BY DAISY SINGH-GREAVES
NüProfile is a column featuring in-depth conversations with diverse creators working on China subjects.
In France, despite being a country built on ideas of universality and equality, discussing race matters can often be complex. Such complexities are what ignited writer, blogger, director and podcaster Grace Ly to use her voice to bridge these gaps.
Born in France to Chinese-Cambodian parents who fled from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, Ly grew up being confronted with racism and struggled to straddle multiple cultural identities. After practising as a lawyer for some years, she founded her blog, La Petite Banane, in 2011. The blog aims to highlight Asian cuisines and the restaurants of her childhood, explain the subtleties of Asian cultures, and make them more accessible to Parisians. Eventually, she was inspired to write and publish a guide to the 131 best restaurants in Paris’ Chinatown, le Petit livre jaune.
After reconnecting to her heritage through Chinese and Asian cuisine, Ly used her platform to explore questions of cultural identity, and fight against the invisibility of the Asian community in France. She became known for deconstructing racial stereotypes and shining a light on everyday racism, through projects such as as Ça reste entre nous – a web-series giving voice to the French Asian community – and podcast Kiffe ta race which is hosted with journalist Rohkaya Diallo. In 2018, she published her novel Jeune fille modèle, a coming-of-age novel from the voice of a second-generation Asian in France.
In an interview last month, NüVoices spoke to Ly about her work on cultural identity, racism, feminism, and the pertinent issues minority groups in France are currently facing.
You’ve said that writing about Asian food on your blog La Petite Banane facilitated an exploration of your identity. Why do you think there’s a salient connection between food and identity for you?
In my family education, food was everything. And I guess a lot of Asian people can relate. My parents – being immigrants and exiled, and having re-started their life here very low in terms of social class in France – they never said “I love you,” they only said “have you eaten?” The first thing that came to their mind was: is no-one hungry? This is something that I can share with a lot of children of immigrants, and I know we’re in it together. The first thing our parents care about is if we’re hungry, if we’re cold, if we have a roof over our heads. So, I think food was very important when I was little.
They were people of few words, so a lot of things from their culture they gave me through food. They would say: “this is what I ate when I was little, you’re eating the same thing I ate.” When I was eating Chinese food at home, or when I went to a Chinese restaurant with my parents, I knew it was something that connected us. And now, when I cook for my own children or go to restaurants, I know there is something happening when I’m eating Chinese food or Asian food generally – it’s that I’m proud of this connection with my heritage.
I also think that Asian food is something people really remember from travelling in Asia. This is something I’d do for example, I’d travel for food. I remember places I went and I would say: “oh my god the place was really pretty but the food was horrible!” And this is what is remembered. A lot of people here in Europe remember food from visiting Asian countries. They remember what they ate in Thailand, what they ate in Cambodia, what they ate in Vietnam, and I suppose food is part of every culture’s identity. I think even more so here in the west. Asian food is marketed as part of identities in the same way as culture, language and traditions. So yes, food is a very important part of my life and who I am.
Much of your work focuses on combatting stereotypes, including the web series Ça reste entre nous in 2017, aimed at deconstructing tropes specifically targeting members of the French Asian community. What are some of your own experiences of being stereotyped?
Growing up here in France as a French-Asian person, I think I’ve heard it all. “Your food is weird,” “your language is weird,” “everything coming from your culture is weird,” “your parents don’t dress the same way, they don’t talk the same way, they have an accent.” That was during my childhood. My parents had a restaurant. I know a lot of people who had parents with a restaurant, as this was one of the first things people could do when they got to another country – using their culture as a means to earn money. That was something that they could profit off (of), so that’s what they did.
Back then I didn’t see it this way. I felt shame growing up in a mostly white neighbourhood (and) that my parents were different. They were different because they were different from the white people around me. I didn’t see it as enriching to be different, because you don’t see it as rich when anything related to China is negative, (with comments) such as “Chinese are dirty,” “they eat dogs,” etc. All these stereotypes are still present today.
