Same, but Different—Finding Home in Paris

Whenever I crave a taste of home or something close to home in Paris, I seek out a Southeast Asian or East Asian restaurant. I am Malaysian Chinese, a confused, hybridized daughter of British Malaya. Chinese food as I know it is very different from what I can find here. Nevertheless, beggars can’t be choosers.

Same, but different.

One restaurant that I keep going back to is located ten minutes away from New York University Paris, where I take classes. I am a regular customer at lunchtime.

“Ni hao, bonjour!”

I pushed open the glass door and Mr. Wei greeted me from his usual spot behind the glass counter, which divides the small space in half. A man in his forties, he manages the restaurant alongside his family and two or three staff members.

He moved to Paris from Zhejiang, China, over thirty years ago. Seventeen then, he was very much in love with his childhood sweetheart, the now Mrs. Wei. They have known each other since they were six. Mrs. Wei only comes to the restaurant on Sundays, Mondays and public holidays. She manages a luxury handbag shop two hours away from Paris. The couple looks like what people back home would call, in Malay, “a betel palm fruit split in neat halves”, bagai pinang dibelah dua. In other words, they match perfectly. They share the same warm demeanor that will make you drop your guard willingly.

The space is dimly lit by two glass chandeliers. An earnest effort had been made to decorate the restaurant. The result is an awkwardly charming juxtaposition of European and Chinese aesthetics: still life paintings hang from tiled walls and fake leaves cascade from the red pillars, while Chinese porcelain and Buddhist statues sit humbly on the wall racks.

“Many Paris Sorbonne students had their first dates here. Sometimes they come back years after to reminisce. Paris is a romantic city, after all.”

Five months in and I have felt little of the romance. My dating experiences? The first one was an Italian café owner who compared me to a “Chinese factory worker who makes iPhones in a sweatshop.” The second one was a French IT student who joked that I reared cats to eat them. The third one was a Moroccan Jewish real estate manager who said that he was allowed to make racist jokes about me because he was part of, I quote verbatim, “the most persecuted peoples on earth.”

Acts of microaggression like these chipped away at my mental health, like a constant stream of water dripping onto a rock, slowly but steadily. Homesickness began to infect my mind. It was a symptom of feeling constantly misunderstood. There were other problems besides those men as well, like my inadequate French which rendered everyday tasks, from doctor visits to grocery shopping, a constant struggle.

A month into my stay in Paris, I started looking for comfort in anything remotely East and Southeast Asian. I explored Franco-Chinese bookstores to look at comic book characters drawn with facial features like mine. I took long walks in Porte de Choisy to eavesdrop on fragments of conversations in Mandarin, Thai, Cantonese and Vietnamese. And then, of course, there were the Asian restaurants.

I confided in Mrs. Wei once, “I started coming here because I was homesick.”

“Come here whenever, you’re always welcome.”

I looked up from my food. Her expression was not one of sympathy, but genuine understanding. Homesickness—it was something matter-of-fact. She knew the yearning.

She empathized because of our shared ethnicity, and as a result, shared experiences. But I felt undeserving—I thought of all the times I emphasized the Malaysian in Malaysian Chinese, all the ways I tried asserting my Southeast Asianness by denying my East Asianness.

Same, but different.

I tried explaining it to a friend once:“It’s like we still keep a lot of the Chinese culture, but we have no ties or loyalty to mainland China anymore.” I don’t think she understood. I am a third-generation immigrant. During the British occupation, many ambitious young people from the provinces of Fujian and Kwangtong were seduced by the promise of job opportunities in Nanyang, or The Great Golden Peninsula. Hundreds of thousands sailed in by steamships, each nursing a little flame of hope. My maternal grandfather was one of them.

“I had nothing on me but an extra set of clothes,” he had told us on Chingming festival ten years ago. An annual event, Chingming is a day of remembrance–  of people who had passed, and of things the family had seen. I remember his back bent with the weight of history, sitting on the side of the large tomb of my great-grandmother. We scattered colored papers on her grave and burnt fake cash as offerings. My grandfather held my hands as I held incense sticks, and we prayed for me to be “good and obedient.”

