认命 (rèn mìng): 承认自己的命不好而逆来顺受; to be resigned to fate

Friday, 15 November 2013: I was standing outside an entrance to a building in Belleville, chatting with a woman from Dongbei in China. In her mid-forties, Xin Yuan* was in a black cinched waist puffer jacket, a short white woolen skirt worn over black leggings, and boots. She wore her straight black hair loose over her shoulders.

Occasionally, she would smile and greet passers-by and these middle-aged and elderly men of non-Chinese ethnicity would return her greeting and nod politely at me.

Xin Yuan is a prostitute. One of more than 30 loitering along Boulevard de la Villette on this sunny yet chilly November afternoon.

Standing in groups or alone – in between shops selling groceries, phone cards, Chinese medicinal products and holiday tours, as well as a dry-cleaner and a popular tofu restaurant, the prostitutes patiently wait for business to come their way. Xin Yuan prefers to stand on her own, remarking that it doesn’t look good (“不好看”) to stand in a group to solicit business in the streets.

These prostitutes are a daily fixture on this brief stretch of some 100 metres in Belleville. Day and night, rain or shine or even snow. A regular day for Xin Yuan starts after lunch at around 1pm and ends at around 10pm. Which makes for around nine hours of standing in the streets, every day.

“Do you think it’s easy standing out here in the cold?” she asked.

On a good day, Xin Yuan could earn around 100€. The previous day, she earned nothing.

“Does the weather make a difference?” I asked. She shrugged and replied, “No, it usually boils down to luck.”

During the colder months, the prostitutes are usually wearing puffer jackets – red, yellow and black are popular colours, matched with either tight pants or short skirts worn over leggings. With their hands in their pockets, they pace at their chosen spot, occasionally moving to another location down the street.DSCF2913k64“The clothes that I’m wearing now were given to me,” said Xin Yuan. “Some of my friends had gained weight and were too fat for their clothes, and I convinced them to give them to me!” she exclaimed gleefully, flashing the gap between her front teeth as she laughed.

Most of them wear painted faces. Bright shades of eye shadow in green, blue and pink are common. Perhaps to draw attention away from the fatigue and indifference in their gaze or the deep-set crow’s feet at the corners of their eyes.

A regular customer, a retiree, came by and exchanged a few words with Xin Yuan, who replied in a smattering of French.

“When I arrived in Paris about a year ago, I couldn’t speak any French. It was impossible to understand what the customers were saying or what they wanted. Worse yet, the first time I was arrested, I couldn’t explain anything to the police,” she shared as frustration flashed across her face.

She has since learned some rudimentary French by going for classes, which cost her 150€ per month, at a Chinese association in Belleville.

The elderly gentleman returned and handed Xin Yuan a packet of roasted chestnuts that he had bought at the corner. He urged her to have some while they were hot, and Xin Yuan offered me some.

I asked if I should excuse myself in case I was hindering her business. She said to not worry as her regular customers often stop by to say hi. “In summer, they would buy me ice-cream,” she added with a smile. 

“There are the nice ones (customers) but of course there are some who are nasty,” she said. “I’ve encountered some men who would hit me.”

Word about such abusive customers is spread amongst the prostitutes at Belleville. That’s the least they can do to protect each other as they try their best to survive in Paris, a foreign land far from home.

Before coming to Paris, Xin Yuan had never left China. She had come to France with the hope and intent to provide a better life for her family, especially her two children – one’s 17 and the elder child just turned 20. “Everything that I’m doing is for my children,” she said with a tinge of sadness. Looking at me, she added, “You’re too young to understand…”

Together with her husband, Xin Yuan used to do manual work in the renovation industry. Her husband had gambled away most of their money before he was stricken with illness, rendering the lower half of his body in paralysis. Xin Yuan was left to shoulder the burden of supporting her family and to put her children through school.

“Life was really hard,” she said. “I was the sole breadwinner and work was getting harder and harder to come by.” Her brothers helped borrow and pool some money together so that she could make her way to Paris where they thought that she could eke out a better living and earn more money.

But why Paris of all places?

Xin Yuan explained that it was because they had distant relatives who had migrated here some 10 years ago and were running a small business. But when she arrived, she learned that there was no job for her with her relatives. Without a valid long-stay visa and speaking no French, it was impossible to find a job no matter how hard she tried.

“I’m a trained masseur. Back home, I did that for a living for a while,” she shared. “But here, no one would hire me as I have no papers. Today, I give shoulder and neck rubs to the women I live with.”