Later on, when I grew into a young woman, I had many objectifying and sexualising ideas projected at me. “Asian women are nicer than the white girls,” “you’re better at cooking” or “you’re better at sex” “you’re more flexible” etc. Or, “you’re prostitutes,” because the prostitute figure is a main recurring character you see in film and books, such as The World of Suzie Wong or Memoirs of a Geisha. These images of Chinese or Asian women being submissive or dedicated to sex was something that really bothered me as a teenager trying to be just a human person. These ideas kept coming at me, and there was nothing I could do about them.
Now being a mother, I suppose there are other stereotypes such as: “you guys are tiger mothers” or “you’re very strict.” Once, I was mistaken for a nanny when I was with my children. For me, it’s so curious that you would think of someone as a nanny when the first thing that should come to mind is a mother, or maybe a big sister. Thinking of someone as a nanny is projecting a vision of a very racialised society. I grew up with a dad and a brother too, and Asian men also have stereotypes projected at them. Such as: “they have a very small penis,” “they’re not masculine” or that “they’re not good enough as men to protect us.” So, I guess all these negative images have always been upon me. It’s only when I started working on them that I could find a way to make them go away at least in my mind, and then hopefully make them go away as a whole in our society.
Through your blog, podcast, book, web-series and articles, you explore topics around race and feminism. How does each form of expression texture your work in different ways?
The way I see it, my work is more like a dialogue. The question is what I want to say, and I think the format comes naturally. When I started my blog, I wanted to say that food contributed to me connecting with my heritage. Blogging came naturally because it was free, and at the time I didn’t want to invest in it. So it was easy and it had a big reach because it was out there. For the web-series, the message was: Why are there so little (East) Asians on French screens, and why is it always the same Asians we see? The point was to showcase different French-Asian people from all horizons. In France, we think of Asians mostly as Vietnamese, Cambodians or people from Laos because they’re the old French colonies. But there are Malaysians here, there are Koreans. There are lots of people who have a link to the Asian continent but don’t have the history of French colonisation with it, and we don’t think of them naturally. So for the web-series, that was the dialogue I wanted to have.
Actually for the podcast with my friend and colleague Rohkaya Diallo – who is a journalist – at first we wanted to go on TV. We thought it was important to see our faces as French people, as non-white hosts, but we didn’t get the TV contract. We did a pilot video that is still available on YouTube called Kiffe ta race, and a podcast company contacted us saying it would be interesting to have this conversation in a podcast format. I didn’t really know what a podcast was at the time, so I started listening to podcasts and thought, yeah, it would work.
Now we think it’s more interesting in a podcast because we talk about race, and our races, but you don’t see the people who are talking so you don’t assume anything. You don’t think: “oh, she’s black so she must be from blablabla…” You have to listen to what is being said, you have to listen to how we define ourselves, how guests define themselves. That’s really interesting because we tend to assume from people’s looks that they’re from somewhere. So, the podcast is really suitable for these conversations about race. And for my novel – I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I was a big reader when I was little and it was my childhood dream, so this format was something that I really wanted to do.
What propelled you to write a book relating to your own experiences?
I wanted to write the book that I wanted to read when I was younger. As a French-Asian person, I had to identify with a lot of works where the main characters didn’t look like me, and didn’t have the exact questioning that I had. I became quite good at identifying myself with other people, and I still identify with people pretty well. But it’s also nice when you can read something that you can relate to in a very direct way. So I guess that’s what the novel came to fill, the void that I had growing up not being able to have a main character in a story that looked like me.
Do you have any advice for people aspiring to write about the diaspora experience?
I think if you want to write, please do. We need more writers, we need more people talking from their experience, and I guess it’s not important what you write about. You can be interested in writing about your experience as a child of immigrants, but you can also write about something else, because your identity will show itself through your writing. We’re all from somewhere, and our parents are all from somewhere, and the stories that we tell will inevitably showcase that. So if you want to write about your experience, write about it, but if you don’t want to write specifically about it, don’t. Because we need all sorts of stories, we need stories about childhood, about immigration, exile – but we also need stories about love, about work, about science fiction, everything. We just need more stories!
What books or films have made an impression on you?
