FOUR CREATIVE WOMEN ON MOVING TO PARIS
For many young people, Paris is a haven, a place to escape the past and shape new presents and futures. Material sat down with four creatives to discuss what led them to the City of Light and what they have been up to since arriving.
Although Djamila has lived in France longer than where she was born in the Congo, she’s adamant that she will never feel French. Growing up in France with two Congolese parents, Djamila felt the divide of difference between her classmates and herself. In her 20 years of life, Djamila has overcome domestic abuse, had her childhood stolen and dealt with the racial and cultural differences of living as an African woman in France. She’s now studying fine art at university, growing her own incredible personal style and is learning to embrace her differences and to be proud of her achievements.
Did you feel like you fit into French culture when you were younger?
When I was young, I was angry about being black. I felt mad about why I had to be black and why being black is so difficult. When I met my best friend she helped me embrace my culture; I finally felt proud of being black. I am who I am, I can’t change my skin colour, I can’t change the culture of my country.
How did your background influence who you are today?
My history influenced the person I am today. I had a very difficult childhood. After my mum moved to Paris, I went to live with her but I don’t think this was a good idea because she used to hit me. I grew up with a really bad idea of myself. Once my mum had my baby brother, I felt like my childhood was stolen from me. I cooked for my baby brother, took care of him—I became like a second mother to him. This is the part of African culture that I really don’t like because I was young, I was just a child.
How did you deal with this at such a young age?
That’s when I began escaping and reading books, cartoons and movies, even advertising. This really influenced me. Because my mum couldn’t take care of me she was just really focused on her boyfriend and on my brother, so I felt like a ghost. When I was nine years old my stepfather at the time tried to rape me. I didn’t say anything to my mum because I was so scared of how she would react. The day that she found out about everything she beat me.
How did it feel moving away from home for the first time?
I felt I could breathe straight away—I was good with myself and I met amazing people who gave me love and, thanks to them, I’m also who I am today. Now I’m more comfortable with myself and I’m proud of myself. I have to prove my parents were bad parents, that they were wrong about me. It’s not thanks to them that I am the person who I am today. It’s thanks to my aunty and my friends because they gave me the most important thing someone can have: love.
Faty grew up in Casablanca, Morocco, pushing the boundaries of her parents’ rules. She routinely attempted to recreate the adventures she saw on television but was restricted by the prohibition and limitations of Moroccan society. At the age of 18, Faty moved to Paris to study. Thrown into Western society, she experienced extreme culture shock and battled with her own beliefs over what was rationally “good” or “bad”. Faty is now financially independent, embedded in the underground subculture of Paris and works as a seamstress for Céline.
How would you describe your childhood?
As a teenager, I would go to thrift shops a lot. But it’s super dangerous to take a bus or even a taxi as a woman, so I never told my parents that I did this. I would tell my parents I was at a friend’s house. But this is what I was searching for—adrenalin and adventure! People always told me, “don’t go there; don’t go alone,”so I wanted to see this. I wanted to walk, I wanted to feel it.
Did you experience a culture shock when you arrived in Paris?
A big one! It gave me depression for about eight months. Because everything that’s “cool” in Paris is forbidden in Morocco. My first drink on a terrasse was a big moment for me. I drank some red wine and I was looking around for someone watching me. I was so excited; it was for me a sort of win for my freedom, it marked something. But I also always felt guilty because the notion of bad and good is so different. Here in France, it’s more personal than a community idea. In Morocco, they have just one idea for everyone. For the first time I was living for myself, so I was lost. We don’t have this phase of figuring yourself out. In Morocco you are a little girl, then you’re a woman and you’re married.
Did your parents ever push this idea of marriage into your head?
Yes. Although I was lucky to have an open-minded family, they’re not as open-minded as parents here. My mother proposed me to a man at one point but now she understands that I belong to myself and it’s my choice. This almost caused a lot of problems in my family because I was prepared to stop talking to them for my freedom. My freedom has no price.
Has it been difficult to return home and see your cousins and friends in marriages at such a young age?
I thought my cousins could do something else because they’re smart; they’re beautiful, powerful women. But they choose to have money, to have luxury bags, big cars, and big houses. When I went, what hurt me was seeing that everyone was OK with this. It was my culture I despised. It hurt me because I didn’t understand them and they didn’t understand me. When I tried to make them listen, my cousin told me: “Faty, you’re the problem, you’re just running around outside living your life and people are talking behind your back.” We can’t communicate because she’s so sold on that idea. I tried to tell her, “I’m so happy to be free, I’m so happy to have my apartment.” And she told me, “Faty, why are you living like a poor girl? I’m going to have a huge house and a maid, I’m going to live like a princess.” We can’t communicate because they can’t imagine happiness in my lifestyle.
Do you think Morocco will become more progressive at some point?
This idea of having a princess life is not about to change. It shows in the economy. All the big brands are opening stores in Morocco so people are becoming easier and easier to buy. Young and beautiful girls are like dolls that men with money can buy. Even when she’s rich, they’re richer. I asked my cousin if she has even just slept beside this guy she’s going to marry. She said, “I don’t need that; we will do that after marriage.” I asked her what if he has sexual fantasies that you don’t agree with or that you’re scared of. But she just told me this doesn’t exist in Morocco, that this is French.
Do you feel that your cousin is happy in this situation?
It’s crazy because my cousin thinks that she’s free. But she doesn’t understand that all her life she was conditioned to do what her parents want. It’s hard for me to see the women I love going this way. It’s hard for me to hear that I’m the bad one who chooses not to have a family because I want to have my freedom.
