Interview with Jiangshan from China 🇨🇳

Urban Index: Hello Jiangshan, how did you end up in France?

Jiangshan: Four years ago I was working in Singapore and I wanted to shift my career to “not in the shipping industry”. I was looking for a master degree outside of Singapore, because I wanted to leave. I was thinking about Europe at the time, so I was just basically choosing a business school in Europe. 

I did some research, then I found ESSEC and I found my program, Master in Strategy & Management of International Business in the Corporate Strategy track. That’s how I ended up in France in 2019. 

Urban Index: I assume you applied as an overseas student? 

Jiangshan: Yes. There was an application process. And there’s a fee for studying as an overseas student. We have to pay to go to university in France. In terms of the application process, first of all, you need to have the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test). You need to have a good GMAT-score in order to apply for the business program. 

I remember I spent six months while I was also working to prepare for the GMAT. I took the exam and I got my score, afterwards I could start my application process. If we only take into consideration the application process with ESSEC, it takes about three months. I started thinking about a master degree somewhere around the end of 2018. I got confirmation in May 2019. I came to France in September.

Urban Index: Did Essec help you with this move? Singapore to Paris is pretty significant.

Jiangshan: They helped me once I arrived in France, to organise my student hostel and also bank accounts. They didn’t help a lot.

Urban Index: Did they give you general guidelines and say you’re on your own now?

Jiangshan: Nope.Nothing. It’s on you to discover how the French system works. 

Urban Index: Do you have a Carte Vitale

Jiangshan: Yes, I have a Carte Vitale. It was a very complicated process. I remember as a foreign student we have a social security number for foreign students. I used that for about one year, but after graduation I needed another social security number which took me some time to have. When I wanted to apply for the real card I had some login problem at the beginning, the system, it just didn’t work as you would expect it to. I actually had to call customer care to explain my login problem, they in turn had to set it up manually on their side, to make the system work properly. That’s how I got my real profile on that website. I ordered my card from that website. 

Urban Index: Did you have to make that phone call in French?

Jiangshan: Yes. I asked my friends to call on my behalf. 

Urban Index: Let’s skip ahead. You studied, you graduated. How was that process of finding an apartment

Jiangshan: For me it was pretty easy because there were a lot of Chinese landlords. We have a Chinese third party platform where we can look for apartments, they’re all owned by some Chinese person. 

Urban index: How do you get access to that platform?

Jiangshan: It’s insider information. Everybody speaks Chinese on the website, everything is built in Chinese. I would assume only Chinese people will use that platform. Chinese people are much more flexible. They required less paperwork. Usually you can get things done very quickly, and they’re pretty helpful too.

Urban Index: How did you find your job?

Jiangshan: I found my first full-time job through Essec’s alumni network actually. They have an excellent network. I remember there was an entrepreneur session where they invited a lot of alumni of Esec who had started their own business. That’s how I met my previous employer.  

He ran a startup focused on the social media world. I directly spoke with the founder of the company. We talked on WhatsApp and he hired me in that process. After that job I searched for jobs on Welcome to the Jungle or LinkedIn. 

Urban Index: You’re studying, you’re graduating, you made some friends. Did a lot of these friends stay in Paris as well?

Jiangshan: French people stayed in Paris, or they went back to their own cities in France. Most Lebanese and Moroccan friends stayed in Paris. Because this was during Covid, most Chinese people went back home. I think I was the only one who stayed. Some other international people who didn’t speak French went to the Netherlands. Some of them went to Luxembourg, and some of them went to Germany. 

Urban Index: How did you go about building out your social life? Was it easy for you? 

Jiangshan: I didn’t really make an effort to meet up with people on purpose. I mean, I had a good situation at my job.We are all similar in age and it’s super easy to make friends with other international people. I will still connect with my old school friends. My friends are made up of my colleagues, school friends and some other Chinese people from Courbevoie, which is where I live, there is a large Chinese community. I didn’t really make friends with French people, I feel.

Urban Index: How come?

Jiangshan: I will take things naturally. I don’t want to make friends on purpose. If I meet some French people along the way, yeah, of course, I like to get to know them. On the other hand, I feel they’re not as open. There are also some French people that are super open-minded, like a lot of people where I work. My mom always wanted me to make friends with French people for me to get used to life and living in France. 

Urban Index: Did you ever experience any language barriers?

Jiangshan: It was hard sometimes, especially in school. I was studying in the international program, but most students were French. In my class at least 70% I remember. There also were a lot of Americans and Lebanese, so whenever they spoke, they spoke French. I felt a little bit alone sometimes but it was also good because when I stayed with the Lebanese or Moroccan people, they spoke English with me, they understood that the Chinese girl didn’t know French and adapted to me. When I stayed with a group of French people, nobody wanted to make an effort to speak English.

Urban Index: How would you describe your level of French today? 

Jiangshan: It’s a shame to say, but for now I only understand basic French and I speak basic French.   

Urban Index: I’m curious about the cultural differences that you have experienced. 

Jiangshan: In China, when we want something, we just ask directly. We don’t say, hi, how are you? Hope you’re doing well. We don’t really do smalltalk.  I’m from the Asian culture and people are most of the time more introverts and they are pretty shy. 

French people can also be shy sometimes, but they’re still more open than the Asian culture. I especially feel it at my work. Even in school where I met lots of people from Morocco, from Lebanon, and Latin America people, they are much more expressive. In China or Singapore, people are not usually not willing to share what they really feel, they want to hide it inside until you discover it. So what you say doesn’t necessarily mean what you want. In China, you have to feel what they really think or what they really want to say. They won’t say it directly. 

