Brown in the City of Light

In 5. Political, The Art of Travel, Paris by Saransh1 Comment

Sometimes, I feel as though the mere act of existing in Paris as a person of color is political. I do not fit in. I am brown, like a piece of burnt toast, adorned with cavernously sunken in eye sockets and an unmistakably foreign visage. Although my bright hazel-green iris’ conform to European aesthetic standards, my beard, in the way that it molds my countenance, betrays my expatriotism upon first glance. Sure, France is multicultural, laying claim to the title of the most visited country in the world—still, when mixing in with locals, the insidious distinction between the archetypal French citizen and “the others” becomes all too clear.

My mom told me to shave before I moved here. Although I am Indian, and not, in fact, of Arabic origin, she believed that my ethnic ambiguity could result in me being profiled, targeted, or even attacked. Despite (or perhaps as a result of) the fact that Islam is the second most widely professed religion in France behind Christianity, recent years have seen a notable rise in Islamophobic activity in the wake of terrorist incidents such as the November 2015 Paris Attacks. Four years ago, France was on the precipice of electing a woman who has been dubbed “the Donald Trump of France” into the highest seat of office. The very crux of her political rhetoric was her extolment of patriotism against globalism; evidently, she believed that the two notions are fundamentally opposed. Her contentious platform included a strong emphasis on anti-immigration policies and a proposed return to the glorious mythical era of an infallible and pure French empire. Her preliminary success during election season and the continued reflection of her values in certain facets of French society indicate that she was, and is, not alone in her resistance to “the others’” so-called penetration of her country.

Although my mother’s fears were corroborated by a close friend of mine who grew up in Paris, I remained optimistic and decided to leave my facial hair unperturbed once I arrived in the city. There is a useful French word for this naive hopefulness—fantasmer: to glorify or romanticize in one’s head. As my beard has grown, so has my awareness of the new kind of attention I am garnering and the context that surrounds this nefarious dynamic.

I can never tell if I am actually being looked at as a foreign specimen or if I am merely being paranoid, a universal dilemma that any person of color can relate to. I have tried to ignore the fleeting stares—on the metro, in the grocery store, while traversing city streets. I have tried to ignore my Spoken French teacher’s automatic insistence on involving me everytime Indian food is mentioned in my class. I have tried, too, to ignore the looks of surprise from locals when French sentences roll smoothly off of my tongue. Each time, I hope that their reactions are borne out of the fact that I am an American, a tourist, a student. But deep down, I know that I am combatting another, more deeply embedded societal stereotype with my adoption of their language.

In other instances, my singularity in French crowds is not protected by such subtlety. While going through the security line at Orly airport before a trip to the South of France last weekend, I noticed an officer eyeing me up and down as I chatted with my travel companions. Sure enough, once I passed through the metal detector, he pulled my bag aside and beckoned me to come over. This was not the first time that this has happened to me—I have previously had my luggage held for inspection in both China and the United States, each time without a clear impetus. This instance was no different. The officer rummaged his way through my carefully organized duffel bag, deconstructing my meticulous packing job without a semblance of restraint. First, he went through my toiletries. Then, he sifted through my underwear and my clothing. Eventually, my loose items fell prey to his surveillance. Slowly, but surely, he unpacked my entire bag, the security line around us serving as an audience. As I predicted, I had done nothing wrong. Still, he concluded our interaction with a final, condescending assertion of power: “Next time, be more careful with how you pack.”

I want to believe that it was just coincidence. But as a brown individual in the city of light, I am no fool.

To be frank, I do not spend the majority of my time in France thinking about my identity as a person of color; instead, I like to focus on the amazing opportunities I have been lucky enough to experience whilst abroad, like soaking in landscapes plucked directly from iconic impressionist paintings, or practicing my favorite language in a culture I’ve admired for so many years, or being able to hone a sense of courageous individuality like never before. Of course, each moment in which I feel plucked out from the bunch stings in a special way. But that is simply the reality of being different, and as I enter my twentieth year of existence, I am well acquainted with the sensation.

France gave up its last colony only 56 years ago. The age of imperialism is not merely a relic of the remote past, but rather, a strain which persists contemporarily. Within a political sphere that threatens to reject my right to be here, I can only hope that I continue to rise above.

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(Image: Darkness and Light in Versailles; Source: Saransh Desai-Chowdhry)


  1. Hello Saransh! I really enjoyed your blog. Your story was really interesting and moving and I cannot imagine how awkward and uncomfortable it may seem for you at times. I am Asian myself and even I have moments where I feel racial discomfort when I become the minority of a group. I find it very empowering that you decided to live with your facial hair; that is a very confident decision to make especially under your circumstances. I hope that your pride will grow further so you can embrace your cultural heritage as an Indian to an even higher degree. I look forward to reading your later blogs!

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