23 September 2006

Je vais promener ma tortue...

-- a reponse to Joel Achenbach

An article entitled "The Art of Doing Nothing – And nobody does it better than the French", appeared in the Washington Post on 13 August by an American correspondent in Paris, Joel Achenbach. It's a highly entertaining piece not only in the witty choices of images and words but also the very juicy complex of American admiration, jealousy, frustration and fear towards its "eccentric" French counterpart.

If Paris is the city the world literature has been writing about the most, I dare to say no one single nation has been depicted and stereotyped by its fellow nations as much as the French has been. Why the world is so obsessed with France? Why do the French appear so enigmatic to the rest of the world? And why they are never tired of this role?

Is it the result of decades or even centuries of advocacy of French high culture? Is it the language that beyond our daily comprehension which makes it even more exotic? Is it the long-lived spirit of crazy philosophers and fervent revolutionists that crystallized in the French blood? Is it the almost impossible survival of a humanity society in today's world economy that renders it even more mythical and legendary? We knew well that after the WWII, the French no longer fancy themselves as the biggest or the strongest power in the world, but they still believe they are the best. Is it simply this overflowing national pride that made them the most culturally confident beings among the nations?

"Em… there is only one reason, because I am a French!"

The article can be read as a general American impression of the French. You can almost imagine a Washingtonian reading this article laughing his jaw to the ground! In Washington, the French are criticized as provocative, whimsical, pushy and self-important. This is the image the French has built since the era of de Gaulle. On the level of international politics, France is always playing a discordant tune to the American policy. Such as during the cold-war time, France's amity towards China and the U.S.S.R. had cold-sweated the American government. Again, in the 2003 UN resolution on the Iraq war, France was the only country that stood against the America though it was not the only one opposing the war. On the international stage, unlike the British whose foreign policy has been closely on line with the America, France remains independent and assertive (partly because they love the art of debate and partly because they like to speak for the others). For most part, France has gone its own way in the world, posting France as an alternative to the others. And this makes the French eccentric in the American eyes. As for the Chinese, it's always entertaining to look at the cock and the eagle pecking at each other's feather!

Back to the article, this title is itself highly stereotyping and therefore entertaining. A very witty choice of the word "art", the image of a sophisticated and pretentious French dandy pops up on your screen. Everything happens in Paris, as far as it's executed by a French, the glorious halo of art immediately endowed itself to the act, even doing nothing in a café. So there is the art of drinking wine, the art of making baguette and cheese, the art of toddling in a Sunday-morning-dog-shitted-street, the art of crushing into an overcrowded metro wagon and ignoring the screams from inside, the art of kissing in the street as if no one is around… I would love to read an article entitled "The Art of Pissing in the Street – and nobody does it better than the French". Isn't it even more attractive?!

Doing nothingness
Behind the mysterious act of Doing Nothing, there is this very unique French concept of time which is elusive to the Americans, i.e. the visualization of la durée, the duration, or the process. It is the sense that time is suspended at the moment when they are doing nothing, i.e. the time passed in time's most concrete form. When we are engaged with a particular activity, time is translated into that act. The existence of time is experienced through the action. However, at the very moment of relaxing, time is peculiarly chopped up, this moment, la durée, is different from the previous ones and the following ones.

In the 19th Century Paris, there existed this group of anti-social beings called les flâneurs. When the whole society was undergoing a series of industrial and capitalist transformation, when time is translated into productivity and money, these flâneurs strolled in the city in idleness, doing nothing but walking, observing, thinking and silently protesting against the other's industriousness. Sometimes, they spied a certain person and followed him/her the whole day; sometimes they took adventures by following a scrap of paper which they gave to the wind to play with, like the hero in Duma's Mohicans de Paris. Around 1840, it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. The flâneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them. If they had had their way, progress would have been obliged to accommodate itself to this pace. Fortunately or unfortunately, this attitude did not prevail.

In the art of flânerie, is that the flâneurs demanded elbowroom and were unwilling to forego the life of a gentleman of leisure. So, here comes the second very frenchy concept: the idea of doing things elegantly without hurry. This explains why the French against the American fast-food culture, against the instant coffee, against wal-mart. Since in them, gracefulness is simply absent.

It's quiet a taboo to eat while walking in a Parisian street, in some up-class chic quarters, even having an half-bitten apple in your hand makes you indecent. There is no economic discrimination here, but the discrimination is upon the manner. You can grasp a sandwich or whatever from a street hawker, just don't eat in the street. Sit down in a park, or a bench, or a fountain and enjoy your food!