Urban Index: Did you ever get scammed or did you have any bad experiences here?

Jiangshan: I would say the tremendous effort that I have to make whenever I was doing anything related to an administration task or with the bank, or with my visa. That was all a bad experience. And the level of how digitised France currently is. 

Whenever I want to renew my visa or whenever I want to check anything in the prefecture, I remember that I always need to block half of my day, it takes me half an hour to look at the website to find out the right information, to go to the correct page and to make the correct reservation. And once I found the correct page, I have to save it immediately so that I can still find this webpage the next time. Otherwise I will spend another 30 minutes just looking for that page again. 

With the bank, I always have to find someone who speaks English. If I want to change my phone number or change my address, I need to spend lots of effort coordinating with the people. You know, in Singapore, everything is done in just like three clicks and you’re finished. Whenever you need some help, you just go to the branch. Worst case, you go to the branch and then you talk to one guy and he will settle everything for you.Here they send you to the other branch because you’re not with this branch, you’re with the branch five kilometres away, but they’re closed today because it’s Saturday. 

Urban Index: I’m assuming that when you were a student, you had a student visa.  Did your employer have anything to do with you getting your visa later, or did you have to do everything yourself?

Jiangshan: In my last company I had to do everything myself. It was a very young startup. They were unsure about how to apply for a Visa as a foreigner. My company today has an HR department who knows how to do it properly. I just need to apply online and make sure that things are properly put in progress. 

Urban Index: What do you like the most about living here and your new life here?

Jiangshan: I love the fact that Europe is so connected. If I live in Paris, I can go everywhere for my holidays. In Paris, I love the company that I’m working for. I feel lucky to have found this kind of international company in Paris. I found my job on Welcome to the Jungle. I applied over a year ago but didn’t succeed, so I subscribed to their recruitment newsletter. I kept receiving this newsletter and when they advertised a job I could do, I scheduled another call with them. I followed the recruitment process and got hired!  

Urban Index: What is your favourite place in the city?

Jiangshan: I live in Courbevoie. There are a lot of retired people and school kids. It’s more like a calm family area. We have a market every Saturday morning, which is super crowded, I love seeing all the grandmas and grandpas buy their vegetables, meat or seafood there. I like the fact that my life is separated between work and after work. Once I finish work, I leave Paris, I go to Courbevoie where it’s another world purely for resting. If I work or I want to have some fun, I go to Paris.

 If you ask me my favourite place in Paris, I would say Montmartre because it’s beautiful. It’s always beautiful. I didn’t really remember what the history is there, but I know there is a movie that was filmed there, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain. After the movie I went to Montmartre and said, yes, it’s true, it’s very beautiful. But there are a lot of pickpockets! 


Interview with Haylei, 29, from the USA 🇺🇸

Urban Index: Hello, Haylei. Tell me about yourself. 

Haylei: So, my name is Haylei. I am a 29 year old woman from California who has been living in France for four years now. 

Urban Index: Were you always in Paris? 

Haylei: I was always in Paris. I’m still in the same apartment I was four years ago. 

Urban Index: Which arrondissement do you live in? 

Haylei: I live on the border of the 11th and the 20th at Père-Lachaise, so technically it’s the 11th. But as far as accessing different neighbourhoods, the 20th is much closer and much easier to go out in. 

Urban Index: Do you love your arrondissement?

Haylei: I do. I actually really, really do! I’m one of those people that will always find something about the neighbourhood I live in, to fall in love with it. I did this in San Francisco and now that I’m living in the 11th and 20th, we have the cemetery, which has a rich, rich history. It’s beautiful. We have a lot of hipster shops, cute little épiceries, cute little dance studios. It’s really thriving and it’s up and coming as well. New shops are opening every day. 

Urban Index: What kind of people would you say live in the 11th and the 20th arrondissements?

Haylei: I would say it’s a lot of young 30-year olds who are probably buying their apartments for the first time.  It’s mostly hipsters. Young, French people. 

Urban Index: Do you think it’s French-International? 

Haylei: I would say the majority is French, around 95%. But walking around the district, you can definitely hear native English speakers. 

Urban Index: What brought you to Paris four years ago? 

Haylei: Unofficially or officially ? Both are stereotypical. I officially came here for school, I was on a student visa. I went to the Paris School of Business, as part of their international program. Unofficially I came for my boyfriend, we had met in San Francisco, where I was a super nerd in high school. I think I had a lot to compensate for and my role model at the time had gotten her masters, so I made it my mission to get my masters. I was putting all my ducks in a row to stay in San Francisco and get my masters at the same university that I had gotten my undergraduate in, so I developed really close relationships with a few professors.

I was saving my money pretty aggressively to pay for tuition. I was looking at scholarship programs, everything, and I had majored in international business, that’s how I met my boyfriend as well. We met in school and two of my professors actually mentioned they had relationships to France. I was seeking advice from both of them and they really guided me towards doing an international program. Although they didn’t have ties to PSB specifically, they helped me make my decision to look towards programs in France. Once I did, I realised that it was actually going to be easier for me to come here with my budget than it would’ve been to stay at San Francisco State University with a 50% off tuition fee. 

Urban Index: So studying overseas would’ve been only half as expensive as it would have been to stay in San Francisco? I assume living costs?

Haylei: No, just on tuition, not including living costs. Going abroad was in line with what I was studying as well. I got to stay with my boyfriend at the time, who’s still my boyfriend, and I got to experience another culture.

Urban Index: You already know that you’re going to stay at your boyfriend’s place?

Haylei: Yes, so I wouldn’t have to pay the rent. 

