new shoes. Me, switching my hair from one shoulder to the next; a boy, telling me if I just closed my eyes, I could be anywhere I wanted to be. Oh, I just had to listen.

Roma settlement in Grigny
Roma settlement in Grigny — June 26, 2017. The controversy of an informal settlement rests in its violation of a land-owner’s right to his personal property. A government expulsion results in a breakdown of local networks for settlement residents, as they are relocated to far places. Therefore, children are no longer able to continue school, public addresses necessary to enroll in job search programs are lost, and those in need must find new medical centers.

The team reserved Mondays to visit Roma camps, filling out questionnaires used for internal data. Each camp was different. In Stains, the brush covered fences. Most people worked as gardeners. We spent thirty minutes trying to find an entrance. Cherry trees surrounded us while raspberry bushes blessed our feet. We grabbed fistfuls of grapes straight from the bush and spat seeds with no aim. Fresh and warm, they tasted like the sun. We sucked on mint leaves while small cats pressed by along us. The residents, who lived in shanties separated by fences, seemed quieted by our presence, in observation. Most children were in school, a rarity, and when they came back to the shanties one by one, mid-afternoon, they greeted us with slight bonjours. A boy leaned into a crack of the fence and shared a bag of Lays Barbecue with his neighbor, another boy of the same age. A woman plucked cherries from the tree and placed them in the cat bowl. When we left the brush, we stopped by an older woman’s residence, planks of wood nailed tightly together. She waited for her grandchildren to come home from school. She pretended not to see us while her husband answered our questions regarding his job, children, and immigration status. Her house was next to a beehive. The bees came and went while she fanned herself.

As anyone who dreams knows, the dream feels unconscious of the dreamer. It is, instead, imposed. Agency is erased, as dreamers, though subjects, do not know the rules they are subjected to. They are unable to run when they need to escape. They are confronted with unknown objects that elicit fear or restraint. Both the dream and the dreamer, however, hold agency in this scenario, as the dreamer is gifted with the power of subjectivity, the dream with contextual knowledge. But in the dreamer’s involvement with his own fear, self-searching, and relentless classification as victim or consumer, the possibility that the dream, too, may have a dream is often lost to him. Though Morrison in her work framed American whiteness as the dreamer and American blackness as the dream, analyzing the contradictions and narrative formations of canonical white writers, I believe her truest sympathy lay with the dream’s dream, the subjective real or aspirational experiences of being black. And if Paris is the dream — a place where no census data on ethnicity is collected, where the white mayor in May condemned an Afro-feminist festival by stating “anti-racism is a movement which seeks to go beyond race,” where affirmative action is described in most political contexts as positive discrimination, where most Roma integration projects utilize the term “normal” to describe its goals — the dream’s dream is France itself, a unified interpretation of national culture regardless of colonial histories or ethnic identities. And it seems, to the American in Paris, that this goal is achieved, as white women clutch onto black men on motos, black women kiss white men on apartment balconies. A friend of mind noted a natural hair culture among black women in Paris; another, the popularity of Ghanaian robes. White men sport dreadlocks. Black men wear button downs on casual Friday nights. But these interpretations are, again, projected by the dreamer. The personal, political, and historical context from which an American’s thoughts derive meaning — where Rastafari movements equated locs with pro-black resistance in the public cognizance, where interracial marriage was legalized only fifty years ago, where most black people are not immigrants — is meaningless when attempting to understand the dream. The mistake runs along a similar historical vein as the moment in American mythology when the natives gazed at the pale skin of European explorers and believed it to be a sign of godliness, while Europeans interpreted native kindness as stupidity.

Hemingway Bar in the Ritz Hotel 
Hemingway Bar in the Ritz Hotel — June 13, 2017. This bar’s claim to fame is its original inhabitants, Americans of the Lost Generation. I went with a friend from a writing program we attended when we were in high school. I hadn’t seen her in four years. The encounter was lovely, but there were multiple ghosts in the room.

