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I Pulled A Real-Life Emily In Paris. Here’s What It Was Really Like

Unlike the Netflix heroine, I did it as a 30-something Korean Canadian woman. Twelve years later, here’s what I tell people who fantasize about moving to the City of Lights.
By Vivian Song
A cropped hot of the Eiffel Tower against a blue sky surrounded by pink spring blossoms When Vivian Song moved to Paris, she writes, " I had no job prospects, no friends, and no French amoureux waiting for me." (Photo: Vivian Song)

When the third season of Emily in Paris drops this week, it will invariably do what it’s done over the last two holiday seasons for viewers around the world: inspire fanciful daydreams of moving to France and living out Parisian fantasies in the style of its titular character Emily Cooper.

But contrary to the prevailing Hollywood narrative, the transformative Parisian experience is not reserved exclusively for white, often thin, young, pretty and affluent women, as we’ve seen in Emily in Paris, but also The Devil Wears Prada, Le Divorce, Sabrina, Funny Face and Sex and the City.

Life-changing moments set in one of the most mythologized, romanticized cities in the world can also belong to more mature women of colour like myself, a 40-something Korean Canadian woman who moved to the city 12 years ago.

Just a few years shy of the age limit (35) for obtaining a working holiday visa in France, I had put the contents of my Toronto apartment into storage, packed my life into two suitcases, said goodbye to friends and family, and flew to Paris. I had no job prospects, no friends, and no French amoureux waiting for me.

The prospect of starting afresh was both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I was a bored, single, childless freelance journalist with no interest in starting a nuclear family in the suburbs, in search of an alternative pathway. It was time to make good use of my French degree and my solid, but withering, language skills and try to take my career to a new level.

But before you book a one-way ticket to Charles de Gaulle, here are a few things to note about what’s it’s really like to live in Paris (especially when you can no longer hide behind the charm of being a 20-something ingénue.)

Temper your expectations. (No, really)

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You know the saying, “never meet your heroes”? The same idea can be applied to moving to your dream destination. Like meeting a shockingly rude childhood idol, moving to Paris can likewise come with crushing disappointment and disillusionment.

In fact, for some, the letdown is so intense, the physical and mental manifestations so extreme—symptoms can include everything from nausea, vomiting, depression, disorientation and heart palpitations—there’s a name for it: Paris Syndrome.

First coined in the mid 1980s by a Japanese psychiatrist working in a Paris hospital to diagnose Japanese tourists who couldn’t reconcile the Paris of their fantasies with the city IRL, the condition reappeared in local headlines this year, perhaps due to the wave of revenge travellers who descended on the French capital this summer.

A headshot of the author, Vivian Song Vivian Song

The gap between a romanticized vision of the city fed by pop culture and social media, and the reality of Paris life can result in acute culture shock. This could mean everything from abrasive Paris service (the customer is rarely right) and questionable odours on the subway to petty crime (I’m had my phone stolen twice) and discrimination.

As a female Asian immigrant, my biggest personal disillusionment was one that I hadn’t prepared for. I was misled by the world-class, cosmopolitan and international reputation of the city and didn’t give discrimination a second thought before moving. But after covering racial injustice in France as a freelance journalist and experiencing it in both overt and subtle ways, I quickly understood that the discourse on race here is much murkier than the one I was used to in Toronto.

When a local celebrity chef named a dish “Tching Tchong” salad and I joined the Franco-Asian community in calling out the racist mockery it made of Asians, I was gaslit and told to stop being oversensitive. On French TV, news commentators think nothing of pulling at the corners of their eyes and saying “nihao” live on air to imitate Asians. On one of the biggest 24/7 news channels in France, a news presenter was caught on a hot mic joking, “They’re burying Pokémons” during a segment about China having buried more than 3,300 COVID-19 victims. Anti-Asian discrimination is normalized in France to an extent that I had not experienced in Toronto.

Let that be a lesson to you: the Paris of a pretty young white woman like Emily Cooper (Lily Collins) may well be different from the Paris of her pretty young Chinese BFF in the show, Mindy Chen (Ashley Park). If you fall outside the former demographic, be careful not to project your fantasies from the wrong lens.

Why Paris is better in your 30s and 40s

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Full disclosure: This isn’t my first time living in France. As part of a study abroad program at university, I lived in Nantes on the west coast for a year in my early 20s. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t opt to live in Paris then or I could very well have cracked under the pressure, given up and sworn off the city for good. Because if you’re looking to live here long-term, know that Paris is not for the meek: it can chew you up and spit you out.

Or as Emily says early in the first season, “I like Paris, but I’m not really sure Paris likes me.”

During my study abroad term, along with navigating a new country I was also negotiating the uncertainties and insecurities of young adulthood. This second time round, I like to think I came better equipped to overcome the challenges of expat life—integration, loneliness, French bureaucracy—as I was a little older, wiser, and a little more self-aware. As a fiercely independent textbook introvert who had lived by herself up to then, I knew that I was exceptionally good at being alone, but not lonely, important traits for successfully navigating expat life solo.

Having worked since I was 15, I knew I would manage to find some kind of work to support myself (trust fund baby I am not). In the first few months, I registered at various temp agencies and tested GPS systems by repeating the words ‘home’ and ‘search’ all day. At night, I taught English to French kids, all while applying frantically to every journalism job in Paris until I found a job as a food and travel editor at a fledgling English-language wire service, thanks to my Toronto newsroom experience.

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Though I soon outgrew the role, the stability and permanence of the job helped me obtain my French citizenship. And this is an important detail for tetherless expats (those without a French spouse or European citizenship to legitimize your stay): the anxiety and stress of renewing your visa and never knowing if you will be rejected (French bureaucracy is famous for being inconsistent) can be overwhelming, and many will either give up or get kicked out. In Facebook expat groups, time and time again I see hopeful visitors asking for advice on how to skirt the law and turn tourist visas into permanent residencies. Knowing how French bureaucracy works, my advice is to play it by the book—the only surefire and the least stressful way to make French residency work.

Since moving to Paris, I can now say I’ve made good on my original goal of seeing my byline and Paris dateline in legacy publications, a fantasy I thought was out of reach when I lived in Toronto.

And that’s what Paris does so well. As one of the most visited and mythologized cities in the world, Paris encourages people to dream big, beyond their parochial borders.

But in order to do all that, I also had to turn down invitations and dedicate my weekends to working. In between, I still had to do my laundry, pick up the milk and negotiate my rising phone bill in French (I caution against moving to Paris thinking you can live and work comfortably on high school French).

A bridge over the Seine with a view of a path beside it and two people walking The challenges of expat life include integration, loneliness and French bureaucracy. (Photo: Vivian Song)
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In other words, if you want to preserve your poeticized vision of Paris and use it as an escapist playground, reserve it for regular visits instead of dramatic, “drop-everything” transitions which could leave you irreversibly disenchanted.

Case in point: Just last week, Paris was named the world’s best travel destination 2022 by international research market group Euromonitor. On another recently published list of the best and worst cities for expats, Paris ranked 48th out of 50.

And while tourists are often lured by “travelling like a local,” more often than not, it’s been ages since us locals have been to the Louvre, taken a leisurely moonlight stroll by the Seine, or even eaten a croissant (like doughnuts in Canada, croissants are an occasional treat for me).

It’s only when I see the visible excitement of enraptured visitors that I’m reminded I was once like them. And though the butterflies have long gone, I’m reassured when my gaze falls on a never before-seen alleyway or a charming storefront, and I can still find a newfound appreciation for the city I call home.

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