Author: Kim Y.
Date of Trip: February 2004
I am turning 30. I am now a part of the Club. Which club you ask? I am not sure. Maybe it is the one where my greatest ambition is to become a soccer mom complete with minivan. Perhaps the one where I am supposed to be a responsible adult, making sure that I am well established in finances and real estate. I am part of a club all right. The one where statistically I have five good child bearing years ahead of me. Also the club where all members fight through a crisis of “Who am I?”. Not to mention the club of members where it is typical to struggle with a mediocre career while fighting to find a niche. I am turning 30. Welcome to disaster.
In contemporary society we are definitely spoiled. Our generation has not seen the same hardships as those before us. No Great Depressions (except that resulting from missing out on a Nordstrom sale), expansive wars that completely encompass our daily lives and no walking five miles in the snow to get to school without proper footwear. Most of us can’t handle childbirth without an epidural. Needless to say we travel a paved road. So what is the deal with this crisis I am going through?
At a certain point in life when one reaches a milestone birthday, especially the big 3-0, it is inevitable that a recollection of the past takes place. Accomplishments are scribbled down on a piece of paper as if it were a grocery list. After it is all in writing you realize that it is not so much, not special by any means. Sure, I graduated college and purchased real estate, but am I fulfilled? Where do I go from here? Why do I feel so lost? Do other people feel this way too?
Here is my woe story that may turn out to be a Cinderella story that flourishes and warms the heart. Hopefully this will be a story about finding oneself and finding life.
Being part of a traditional Chinese background compounds the issue of identity further still. I am trapped in a collective culture. The individual is always identified with its group first and foremost. When I announce my Chinese given name, it starts with my last name ‘Yu’. I immediately identify with my clan. I have lived within my collective culture my entire life. I, along with my siblings never strayed geographically far from the family unit. The acceptable radius…25 miles. Local colleges and careers without a thought of uprooting and finding what many know as life. My life.
I think everyone around the world eventually settles into their lives and gets in the rut of the daily grind. Whether you are living in Rome, Paris, London, Tokyo or good old Sacramento daily life is just that, daily life. The appreciation for your own society is not so glorious when it has been engrained in your being for your entire life even if you live along side the Italian Riviera. Do Parisians think to themselves, of course in French with a lovely accent “I am not content with status quo. There has to be more to life than what I know.”? All while sitting in a brasserie drinking espresso with the culture that fascinates a great many people. Do they think to live outside of their comfort zones and step outside of the proverbial box? Don’t we all develop the itch to push the envelope as human beings at one point or another? Everyone goes through the day in day out. So I figure, if getting into life’s rut is the same all around the world, then damn it, I will do it in Paris.
I suddenly take the opportunity of leave to travel abroad without a clue as to what I will find. So off I go to Paris to sort out my identity crisis. The city of artists and lovers. Upon arriving at Charles De Gaulle airport, I already feel a sense of belonging. I feel a wonderful sense of history and architecture, which is something I have always been fond of. The shopping, the fashion and food! Oh la la! The stimulation is overwhelming. Most of all, I feel an acceptance for all things different, even if I am seemingly destitute and worn. The individualistic attitude of the French allows me to be utterly and completely myself without judgment except my own. I am in a society that accepts dog walking sans a pooper-scooper. No one knows me, could I possibly reinvent myself?
I settle into my 129 sq ft pivot studio apartment. I can’t believe what is happening. I am in a foreign country with just my thoughts for an entire two months. Instead of heading out and taking the city by storm, I hesitate and stay in for the day. In the middle of one of the most beautiful cities in the world I make up excuses not to explore. Language barrier, I need to rest, I don’t have to eat right now or I just need to recoup from whatever jetlag I may experience. So my first evening is wasted being scared. Well I have 2 months one day won’t hurt.
My legs ache on my very first day of exploration. Getting lost is supposed to be one of the best ways to travel, but I should have done it with comfortable shoes. It’s about time I take advantage of mass transit and figure out the famed Metro system.