It's however true that some of the French elegancy is lost in the decades, and the haut couture designers are lamenting for the lost. Today’s France is absorbing (not "assimilating" as the French imagined themselves) its Arabian immigrants' sub-cultures, the American pop culture and the African primitive cultures. The young French dressed casually, not very different from the American or Japanese teens. But the so-called elite class (yes, despite their belief in democracy and equality, the French admired and entrusted their power to the elites class), keeps their norms. Can you imagine a boy elegantly dressed with a pair of shinning leather shoes appear in the campus of HKU or UST? You must have asked with a what-a-pity look on your face, "is he gay?" Yeah, yet French boys in prestigious schools like it… "Why do you dress up like going to office?" Once I asked a 23-year old architectural student, and he said, "Because I am used to it", this sentence can be interpreted as "this is my style", "I was like this since very young". No wonder this boy comes from a middle-class family and he is trained up like this. To be elegant, to him is also a sign of being mature and professional, and he likes this.

Sitting in a café
Sitting in a café is not necessarily a French pastime. I like sitting in a café as well… everyone likes it. But some people feel at ease with just sitting there and doing nothing, some others feeling uncanny when they have nothing to do, the later is the case for the writer. He failed to appreciate la durée and the elegance. He also failed to realize the sweet solitude of being alone at the middle of the crowd. What the French really mastery is this secret mental technique. They are there to look and to be looked at, they might secretly dream for une belle rencontre, a sweet encounter, but they enjoy better their own beautiful imagination that flashed through their mind, since une belle rencontre doesn't happen too often.

One of the important factors between the seeing and to be seen, is that there exist a discretionary distance between the subjects and objects. It is this safe distance that keeps the action of looking possible. Proximity suffocates this relationship. The best example is the passengers in the metro, they always carry a book and read in the metro. Yes it's a better use of time, but it's also a very clever way of avoiding eye contact. We sit in the metro in a strange position of looking at each other for longtime without speaking to each other. This feeling is equally uncanny. Reading becomes a way of avoiding eye contacts when the discretionary distance is impossible.

Sexual politics
If we know each other in this modern society as debtors and creditors, salesmen and customers, employers and employees, and above all as competitors; for the French, they first thing they see in each other, is as man and woman, then attitude and role-play will be appropriated and adjusted accordingly. Sometimes I suspect this as a reflex act of their feminine / masculine rules in the french noun.

The man-woman relationship is a huge topic in France. It applies to all social scenarios and amplifies itself to the cover all sorts of interpersonal dealings. Just to give some trivial examples, a 5-year old girl was playing football with her friends in Jardin du Luxembourg, she kicked her toe on the ground and was hurt. A boy of 8 came and performed neatly this ritual: he gave her a hug first, then kneeled down on the grass, kissed her toe! I was stunned. I would marry anyone who kisses my toe in a garden!! Who taught him this? And who taught the little girl to give the right response of stop panicking?

Another example, a father is playing with his 3-year old coquettish daughter. He sat her on his legs and held her to him, nose to nose, asked her, "do you love me?' she giggled and replied proudly, "no!" The father dropped her almost to the ground and she was excited by the suddenly fall. Then they repeated the game of "do you love me?" and "no!" This little girl is now well trained to get what she wants from a man by pretending to refuse him her love!

And a third example: a female driver was stopped by a police and instead of interrogation, they started a chat. After 10 minutes talk, you can tell from their facial expression that the temperature of the chat was increased to become a flirtation. The spot was L'Opera, it was 18h, date forgotten… if you want to report the policeman!

As for the writer, he's quite right to know his existential mistake if he talked to the Frenchman. The reason is not his level of French or his impoliteness, but his irrevocable truth of being a man.

The writer also assumes that all Frenchmen are married and all of them have a list of mistresses. Every woman is wife to somebody and mistress to many others! Isn't this pure male fantasy? An imagination of the most impotent? The point is why they put the label on the French foreheads? Because they are all "Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir"? Because according to a whatever research agent, the French rank number 1 in satisfaction of sex life? Because they are all elegant creatures "modeling for Toulouse-Lautrec"? Because they are not "multi-tasked" when they are in bed? Because they won't ask, "why did you not try to achieve something?" when they are having a post-love scene relaxation?

In his scandal with Lewinsky, what Clinton must be regretful was not what he has done but that he wasn't born a French. Should he had been a French president instead, he would just have said, "after all, I am a man" and he would be able to get it passed. The French did find the reaction of the American politicians and the public in general ridiculous. "What's the point of making a fuss over a mistake in one's private life?! Look, our former president Mitterrand appeared from time to time before the camera with his mistress and their daughter, and we love him all the same!" This is why all men in the world are so obsessed with France! The country guarantees sexual freedom... So, all French are stereotyped as infidel. There is a Madame Bovary in every French woman and a Don Juan in every French man! How far is this true?

