This is a true story that took place in 2001, during a meeting of the co-owners of a Parisian building in the prestigious 16th district.
Gavin Dean and I entered the meeting room, which was already packed with elegantly dressed attendees, reflecting the value of their expensive real estate. We discreetly found unoccupied seats in the penultimate row and waited.
Jenni Dean was my colleague at Alstom. She and her husband had recently arrived in France from Down Under, my hosted country. For an hour, the syndic's representative went through the agenda and counted the votes. Then, we reached proposal number 25, which concerned us.
I whispered to Gavin, "It's our turn."
"Finally!" he replied.
We exchanged complicit smiles. The syndic's representative theatrically declared, "Mr. and Mrs. Dean, co-owners of lot 47, request permission to install a satellite on the roof of the building to receive international television channels."
A murmur swept through the assembly, and all eyes turned to Gavin and me. Incredulous and taken aback by this hostility, he looked at me, his eyes filled with despair.
I remember that moment vividly because I was just as lost as he was. Why were these people reacting so strongly? What could they possibly object to in such an innocent request?
A tall, thin man, his tie matching his pocket square, stood up and gesticulated. "We are not in Barbès!" he thundered scoldingly.
The assembly erupted in applause, and in his passionate outburst, he continued, "I vote against Mr. Dean's request to install a satellite on the roof of our building so that his mistress can watch the chingchangchong channels."
At the end of his speech, which he clearly felt proud of, he took a bow, convinced that he had just saved the world from a supposed Chinese invasion. The audience gave him a standing ovation. Gavin, however, did not understand anything about this scene and questioned me with his eyes. However, I felt that an intervention on my part would be more appropriate than an explanation.
I stood up, adjusting my elegant dress that clung to my body. Then, I delicately tucked a lock of hair behind my ear and smiled at the spectators. The audience held its breath, displaying impatience in their eyes and obvious curiosity. They anticipated hearing pointless and derisive comments from me.
After a few moments of silence, which eased the almost hostile tension in the room, I finally spoke, not in "chingchangchong" as they might have expected, but in perfect French. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Kim Chi Pho, and I am not Mr. Gavin Dean's mistress."
"Oh..." I heard whispers of disappointment from the audience. Some co-owners, I am sure, found the situation suddenly less entertaining. They wondered whom I was and why I was in a general meeting typically reserved for co-owners.
"I am the translator and close friend of Mr. and Mrs. Dean. They are Australian and would like to watch channels in English."
Then I turned back to Gavin and translated what had transpired. I spoke loudly enough to let these arrogant people, convinced of their superiority; know that I could also communicate perfectly in the language of Shakespeare. I inserted a few expressions that I was sure they did not understand.
Gavin was shocked. Before coming to France, he had been assured that the French were open-minded people, that they abhorred all forms of discrimination, and that they vehemently rejected racism. He had me translate his requests, arguing that everyone should have the right to be informed in their mother tongue, whether it was Chinese, English, or Arabic. The co-owners listened to Gavin's arguments, which I translated into their language. Their expressions softened, and some even smiled at me.
The syndic regained his composure and tapped the microphone a few times, which I had just noticed, though it seemed rather unnecessary in a room of modest size.
"Sorry, Mrs. Kim... Cabbage..." He searched for the rest of my first and last names but came up empty. I chuckled, wondering if he had a penchant for Asian food because Kim Chi is a hot fermented cabbage dish, and PHO is Vietnam's national beef noodle soup. But I quickly let go of my childish reflections and refocused on the reason for my presence at this meeting.
"Let us proceed to the vote. Who votes for Mr. and Mrs. Dean's request to install the satellite dish?" The co-owners unanimously voted yes. Even the gentleman who mocked my slanted eyes and the lemon-yellow hue of my skin approved the request.
PS: Both Jenni and I no longer work for Alstom, but we remain best friends. I am now an artist agent, and Jenni is the Chief Financial Officer of an international company. She speaks fluent French, and Gavin's French is not too shabby.