Kar Mun Nicole Wong

NICOLE WONG - STUDENT PROFILE | bospparissa@lists.stanford.edu

Stanford in Paris, Spring 2016-17
Major: International Relations
Minor: Art History
College year while abroad: Sophomore
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QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS WITH NICOLE

Why did you choose to study abroad in Paris?

Having grown up in Singapore, and being now in the heart of Silicon Valley, I have always been in surroundings where the arts are constantly being pushed aside in favor of more practical pursuits. In places that put such a high premium on production and entrepreneurship, I found myself struggling constantly with the question of why art matters. This ultimately became one of the reasons why I decided to study abroad in Paris. To me, Paris has so seamlessly integrated the arts into every aspect of its history and culture that it has become a place where it is impossible to imagine art as insignificant to its everyday. Paris, as a melting pot of cultures and influences, shows me how its art is tied to the greater issues of its politics, international relationships, and history. Because of this, I envisioned it as the perfect place for me to gain a different perspective of why art matters in this world. I wanted to be in Paris in order to learn what it means to live with art at the forefront, in an environment that recognizes art as essential to any flourishing we might have. Beyond this, I also wanted a glimpse of the Paris that lies behind our rosetinted glasses. Behind our imaginations of love and romance and the Eiffel Tower, I wanted to see the Paris that exists for its people, and the layers of culture and grime that hold it up and have made it such an inspiration for so many over the years. The multitude of cultural events organized by the Paris program and the fact that the majority of classes in Paris are taught in French made me see this as an opportunity that really focused on allowing its students to immerse themselves entirely in the language, the culture, and the people, allowing us to cultivate a love for Paris that was rooted not in its commercialized perfections, but in the reality of what the city is.

What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Paris?

Before arriving in Paris, I was terrified. While I had grown up with the glittery, sparkling representations of Paris as the city of love, art and culture, I was also equally aware of the stereotypes regarding the coldness of the French, as well as the complex relationship Europe has always had with issues of race. I was worried that the color of my skin coupled with my poor French would elicit lessthanfriendly receptions from the Parisians, and prevent me from being able to fully immerse myself within the environment I would be studying in. Once I arrived in Paris, racism was definitely present in the many instances when “Ni hao” was called out to me on the street, or passersby would shout guesses as to my ethnicity, etc. But there were also many areas of my life in Paris in which my fears had been unwarranted. I am immensely thankful that my experience in Paris came to be defined by so much more than the negative encounters I had with some. From storekeepers in bookstores that actively recommended French novels to me to help me with my French to strangers who were eager to converse with me in French about issues of race and belonging so long as I helped them with their English too, there were many Parisians that were extremely welcoming to me, and who treated me with kindness and respect. It was instances like these in which I felt as though my foreignness did not stand in the way of me being welcomed into this city I was trying to find a place in.

What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Paris?

I got a lot better in French! Before Paris, my French was dismal. And while I may not be fluent at present, I am definitely better than before! T aking most of my classes entirely in French was an extraordinary experience. It really helped me gain a fuller understanding and familiarity with the language beyond that which is taught in the textbooks. Aside from this, I also especially enjoyed a contemporary art history seminar that I was involved in at the Ecole d'art Plastiques in Paris. Living in the city where so much of the art that I had only seen on PowerPoint slides before, also meant that during this seminar, we were able to have our classes while looking right at the very paintings we were talking about. In Paris, I also participated in Stanford’s mentorship program and one of my mentors was a student from Stanford, who had done the Paris program previously and now lived in Paris attending graduate school in International Security at SciencesPo. Through our meetings I was able to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to live as a student and a foreigner in Paris beyond the limited 3 months that I have had in Paris.

What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?

I learnt that in order for me truly enjoy any experience that I have, it needs to be based on a path that I’ve carved out for myself. I think that on study abroad experiences, it is really easy to get swept away by what everyone else is doing and in the process, end up neglecting the things that you truly want to do. People are constantly discussing what they have done/are doing, be it a new club that they’ve found or a new country that they’ve travelled to etc. There were so many instances where I found myself questioning if the things that they were investing their time in were things I should also be doing. There were also countless times where I tried to replicate everyone else’s experiences in my own life under the false belief that doing so would help me enjoy my time abroad as much as they enjoyed theirs. While it is good to seek out recommendations from friends or to do things that your friends want to do, I have realized that there is no one specific set of experiences that will help anyone maximize their enjoyment during their time abroad, and there is nothing wrong with breaking from the pack and doing the things that you want to do.

