Where I study is Sciences Po, located in one of the wealthiest district of Paris. The school is well known for being one of the most important elite institutions, where the brightest students are expected to become great leaders in the future. However where I live is of stark difference to Sciences Po. Saint Denis, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Paris, is where I call my second-home.
It feels surreal to live in such two seemingly contrasting worlds. Everyday when I step out of the RER as I return from school, I feel completely overwhelmed. Of the stench. Of the unsightliness. Of the chaos piercing my naked eyes. My eyes water with the smokes from the satay trolleys nearby. Gone are the sights of the whites strutting on the boulevard Saint Germain in fur coats, fedora hats or boots en cuir. I’m surrounded by only the ebony-skinned, by men whose cheeks as hollow as their hope, by wailing babies and their equally frustrated mothers. Bright and lively grands magasins are replaced by dilapidated, sad-looking buildings. And gusts of cold winds pushed me into thinking I was in some sort of unimaginable dream.
I was repulsed. Yet my repulsion struck me hard as I realized I was not comfortable with this contradiction I’m living in at all. I started questioning myself. I studied international relations and now international development. I knew, watched, read and listened about the plights of people in humanitarian crisis around the world. I shed tears for them. I wished I could do something for them.
Yet I used to be scared everyday when I go back to the neighborhood of Saint Denis. My initial emotions and perception of Saint Denis betrayed my belief. It made me realize I was a hypocrite. It surprised me that many people around me were having the same mentality as I did. Like me, many Sciences Po students proudly wear the “international background” badge on their chest. But why did I often receive this look of sympathy, those words of comfort when I told them I live in Saint Denis area? Why living in Saint Denis made me any more pitiable than they are?
In my cover letters for internship or job applications, I used to write with strongest conviction that I acquired cross-culture communication skill and adaptation ability. After all I have spent years living in different countries and I have made good friends with people of different cultures. Yet while I’m here, living next to the people that fled war, disaster and poverty, all I could feel was having my comfort zone being challenged by their existence. I’m terrified to realize that I was trapped inside my comfort zone. My world was too limited yet too comfortable to leave. I have friends of different races but we all have share the similarity of being the privileged ones. We are not from the streets, from the dessert of Africa, from the darkest alleys in Middle East to here like the residents of Saint Denis. We have shared no parts of their journey.
Now I can truly understand my favorite quote “There’s a common belief among anthropologists that you must immerse yourself in an unfamiliar world in order to truly understand your own” from the movie The Nanny Diaries. Now I understood the deficit of my compassion.
As time goes by, I am thankful for having this situation being thrust upon me. It helped me to see myself in a different light. As a quiet observer, I slowly understand how this contrasting environment that I’m living has enriched my thoughts. There was no particular event that changed my feeling. It’s just the work of time and of the fact that I’m being there, being a part of this contradiction, constantly interacting with the seemingly bipolar world that I’m immersing myself in, that I feel my life is beautified. It reminds me of my favorite painting “Decisive Pink”, 1932 by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. The contrasting shapes and colors of the painting stimulate my minds though I am yet to figure out the meaning behind this painting. What is more important is that the painting conveys a very important message to me. By looking separately at each geometrical shape, the squares, the triangles, the circle in the painting, there is nothing special about them. However, because they are arranged next to each other harmoniously and energize each other, the painting is transcendent.
Indeed certain beauty takes time to realize that it exists, like a poem, a painting, a song that needs constant contemplation. To me, good things are never easy and easy things are never good. I appreciate the contradiction of my surrounding as it challenges my perspective and it changed me for the better. It’s not a sudden event. It’s a process where my thoughts and emotions were invested to truly embrace myself and the environment I am living in. I’m more comfortable with my surroundings, be it the aroma of Dior, or satay stick, be it the sound of murmuring French exchanges or the clamoring “Mais chaud! Mais chaud!”, “La carte! La carte!”. I’m proud and grateful for living at the intersection of different cultures, of being the witness to such a contrasting social fabric in the beloved city of France.