When he passed away, our last ties to China died too. He was the only person who still knew anyone back there. He left my uncles an old but functioning coffee factory, an expired Nanyang dream, like the blurred, yellow photographs of the unknown relatives he left behind. We know nothing of them.

The same empathy I found in Mrs. Wei that day, I had experienced a few weeks back. It was lunchtime and I stumbled upon a store half the size of Mr. Wei’s at the corner of the famous Place Maubert farmer’s market. The owner was a sixty-odd-year-old man from Kwangtong. We could not decide on a language to communicate with. He didn’t know Mandarin and I knew little Cantonese. My French was inadequate, his English was fragmented, leaving our interaction riddled with hand signs and hesitations.

As he turned to heat up my takeaway box in the microwave, I caught a glimpse of my paternal grandmother, who used to cook lunch on the sticky stove when I came home from school, mumbling to herself in Hokkien, the family dialect. It is a language that I never had the chance to master, as my parents only spoke Mandarin to my sister and I. They wanted to make sure that we would not be left behind in the globalizing job market. My grandmother is senile now, and she does not speak Mandarin anymore. Our phone conversations have become increasingly basic since she started losing her memory.

The restaurateur from Kwangtong caught me mid-thought when he asked, “Baguettes?”

“Pardon?” (Sorry?)

“Baguettes ou couverts?” (Baguettes or cutlery?)

He was holding bamboo chopsticks in one hand and a pack of plastic cutlery in the other. It was a test of my loyalty. European or Asian? Colonized or Resisting Colonization?

Labels. I needed to claim mine.

But they call chopsticks baguettes? The classic stick of French bread? I could see the resemblance, je pense. But the scales do not match. The bread is many times larger than the chopsticks, of course. But also, a stick of bread? To describe the familial bliss at Lunar New Year’s Eve at grandma’s, tossing Yee Sang with chopsticks while exchanging blessings for the new year? A stick of bread, to describe a shared heritage between East and Southeast Asian peoples, and the conflicts and relationships between them? A stick of bread, to describe all the times white women violently jumbled up “oriental” aesthetics, stuck chopsticks into their neat little hair buns as finishing touches, and in their delicate, blameless glory paraded around at themed parties? A stick of bread, to describe entire traditions and taboos of several eating cultures across oceans and diasporas?

The baguette was a plain stick of bread that hurt my jaw, whereas the chopsticks were my political statement that afternoon, in that tiny shop.

Same, but different.

But I was talking about empathy.

The restaurateur from Kwangtong asked me how much French I knew. “Uhh… un petit peu. Je suis en train de l’apprendre… lentement” (Uhh… a little bit. I am learning it… slowly.)

“Ah,” he nodded. Just like that. No irritation like the receptionist at my gynecologist’s when I stumbled over words to make an appointment. No condescension like the French boys who thought my struggle cute, and would not stop correcting my pronunciation. No anxiety like whenever I was in line at the boulangerie, planning the words to say that I knew would come out wrong.

A matter-of-fact “ah”. It meant the world to me.

I did not meet Mrs. Wei until my fourth month in Paris. It was a Sunday, I remember, because Sundays at the Wei’s are family days, when. They gather for family lunch at the restaurant. I bumped into Mr. Wei while walking up the slope leading to the restaurant. He greeted me first, holding a takeout package he was delivering.

“You’re headed to the restaurant? The women are here today. I’ll be back in a bit.”

I pushed open the glass door and a middle-aged woman greeted me. The small space was unusually crowded, and I heard an unfamiliar language. I later learnt that it is Wenzhounese, a dialect in Zhejiang.

All the Wei children were there: a young boy played video games on a tablet, mirrored by his older brother who had earphones plugged in, eyes on a phone screen; a young woman of my age was checking the cash register. I noticed she was wearing a modern version of the Qipao, a traditional Chinese dress. She is the daughter Mr. Wei talks about often. She liked the Mandarin language more than her brothers, who preferred to speak French with their parents.