I’ll talk about French books and films because it’s interesting in that I was born here and my experience is here. Actually, there were more books and films that had a bad impression on me growing up, and I had to make do with them. For example, there was a book that was later made into a film which gained a lot of attention and awards called The Lover (L’Amant) by Marguerite Duras, a very celebrated feminist writer. The book made a very bad impression on me. It was set in ex-Indochina, and all the Asian characters were very sexualised. The man – a Chinese man – has no name, his name is “the Chinese” (le Chinois). It was made into a film in 1992 by Jean-Jacques Annaud when I was a teenager. They cast a British-Asian girl who was very young at the time she did the film, but she was so sexualised in the film, half naked all the time.
Seeing just her body out there, being celebrated as a woman’s body in an emancipating way, really made a bad impression on me as I realised that Asians are objectified and sexualised all the time. It was probably very popular to make films about Indochina at the time, as there was another film called Indochina (Indochine) with Catherine Deneuve. It was set in ex-Indochina and Asians were only the decorum. They would die, and they would be a threat to the main characters who were colonial people with power. So all those images as a child, being French, were disturbing.
What are some works that have inspired you?
Later on, I found in books and films other forms of inspiration. For example, I read all the books by Faïza Guène. She’s an Algerian-French novelist, and when I read her books I felt I’d finally found someone who understood. She had nothing to do with me. Her parents came from nowhere near mine, but in a way her experience as a child of immigrants – being French – really echoed in me because it was something that I could relate to. Asian-American literature also really helped. I remember reading Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club in the 90s and I could finally identify with children of Chinese families. Even though they weren’t living in France, they had an experience that was similar to mine, being in a mostly white country.
Since we’re now beginning to see more East Asian and Asian-American films gaining exposure in Hollywood, have you seen a similar increase of diversity in the French film industry?
I have to say that French society is quite blind to racial and feminist issues, and I guess French cinema is even worse than that. In 2020, we gave prizes to Roman Polanski (a director with a history of sexual assaults) here in France. So to say the least, French cinema is not listening to the people, not reflecting what a lot of people are thinking right now – not women, not people from minorities. I think French cinema, just like French society, is blind to what they call “multi-cultural aspects” of society. Things are changing, but it’s long and it’s painful.
We recently had a film by an actor and writer Frédéric Chau – he’s a French comedian of Chinese-Cambodian descent – and his comedy film was called Made in China. We also recently had a film by a French director called JP Zadi, who is black, the film is called Tout simplement noir. So French cinema is changing, but it’s slow. I think it’s harder to make a film than write a book because you need money, you need to be supported by institutions, etc. So French cinema – we’re looking at you!
Your podcast Kiffe ta race with journalist Rohkaya Diallo has created an instrumental space to discuss race and intersectional feminism in France. How did you feel this space was lacking?
I think the image that the French have of themselves is an image of enlightenment, of people who have noble ideas such as human rights. But French mainstream media has not heard the voices of the French people. When we started the podcast Kiffe ta race, what we mainly did was make public conversations we already had in private. As a French-Asian person I talk to my peers every day about what’s happening, conversations that as non-white people and women, we have in private. There wasn’t a public space where we could have these conversations and make them accessible to other people. But when we started, people were like: “Wow but, it’s racist!/It’s racist to talk about race/If you see race you must be the racist person!” And we were like oh my god, so this is where we’re at.
It was 2018 at the time – 2018, and you guys still think that privilege doesn’t exist. I think we’re still there. I don’t think we’ve changed, and I think there’s still space in French media to talk about it. Currently, we’re still very lonely. So please if you have ideas of podcasts, and I know some people have done some since, please do it. Let’s get it moving.
You were a signatory of the collective proposal against anti-Asian racism in France, in response to racist comments by journalist Emmanuel Lechypre during a day of commemoration for COVID-19 victims in Wuhan. What are your thoughts on how media coverage of COVID-19 has impacted Chinese and other Asian communities in France?