A friend and I, after dinner, stumbled across a carnival and stayed until 1AM rushing to the Ferris wheel, sausages, and claw machines. On the top of the ride you could see everything — statues, rooftops parties, churches. We chipped in one euro each for cotton candy and ended up sick within the first minute. I’m too old for this, I said, and he agreed. We walked into a boutique together once, and the lady working the counter thought we were siblings. I told him that it was just the one-sixteenth Chinese blood he had running through him. You look as Mexican as ever, I said, the Latino boys will still want you. He was from Peru. I told him about the time when I first started interning, and a girl asked me where I was from. I told her I was from America, and she shook her head, asking where I was from originally, to which I said I was born in America. My friend looked confused. I told him that in the United States, to ask where an Asian person is really from implied that an Asian person couldn’t be American. He asked me if I was ashamed. No, I said, it’s just that I am American, I was born in America. So just because you were born in America, he said, means that you can negate the fact that your family has thousands of years of history in China? One of the strategies of the platform I worked with was to say basic phrases like “hello” and “thank you” in Romanian. What if you went to Siberia, my boss asked me, and someone just said “hello” to you? Wouldn’t it feel great? The world would feel so small, wouldn’t it? I laughed. Sure, I said.

Not all camps were as quiet as the one in Stains. In reality, the group I was with was difficult to trust. The majority of us were outsiders, and the promises we made seemed all unoriginal, conservative, and unrealistic. A job, any job; a house, anywhere. School for your children; health insurance. Simple enough for a Frenchman, who was guaranteed these rights from birth, by effort of his ancestors, by virtue of his history. But for a people who had never belonged one place or another, whose culture had been actively suppressed by previous assimilationist strategies, who had been refused by each society he arrived at, who had no conception of rights, especially applied to himself? To be free in body but not mind, that was the question. We went to one camp in Poissy, early June before school in France had ended. At lunch time, the kids mixed in with adults. Girls cooked with their mothers while men played Legos with boys. An older teenager taught a younger one how to ride a bike. None of the children went to school. When we entered the men gathered around us. The women led the children away. Our presence, as a semi-governmental body, was troubling to them. They did not know how we found them.

The day in Poissy jammed into the afternoon, and we sat on bed mattresses, counting the hours until the men decided whether to trust us or not. A teenage boy handed me a Coke, then whispered to the social workers. The whole camp laughed. You could help him, a social worker translated, by marrying him. If you just sign a couple of papers. The social worker leaned in, winked, then said, he says he’ll take good care of you. I smiled slightly and took a swig of Coke. Professor N. Gregory Mankiw once announced to our introductory economics class that a possible explanation to rising levels of income inequality in the United States was assortative mating, in other words, everyone’s wish to marry up. Rich people marry rich people; poor people marry poor people. The implication: there wasn’t much a government program could do about that phenomenon, was there? The liberal crowd of college freshmen shifted in their seats. The finger was pointed. Our illusion of our own innocence had eroded. We were also complicit in the systemized continuation of inequality. Oh, I thought. I didn’t need a Harvard professor to tell me that.

In 2010, Sarkozy authorized a crackdown on Roma settlements after violent altercations between Roma youth and police officers that July, resulting in the active demolition of numerous settlements housing nearly a thousand Roma residents. There are few ethnic minorities that challenge the vision of French coherency as the Roma, who live nomadically, settle amongst themselves outside of French government housing, are characterized consistently as Europe’s outcasts, and generally do not speak French. The political framework regarding this crackdown was a protection of the most coveted French right, the right to private property, akin to an American’s freedom of expression. A settlement, always occurring in land that was not the residents’ own albeit mostly with the knowledge of the landowner, is a permanent and systematic trespassing, a violation of this right. The strategy committed to by the government is equally systematic, expensive evacuations that involve heavy police force, fire, and violent removal of families. The residents were then sent back to Romania after pocketing $380 worth of compensation by the government. For the most part, the residents returned back to France within a couple of weeks, settling merely meters away from where they were originally evicted, an unsurprising result to everyone but the French. While devastating to the government, most of my coworkers, Romanian immigrants, found the story amusing, especially since, for the most part, the government still utilizes the same model regarding the resorption of settlements. France had seemed like a child, subjective to a fault, shocked when its idealism failed. And in a way, the political story seemed poetical in its nationalism, as the country favored one Frenchman’s right to his property over an alien’s human right to shelter, believed deportation with compensation instead of consequence would keep the aliens away, and forgot that the aliens were human enough to come back for what was, in their minds, rightfully theirs. That September, government memos leaked to French press that ethnically-based Roma settlements had been primary targets of Sarkozy’s initiative. The French dream of non-ethnic, post-race nationalism had cracked.