Urban Index: You get on the aeroplane, you land in Paris where I’m assuming your boyfriend picks you up at the aeroplane, 

Haylei: Also a dramatic story! So dramatic for a lot of different reasons, haha! I was desperately waiting for my visa to come in. I had a one year student visa, which I applied for myself in the French Embassy in San Francisco. I’m lucky enough to come from a place where we have a French embassy. 

When I went there, there were people from all over the northwest part of my country, people who had to take a three hour flight, people who had to drive five hours. I was lucky enough to take a half day off of work and deal with it. I’m pretty sure I had to pay something like a hundred dollars for it at the time. 

The documents I had to bring, if I remember correctly, were my passport, a letter from my boyfriend confirming that I would live with him, so proof of residence, bank statements to prove that I would not be a burden on the system. This is a pretty standard French request, but at the time I remember thinking that I was kind of strange. If you want to become a citizen, you have to prove that you have paid for yourself, you have carried yourself. So it would make sense that if you’re going to go there, they want to have the same kind of proof. I also remember I had an acceptance letter or something like that. 

I had paid half my tuition at that point. I remember being very stressed because they kept asking me for more and more documents, classic French, haha, and I don’t think that they had told me to bring these documents. I remember furiously running around downtown San Francisco trying to find somewhere where I can print these documents and provide them to the embassy. I remember they did an interview with me to say, who are you? Are you really, Haylei, blah, blah, blah. 

Urban Index:  So your top tip is if you have an embassy appointment, make sure you know the nearest printing shop is! 

Haylei: Yes! I mean, anyone who hasn’t already come to France but is planning to come to France, you will learn very quickly that the French administration is always asking for extra documents. I advise that even if it’s not obvious, just print it out beforehand. If they ask for it, great, you’ll have it. Print out whatever, you wasted some paper, but have it ready. 

So back to the embassy: we are all freaking out, especially the unfortunate people who weren’t from a large city in the US. I think that I’m extra privileged moving from San Francisco to Paris, because there’s a lot of similarities of living in a big city. I think it was particularly difficult for the people who had to come from a small town in not even California, from a different state to drive or fly to San Francisco, go to the embassy and then have to run around downtown san Francisco which is a city that’s not a super comfortable environment for everyone who’s not used to it to try to find a printer, et cetera, et cetera.

They took my passport, which was the first time I’ve had that happen,  and because I had already booked my flight I had missed my flight because I didn’t get my visa on time. It was my boyfriend’s birthday in September. As a gift, his parents had booked us a trip to Venice, Italy, and it was looking like I was also going to miss the trip to Venice.

I remember getting an email saying that my visa was coming and it was very dramatic because I was in between housing. I’m living out of a suitcase in a friend’s apartment, and I’m having the visa delivered to my old apartment. I remember basically getting a live UPS-tracker of my visa, where you can actually see the truck on the map and you can track the truck to the destination, so I remember racing to my old apartment where I was still friends with my former roommates at the time. I don’t remember how I got in, if I had like an extra key at that point or what, but I had gotten in the building and I was waiting for the driver. 

I got my visa, I got on my phone and I booked the flight to Paris for three hours later. I called my best friend and said I’m leaving today. It’s happening really fast. My best friend came and she helped me carry my suitcases to the Oakland airport where I flew out of. We had one last drink together and I was off! I landed at Charles De Gaulle, late at night. The next morning, Vincent and I barely made our flight to Venice. 

Urban Index: I hope you got to recover in Venice! Once you came back, did you immediately start with your classes?

Haylei: I didn’t start immediately. I had a week in-between. We had orientation and they had separated the French program from the international program, so most of the people in the international program were not French, although some of them were. All the classes were conducted in English and that was very helpful because I essentially made some of my best friends at that orientation. There are people that I text every day on the daily to this day, four years later. 

Urban Index: Was there any requirement of you knowing any French?

Haylei: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I didn’t speak it, I arrived here without speaking any French. Well, I had done Duolingo. I had done some online courses, but they weren’t structured courses. I don’t even think I could form a sentence.  I remember at the time I studied a lot on my own to try to read French, to try to write French and I remember arriving and listening to these people speak, and I couldn’t distinguish one word from the other. It was all just noise. It took me, I think, essentially a year to even distinguish words within a sentence, words that I knew that I studied. But hearing the Duolingo guys saying it versus somebody who lives here and is from here, very different. Very different. I don’t know if this is coming from a culture where we’re not exposed to many other languages, certainly not French, we’re exposed to Spanish.

Where I came from, we are exposed to some Vietnamese, for instance, but I was never exposed to French. I don’t watch French media and I don’t think the average American does. Other international people hear American media and American entertainment, it’s very prominent here. 

Urban Index: Let’s talk admin.  You’re going to need a bank account, you’re going to need a phone number, you’re going to need your Navigo. How did you do all of this?

Haylei: Luckily my boyfriend’s family really helped me out a lot. They helped me with my Navigo. To get your Navigo, there are a few ways to do it

It’s very difficult to get a bank account as an American in France. If anyone here is American reading this blog, you’ll very quickly learn that our government has a very weird way of tracking its citizens. They have standards for us that other countries do not. And so sometimes it’s easier for banks just to not work with us. LCL is the bank that I bank with, and it is known for being one of the best banks for American students. They don’t have a special program for American students, but they do have a special program for students from outside the EU. Then again, this is French culture, so you’ll learn quickly that everything depends on the person you’re speaking to. I suspect that a lot of bankers see that you’re an American. They know it’s going to be more paperwork for them. Maybe they’ve never been through the process before and they don’t want to learn the process, so it’s easier for them just to say, no, I’m sorry, we don’t work with you guys. It’s a matter of maybe trying again with somebody else.