After the agony of orienting myself to the city I feel more at ease and begin the cultural absorption. Each and every sight is magical to me. Every old building, corner cafe and square is brilliant. I love hearing the French speak in their native language. It sounds so sweet rolling off the tongue. My skills are at a high school level so when I try to communicate it’s not pretty. Even when I am able to get it right, the dialogue goes way over my head as the response is spewed so quickly I’m sure I look completely lost. It is one thing to speak but another to comprehend when spoken to.
As I immerse myself a little more everyday, shopping at the local market, interacting with neighbors, workmen or merchants I feel a total sense of appreciation. I appreciate not only this opportunity to live with the locals for two short months but also their society. Where else will you find a couple well into their 50s kissing and embracing in the corner as if they were teenagers stealing a moment while no one is looking? The passion and emotion that the Parisians exercise in their daily lives is something I will strive for in my own. Everywhere you look, are couples obviously in love. The way they gaze and lovingly touch each other is so deliberate. And as with many European cultures, love is synonymous with food. The extended meals where lunch almost bleeds into dinner are commonplace. I start to reconnect with my physical being savoring everything from Creme Brulee and Steak Roquefort right down to the last crust of bread and sip of water. Being and feeling is the ecstasy that is commonly neglected in practical life. Associating contentment with the smallest pleasures such as a lovely day or heavenly chocolate instead of material goods. Imagine getting over the materialism we practice and rediscovering the raw and basic human needs we so often overlook. It’s funny how we always equate contentment with material items. It’s great when your purchases are fresh but eventually that amazing Gucci bag gets buried in the back of your closet and those fancy Prada pumps morph into the pile of shoes you have absolutely no room for. The threshold gets higher and higher until you either stop and find other distractions or find yourself paying obscene amounts of money for designer handbags.
The fulfillment I found in Paris had nothing to do with what I thought it would. Nothing to do with shopping, style or couture. It had everything to do with finding a better sense of independence and the ability to feel alive again. My favorite times were spent sitting alone in the presence of huge historical monuments and buildings savoring the exact moment of amazement. Seeing the Louvre on a beautiful evening trying to fathom that I was in its presence. Walking the quays of the Seine all the while realizing that I was in one of the most fabulous cities in the world. It was these moments when I was fully aware of what I was doing instead of floating aimlessly. I took the chance and planted myself among the Parisians to enrich myself, knowing that as a young and vibrant human being, I have access to the world. I have the ability to make the most of my life and decisions. I seized an opportunity that I will never regret and walked a mile in the shoes of another. I took a chance for me. So that is what it’s about, taking risks for your own sanity and making sure that your vitals are still active.
By the end of stay, I had to come to grips with the fact that this sabbatical was temporary and I had to say au revoir. After two months, I felt like a local and I have to say that I genuinely enjoy it. The storekeepers acknowledged me each day with a friendly wave and “Ca va?”. The barkeeps stand outside and give me the customary kiss on either cheek when I pass by. As little as it may be, my heart is warmed. I love Paris and all that is Parisian! In a place where the world thinks the locals are rude and anti-American, I feel acceptance. This place will always have a piece of my heart.
Taking on this adventure has given me a better sense of self. I had to accept that identity is an ongoing process. Change is constant and people are always in a state of metamorphosis. Who you are, are the experiences you encounter. So does that make me a bit French? Bien sur. There is a piece of the puzzle that bears the likeness of a Parisian.
So ask me how I feel about turning 30. Going through this petty issue of aging has caused me to no longer look at any situation, as the end all be all of things. Bearing a crisis is a necessary evil or growing pain, however when you are in a moment the pain is all you see. You cannot imagine feeling any differently now nor in the future. This all helped me to understand that regardless of what I am faced with I will ultimately be OK and that’s all I needed. As trite as it sounds everything will work out. As far as working out for the best, does anyone really know for sure? But things certainly do work out. For myself I had to go to France to figure this out, but at least I’ll always have Paris. Watch and see the foreboding act of crossing that bridge isn’t so bad when you are actually crossing it. I have turned 30, I think I’ll live.