COVID-19 has revealed that racism against Asians was rife in France, but it’s not something new. It’s been emphasised ever since the virus has been upon us, but “yellow peril” has always been here. (In) the coverage by French media of Chinese news or anything linked to China, for example sports events, there will always be a comment about sushi or dog or bowl of rice. Even during coverage of the Olympics by French media. During the football world cup of 2018, there was also racial slurring. In France, black football players are still hearing monkey screams in the stadiums, and one of the people who publicly called it out, ex-footballer Lilian Thuram, spoke about it on TV and the French media covered it as “anti-white racism” and “reverse racism,” so this isn’t something new. A lot of French media don’t see their own biases, so they often perpetuate stereotypes and racist ideas inherited from France’s colonial past.
There has been a lot of racism in response to COVID-19 and the way it was covered by French media only made it worse. I think there are two things: What is happening in China and how China is handling the crisis, and how the Chinese/ Asian diaspora communities are doing in France. These are two separate things, but the same bias is coming into play for both. French media has covered the way the Chinese government has been handling the crisis with suspicion, “the wet markets are dirty, their traditions are shady, their labs are handling the crisis but we don’t know if it’s safe, blablabla.” There’s always suspicion that China is not doing the right thing.
I’ve actually noticed that French media use the word China for anything Chinese related, but China and the Chinese government are two different things. Sometimes, the population are the first to suffer from the Chinese government’s politics, and that was the case for COVID-19. This equation between the government and the Chinese population as a whole affect Chinese people here and even non-Chinese, as “Chinese” is often an umbrella term for anybody who is perceived as East-Asian. Reportedly, a French professor called Didier Raoult, who has had a lot of controversy in France, said that Chinese scientists are actually very advanced in terms of virology, but we’re still very suspicious of what they’re doing because it’s China. We call this China bashing – the media bias that sees China as the giant country with all these backwards things happening there.
Have you seen different cultural communities and diasporas in France supporting the international Black Lives Matter movement?
Recently in France, we have had marches against police brutality around Adama Traoré, a Malian-French man who died in 2016 after the police arrested him. And, a lot of French media have been talking about what happened to George Floyd in the US in May 2020, but they will not recognise that what happened to Adama Traoré is also police brutality. There’s a lot of denial in France about racism. This is explained in part by the ambiguity around some of the progressive terms mostly coined in America or the UK. For example, “affirmative action” has been translated into “la discrimination positive,” which basically means that you will discriminate (against) somebody but it’s for the best. Once you introduce just the notion of discrimination, it beats the point of the whole concept of affirmative action, and separates it from its intention.
I know that people who don’t support the Black Lives Matter movement exist in France, but there is nobody I know that doesn’t support it. I think a lot of French-Asian people also support BLM. There was actually a Chinese man who died in the hands of the police in France in 2017 called Liu Shaoyao. He died after the police got into his house, and the policemen who were involved in his death have still not had a trial. His family, his five kids, are still asking for justice for their dad. So, it’s not only black people who are targeted by police brutality.
Obviously because of their history and number, (those perceived as) black and Arab in France are 20 times more likely to be stopped by the police than non-Arabs and non-black. These figures were produced officially by le Défenseur des droits, a state department dedicated to studying all sorts of discrimination by the state. It’s true that some means of formulating racial statistics are forbidden in France, such as putting a name with an ethnic category. So for example to put “Grace Ly – Asian” on documents is forbidden. But it’s not forbidden for departments such as le Défenseur des droits or researchers to collect figures for research as long as the people involved are anonymous. French-Asian people and anyone perceived as Asian in France can also be a target of police brutality, so I really think we’re all in this together. As a French person – and I don’t say this as an Asian person but as a French person – I think these marches and these calls for justice are to better our French society.
Do you think solidarity can hold different connotations cross-culturally? For example, have you noticed particular issues arising pertaining to supporting BLM in Asian communities?
In supporting BLM in Asian communities here in France, and I think worldwide, we’ve also uncovered our own biases. It has been difficult for a lot of Asians who have struggled coming to the west and getting their life going on here to recognise that sometimes they’re a part of the problem when it comes to racism. They cannot be bystanders anymore in this fight. As we saw in the George Floyd story, there was an Asian police officer of Hmong descent standing by, and we are questioning that. We are questioning what our role is. It’s not a black and white struggle, it’s a fight against the system. It’s a fight against the system where we can all be casualties.