Now I use a Neobank, I have a friend who worked at Revolut and she’s the one that recruited me to sign up with Revolut. I love it, they give you a virtual card. Contactless payment is very common in Europe which was new for me coming here. American citizens can now easily open an account with Revolut, I think it’s, it just happened about a month ago. I signed up with a referral code (insert referral code) . I needed to provide that document that was in a permanent residence, but now you can sign up using your American passport which is much easier. I think you have to pay like eight euros or something like that, a one-time fee. If you have your details, you have your passport and you have eight euros and you have data, you can sign yourself up in 20 minutes. 

Urban Index: You had a French residence card (carte de séjour)?  How do you get that?

Haylei:  I demanded it. I was on a student visa that was valid for one year. In France, you need to demand a meeting with your prefecture and you can only demand that meeting within three months of the expiration date of your current visa. There was a problem because all of the slots were taken. This would’ve been in August, 2019. I had already signed a contract for a CDI and I was supposed to start in September, but the problem was I was in between visas, so I needed to sort out my visa situation or I felt like my brand new contract was in jeopardy. The company was not going to help me with this. At this initial point they were like “good luck”. They did not help me.

I’m trying to remember to get everything straight. So I couldn’t get an appointment online. I physically showed up to the prefecture office and I cried to the security guard to let me in, because I was really upset and I knew I wasn’t going to get in and I knew my visa was going to expire. I come from a culture where, if you don’t have your documents in order, you’re screwed and you can never be let back into the country. I was at the time operating under those assumptions, which I found out later on is different in France. We always come in with our cultural assumptions and we don’t realise we’re even using those assumptions until it gets pointed out to us, right?

Long story short, I had to show up three days in a row, face the same security guard three days in a row, and beg to be let in. On the third day, he let me in. After that it was easy, it was smooth sailing. They gave me a Récépissé. It works as an official document and it gives you a temporary number, like the social security number. It allows you to work and I got it on the day when I made it into the office. It goes quite quickly.

This document is supposed to hold you over until you can finally get a real appointment to get your carte de sejour. My workplace at the time had to make a case as to why they needed me. As I was working in the anglophone markets, they needed a native speaker. My work sat down, they hired a lawyer and the lawyer drafted all of these documents for me to take into my official appointment.  When I went for my official appointment, I had gone through everything and they still didn’t give me the official card. I don’t know why,, but then Covid hit and everything was completely fucked. And there was a time where I had no documents whatsoever.

The French administration had basically said, don’t worry about it. We know you’re in the country. Don’t leave. They were, they were drowning. They couldn’t do anything about it. Anyway, after six months of not having a titre séjour, which meant that I had no official documents, which meant I couldn’t leave the country because I couldn’t enter, I had gotten an appointment. Finally after that I was granted my card and I was granted a four year visa. At this point I had already spent two years in the country. While my visa will expire in 4 years, it becomes easier and easier to renew – the first time you really had to fight, you really had to make a case. The second time they say, okay, you’ve been at a steady job for one year – it’s important that you don’t jump jobs within that first year. 

Urban Index: Are there companies that are more open to hiring Americans or jobs that are open to hiring Americans? Could you just take your pick? 

Haylei: I found my job on Welcome to the Jungle. It’s a little bit of a cheat, but I literally just typed in “native English speaker” and that’s how I found my position. I ended up in a career I really like, I think it depends on your industry. 

Urban Index: As an international working in France, how did you feel working in a French company? 

Haylei: My first company I honestly loved. Yeah. Coming from the USA, I had a very strict working background. My bosses were not so accommodating. We have no job security as they can fire you whenever they want, the hours seem a lot longer. That’s what I had experienced. If you show up a minute late, you might get a talking to for five minutes. You’re expected to buy your lunch, eat your lunch, finish your lunch within 30 minutes and most days I would eat at my desk. And so when I came here, I remember very early on into my career, I was handed a lot of prospecting tools. I had accidentally sent out an email to basically everybody in our database – I was freaking out and I was thinking, “oh God, I’ve just gotten myself fired”. Obviously I wasn’t going to try to sweep it under the rug, so I went to my manager, I was like, “oh no, oh no, help me, help me, please”. 

I remember he was just so calm and relaxed and he was like,, he laughed about it. He made a little joke and said “okay, let me see if I can stop this”. I just remember thinking that wow, everyone here is so relaxed.

Urban Index: I’m assuming you had a large portion of French people at the company? 

Haylei: My team was pretty international because I was in the expansion team. The majority of the people were French. My boss was French. The founders were all French. 90% of the company was French. 

Urban Index: Did you have a lot of contact with the French employees? 

Haylei: We were a small company. We were less than 60 at the time, and 40 of us were regularly coming into the office every single day. I think my experience is heavily reliant on my industry, I was in a tech startup so people will show up in t-shirts and jeans and, and sneakers and in my experience, tech guys seem to be some of the nicest people. They are just so kind and nice and positive. They are very curious about other people’s cultures and other people’s takes on things. We had a lot of discussion around my experience in France and my perspective as an American. 

Urban Index: Is there any difference you see working in France versus working in the USA? 

Haylei: Yes, the after work policy, the apéro. One thing that I felt very early on, but I couldn’t put my finger on was that French people are not more outgoing than Americans, but they are more social, they’re more convivial. They run in the same social circles, and they enjoy being in a group more than Americans do. You’re expected to show up for apéros, when you don’t, people take notice and you’re not as liked. I don’t think that you get promoted as quickly if you don’t come. One big difference that I noticed was taking an hour long lunch, my boss would order wine and order me a glass without really, you know. In that regard, it’s very Emily in Paris. 

