Friday, November 29, 2013

Je Suis Offensé!!

I was pretty irked by the French this week. In the middle of my yearly routine of trying to tune out all of the holiday buzz from home that filters through my social media feeds (Thanksgiving is just a regular day here), a piece of news caught my eye.

Apparently, the French government has decided to tell all of its citizens who are visiting Boston to avoid walking through my home neighborhood of Dorchester.

It’s not nice when somebody basically calls your home town a dirty, crime-infested danger zone. It’s even worse when a government does so in an official document. I was offended. I know my hometown. It’s not perfect and it has its troubles, but what big city doesn’t? I’ve visited Paris, as well as lots of cities in Europe, in Asia and Latin America. In the vast majority of spots in Dorchester, I’ve felt as safe walking alone in the daytime as I have almost anywhere.

Feeling even more put-upon than I do, the students at Codman Academy in Dorchester, who had participated in an exchange program with students from Lyon, wrote a pretty angry letter to the French Consul in Boston. The Dorchester Reporter’s Bill Forry was right there to cover it and had some choice words of scorn for the powers that be at The Boston Globe, whose own editorial in response to this was spineless:
The Globe — and some other institutions who sometimes misplace their compass— would do well to follow the lead of the kids at Dorchester’s Codman Academy. There was no BS moral equivocation from the students and their French teacher, who were, yes, indignant— and rightfully so— over the “disparaging characterization of our communities” inherent in the foreign ministry’s words.
Then, later that night, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, a fellow Dorchester native, dedicated a segment of his show to the incident.

I spent the first 32 years of my life in Dorchester. And while I’ve left it behind to become an expat on the smoggy streets of Beijing, I’m still a “Dot Rat” through-and-through. I couldn’t sit idly by and stew in my own indignation.

I’m lucky enough to live just a few blocks from the French Embassy here in Beijing, so I told my boss that I’d be coming late into work today, took some time after my appropriately expat-ish Thanksgiving dinner last night (home-cooked Indian food with a small group of friends) and wrote up my own letter. I then passed it along to a dear friend from France who is now living in Peru, who translated it into proper French for me.

So on my way to work this morning I swung by the embassy and slipped my signed letter -in English and French- into the ambassador’s Inbox in their mail room. (No way would I trust the Chinese mail or some intern sifting through envelopes with this.)

Here’s what I had to say:

Madame Ambassador Sylvie-Agnes Bermann,
I am writing to you in regards to a travel advisory that the Foreign Ministry of France recently released for all French citizens visiting the United States. In it, there is a warning given in regards to my home neighborhood, Dorchester, in the city of Boston. As somebody who was born and raised on the streets of this diverse and culturally vital section of the city, the Ministry’s advice that “Foot traffic… should be avoided in the neighborhoods of Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury” is surprising and offensive.
I am a proud child of Dorchester. I grew up in the shadow of the oldest continuously-operating public school in America, and went to high school on the same peninsula as the John F. Kennedy Library. I have walked -safely- the historic trolley route along the beautiful Neponset River around Mattapan Square. There are plenty of other attractions and monuments worth exploring throughout Dorchester. It goes without saying that advising your citizens to avoid these neighborhoods would deprive them of the chance to see some of the most significant sights that our city has to offer.
We are very proud of our history in Boston. We are aware that the Boston of today, or even the US itself, might not be here it all were it not for the help and support of the French people. In our hour of need you sent more than money and arms. You sent your people. The man who came to America to train our farmers and militia volunteers, turning them into a force that could stand up against the British, was a Frenchman, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. There are streets and buildings in Boston that bear his name. This “Hero of The Two Worlds” connects us even today, as he is buried in Paris under soil from Bunker Hill.
Did you know that the largest party ever thrown in my city’s history did not come when one of our sports teams won a championship, which your Ministry said might be a dangerous time to be in the city? It happened when we first learned that the Parisians who had supported our fight for freedom had risen up and stormed the Bastille prison. There was feasting and drinking and fireworks for three straight days. 3 million people may have come to Boston when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, but the parade for our baseball team lasted just a few hours. Our great friends across the seas making a stand for liberty, equality and fraternity shut down what was then North America’s most important port for days.
All of this is to say that if any city in the United States deserves some nuance when it comes to constructing documents that will influence the manner in which your citizens plan their visits, it is Boston.
I would urge you to please ask your Ministry to reconsider the text of their advisory. While it is proper to remind everyone of the risks associated with walking through any major city at night, and to caution people to take precautions against petty crime wherever they may travel, the singling out of Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury as places that French people should avoid visiting at any time is simply wrong.
I would also humbly ask that you impress upon your colleague in Boston, Consul General Fabien Fieschi, to respond to the letter delivered to him on November 26 by students from Codman Academy. He should meet with them. They raise concerns not just as slighted citizens, such as I am, but as participants of an exchange program that sent them to France and brought students from France to Dorchester. They have an important perspective in this matter. They and their counterparts in Lyon are among the most qualified to clarify this issue for your Ministry, and your government would be well advised to exploit them as a resource.
Yours Sincerely,
Mike Shaw
I feel much better now.

*Final Note: The security staff at the French Embassy were incredibly nice and accommodating. When I told them that I wanted to get a letter to the ambassador’s office, they were very surprised. It’s clearly not something that happens very often. Especially in China. I appreciated that they wanted to make sure that my letter got where it was supposed to go and I was grateful for their help.