“My daughter won a scholarship to study at Sorbonne. But her friend needed the money more. She could not afford college otherwise. We let her have the money instead.” Nonchalance. A generous act talked of like it was a daily routine.

The Weis’ daughter is a future doctor. To have your child become a doctor is the ultimate Chinese immigrant’s dream. My parents would have loved a future doctor, although they gave me my autonomy to choose. So, they now have a History major with a love for poetry and an uncertain future. My sister though, is studying traditional Chinese medicine in Shanghai. She is rising to become a relative-favorite.

Mrs. Wei took my order and we chatted about her luxury handbag business. I told her that my parents might be visiting this summer. She shared my excitement.

“I can send you my catalogues, and your mom can have the family discount! Half price for some of the bags!”

I was very amused by the thought of my practical mother who has little interest in fashion browsing through a luxury handbag catalog. I switched topics.

“We’ll come here for Chinese food. They’ll get bored of pasta and sandwiches eventually.”

“You can call and let us know if they have any special requests. We can cook up something specifically for them.”

Kindness and empathy. And excellent, excellent customer service. I thought of all the times I have seen Mr. Wei open the doors for exiting customers, most of whom are regulars.

“I am an attentive person, that is why I manage this restaurant quite well,” he told me once. The word “attentive” is an insufficient translation of the phrase he used, “yòng xīn”, which literally translates into “use heart.” To pour all your heart and soul into doing something. To really, really give your best. It was the first lesson I learnt in elementary school. The first time I was hit in class was because my handwriting was messy. It was a light tap on the hand with a ruler. Do better. I remember crying from shame after. But I have been excelling academically ever since.

“As a businessman, I need to be far-sighted. Profit does not come first, treating my customers well does. This value, ‘仁’ (rén), is very important. The first part on the left, ‘亻’ refers to being human. The second part on the right, ‘二’ is the number, two.” The word itself means to treat other people with kindness and empathy. But the composition of the character has a deeper implication.

“‘Rén’ is a two-way street. Both parties are on equal, respectful rounds. The patron and the service provider share a reciprocal relationship. Treat them well, and they will keep your business secure.”

Mr. Wei’s business is very secure. He has a steady flow of regular customers,. some of whom he even has affectionate nicknames for. One of them is an ancient, grey-haired French lady with a walking stick, who sometimes pulls a small shopping trolley bag behind her. Mr. Wei calls her “Mami”. The first time I encountered Mami, it was rush hour. She stood outside waiting expectantly, and upon realizing that Mr. Wei was very busy, walked in. Immediately, she was served. After, she was escorted outside with her takeout box.

I have always been slightly uncomfortable with this “respect” Mr. Wei showed his customers. It reminded me of how my usually vocal mother became quiet at a feminist meeting in English I brought her to, even though she was fluent in English. Or of how I came to adopt the American accent, twisting and contorting my tongue to adapt. I need to conform to be heard. Or of how taxi drivers in Malaysia would be excessively helpful towards white tourists, but dismissive towards the others. Or of how white foreigners were often praised for donning our cultural garbs. The same clothes they shed off and forgot after.

But I could not articulate how these observations strung together.

Same, but different.

I saw Mr. Wei push back. Once.

I was due to return to Malaysia that weekend. I decided to pop by the restaurant, my little safe space, to say goodbye.

They were two French men. The tall, well-built, and imposing type. They wanted some dumplings as starters. “Ravioli poulet?” (Chicken dumplings?) “Oui.”

Later, when the food was served, one of them pointed at the pork dumplings in the glass counter and said that he had ordered those “chicken gyozas” instead. Mr. Wei looked confused. Perhaps purposefully. The man, who was sitting less than two meters away from the glass counter kept trying to point out which dish he was referring to, but Mr. Wei was slow to relent.

“C’est ça?” (“It’s this?”) “Non.” (“No.”) “Ça?” “Non.” “Ça?” “Non.”

The game was delightful but painful to watch. I stepped in. In Mandarin, I declared that the pork dumplings are indeed what the French man wanted. Mr. Wei gave in, but he clarified that they were made of pork, not chicken. Yes, you may have that instead. No, chicken dumplings do not look like that.

