Vis-à-Vis 

Ironically, the day the United States presidential election results were announced, my cultural politics class for study abroad visited the Cité Nationale de l'Histoire de l'Immigration here in Paris. None of us could focus on the exhibition, and class was frequently punctuated with someone saying out loud, "I can’t believe Trump is our president." Seeing the displays about immigrant stories and the hardships of the refugee experience reminded me of the angry, devastated social media posts I had seen all day. Whether preserved in a museum or on the Internet, these voices shared the same sentiment—it’s not easy being in this society, but we exist.

Being in France for this momentous political turnover has been surreal. For example, from the AP European History perspective, the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution just seemed like a power-hungry, guillotine-happy movement. However, actually seeing where the executions and barricades took place, I realize that the French Revolution was not the spectacle of Les Miserables—tens of thousands really died as ruler after ruler took control of the government. To a less dramatic point, from the study abroad European perspective, the implications of this election can seem like a dull roar of Trump updates, backlash to his decisions, protests and petitions, polemic comment threads. Yet, although I am physically removed from the United States, the news of hate crimes and highly criticized government appointments are still absolutely real. I cannot feel it as deeply, but the stories I am reading are more than information—they are a resounding cry for justice, grieving in solidarity with marginalized communities, challenging the extent to which we believe, "Love your neighbor as yourself."[1]

The distance I am experiencing here has amplified how physical separation is easily followed by a lack of compassion and accountability. Not just in my attempts to empathize with friends in the States—living in Paris has made this correlation painfully clear. Early this November, more than 3,000 refugees sought shelter here after the Calais Jungle, a migrant encampment on the French coast, was razed by police. If Parisians were only aware of the refugee crisis before, this knowledge was now brought to life in a giant makeshift camp at the Stalingrad and Jaures metro stations. Among the tents hangs a sheet, painted to ask in Arabic, French, and English: "Where are our rights as refugees?”

In Paris, I have also noticed that the homeless frequently make speeches in the metro trains. They introduce themselves by name and why they are in need. It usually follows, "Sorry to bother all of you. It’s embarrassing that I have to do this. I would appreciate if anyone could provide some change, a meal voucher, a cigarette. Thank you for your attention." I don’t know if more people give, but for a group that is frequently overlooked in the street, their needs are paid more attention when they literally stand in the car and humbly ask for help. For both cases, how we relate to these communities changes once we see them, hear them, and all the more if we were to understand their stories.

In the same way, the distance between communities in the United States has been a primary cause of dissension and misconceptions. Under the wrong impression that Trump supporters are generally discriminatory, I began to see (after listening to a few of them) that they did not vote out of an active hatred for a particular group, but from a passive understanding of those whose lives would be affected by his policies. Those in a place of societal privilege from race or socioeconomic status could vote without significant concern for minority groups if they shared no connection.

To be honest, growing up in a primarily affluent Asian community in the Bay Area did result in harmful stereotypes of people I had never met. Working with the Netter Center in West Philadelphia now, I have heard my African-American students talk about how they have been looked down upon for the color of their skin. If I didn’t know these young black men personally, I might also fear if I saw them while walking alone on 49th Street. However, I am so thankful for this joy of knowing them -- that they are hardworking, intelligent, and doing their best within a system of institutional racism, segregated education, and police brutality. Being present in Philadelphia and having these relationships were what invested me in a community not originally my own.

From Paris, to Philadelphia, to a place even closer to home—the church. Especially in such a divisive time, strengthening relationships beyond those within the church is all the more important. How do we "mourn with those who mourn"[2] right now unless we know, for example, people belonging to the Muslim and LGBTQ+ communities who may not feel welcome in the Christian church? We may be around people of different identities and backgrounds from our own, but this does not equate to honoring their feelings and welcoming them into dialogue. Proximity is not solidarity. Closing the physical distance is the first step; the next is to listen, to the refugee, to the homeless man, to the voter of an opposing political party, to the African-American student. Genuine relationships which can say: it’s not easy being in this society, but we exist—together.


[1] Mark 12:31

[2] Romans 12:15b

Patricia Jia studies Communication and Consumer Psychology at Penn but daydreams about competing on Jeopardy! or freestyling on Sway in the Morning. She is most often found at church, coffee shops, and rap concerts.