How Charlie Hebdo Could’ve Easily been a Paris Study Abroad Student’s Nightmare

(Photo by www.huffingtonpost.com)

The nightmares of January 7 and 8, 2015 in Paris, France appear to be over, although the memories of those 2 days have made their permanent imprint into French history. Watching the news stories from the other side of the Atlantic was terrifying. I can imagine the fear and confusion every one was feeling, especially American study abroad students. For those students, this is the second time in twenty years that they have witnessed a terrorist attack; their first being September 11th in the USA. Not only does my heart go out to the French at this time, but also our fellow American study abroaders. Two terrorist attacks in one lifetime is a lot. I also know that if they’re not careful, this situation can negatively impact their study abroad experience, and possibly their view of the French.

But, it doesn’t have to. Terrorist attacks are a negative experience but, it’s important to not focus on it or let it impact your view of the French or your study abroad. What all study abroaders (current and future) need to be doing right now is focusing on France’s response to the attacks and the people’s ability to stand united. I can only imagine twenty year old me if I was in Paris right now. I’d probably be confused and scared and turn those negative emotions into a reason to not like the French or my study abroad. It’s easy to go down that road if you let all the negativity seep into you. Here’s what students in Paris need to be doing right now to make the most of this experience:


(What a great cultural immersion opportunity. Photo by: http://rt.com/news/221515-france-rally-march-terrorism/)


  • For when an attack happens: Call, text or email your parents to let them know that you’re safe. Please do this ASAP!
  •  Stay abroad. Don’t go home and let the bad guys win! Stay abroad and really delve into this experience. Although this is a scary situation, it is still a great cultural immersion experience to see how a culture responds to an attack.
  •  Talk to a native. Don’t speculate with your family, other Americans, or worse- alone! This is the time to reach out to a classmate, your host family, or your Parisian program director. Talk about what you’re feeling, ask how they’re feeling, and find out about French-Muslim relations to gain a better understanding.
  •  Show your support. I normally recommend students to stay away from strikes and manifestations but, I’m making an exception for this one. This isn’t the French protesting against something; this is the French coming together to show their support and unity. Not comfortable with large crowds? Put the “jesuischarlie poster in your email signature or as your avatar on your SM sites to show your support. Feeling a little crafty? Make a pin and wear it to class.
  • Record, record, record. You have the horribly unique opportunity to be in Paris for what President Hollande is calling “the French September 11th”. Write a blog post, write in a journal, make a video- do something to record the events, your feelings, and the French response of vigils/manifestations that have been going on. Also don’t forget to include what you’ve done to show your support or if you’re not doing anything, why that is. You are creating a time capsule that you can go back to in a few years.

vlog(Vlogging is one way to create a time capsule. Photo by www.broadway.com)

charlie 1

Nous sommes tous Charlie – A response to the 1/7/14 Terrorist Attack

(Photo by www.sltrib.com)

Driving at 7am yesterday morning, I did something I rarely do; I turned on talk radio. Because I am too lazy to pull up my car antenna up, I get really lousy reception on the radio, especially for AM or talk radio. But yesterday I had this nagging urge to listen to something smoother than Eminem, my usual morning commute music, even if it meant listening to a crackling voice. When I turned on the radio, instead of the crackling sound of the banal talk of the Congress “rebellion”, I heard something in crystal clear reception that made my heart race. Paris was attacked.

paris attack(Paris under attack in a video game. It wasn’t exactly like this but it feels like it was. Photo by gamingbolt.com)

I couldn’t believe it. Then the radio host announced that the attack had occurred just a few hours before during lunchtime in France. For a moment, I was actually more shocked that there were French employees still in the office at lunch time than over the crime itself. Like I’ve mentioned before, I don’t eat breakfast first thing when I wake up so I’m not my most compassionate because I’m hangry (that’s hungry + angry). I listened to the very American radio host butcher his way through pronunciations of French headlines and comics. News cap: a group of jihadistes opened fire in Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper, office killing about 10 people than 2 police officers afterwards while fleeing the scene and critically injuring a few others more. Why did they do this? Because they were offended by a satirical cartoon. I’ll be honest with you, the newspapers’ political cartoons seem to be in bad taste but it’s just a cartoon. That’s it. There is never a good reason to kill or be killed but this one certainly has to take the prize for the most stupid reason to take a life.

kissing_hebdo(One of the offensive cartoons. I debated about showing it because they are bad taste but let freedom ring- #JeSuisCharlie. Photo by www.theglobeandmail.com)

This is a very sad time for our Parisian friends and long time ally. I normally advise students to avoid demonstrations in Paris but this is one that I would join in if I was there right now. Freedom of press / speech is a fundamental belief in Western culture. It’s how we keep each other in line; how we point out the hypocrisies and injustices of our society as a means to bring it to light and find a solution; how we have fun. These weren’t politicians or people who were causing great harm. These were a couple of jokesters who liked to poke fun to get people to think. In the streets of almost every major city in France last night, people gathered together holding up signs saying “Je suis Charlie [for Hebdo]” and holding candlelit vigils. That’s one of the things I love about French culture. They can rally tens of thousands of their closest friends in support for any cause at any given moment. It’s not just Paris that is mourning; it’s the entire country. In support of our French brethren, I say out loud that je suis Charlie, but the reality is that he is all of us.

