Some generalisations about the French just aren't true

My experience in Paris taught me that stereotypes regarding French people are not true.

Aima Khosa December 15, 2011
Before I left for Paris this January, a horde of advice was thrown at me from aunts, uncles, cousins, friends - almost everyone had an opinion on how I should handle living in France. I got all sorts of cautionary remarks such as:

"Un se ziada dosti mat kerna, boht racist hain."

(Don't be too friendly with them - they are very racist)

I was repeatedly warned about the language barrier, and how the French are very arrogant about their language. A lot of friends advised me to learn some basic French before I left.

"The French are very unfriendly and they won't help you." I was told by my friend.

Naturally, I was terrified. I was worried about being branded a terrorist, being a Pakistani. How would this unfriendly, racist country receive me, I wondered fretfully.

I should have worried about something else, for when I arrived in the glorious city – the city of love - I was received with utmost warmth and hospitality. The French are some of the nicest people I have ever met. My experience here has truly taught me that generalisations are unfair, and here are some crude stereotypes about the French that I would like to clarify:

The arrogant French

Many people had warned me before I came to Paris that the French are arrogant about their language and even if they know English, they do not speak it because they dislike the language and consider it to be inferior to theirs.

This cannot be further from the truth. The French don't speak English not because they hate the language, but because they are ashamed of their ignorance of it. English was taught in their schools, but they never thought it was important enough for them to study. However, as they grew up, they realised that English is an international language and that they cannot avoid it. Thus, they are embarrassed that they do not know it. They are frustrated when they cannot communicate with you in any language if you don't speak French. They are never arrogant, just embarrassed.

But even with all that, they still try; they really do. I have never been denied help by a French man or woman because of the language I speak or do not speak. Sure, they tease me when I say I don't speak French even though I have been living here for eight months now. However, they don't judge me, and I appreciate that.

The racist French

The French are not racist, contrary to what we have been told. The truth is that they don't know anything about Pakistan. In fact, they think it is an Arab country and often confuse it with Palestine. All they do know is that I am from a Muslim country. If they are curious about Pakistan, I can see the mental struggle on their faces when they are trying to choose their words carefully so as to not say anything offensive. What surprised me is that a lot of the French youth either did not care about the burqa ban, or did not support it. They believe in freedom of expression of religion and they felt it was unfair that the burqa was targeted the way it was. Knowing this made me much more comfortable with letting them know that yes, I am from a Muslim country.

The uncouth French

The French are not rowdy. They are extremely quiet. Even the metro and the streets are very silent most of the time. The only noise you hear is from the cars passing by or the tourists who are walking about in excitement. They are so quiet that if you talk too loudly on public transport, they turn to you and tell you to keep your voice down. This has happened to me twice, I am embarrassed to say. My answer, even though I know it is wrong to generalise, is: "I'm half-Punjabi, of course I'm loud."

The romantic French

The French are not as romantic and charming as the movies make them seem. They have a very charming sense of humour, but they don't go out of their way to be romantic or charm a lady. In fact, the are shamelessly flirtatious!

They warned me, when I came to Paris, that even eye contact with a Frenchman is seen as a sign of flirtation. This holds true. If you smile at them, it is a green signal for them. They talk to you for five minutes before saying: "So, you want to get out of here and go some place quiet?"

And I mentally roll my eyes. But having said that, I love how they say 'you are very beautiful' - vous êtes très belle.

The stinky French

Lastly, I'd like to put to one stereotype to rest: the French do not smell bad. They are meticulously clean and even the ordinary Frenchman will own many nice-smelling products which they use lavishly. I don't know how this rumour came to be, but it is absolutely incorrect.

If only I had known all of this before I went to France, I wouldn't have worried half as much as I did. I have been looked after here, and have never felt slighted or insulted due to my ethnicity. We often hold grievances against foreigners and claim that they stereotype us as Muslim terrorists. We resent them for calling us "Pakis" and "brown". However, don't we do the same? Didn't I do the same when I thought the French were arrogant? They proved to be anything but.

This experience has been vital for me in realising an important life-lesson: it is wrong to generalise.
Aima Khosa The writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @aimamk
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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