WHOA – Fiona Lee

May 11, 2022

Portrait of a person

My name is Eunseo Fiona Lee (she/her/ella) and I am pursuing a double major in Politics and Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism. I studied away in UCEAP’s University of Bordeaux program for my sophomore year and went on to participate in UC Center Sacramento (UCCS) and UC Washington Center (UCDC) in the following years.

My year in France was my first time in a country outside of the United States besides South Korea, where most of my family still lives. As a 1.5 generation Korean-American immigrant, I grew up learning languages at home, and it stuck with me throughout my academic career as one of my biggest interests. I decided to study abroad in France because I have a love for travel, a thirst for new experiences, and a desire to improve my French, which I had been taking since high school. Learning Korean as a child, I acutely understood that language immersion is one of the most effective tools for acquiring new languages, which convinced me to study away. 

I chose Bordeaux, a port town in the south of France, over Paris because I wanted to avoid the tourist feel for a more authentic experience, and lived with a French host family for my first semester. It was definitely difficult to adjust to certain things in France. Although very diverse, the normalization of the huge range of ethnicities, cultures, and languages present in America was close to nonexistent in France outside of Paris. I was viewed as an outsider, a Chinese visitor rather than an American, despite living in Bordeaux for months. I did experience racist incidents, especially towards the end when I had to leave France and end my program early due to the COVID19 pandemic. Even prior to the pandemic, many people would assume I was Chinese, and men catcalling me on the street would say “Nihao” at least once a week. Fast forward to the pandemic, I was given wide berths on the metro; the catcallers were now throwing insults at me and my Vietnamese friends for being “diseased.” We were even refused service and entry to some establishments. The racial hate was much more terrifying to experience than the sexualization, as occasionally drunk men would follow us for several blocks at night shouting insults and we genuinely feared for our safety. 

Racism and sexism can definitely be terrifying to experience living in a new country. I would say that I experience both daily in America in a more complex, systemic manner, whereas in France, the homogeneity in ethnicity and race made it a much simpler, straightforward matter of status quo. They share the unfortunate hypersexualization of Asian women, which I experienced firsthand. The racist and sexist encounters I lived through were indeed awful, but I want to emphasize that they did not take away from the good experiences that I gained.

Once I began befriending the other non-American international students in my class (there were few POC in my cohort), racism and sexism became easier to overcome. I made a tight-knit group of friends with Vietnamese girls who were living together as they studied at different institutions. They had been living in France before I arrived, and taught me things like which Asian grocery stores were available, and which were the cheapest. It was wonderful having community and we cooked each of our own cultures’ foods for one another. We bonded over the cultural similarities, differences, and struggles. Once I found a community, I finally felt like I had a real life in France. Of course, it also helped that for my second semester one of these friends helped me find an apartment to rent on my own. I loved living with my host family, but living in a family household with 3 elementary-aged kids after rooming in a college dorm was hard to get used to. Experiencing authentic French home-cooked meals was an absolute treat, but moving out meant I also had more autonomy over my meals and privacy to decompress. It was my first time living alone and it was such an amazing experience thanks to the support from friends that I had around me.

When traveling as a group, my friends and I experienced quite a bit of racism, compared to when I was traveling with my white cohorts from California. However, it was through these friends that I also found a community that helped me get through the challenges of living so far from home. For anyone wanting to study abroad but fear being alone or being lonely, I highly recommend that you put yourself out there and do it! If not to make amazing friendships internationally, it is an opportunity to grow and learn about yourself. 

I’m a firm believer that people grow the most when they are forced out of their comfort zones. Living in France taught me to be independent, trust, and appreciate myself. Taking the Flixbus, booking cheap flights, and staying in youth hostels overnight, I traveled to Paris, Barcelona, London, Amsterdam, Porto, and Lisbon mostly on my own! If it hadn’t been for the pandemic cutting my second semester short, I’m sure that I would have had plenty of other future destinations. 

The early end of my program and the pandemic have taught me that opportunities to travel and study away like UCEAP are invaluable and once-in-a-lifetime. I do not have a single regret about my time in France except that it was cut short. If I could go back, I would absolutely do it all over again!