I often rode out to St-Denis, a Paris suburb, for work some days, and when I got out of the train station, I saw the central plaza, filled, almost exclusively, with black people. Black men selling two-euro melons and three-euro cartons of cherries and two-euros-if-you-buy-Madame packs of apples. Black women holding the hands of black children. Black girls grasping the handles of Zara bags filled with bargains. Black boys grilling corn and beef on shopping carts, selling them for one a pop. They look, I told my roommate in Boston, a similar shade. No mixing here. Once in late March she popped into my room and asked me if I thought the slave traders picked all the Africans off from the same regions, if some tribes were left unaffected. How genetically similar am I, she asked, to the tribe I came from? I told her it didn’t matter because somewhere along the line, she’d been mixed, a product of systematic rape or the fact that the slaveowners didn’t care about having slaves from all the same tribe in Africa. She looked at me with disgust. I’m not stupid, she responded, before walking out. She called to me through the wall that separated our rooms — “you can enjoy your unmixed one-hundred-percent Chineseness now” — to which I laughed a bit. We were both Christians. My dad converted to Rastafari once before he decided it was just a phase, she said. My dad moved to Newark and converted to connect to his Missouri-ness, I said. There were too many black people, she responded. I smiled and shook my head. God. One Saturday in Paris I had coffee with a black American expat who told me that in Paris you learn that your race doesn’t have to be the core, the center, of your identity. You can be French first, she said, even if you live in St Denis. In America, race was the lingual backdrop of every story. The language was so rich that if you recounted an event, color did not need to be specified. Another point the expat told me: there was a difference, in France, between your public and private opinions, the ones you voted on because they were good for society, and the ones you believed because you were human, and therefore, flawed. Americans wore our hearts on our sleeves, which was both our charm and our fallacy.

Madame once asked me if I was surprised when I arrived to learn she was black. I hadn’t been; I’d looked her up on LinkedIn. I was surprised, though, when she asked the question, because I hadn’t realized a French person would struggle with the connotations of her blackness. Paris was always viewed as the haven in the black American imagination, and for good measure, since many figures, stars, and words were placed in the city. “They love us,” a quotation in an Elle magazine article stated. She often repeated to me that kind people were kind regardless of their locality or skin color. I figured her repetition was a projection of sorts, of previous judgments passed onto her as an immigrant or black woman; or judgment she passed onto others, which could only be, as all judgments are, a learned mechanism of survival. I knew all Americans were composed of both — it was the driving force of our politics, hatred, and communities. Later, she confirmed my suspicions, stating at dinner that it was difficult being a black woman anywhere, that she, like my mother often told me, always had to prove herself and track her steps. It was a familiar conversation because I was American. I had not realized that it was also a French one.

Romanian camp in Poissy
Romanian camp in Poissy — June 8, 2017. A small camp, the members were close-knit, as a family. Floors were created and swept. Blue plexiglass formed the walls and was mounted by movie posters within. Orange juice and sugared black coffee were offered to visitors. They set up a speaker system to blast Romanian music for dancing on weekend nights. As with many camps I visited, my memories here are full of kindness and life.

I identified two dreams in support of Morrison’s classification. The first: a conception of beauty. The second: an active prop-up, often deluded, often selfish. The classic interpretation of interracial love in an Asian American context often goes as such. The yellow woman, in pursuit of becoming a white woman, who acts as a paragon, falls in love with a white man. The white man, in pursuit of dominance, falls in love with a yellow woman, the Western symbol of submission. The pair lasts as long as both roles are maintained, until the yellow woman recognizes insecurity in her lover, which she associates with the yellow man, or a white man recognizes insolence in his lover, which he associates with the white woman. This moment is when the crack of the second dream results in destruction of the first. The story is rarely true; it is simply a fable. It is often used as an explanation for a yellow man’s emasculation, so it is, in effect, a projection. A dream is as inflexible as an illusion. Its persistence depends on how much one’s identity is composed of such illusions, since it is a survival mechanism to make sense of one’s environment. A marriage is more likely to last than a memory.