Born as Ryan in Taipei as a Taiwanese male with American citizenship, Meme’s lines of identity were always blurred. After attending an international school in Taiwan that encouraged its students to embrace American culture, at the age of 18 Ryan moved to LA where he studied gender fluidity at university and began to understand the differences he had always felt coming of age as a gay man in Taipei. Now 24, Ryan is known as Meme and studies Luxury Management at one of the best fashion schools in Paris; every day she feels more encouraged to explore her sexuality, identity and what life is like as Meme.
How did you first come out as gay?
In high school, nobody really knew the word “gay”. It was tossed around as a swear word. It wasn’t until junior year that I was actually one of the most “out” ones of my peers and that’s when I started experimenting with a more crazy style. At night I started wearing makeup a bit more and that was when the name “Meme” came about. It became kind of like a night persona.
When did you tell your parents?
My mum had these really crazy curfews during school and one night I came home a little bit later. She was upset, asking me why I never liked to spend time at home and I said it was because they didn’t understand me. But she kept pressuring me about why, so I just came out and said it’s because I’m gay. She looked like I’d thrown a stone at her. She sat down speechless. I just didn’t understand how she didn’t know. Until today she still hasn’t accepted it, it’s just known.
Did you feel more accepted in America?
Oh, I was out the moment I stepped into the country.
Why did you leave America?
The last year of college, I had a bit of a depression. I wasn’t suicidal but I also wouldn’t have cared if a car had hit me. The people I had around me were very one-dimensional thinking and I didn’t feel I could be my true self.
When did you begin identifying as transgender?
When I was in high school, no one told us there was anything other than straight or gay. I thought I was a very feminine gay. But during college, I was learning about gender fluidity and being transgender. At that time, I felt rejected by straight people and rejected by gay men; I thought there was something wrong with me. At the end of my college period, I struggled with who I was. I was really thinking about becoming a girl and then one of my friends stepped in and asked me why I wanted to become a girl, why I wanted to conform to an ideal. She said you’re not a guy, you’re just yourself. That was a period I stopped calling myself “he” or “she”. I think the best thing to say is just Meme.
You mentioned that when you went back to Taiwan for Christmas your parents had asked you to cut your hair. Did they ever ask you why you had long hair?
I have a theory that my dad has a secret Instagram page and you can just tell if you’ve seen my posts. He’s said before, “you really shouldn’t dress so special, especially if you’re going to be working in a corporate environment.” I did end up cutting my hair but in a weird way. I like it shorter now.
You mentioned to me once that you didn’t feel comfortable when you took the metro.
At night when I dress a lot more feminine, I don’t feel comfortable because people just stare at you in Paris. And a lot of the metro stations are not exactly where you want to go, so you always have to walk a bit. You can turn a corner and there will be a bunch of guys drinking and that’s just not a good idea for me.
Did Meme’s persona come out more when you came to Paris?
When I came to Paris, I didn’t know anyone so I felt truly happy because I could finally be comfortable. Now I have so many people around me that they push me more and more to be myself.
When Dani turned 17, she knew she had to escape the stifling confines of the Venezuelan beach town she’d grown up in. The domineering social restrictions surrounding sexual exploration and the growing political uncertainty pushed her to discover alternative cities. Now 25, Dani is a successful event producer and has gained a new respect for the downsides of Paris.
What was it like being a teenager in Venezuela?
There were a lot of taboos and judgment. I’ve always been super open and aware of my sexuality but if people find out that you’ve had sex and you’re a teenager, you’re instantly seen as a slut. No one ever taught me about masturbation or regular sex, they just told me don’t do it but if you do, wear a condom. There’s no openness about getting to know yourself sexually or even personally.
How safe did you feel the city was at the time you lived there?
I never walked in the streets, to be honest. I had my parents or a driver to take me around. At school, we had doors that would stay locked for the whole day and security guards. At my house, we had electric wires around the fences and sensor alarms.
Why did you feel like you had to leave the city?
The first time I noticed things becoming unsafe, I was about 15 years old. We were at school and one of my classmates arrived covered in blood because he had been kidnapped for three days. We thought he was just sick but he had been taken with his dad. They killed his dad and after the family paid the ransom, they let my classmate go in a random spot in town. The only place he knew in that area was the school so he walked there. That first one was the one that decided the rest of my life. My cousin was kidnapped for a month and a half. After that my family moved away. There’s only one cousin left in our town and she can’t leave until she finishes her degree. But the situation is so fucked up, she only has one month of work to complete but because the school is in lockdown she can’t finish. It’s been a year and a half that she is just waiting there.
Was it exciting or utterly terrifying for you to move from home?
It was always exciting to push myself forward but there were many times when I first came to Paris where I felt so small, I’d lock myself in my room and cry a little bit because it’s a hard city, people are rude. But now I know how to deal with it.
Do you think that you’ve changed and developed to cope with this?
Yes, I’ve grown so much here. I’m not scared of anything here. I fight for what I want, even if it’s just a coffee.
How long did it take you to settle in?
I’m not settled in [laughs] but it got easier when I met someone. I don’t want to measure it in time but it took me knowing maybe five people to adapt to the city.
What’s the one thing you wish you could change about Paris?
I actually like how Parisians are rude. That’s something most people would like to change but I don’t want to change it. It gives you a little bit of attitude. A lot of other people are very nice but it’s not genuine. When a Parisian is nice to you, you know that it’s real. And if they’re rude to you, it’s nothing personal.
How long do you see yourself staying?
The more I stay, the more I do see myself staying here forever. It’s already been the most time I’ve spent in a city since I left home and I still don’t feel like leaving. It has a charm, it kind of chokes you and sucks you in and doesn’t let you go and you’re like, “I can’t breathe but I’m fine.” That’s Paris.
Taken from Material Magazine No 34, “The Trans___ Issue” – get your copy here!