WHOA – Celia Debonnet

March 23, 2022

Portrait of a person

My name is Celia Debonnet. I’m a Business Management Economics major, and I studied in UCEAP’s University of Bordeaux program in France during Fall 2022. Studying away as an American raised in a French family, with predominantly Korean features, was both an illuminating and frustrating experience. Having grown up in the cultural melting pot of Los Angeles, where people generally understand that appearances don’t always reflect nationalities, it came as quite a shock when I arrived in France that assumptions are often made due to stereotypes and prejudice. 

Having grown up in a relatively broken family where money was never a comfortable topic, the first stereotype I encountered, which was a bit disappointing, was that all Americans are rich. The funny thing about stereotypes is that they often do not present themselves openly. For example, I didn’t immediately catch on that people assumed I was rich because I was American and thought perhaps I was coming off a bit pretentious because of the way I dressed or perhaps my manners. It was hidden in comments such as, “You eat out a lot,” “Your family must have a lot of money if they moved to the states from France,” “Everyone has a car in the states,” and finally, “Americans are always buying drinks and eating out” which made me realize that Europeans have many assumptions about who Americans are. However, due to my French family background and feeling like an outsider in the United States, I thought I was the exception to these stereotypes. It couldn’t possibly have been me they were talking about. On top of that, it almost felt like a slap in the face to my family and me, who had had countless dreams shut down due to a lack of financial stability. Growing up, my friends were often afforded opportunities that I was not, though we both merited, due to financial reasons. In addition to this, a part of my identity that set me apart from other Americans was that I was French. It was when I noticed their isolation of me, although I had always thought that we shared the same culture, that I realized how out of place I truly was.

Another huge culture shock for me was realizing how people in France treat Asian women. Though I never felt culturally Asian, since the parent that caused me to be 50% Korean was not present in my upbringing, I understood that people would assume I identified as Asian due to my appearance. However, living in LA heavily softened this effect in comparison to how I was treated in France. I am lucky enough to be fluent in French due to my mother’s teachings during my upbringing, but I do present a bit of an accent. My accent and Korean-mixed appearance lead people to often assume I am from an Asian country. Among friends, this was never a serious issue beyond the awkward correction that I do not in fact know how to cook “Chinese pasta” from scratch, which was their common name for Japanese Instant Ramen, and that I also do not watch anime without subtitles. It was due to the street harassment I experienced in France that I realized how prevalent the disrespect for specifically Asian women was in France. 

On my first night in Bordeaux when I arrived alone in the country, itching to get out and embrace my new cultural identity, I decided to go out to town and get to know the city. That was one of the first of many encounters with street harassment. I had grown up in LA initially, where street harassment was common and a young girl such as myself seldom felt safe walking alone so I thought I had experienced the worst of it. I didn’t think illustrious France could possibly be any worse. Naive, due to lack of forewarning and my own assumptions, that night I was followed for four blocks by a man I didn’t know, approached by groups of men asking to pay for my company for the night, and lastly called a “Chinese wh*re birthed by a prostitute” by a man offended that I did not respond to his vulgar advances towards me. None of this was provoked, not even eye contact was made with a single man. It was not until discussing with other Asian presenting women in France that I realized this was due to the hypersexualization of Asian women in European culture. I wish I could say I became a revolutionary and solved the issue of street harassment for Asian women for the incoming students to come, but quite honestly, I just became desensitized. I learned to adapt to the culture around me, rather than try to change it. I learned not to walk around alone past a certain hour, found sisterhood in other women, and realized the community around me had ways to prevent harassment from these men. It is not to say that this was a part of the culture within France that I necessarily embraced, but what was once a barrier for me became a managed issue, which is an important lesson that I learned by living in a foreign country. Even with the constant harassment that followed, I do not regret moving to Bordeaux and even decided to continue living here while taking my remaining UCSC courses online.

There are always going to be barriers that put you into uncomfortable situations, but if you can find a way around those barriers, you can start to enjoy the opportunities that come with a new experience. Without putting myself in a new environment and accepting the negative parts that came with the good, I might have never experienced having my first serious relationship, falling in love again with a sport I had given up since high school, and realizing that I could create a happy life for myself in a place where everything felt foreign and I was truly alone. It wasn’t until I was forced to be alone that I realized who I could have the potential to be without the influential factors of American education, my family, and my own prejudices that I had created for myself. At an age where the possibilities can feel suffocatingly endless and constrictions due to age, money, and individual circumstance feel equally heavy; I highly implore anyone who seeks clarity of who they want to be in the upcoming future to take advantage of global learning and to study in a place that they would have never initially dreamed they could possibly live.