The French man was stubborn. “We had chicken dumplings like that at another Asian restaurant yesterday.”

“Those were not chicken dumplings.”

“Are you sure?”

I held my breath.

“Yes. But maybe you went to un restaurant IndoChine. It’s different.” He sounded so patient, but he was looking down, replacing the real chicken dumplings with the faux ones. I could not see his face.

Pride in his food. I respect that.

About two months ago MasterChef UK came under fire when the judges chastised Malaysian contestant Zaleha Kadir Olpin for serving Chicken Rendang that was not crispy. Netizens from Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, and of course, Malaysia went berserk. Rendang is a dish in which the meat is cooked soft in gravy. The claim that it should have a texture anywhere near crispy is absurd.

But of course, for a Malaysian dish to be anything, a Malaysian chef to go anywhere, we needed the recognition of a former colonial power.

Food has always been emotional to the subaltern. Food has always been emotional to the diasporic community. Our rage was justified.

Growing up, I was taught to be non-confrontational. It was cultural. As such, my acts of resistance and solidarity often consist of words in written form, or humble actions, like using chopsticks in posh Paris. With the added challenge of speaking in a second language, I have always found it hard to participate in debates. I recognized the same quiet resilience in Mr. Wei.

One very late night early in the semester, a few of us were sitting in the communal kitchen at my dorm. Someone said something about race. And my white European friend responded defensively, “I wish I was not male and white. I feel like I cannot say anything because of my identity.”

Where do I begin? I had no words, although I felt like swinging a wok onto his face.

My Sudanese friend, the only other person of color in the group, stepped up to the debate. Patiently, she explained white privilege to him, as well as the concept of listening to minorities instead of talking over them.

After an hour of fruitless conversation, it happened. “We should ask Jiun what she thinks, she has been very silent.”

All eyes on me. I could not breathe. All the times I have written against racism threatened to go null in that moment. They will think that I am a faux activist. They will think that I have nothing to substantiate my anger.

They don’t understand how hard it is for me to articulate myself.

I haphazardly put together some words on how I wished racism was not even a debatable topic. But I thought I concluded well. “What is for you an exercise in free speech, is for me a painfully real experience.”

And still he did not understand.

My Sudanese friend and I hugged for a long time after the conversation. “Was I coming on too strong?” she asked. And still she doubted herself. And still she prioritized his feelings.

“No. But at least you knew what to say.”

Same, but different.

There was always a language barrier when Mr. Wei and I conversed. We spoke Mandarin with one another, but our accents and vocabulary differed. I lost about a fifth of what he told me, and vice versa.

“You speak really good Mandarin,” he had said to me on my first visit. Every mainland Chinese I have spoken to had told me the same thing. But I am Chinese too. Yes. Not really. Chinese, but Malaysian Chinese. I grew up speaking a hybrid type of Mandarin—it was the same Chinese words, but pronounced in an accent formed to accommodate the other languages in the mix. Malay, English, Hokkien, Cantonese, Tamil, Mandarin et al. I switch between them in every sentence.

Hence, it took effort to speak in Mr. Wei’s Mandarin, but it was a small price to pay.

I once got lost at Porte de Choisy looking for groceries. The Chinese PhD student who lived on the same floor in my dorm had told me about the supermarket called Tang Frères (Tang brothers). Mr. Wei had mentioned it before. It was where he got all his ingredients.

“The Tangs are your family.” He chuckled. True, I shared their family name.

When Chinese immigrants poured into the Malay Peninsula, then known as Malaya, now known as West Malaysia, the immigration officers had to transcribe their names in the English alphabet. Most of them spoke their respective dialects instead of Mandarin. They did not even identify as “Chinese” back then. Ask them where they were from and they would tell you the titles of specific provinces. The same surnames sounded different in different dialects, and so they were transcribed differently. The same change happened to other Chinese immigrant populations around the world. To complicate things further, different surnames in Chinese would have the same phonetic transcription as well. Hence, there are now different versions of my surname, as well as former family members I cannot recognize.