Opposing this infidel image, there is this image of French as passionate lovers who are ready to die for love. Love values high in the social system, everything will be self-justifiable under the sacred name of Love. It's insane for the Chinese government to imprison a Chinese girl who's in love with a French diplomat in the early 1980s, it's unreasonable to assign lovers to work in different cities... So, my French brother-in-low made a rhetoric announcement: I love my wife, so I follow her everywhere in the world! It's very true in what he said, just that no one but the French would love to make their passion seen and heard, including to those who are not concerned with. That's why the French are romantic, so to speak, to lots of Asians. They see a Cyrano de Bergerac (大鼻子情聖) in every Frenchman. However, if I tell you that the divorce rate in France is 33%, i.e. one divorce in every 3 marriages, would you now find them scary?!

Whether they appear to you as Don Juan or Cyrano de Bergerac, each of them is, after all, unique, just like you and me as unique Chinese or Hongkongais, or simply a planet citizen. Stereotyping can be light-hearted and entertaining when it doesn't mean harm, but it melt away when things come to a personal and individual level. The key to a meaningful and beautiful cross-cultural encounter is to empty oneself from his/her own cultural prejudices, so that one would be able to merge deeper into the new culture, and be able to see the beauty inside the others. This is how we get to know this world.


JK said...

The Art of Pissing in the Street -- and nobody does it better than 十二少。

The rules of pissing in the street according to 十二少 are:
1. 過程中,要射過界
2. 結束時,不要滴濕鞋


dreamhunter said...

HA HA HA!!! I remember this too... the famous line from Lesily Cheung...

the translation:

The art of pissing in the street:
1. in the process -- shoot pass the line
2. at the end -- don't wet your own shoes!

Thanks JK!

jess said...

i remember the pics, u took them during our trip to Barcelona and france. but where is it? i can't remember...

Cécile said...

Hi DreamHunter !
I find your comments on French people and their behaviour just great to read ! As I am French, it is really interesting to see how you see us... and I learn a lot thanks to this distance...

dreamhunter said...

Jess, the pictures were taken in Montpellier. The cafe in the Place de l'Opera...

A friend of mine just sent me some very nasty ("ham saup") comments about the second one... he's so crazy, and started to have hallucination that he sees terrible things!!

dreamhunter said...

Thanks Cecile. Just curious, on the other way, how do you feel with what Achenbach said about French woman?

Sometimes i feel really uneasy with the European stereotype of Asian women, we were either wild fox eager to mate or naive fishergirls from village... Yesterday I went to see the film "Paris Je t'aime" and it's always la meme chanson for the asian women!! Not interesting..

Anonymous said...


<< Can you imagine a boy elegantly dressed with a pair of shinning leather shoes
appear in the campus of HKU or UST? You must have asked with a what-a-pity look on your
face, "is he gay?" Yeah, yet French boys in prestigious schools like
it. "Why do you dress up like going to office?" Once I asked a 23-year old
architectural student, and he said, "Because I am used to it", this sentence
can be interpreted as "this is my style", "I was like this since very young".
No wonder this boy comes from a middle-class family and he is trained up like
this. To be elegant, to him is also a sign of being mature and professional,
and he likes this.>>

To us, foreigners in HK, most of HK boys looked so gay with their too fit
clothes their girlish style, the way they always do their hair, also
this habit
to systematically wear a suit even for gathering with their
whatever-club in the
HKUST atrium...

To read it the other way round was kinda funny! :)

I'd be curious you interview some HKUST guys as well...


dreamhunter said...

My observation is that HK boys are pro-japanese style, they like to follow japan's tread closely... when you were in HK, the tread was TAKUYA KIMURA Look (木村 拓哉). Do you know this famous handsome japanese actor? His style is what you described. I guess the tread is different now.

The difference is that, HK boys follow tread, but not necessarily style, i.e. they don't have their own style... French boys (from a certain group, of course. Some of them look very hiphop or japanese as well), prefer the classic look as what I described here... In the HK campus, it's normal to be tready and "in" (do you know this word?), (it's quite scarcastic here, they want to be tready in order to be unique, but then they vanish into the tread and become normal!) but not classy... tready is general for straight and queer, but classy is more elegant and "sophisticate". Though it's neutral in France, in HK, it's rather "gay".

As for the suit guys, again my observation years ago, students in suit are mainly those studying money, and the whatsoever clubs are the "$$ Clubs"... it was like this in HKU as well... I have no comment for them since I stay away from businessmen.

These are my personal observations. Perhaps some others can share...

bunbun said...

Ting ting,

i really enjoy reading your article,an interesting observations!

hey i know y i didnt have " romantic encounter" in Paris..
i ate my croissant on the street, reading my metro little map inside the tube and kept on looking at my " lonely planet" at Cafe de Flore.... totally " un-french" :P

i totally agree with u..we should leave all our " cultural preconception" and be open -minded to the new...this applies to other areas in our process of learning..

Anonymous said...

It's really an interesting piece, and you are a very sensitive person. Above all, I guess it well, you love France!

Welcome to Paris!

-- Cyrano de Bergerac, c'est moi!

楊雅文 said...