Please send your thoughts, prayers, and wishes to our French friends at this difficult time. Your support is needed.


Talking About Race in French

(Photo by: memespp.com)

It’s true that a new year does bring a new start. January was a really big turning moment for me when I was studying abroad. It was when I really started to get comfortable, and might I say, excel, in French. It was in January that I noticed my conversations with Tatie no longer had 5 minute pauses in between each sentence, during which I would fervently look up words in the dictionary that we kept next to the table. This was the time when I was finally able to hold a somewhat adult conversation that showcased how I did have a higher intellect than a 5 year old. The January that I spent in Paris was also the time that the American primary presidential elections were taking place. From January to March, all the major French news channels were covering what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. Who was running? Who did the Americans think had a chance of becoming the next Chef d’état? It was during this coverage that the world first came across Barack Obama.

 President_Barack_Obama(President Obama. Photo by en.wikipedia.org)

The French heavily covered this relatively unknown senator from Illinois, particularly his family history. Since my French was at a more advanced level at this point, I was able to answer some of Tatie’s many questions on the American political system. But one night, she had a question that was very difficult to answer for linguistic and cultural reasons. She asked me about race. The French reporters were pulling their information about the presidential candidates mostly from the American news stories. So they kept translating that Barack Obama would be the first black president if he won. But, then they would show a story about his childhood and photos of him and his white mother. After a few nights of watching these news stories, Tatie turned to me and asked why Americans refer to Mr. Obama as black when he clearly had a white mother. It was a valid question. From the eyes of a French person, this person is not of one race, but of two.


(One of the photos that started this whole new conversation topic. Photo by www.metabunk.org)

I thought back to all my French lessons in college but not one of them covered race. How do you explain the social construct of race and its context in American history in French? With no real knowledge of what expressions or vocabulary to use, I trudged through what would be the next forty minutes of explaining the one drop rule. For those of you that are a little rusty, the one drop rule was a discriminatory law that denied rights to people who weren’t 100% Caucasian. Essentially, if you had one drop of any other race’s blood than Caucasian in your body, you were no longer white and could be denied freedom, the right to vote, property, jobs, etc… The far cultural reach of the one drop rule appears to be why Americans do not use the term bi-racial. Instead, bi-racial individuals are culturally coerced to choose one race over another. But how do you explain than in a 2nd language? Just as I was getting comfortable with this new, advanced French, here I was back at the beginning again. Tatie had other questions now that her curiosity was piqued. I did my best to answer them, but I can assure you that I didn’t do well. It’s not something that any French class covers and I’m positive that I wasn’t accurately or even adequately expressing myself and the subject at hand.

man-quote(When you’re feeling stuck in a conversation. Photo by www.pimsleurapproach.com)

My time among the French, I can tell you that they like to discuss race. Or maybe more accurately, they like to discuss Americans’ view of race. In some ways, French views are very different, in some ways they’re the same and in some ways they’re worse (by American standards). France has had a different history with race than the USA which is why you’ll find French people are interested in discussing it with an American. And with some of the current news stories, I’m positive it will come up in conversation. I know in the USA that most people feel uncomfortable discussing race but it most likely will come up at some point in a conversation. Since French textbooks aren’t going to cover race anytime soon, you’ll need to do your own research. Start by reading recent American news stories on French news sources such as Le Parisien or Le Monde. This will give you a glimpse into vocabulary and expressions. If you want to go the extra mile, look on Amazon France for books on American history. Download the Kindle app to your smart phone and you can get it on your phone for a read whenever you have a few minutes. To get you started, here’s some key words for a discussion on race in French:

La race – race

Le racisme – racism (I’m not sure why race is feminine but racism is masculine.)

L’esclavage (masc) – slavery

L’esclave (neutral) – slave

Un noir/ une noire- a black man/woman

Un amérindien / une amérindienne – a Native American man / woman

Un chinois/ une chinoise – a Chinese man / woman

Other notes

The word “bi-racial” doesn’t exist in French. A word that is more commonly used is métis (masc) / métisse (fem), meaning mix.

 Cheerios MeMe Biracial Commercial(A beautiful bi-racial little girl. Photo by minnesotamiranda.com)

Another thing that has appeared in recent French language use is the word un black. This used to describe a black male, typically American. I’m not sure why it’s used but I think it’s strange. I’ve never used and you don’t have to either. If you want to talk about someone who is from Mexico/ Central America or other parts of Latin America, do not use the term hispanique which refers to someone from Spain. Just describe where they are from (ex: mexicain/mexicaine or vénézuélien/enne).

The French love to discuss the news and this is a topic that has been a key point in recent US news stories. Knowing a few key words as well as the fact that you may be asked to speak on this delicate topic as a delegate for your country are ways to prepare yourself for this conversation. Remember, you never have to talk about anything that you aren’t comfortable with but at least now you can recognize when you may want to leave the room.

Bonne chance!