They also respect your life. In the States, if you take a vacation, even if you have those vacation days, your boss can still say no. They respect vacation here. If you have something going on and you say, I’m sorry, I can’t, they respect that. If you need to go to the doctor, you can go, whereas in the United States you really had to make a case. When you’re looking for an apartment or have viewings or have to go to the doctor or you have an errand to run here, you just communicate it and then they let you go. It’s normal. 

Urban Index: What are the biggest life differences for you from before moving to France and now being in Paris? Do you feel that you could pick up the same lifestyle? 

Haylei: When I first moved here, I remember thinking, wow, these people never work out. Coming from the West Coast, I lived in yoga pants and sneakers. In Paris, you almost never see people in yoga pants on the street. When you do, you can tell they’re going to a yoga class. I came from a very active culture  to a culture that doesn’t value athletics as much. That was a huge difference for me.

The vacations were huge, having a whole month off in the summertime, whereas in the US having 2 weeks two weeks was a luxury.  If you did a two week vacation in my parents’ generation, you weren’t doing that again for another five years. 

Diet was hard. Diet was really, really hard. I remember getting enough fibre was difficult in the beginning. Again, coming from California, we eat salads, we have salad chains all over the place. We have Mexican restaurants, which Mexican cuisine is heavily focused on like beans and vegetables, so I remember coming to France and just feeling like, God, these people never eat vegetables. I remember girls walking around with their Contrex, diuretic water. It was the first time I had ever seen diuretic water. 

Urban Index:  In terms of building a life for yourself here, building routine like hobbies and activities and things you like to do, how did that go?

Haylei: It was very difficult.  I think I held myself back for a long time because I know my French was not up to snuff, so I felt like my own insecurity around the language held me back from doing the things I really loved. In California, I would regularly go to yoga classes. It’s much cheaper there, but the classes were in English also. 

Urban Index: Where did you find your yoga class? Where did you look for it? 

Haylei: I think Google Maps. I typed in yoga near me. It’s really hard to know where to start. You might know what you want, but where do you start looking for it? You’re in a new country. I’m a very social person and so I think going to an international program really helped with that, because I was able to form a core there. Basically all of my closest friends now somehow are related to that core. You meet people through people and then your life evolves and maybe now you don’t hang out with that core anymore, but you’re still somehow related to that. 

Urban Index: So what you’re saying is you have to be social just in order to meet people and get introduced to other people. Yeah. And you can’t really lock yourself away. 

Haylei: Even if you don’t necessarily see the person, that you’re talking to as your best friend forever, maybe that person’s going to be the person that introduces you to your best friend, you’re going to be talking to your future best friend that you’re going to be messaging every single day. That’s kind of how it happened for me.

Urban Index: Your closest friends today, are those all people you met first degree or are some of them friends? 

Haylei: Alot of them are friends of friends. Some of them I’ve met directly in a school group or something like that, but I think if you run down the top 10 contacts on my WhatsApp, it’s people of other people. They are mostly international people, but they all work and live in Paris. There’s a huge international community. If you’re an international person working in the startup worldyou’ll start to realise that everybody knows everybody. 

Urban Index: Building a life, hobbies, culture, shocks, anything negative that you’ve experienced?

Haylei:  Don’t hold yourself back. Even if you sound like an idiot (and they’ll make you sound like it). They’ll point out your flaws. Something negative about French culture I think that they’re very comfortable pointing out each other’s flaws. If you make a mistake, whether it’s in the way you speak or if you’re slightly weird, they’re going to point that out. I don’t know why they do that. I think it’s culturally a thing. People complain more here. They love it. It’s not a stereotype, it’s true. I would say they complain to do two things: they complain to connect with each other, just like English people talk about the weather,ant the other reason is that it’s easy. It’s conversation material. So when people are complaining, you don’t necessarily have to go into problem solving mode like an American would do. You can just listen and complain back. 

Urban Index: Last question. What are your favourite places in Paris? 

Haylei: Buttes Chaumont. There’s a waterfall, there are hills. It’s on the outskirts of  Paris in the 20th, so it’s kind of removed. I love La Villette, it’s very cute. It’s a nice place to get a beer in the summertime. There are all these cute little niche bars and restaurants that you can enjoy to see something different. My last favourite place is El Guacamole. It’s great for Mexican food, if you’re missing Mexican food. I guess those would be my favourite places, other than my apartment!


Interview with David, 33, from the USA 🇺🇸

David: My name is David, I’m 33 and I’m originally from Detroit, Michigan, USA, and I’ve been in France now for 7 years consecutively. Prior to that, I did an exchange during university in Orléans, which is in the centre of France. After 1 semester there I fell in love with life in France.

Urban Index: How long was this semester?

David: Three months. It depends which semester you do. It could be three, four months, but it was three months for me, in 2010. 

I had never really actually planned on coming to France, it was more like I knew I wanted to be in Europe. I was taking French classes at university when I offered to be a host family for an exchange student and he was really cool. He said I should do the exchange in the summer, so I did that and it was the best summer of my life. Then, three years later, I applied to a program called TAPIF Teaching Assistance Program in France.

This program is really nice for young professionals and university students looking to get an experience because it requires a little bit more work than just coming as a student when university helps with the visas and all that. Teaching Assistance is sponsored by the French government, so the French education system. They take care of organising the visa and paying for it. So in 2013, I came to officially live in France for a year. 

Urban Index: So the first time you came for the exchange program in Orléans. Was all of the admin then also taken care of by the university?

