I realize that I’m more so the type of person that enjoys developing familiarity more so than checking off the bucket list of one-time experience at every chance I get.
I don’t like going to a different city every day of my travels, nor do I like alternating restaurants every single weekend just for sake of “trying something new”.
It’s always in my subconscious goal to become a local of this given place, for it to be almost an elephant in the room that the staff and I don’t yet know each other by name. It’s the characters that stay anchored in my memory far more often times beyond the sights.
Beyond the financial appeal comes the discovery of Rouleau’s beautiful characters. Mixture of Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian staff. An old Vietnamese woman who runs the place, her son the primary server. Service speed is not … consistent? The typical scene is a minus of three French parties cluttered by the kitchen shouting at the old woman that they’ve been waiting 30 minutes to pay (pointer: if you’re to ever attend, payment is in fact inside).
From folk who served me my vermicelels de riz, this fella is the one who marked me — in hindsight, that could well in part be because he was one of the few, if not the only one to not wear a mask… a less sexy telling of the tale.
By the 5th time I came, over the course of 2 weeks (sometimes a lunch by myself as I waited for my laundry to finish its cycle across the street), we started exchanging the mutually recognizant smile. By my 7th visit, we exchanged names.
Xu came from Laos 10 years ago and started working 5 years after his arrival — more specifically he travelled Laos-Paris by way of Thailand. When I asked him how he liked life in Paris, he answered with an “eh” shoulder shrug response, pointing to the usual good and bad. For starters, he lives in Marnée-la-Chassy, right on the city-limit, entering the banlieu. 45 min travel one way, twice a day. “Là aussi, beaucoup d’Asiat”, eyeing the Belleville ethnic surrounding.
I asked if he has any kids. Xu answered: 1 daughter, 1 son. He had enrolled them in the French schooling system. At home, he speaks to them in Laotian, they respond in French (a typical first-meets-second generation gap linguistic configuration). He has cousins who came over with him, but they’re all dispersed throughout the country (primarily concentrated in Lyon).
Xu hasn’t been home to Asia since first landing in Paris. French bureaucracy has on-brandedly stalled any paperwork.
On the last occasion, when I got to speak with Xu before my departure back to the States, I saw a tattoo peeping out of his t-shirt sleeve. I hesitated but finished by asking him to show and tell. He enthusiastically lifted his sleeve. A burning fire in between two candles: “because in Laos, we didn’t have electricity!”.
He then proceeded to tell with the grandest grin that his friend had given it to him via stick’n’poke at the age of 6. “It started off on the top of my shoulder — the more I grew, the further down it moved!”, he said, pointing to the ink now just inches above the start of his elbow.
The softest face and voice — at first entirely inaudible, prior to his getting to know you. Similar to myself, I soon gathered that he operates as would a cat: give him a chance to smell you out, don’t rush over to harass you, and he’ll get used to you.
Once you’ve been around for a significant moment, he’ll tend for an exchange, and soon be the talkative one of the party. He’ll initiate the conversation with an enthusiastic “Bonsoir Caroline!”, already bringing out a table because the terrace is well full.
I tend to be fascinated by the Xu-like characters, more so the cameos than those who occupy most of the spoken script. The type of face that’s intrinsic to the space and grander setting despite being a man/woman of few words. Xu literally had not pronounced a word beyond maybe murmuring back your order, (more so just mouthing it to himself with enough breath to the mildest sound).
Maybe if this portrait was a documentary, it could very well be a silent film. Animated, just with his face and hands in motion. Big eyes blinking behind the round magnifying glasses. Hand scribbling down your order of nêms végétariens.
Funny when you realize that so many identities are marginalized as the cameos to a neighborhood or city. The migrant plot rarely hits the main character stage. There are different shades for different roles for different services in different neighborhoods and each has an underlying story that topples any of “ours” (referring to the primarily university student /young adult Western based students) in a heartbeat. It takes a lot of work to shut up and listen even more so to insist that the other person’s story merits being said aloud.
This man traveled the entire continent to find a better life. And, somehow, it’s a given that he works in the “Asian quarters” of Paris serving me noodles. That his murmurs primarily exist as background noise to my dinner conversation with friends vis-à-vis our dream place to work in the world in the coming years.
He’s the type of person to be so taken aback when you say that you’re DYING to do a portrait of him.
The justification awkwardly, but even more genuinely, went as: you! Xu! marked me, and more so than the streets and meals and friends that I, like every other 21st century young adult, enjoy photographing.
I wanted to remember his face above all else (intention was sweet but maybe came off intrusive… but my nosy lack of filter brought you readers all the way here! Enjoy! And go score a meal at Rouleau via my recommendation <3 miam).
About the Article
A visit to the cultural diversity in Paris that can exist around the corner or even next door.