Tan. Tang. Chen. Chan. Chin.

Same, but different.

I asked for directions from two old women who looked Southeast Asian, in French. They told me to follow them.

And then I heard them spoke my grandmother’s language. They were speaking Hokkien. I had not heard its music for too long.

In my broken dialect, I explained where I came from, and they started to speak to me in Mandarin. But it was not Mr. Wei’s Mandarin. It was my mother’s Mandarin, an accent I had not inhabited in a while. No need to twist my tongue or stiffen my jaw. My shoulders were relaxed. No instinct to assimilate. No fear of being exposed. Mother tongue.

The ease with which I built a rapport with the old ladies in that short walk felt surreal.They were Cambodian Chinese. Hybrids, like I am. Southeast Asians, like I am. We chatted about the absurd price of durian here. They advised me on which brand of rice to buy. I told them I was struggling to cook Malaysian Chinese food here because ingredients were difficult to find. They commented that my mother must be worried about me, living alone in a foreign city. I assured them that I call her often.

“But she’ll know you have eaten well when you go home. You don’t look skinny at all.”

Their bluntness reminded me of home. Of the aunts and uncles who mean well but insult you instead. A comment that would have offended me back home made me feel fuzzy instead, just at that moment.

Same, but different.

My favorite dish at Mr. Wei’s is the poulet au champignon noir (chicken with black mushrooms). The mushrooms are very different from the ones used in European or American cuisines. They are thin and irregularly wavy. Their texture is a mix between rubbery and crunchy when cooked. In Mandarin, it is called Hei Mu Er, which directly translates to “black wood’s ear”, as the fungi tend to grow on trees.

Champignon noir”. Black mushrooms. A translation so violent, it chopped off the wood’s ears. The result is deafness, like my white European friend, like the racist French men I went out with, like the French customers who wanted “chicken gyozas”.

But listen. Mr. Wei had many a fascinating thing to say. Mr. Wei the restaurateur transforms into Mr. Wei the scholar when he is in a chatty mood. He is very well-read, but I don’t think his customers usually quiz him on what he knows about the Chinese dynasties or Babylonian architecture. He found a willing audience in me, and had been an ever-flowing fountain ever since.

On Taoism—

“Cause and effect, and then there is balance. Like the Yin and Yang symbol in Taoism. In Yin, there is always Yang. In Yang, there is always Yin. The Koreans got it wrong, look at their flag. There is no balance.”

On parenthood—

“Parents are everything to their children. The father is like the sky. Whatever comes, he shoulders. He must make his kids feel safe. The mother should be the provider of love and care. Whatever comes, she is there for you. But when you should always teach your children to be independent.”

On Chinese horoscopes—

“I am the Cow. Hardworking and honest. She’s (points to his staff, Ms. Phan) the Dog. Loyal. You’re the Rat. Sharp and smart.”

On history and Buddhism—

“Studying history is a good exercise in learning Buddhism. You learn the cause and effect of things. It’s a mirror of the human condition.”

On theft—

“The West stole many things from us. Like football. We invented football.” He then proceeded to name a list of inventions claimed by the West that I cannot recall.

On the Malay Peninsula—

“You had the Malacca empire. It was a prosperous trade port. It connected the world. Your ancestors were businessmen.”

And then a customer would come in, and our conversation would come to a halt. I did not have time to clarify that my ancestors lived close to his, and that they were farmers instead of traders. But to be honest, I could not be sure. My grandfathers took our family histories to their graves. All of us were trying so hard to assimilate, to succeed in a land where we are still not granted equal rights, that we have forsaken our past. Amnesia. Like my grandmother fading away from my life. My dialect. My East Asianness. Erased slowly. The old photographs. Are they all gone?

My mother once said to me, “When you go overseas, never say that you are Chinese. Say that you are Malaysian Chinese.

Same, but different.

Yet I seek refuge at Mr. Wei’s. When it rains hard in a European city, familiar food is familiar food. I refuse to discriminate.

This piece is part of our Invisible Cities series.

Artwork by Wang Yuping “She eats tomatoes in the dream,” 2006

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