David: It was a bit unique because I was only staying for three months. I didn’t need a visa because the US passport allows you to stay in Europe for three months straight without having to leave the country . I do know people who came as students and there was a visa process because they were staying for a full year, but the university would walk them through that process.

Urban Index: Did the university put you in student halls or did you have to find your own place to live?

David: Accommodation was part of the arrangement. We either had the choice of staying in student housing or we could stay with a host family. I chose to stay with a host family  so that I could be better integrated and have that experience. 

Urban Index: You regret your decision after or was it the good decision to make?

David: I would say there are pros and cons for me: it was really good because it got me out of my comfort zone and made me see really how American I was. From simple things like not having air conditioning in the summer to how much water I consumed , you know, they would look at me like I was crazy. They would have to say that when you’re taking a shower, maybe don’t take as long and keep the water running the entire time.

Urban Index: What other things like that can you remember?

David: Shorter showers, or that if you’re not in the room, turn the lights off. Little things like that, that I never thought about . It was great for my French and to see how French families live and they were instructed by the universities to really give the French experience, from real French breakfast to having a goûter, telling me at four o’clock you have what’s called goûter, a snack – very important! 

Urban Index: When you came back in 2013 you said that the university helped you with some of the admin?

David: No, I came to do a TAPIF (Teaching Assistant Program in France) which is a program for the US & Canada, if you’re from the UK it’s run by the British Council. You go ahead and apply, explaining why you want to be a teaching assistant, if you get chosen you’ll be teaching English in a school. They say it’s 20 hours, but you only work 12 hours per week. You’re assisting the English teachers to give them a real experience, as we are usually younger and speak to a native level. We are closer in age to the high school students as we just graduated.

The process with that is they give you different regions to choose from, so you can’t choose a city like Nice or Bordeaux. Amazingly enough, a lot of people, especially those who’ve not travelled, choose Paris, but Paris is one of the most difficult places to succeed in and it has the highest rate of people leaving because they don’t expect the housing to be so competitive and they get lost in the crowd. 

The program is just long enough to where you get to live in France and work, but it’s not long enough to truly be integrated  so I ended up being in a very small city near Orléans called Blois, which still had about 30,000 people and it was awesome for me. At first I felt it’s in the middle of nowhere, but it was awesome because I ended up being better, integrated and meeting a lot of French people and actually using my French, whereas in Paris, you don’t have to use French.

With the Tapif you have the choice of around three regions, then they place you and closer to the date they tell you which city you will be in. You usually get placed with your teacher, who if they are good, will take you under their wing. They’re supposed to be there to welcome you, pick you up from the airport or at least tell you how to get to the city. Sometimes they organise dinners with the teachers and above that there also are other teaching assistants, so you’re not completely alone.

The Visa process is that once you’re accepted, you go to your nearest consulate and everything is paid for by the government. Depending where you’re applying from in the US, sometimes it can take 9 months and other times 12 months. This allows you to work in France. Under normal conditions, you’re not allowed to transfer this visa. If you find a job while you’re in France, you do have to go back to your home country and apply for a new working visa, not the one for Tapif. Technically your visa is not transferable, but there are always exceptions, nothing in France is black and white.

Urban Index: I’m assuming you benefited from that?

David: I did indeed.

After that year in Orléans I thought I had it all out of my system and went back to the US and started working for the Quebec branch of New Balance

Urban Index: Still using your French?

David: Yes, which helped me realise I had a long ways to go to use businessFrench, so I decided I also wanted to do a master’s degree, but not in education. I was also over 25  so there are a limited number of program slots for people that age range in public universities in France. I re-enlisted for the same program and it just so happened that I was placed in the Paris region this time.  I had a friend who had an extra bedroom, so I didn’t have to worry about finding a place of my own. I started looking for programs and eventually went to a private school. So again, I went through the same visa process and I ended up only working 12 hours a week.

Urban Index: That’s amazing.

David: Yeah, only 12 hours a week. It wasn’t very well paid, I think you’re paid like 900 after taxes, so barely surviving. You need money saved up before that. I found a part-time job teaching English 8 hours a week, and they really liked me, so they offered me a part-time job for 20 – 25 hours after I finished my contract for the teaching program. 

I went to the prefecture multiple times, and each time they told me, no, no, no. One day I went and I stumbled upon somebody who was in a good mood on the right day. I must have been wearing the right colour shirt and I did bring a French friend, she must have said something right. We asked for a change of status. The administrator looked at my passport, looked at me, and asked “you have a CDI?” Then he said “Okay, well, you know, I guess you’re already working so we can make an exception. You’re within your rights. I see that you transferred from eight hours and now you want to work 25 hours. It qualifies for the financial minimum to be here and for the visa.” and stamped my form. I got lucky, that is definitely not the standard.

Urban Index: So before you met the guy who approved you, you’d actually been to the office multiple times before to try to get the same request through. And every time they said, no, you were resilient and you went back. Persistence, it’s very French.

David: Yes, but I would also say the process is changing. I’ve noticed even now, when I go for renewals, that it’s not as easy to just do a walk-in appointment.  It depends where you’re at. If you’re in an area with large numbers of immigrants, it’s gonna be a much more rigid process. They are going to be less understanding. If you’re in a smaller area, maybe it’s easier. I happened to luck out. I also know now, that post COVID, many things have moved online, but their online system isn’t necessarily up to par.

Urban Index: Okay, so you’re now in Paris, you have your paperwork sorted. You’re living in your own place. Tell me about going from your friend’s place to getting your own place.

David: That was a long journey too. I think what’s most important for that process is getting financially stable, to become financially stable means you have a secure job, but it also means your visa. So let’s talk about my visa process.