Some movements have been going on for decades, and now there’s better coverage which has been mobilising people to support these issues for a while now. I think we’re mature enough to realise that all these are connected: feminism, racism, homophobia, ableism. And as a woman, of course I am a feminist. As a person who is non-white, of course I am for anti-racism in my country – but not only when I’m the first in line, but for social justice in general. I want all these to be connected. Even the fight for climate – against capitalism and greed – everything is connected.
Are there any topics you particularly hope to explore in the future?
There are so many things I wanted to do. I wanted to do a question on religions in our communities, and break down the common misconception that all Asians are Buddhists. Actually, Buddhism is only one of the few religions that people are in East Asia. There are lots of Muslims and Christians, different types of Christians. I think there’s a stereotype to assume we’re all “zen.” I also wanted to tackle subjects such as people who work abroad: “expats.” A lot of people work in Asia now, white people, black people, but also Asian people who were raised here. I wanted to know about that experience, changing from being Asian in a country where you’re a minority, and then being a minority in a country where you look like the majority. I think that’s a really interesting question.
I also wanted to do something about caring for elders, because I think there’s a stereotype that the Chinese essentially are really good with the elderly. I wanted to see how that will be tackled in families where our parents are getting old. Are we thinking about homes? How is it considered in Chinese culture to put the elderly in a home? Do we feel guilt around it? This is a really interesting question, as it’s something French society is also witnessing. Our population is growing older, and now with COVID-19 we’ve seen that putting people in homes has been a very big challenge. Another thing I wanted to explore was racism in higher education. We have this idea that racism is something for “low classes,” that only “ignorant” or “uneducated” people are racist. But in France, there have been incidents in big, prestigious schools, such as HEC (École des hautes études commerciales), involving Chinese students being stigmatised and racist incidents happening. I wanted to address this, to emphasise that racism and classism are separate issues. These are all ideas, and I would really love to make them come true.
Are there any local Chinese or Asian diaspora networks in Paris or France you’d like to highlight?
There is a group called Association des Jeunes Chinois de France who are very active. They hold conferences, activities and support groups for anything related to racism or heritage, and once a year they organise the Chinese food week where they highlight Chinese cuisines in Paris. There are also a lot of Instagram accounts of French Asians who are good to follow, for example a group called Sororasie, about sorority between Asian women, and also Justicepourshaoyao, which is an account by the children of Liu Shaoyao who died in the hands of the police in 2017.
I’m very hopeful. With all these conversations that we’re having, there’s a lot to be done. But I think we’re going to do it, and a lot of people are doing it already. What we need to do is make these conversations more visible in the mainstream. We’re not going to stay on the side-lines. This is our future, this is our children’s future. I think things are happening for the best and I’m very hopeful about this.
Main photo: Portrait of Grace Ly. Photo Credit: Sonadie San
About the author
Daisy Singh-Greaves is a British writer and copyeditor for NüStories who also helps coordinate the NüVoices London Chapter. Passionate about Chinese literature, sustainability and social equity, she has worked for non-profits and intergovernmental organisations in Beijing and Paris. She holds an undergraduate degree in Chinese and English from SOAS, and is currently undertaking a masters degree in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. Daisy has written for Panda Radio and other China-focused media outlets, working to elevate the voices of women and minorities through grass-roots journalism. Twitter: @daisygreaves
About the editor
Jessie Lau is a journalist, researcher and artist covering identity, human rights and politics—with a focus on China and other parts of Asia. Her work has been published by The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Channel 4 News, The Nation and The Economist, among others. She serves as Board Member and Online Editor-in-Chief at NüVoices, and was formerly a Hong Kong and China reporter with the South China Morning Post. Based mostly in London and Hong Kong, she holds a MSc in international history from the London School of Economics, an LLM in international studies from Peking University, and a BA in English from the University of California, Berkeley. Website: www.laujessie.com. Twitter: @_laujessie