Two days after Independence Day, a boy from my home town, missing since April, was found dead in Olympia National Park. The story: he’d packed his bags, left for a hike, and never came back. The boy was white, which, in my town, meant I never knew him. Our most intimate connection was a shared kindergarten classroom. I scrolled through his Facebook page. He had lived in Washington State after graduation. He loved to hike. In the last photos he shared, the mountains seemed an extension of the clouds, blank. A friend posted a Jon Krakauer quote on his timeline. Another wrote three words: “please come home”. His world was separate from mine, which seemed a tragedy, since we shared a town, especially now that he was dead. The day before I left for Paris, I had coffee with a friend. I told her that maybe the only way people ever understood each other was through abstraction, that we imagined others not as they imagined themselves, but as they fit into our systems of being. Each attempt at empathy was an expansion of the mental territory in which we were king. So you don’t understand people, I said, you just understand different parts of yourself. She looked bored. Well the way you put it,she said, anything constructed is a dream. She stirred the sugar in. Even memories, she said. The question she seemed to want to ask: and where does that leave us? In check, I wanted to answer.

Scrolling through the boy’s timeline, it became evident that I was observing something intimate because it had passed and was now consecrated, the sights he saw, the monuments of his life. It seemed a good way to confront him post-mortem, in his own image, as humans regarded God. After, I hopped on the train to Versailles. The sky was cotton gray. The ride was long but easy; I just had to look out the window. I passed by clusters of petite red roofs and soft narrow trees. I zipped through men playing soccer on large fields and elegant fresco on train stops. I thought of my parents. The summer before college we went on a road trip through Chinese mountains in a big white van, reserved for my father’s research. We passed by temples, wildflowers, and holy grounds; our hotels were infested with crickets. Simple men and women cooked potatoes on the streets and sold them for half a nickel. I looked, if not foreign, like an urbanite. Little girls came up to me and pointed at my newly chosen wedges. I twirled for them in my dresses, watched them giggle. I let them braid my long thick hair. I slept next to my mother every night. The days had blended into each other, and the trip felt endless, endless. I was relieved when we made it to the airport. I was ordinary in the city.

When the train stopped at Versailles I followed the crowd. There were many Americans — it was Bastille Day — and the cobblestone was cruel on my feet. The air was clean. I passed by a brassière, and realizing I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, I sat down while a waiter waved me in. The outside tables were windy; people’s maps had blown over and the family next to me, Americans, read fun facts about France on their phones. Upon realizing I was young and alone, the waiter gave me a small bowl of crème brûlée, stating, here you go, princess, and I laughed. To be 20, beautiful, in Paris, he said, you must love it, please, tell me you do. I thanked him and assured him I did. It was his job to make France grand for Americans, to have them believe that in France, they were more charming, more eloquent, more complete versions of themselves. To fall in love with this country, that was the game. To fall in love with yourself in this country, oh, that was the kick.

The palace was colorful, like a man-made world. The garden gates closed at 5:30PM, and it was 5:31PM. I wandered to the palace’s side, down the difficult, uneven streets. The pink sides of houses contrasted with sophisticated, curled balconies. The streets were barren, except for the occasional waiter setting up a restaurant before dinner time. Lamps huddled to the sides of buildings, unassuming but remarkable. The town felt ghostly. It was a town meant to be seen but not inhabited. In the hurried decades before the French Revolution, when King Louis XIV moved out of Paris and to Versailles, he had meant for the city to become his new home. He had Paris in mind. This town was supposed to be Paris but entirely his, not also inhabited by rebels, by commoners. The King wished to walk through streets without criticism. He did not want to sacrifice decadence. But Versailles never became Paris precisely because it was too personal — too extravagant and removed from the City of Light. The town was a ghost town because it was the materialization of a dream. It was like a love story without the context that framed love as the sole motivation. But walking in the King’s dream, even for an evening, felt like peace. Because the town was lonesome, meaning left my body. No one responded to its existence, which was, maybe, the significance of this haven.

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Christina Qiu

Published 7 years ago

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