I managed to get this first visa set, which is good for one year and it is directly associated and tied to your company who sponsors you. Your employer has to agree to pay. I think it’s like one month’s tax to have you, and they have to justify why you deserve this job versus a French national.

Urban Index: Is this for any foreigner or is this specific for overseas foreigners?

David: This is for non-EU foreigners. The hierarchy basically is French national, European citizen, non-EU citizen. A lot of companies don’t want to hire someone without a visa, however you can’t get a visa without a promesse d’embauche which is a written confirmation that you have received a job offer in France, the “intent to hire”.

It’s kind of what comes first, the chicken or the egg. Yes. Once you do get the agreement from the company, they write a letter of motivation on why they need your skills. It could be that you’re handling a certain market but you’re headquartered in France or maybe you have exceptional work talent, something along those lines. After I managed to get that, I had to stay at my company for one year, at least to remain valid in France. Once that year was up, I renewed it for a second year  and then you’re supposed to stay a bit of time after you can’t just leave the company .

After that first year visa, you get a four year visa . And once you have that visa, you’re free to move around. Although you need to have a CDI for the 4-year visa. And then once you’re done with that, you get 10 years. Dialling back, the first step was having the 1-year visa and I had to sacrifice a lot. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but fortunately there’s something called CAF. It’s a government body which subsidises your living, so they give you free money.

Urban Index: And you didn’t have an issue getting that despite being a foreigner.

David: No, there are certain people who would like to change that though

Urban Index: Yeah gotcha.

David: Yeah. I was able to benefit from that and that really helped,  especially as I was paying for my studies in a private company  but despite all that, even though I was completely, completely, completely broke during that time, I felt okay because I knew that I had healthcare which is like the worst thing in the US.

Urban Index: That was through work, right?

David: Oh, no, I’m talking about social healthcare. I did have a Mutuelle or insurance plan,  but what I mean is that in the US, one of your biggest fears is like, what happens to me if I get sick? What happens to me ifI have to go to the hospital  and I go into debt, even if you’re in the middle of your masters. Well, you now have $30,000 in debt for your masters. Plus you have medical expenses here. I at least knew that if something happened to me, my bare necessities were met. I could eat, I could even manage a go on holiday a couple times a year. Nothing fancy, but good enough.It  allowed me to become more stable the longer I was there. Even though I worked for some crazy startups, I was able to be more financially independent  and get my own place after some time.

Urban Index: So yeah, it’s a process.

David: Yeah.

Urban Index: Now that you were stable, what was going through your head? Like, I’m gonna make this my new home. I’m gonna build a life here or was it like there’s so much world to see?

David: To see? Honestly, my initial idea was, well, as long as the visa works out, if I can renew it and it’s good, I’ll stay here. And then you get to the point where yes, you of course miss your family,  your friends, you’re still a foreigner, but it becomes home. You feel more grounded? And I think at my age too, I wanted stability. You build your life, you make friends, you get used to things. There’s things that you like, little quirks that you end up loving. For me it’s actually just having to switch languages, even if I’m not perfect. It’s getting to use that. You see your perspective changing and you realise that what you grew up with, it’s not right or wrong. It’s just different.  You gain a new perspective. 

Urban Index: Tell me how you made friends because that’s something that’s very challenging for a lot of people who come to a new country. Where did you find friends? How did you build relationships with them? How did you immerse yourself into the Parisian life?

David: I think one of the biggest things was working in the startup scene, working in startups that had very diverse people with similar stories, even if they, come from vastly different cultures. There are also French people who have lived abroad. They empathised with me and they were eager to take me under the wing. There are other foreigners from all over the world who share the same things. Like “yeah, I miss my family too”. “Oh, I don’t get to celebrate this, but I would love to celebrate this holiday with somebody”. “Do you wanna join” and things like that. I guess it was a bit easier for me because I did have friends already, but I think just getting involved, you’re already out of your comfort zone, so why not go the extra mile? There are plenty of Anglophone people if it’s a language barrier you’re worried about, there’s plenty of Spanish-speaking or Anglophone groups on Facebook, MeetUp is a goldmine for clubs. Just search for a cycling club in Paris and you’re gonna find something. I was involved for a while with community-style initiatives like the American church of Paris to do breakfast for the homeless and you meet people there. The more jobs I changed, the bigger my social network got. 

Urban Index: What would you say is the percentage of French people among your friends today?

David: I would say it’s about 50-50, but even my local French friends have a story behind them. They’re not 100% pure French that can trace their lineage to the aristocrats. But everybody is either Francophone and maybe they’re half Spanish or half something else. I would say my core group of friends areFrench with others being French plus. At work I would say it’s quite international. I think I have a healthy mix. 

Urban Index: You said that you worked at a bunch of crazy startups. Once you had finished with the work that got you set up in France, how did you go about finding a job?

David: Oh, you know, that was weird too. I actually didn’t know where to look. It sounds so silly now that I look back, like if you just type in Google ‘looking for a job’ it should pop up. I had a friend who was really passionate, she was teaching on the side and she linked me up with the company, I started as a teacher for them and I really liked their pedagogy. I proposed they should market more what they do and began community management, for them when I realised I knew nothing. That’s when I started my masters for digital marketing communication.

David: When I got to school, I started asking more questions, I found other job opportunities that could be interesting. I came across Welcome to the Jungle  which is great website, especially for both younger and experienced people alike. There are all kinds of jobs and there are plenty of eclectic international companies or companies that want to become more international who offer great opportunities. If you’re younger and you’re not worried about pay and you’re eager to put in the hours for the experience, I think there’s a lot of great startups there. If you don’t exactly have the background they’re looking for, it allows you to still get in touch. I think France is still pretty traditional, like if you study business in college and university, you should do business until you die. Whereas this is what makes the startup scene quite cool, because they’re looking for people with diverse backgrounds and not necessarily a straight and narrow path. If you work hard, you get promoted and you can then maybe branch out. 