What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?

During the Paris program, my host mom and her boyfriend had pretty conservative ideas regarding religion and immigration policies. Hence, one evening, while we were having dinner, we were discussing Sadiq Khan, the newly elected Muslim mayor of London. To my host mom and her boyfriend, he was unsuited for the position because of his religion and what they considered the backward nature of his ideals. Despite being a Christian like them, I had grown up in a country where Islam is one of its major religions, hence it vexed me t to hear their blatant and outright discrimination against Khan’s practice of said religion. Facing this situation, I tried my best to handle it with understanding and to remember that they are entitled to their opinions too. I did my best to explain my alternate point of view while treating them with respect and listening to their reasoning even though my own opinions were strongly in opposition with theirs. They did the same for me. Hence this moment of divisive ideas and attitudes eventually turned into a moment of cultural exchange. That conversation alone also made me aware that regardless of differences, sometimes, people are still willing to engage in dialogue, to listen and to have their points challenged. On a side note, it was also really great opportunity for me to practice using my French to defend my opinions!

What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?

Adjusting to the the French standards of politeness! In the U.S., the general consensus seems to be that politeness consists of wide smiles and countless “how do you dos?” In France on the other hand, politeness is a lot more restrained and formal which at times, makes the culture seem colder and less personable than the U.S.. There were definitely many times when I had to remind myself to greet the storekeeper when I entered the store and thank them as I left, and to be less direct and blunt in the questions and requests that I posed to the Parisians.

What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Paris?

Reading in public places! In Paris, the people love to read, and there are so many parks and benches around that it is so easy to find a picturesque spot to sit down and catch up on that new book you just bought or the readings that you need to do for class. Free (or in some cases subsidized) entry into museums was also a great part of my everyday life in Paris. There are so many museums in Paris and because of my student card, I was able to casually pop into a museum on my way home from class each day. If I lacked the energy that day to explore the entire museum, I was also able to simply take a look at a couple of the rooms and save the rest for the next day. Because of this, everyday felt like an opportunity for new discoveries, and a chance to take advantage of the wealth of historical and cultural capital that has been pooled together in Paris.

What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Paris?

I had so many memorable experiences in Paris, that it is difficult to point to one as my definitive experience in Paris. One particularly significant experience of my time in Paris was my media internship with a director named Roxanne Frias. The internship has possibly been one of my most academically fulfilling experiences of Stanford as a whole. Because Roxanne is an American who had spent the last 20 or so years working in Paris, she was able to share so much with us about the differences between both the media industry in France and in the US. She made it a point to engage us in every single aspect of the media industry from distributions to editing be it by having us speak to somebody who was involved in that media process, or by bringing us to the places in which these activities took place. One of countless memorable experiences was when she took us to the premiere of the documentary, Aprés Hitler, a documentary about Europe during the years after the war. At the premiere, we were able to meet with the director of this film as well as listen to everyone’s reaction to the film after. It was a great experience being able to discuss the film itself with its director, and to also hear the reactions of French people who were able to match locations of France shown in the archival footage to locations they have lived in or visited.

What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?

Content, quiet, challenging, art, cheese

Fun Questions:

What was your favorite food you had in Paris?

Moelleux au chocolat! (Otherwise known as molten chocolate cake) There was a small bakery just outside my host mom’s apartment which sold them for 3 euros each making them just as expensive as a macaron but in my opinion, a million times more satisfying.

What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?

Sturdy, WATERPROOF, walking boots. The metro is awesome as are the busses, but I think the best way to enjoy Paris is to walk through the city, hence good footwear is a must!

What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Paris?

Hmm I didn’t really discover much new music in Paris, but I really liked Zaz, and as clichéd as it is, Edith Piaf will always be my soundtrack to Paris.