Urban Index: French culture: tell me what for you was the most surprising and what stood out to you?You already mentioned some from your host family.

David: Different eating habits: I come from a snacking culture and that’s not really existent here, but I would say the biggest shock was when I finally moved, it wasn’t the culture or the language, it was actually being a suburbanite from the US and moving to a big city . I think I would’ve had more or less the same shock and difficulties adapting to public transportation had it been Paris or Chicago mm-hmm

Urban Index: I was gonna ask about public transportation

David: It was, you know, adapting to actually being around people all the time. You’re always surrounded. That was the biggest thing for me. But really on the French side, I would say there are things in the beginning that you notice. You criticise, you mock and then slowly they just seep into your personality.  Like asking loads of questions and being overly analytical. Never really saying you’re right, but saying things like “oh, well you have a point, but…” and then always asking a question. There’s so many little things, like yesterday I was eating a baked camembert and I was just thinking this is so simple, but I would never get this in the US. This is so good. A simple delight. 

I think that a common misconception about French culture in the US is that there’s a 35 hour work week and that’s it. This might be true for a lot of companies, but I definitely worked 50, 60 hours some weeks. There also are perks. I think France has a work hard play hard culture. And when you’re truly off, you’re disconnected, as when you’re on vacation.

Urban Index: The right to disconnect is a French law regarding the ability of people to disconnect from work and primarily not to engage in work-related electronic communications such as e-mails or messages during non-work hours. You’re truly off. 

So for the people from the US who are thinking about coming to France, but they’re not convinced yet for various reasons, what would you tell them?

David: It depends where you’re at in your life. If you’re a student, I’d say take the leap because it’s a time where you do have the support from your university, from your peers, your family, and when you arrive here, you’ll be with people and you’re more adaptable and flexible in your twenties. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for young talent. Knowing French is not obligatory, but it definitely helps. Refusing to learn the language will hinder you in the long run. I would say, prepare, think about just having the base of the language and don’t think that one morning you’re just gonna get on a plane and come to Paris. It’s not like a movie. Definitely do your research. 

Urban Index: Emily’s from Chicago as well, isn’t she?

David: Yeah, unless you are that 0.1% people who are just completely lucky, it doesn’t work like that. Do your research on how to get visas. It’s not impossible. And actually there are a lot of startups, a lot of companies. If you are in business development or if you’re an IT engineer, there’s a lot of opportunity. I actually have a friend like that, while I went through all this struggle to survive and whatever, my friend from Detroit is a software engineer. It basically was Emily in Paris for him, got hired, got a great salary, they paid for his visa. They walked him through everything. They took care of the legal fees.

Urban Index: They bought him all those Chanel bags.

David: Yeah. But I would say that you should have some French because it can be difficult in a traditional French company.. Even if people speak English, everything will be done in French.  If you’re in a startup they’ll want English, but maybe their level of English isn’t great.  Having basic knowledge is going to help, I would say either way, prepare, join forums, ask questions and be aware of people looking to make a buck off of you.

Urban Index: Have you ever been ripped off?

David: I have not because I’ve been fortunate to have French people who have helped me. There are points of desperation where you’re willing to feed into what you think is the scheme. For example, now that you’re allowed to book online for appointments at the prefecture to pick up your visa, there are people who built online robots that take all the appointments and then they sell these appointments. It says very clearly on the administrative website to not pay for an appointment, but there are still many people falling for this scam. The government is working to combat this, but don’t fall into this trap. People end up paying for the meeting but the appointment is not actually reserved in their name. The other thing is there are a lot of “consultancy companies” out there that say that they can take care of the process for you. That’s not true unless they can help you with the process. But if they can say, “I guarantee you visa”, it’s 100% a scam. Guaranteeing visas is not possible, getting a visa is a case by case situation. Others overcharge for basic things, like those student relocation services. They’ll rip you off.

Urban Index: I knew some of them in London, it was awful what they did.

David: Yes, there’s a lot of things like that. Always ask questions before paying high fees for services. If you’re a well-to-do foreigner who obviously has a good job, they’re gonna know that fees are higher elsewhere than here and they’re going to make a lot of money off of you.  I would just always double check that, but the difficulty is that you don’t know what questions to ask to avoid these situations. It’s hard. All the information is out there, but it’s all over the place. There’s no central place to find it all.

Urban Index: Last question:  which are your favourite places in Paris? 

David: My favourite place I would say is so cheesy, but I love Montmartre even though it’s super touristy there, it still has this really great charm. Um, I love Île Saint Louis near Notre Dame. Even though again, it’s in a very touristy sector. There are a lot of French people there. There’s some really great hidden gems. There’s so many great quarters. There are some places that are more aesthetically beautiful for the architecture in the 17th like the Hausmannian buildings, but for great food, I think the 18th is awesome, the Marais is also great.

I would say Montmartre overall for everything because I love the Sacre Coeur, there’s good restaurants there, it’s nostalgic, it’s gorgeous. And then I also just love (it’s very specific) on Pont Neuf, there’s this little Place Dauphine,  and there’s a few reasons: it’s by the river, you have a view on the Eiffel Tower plus there’s this little area with like Petanque courts and little cafes and bookstores and somehow the buildings black out all the noise. Near there is also my favourite pub called The Highlander and it’s very Harry Potter. You have this bridge and you go through it. I would say that is my overall favourite place in Paris.