Unable to find proper employment in Paris – shop owners are reluctant to risk getting fined for hiring women like Xin Yuan who do not have a valid visa – prostitution is often the last resort for them. She calls home regularly. “But of course, I don’t tell my family what it is that I actually do for a living.”

Xin Yuan shares a place with nine other women, all of them in a similar situation as herself. “We sleep in bunk beds, like in a school hostel!” she laughed.

“I have to be very thrifty,” she said. “Every euro or two that I can save, I try.” 

Surely the cost of living here is much higher than back in her hometown? “Yes, but I can earn much more here.”

I commented that green vegetables are terribly expensive in Paris compared to Singapore. She cut me off and said, “Forget about leafy vegetables, we can’t afford those!”

She shared that for 1€, she could buy a large pig bone to make a soup. For another 1€, she would get some root vegetables and a bag of beans to add to the pot. This would be a typical meal for her and her flatmates. Xin Yuan added that she’s fortunate to be living with an easy-going group of women and they’d often share food amongst themselves.

She keeps close tabs on her expenses and could recite, for instance, the prices of cucumbers (“70 cents for two if you buy them at the market at closing hours”), and tell you where to go for the cheapest cooking oil in Belleville. Sometimes she would buy rice flour because it costs “50 cents for a big bag and you can make many things with flour, including buns, which go a long way!”

Another regular customer passed by and they exchanged pleasantries. Xin Yuan called him over to straighten out the hood of his jacket that had gotten entangled with the strap of his shoulder bag.

“Elle est sympathique,” I said to him. He replied with a smile, “Elle est très gentille.” “Non, je suis méchante,” she joked as she neatened his hood.

She soon bid farewell to me as she had something to see to.

Was she bitter about how Paris has turned out for her?

I don’t know. From what she shared, she must have felt very helpless at the start. Now, it seems like she is resigned to her fate – 认命, as we’d say in Chinese – and she’s trying her best to adapt and to survive in the City of Light so that she can earn money to send back home to support her family and pay off the debts.

“Maybe I’ll be able to return home in a few years’ time,” she had said, with a faraway look in her eyes.  

*I’ve not used her real name so as to protect her identity

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24 replies on “认命 // Waiting for a better life

  1. Thank you for sharing her story. And it does go to show how far parents will go to make the lives of their children better.

  2. I’m catching up on your older posts and I am so glad I caught this one! Good for you for talking to her and taking the time to hear her story, and thank you for sharing it with us.

    1. Thanks Lisa : ) I pondered for a long time how I would approach any of these women as this was a rather sensitive topic and am glad that I met someone who was open to share her story with me.

      1. That’s very brave of you, and of Xin Yuan for talking to you, too. I always want to ask for people’s stories but am afraid of being rebuffed OR not knowing how to react because of my own sheltered life. Did you approach anyone who was unwilling to open up?

        1. I walked up and down, on the left, right and centre, of that section of the boulevard before I finally garnered enough courage to speak to one of the prostitutes. She declined to speak with me. I suppose I was lucky because ‘Xin Yuan’ was the second person I approached.

          I’ll be back in Paris later this month and I wonder if I’ll see her again…

  3. Your post is really engaging…somehow reading about people like ‘Xin Yuan’ makes me feel that I am truly privileged, and my problems are…nothing!

    1. You’re most welcome and it was interesting to speak with her to know her side of the story (and yes, it was also a good reminder to not take for granted what we have).

  4. This is sad. I’m not quite sure what to say in response to this piece. I can see certain things about Xin Yuan’s personality through your writing: practical, objective, self-sacrificing, friendly, and humorous too — which amazes me, given her situation. I can only hope that she can get out of this situation before it really harms her.

    1. I had similar thoughts as you when I was talking to her. The resilience of the human spirit is remarkable. In the case of most of the Chinese prostitutes in Belleville, there is a network amongst the women which provides them with mutual support. There is also “Lotus Bus”, an initiative run by Medecins du Monde, that provides education and contraceptives to these women in Belleville. So at least they are not on their own…

  5. This is a sympathetic, very intimate and engaging post. I appreciate the details that rendered your article so human. How did you manage to start the conversation with her and was she open to talking to you immediately?

    1. I went up to her and asked if it was okay if I asked her a few questions. She was slightly hesitant but was quick to open up as we continued talking (and we did so for more than 30 mins while standing on the streets). We spoke in Mandarin Chinese which helped to break down some of the communication barriers.

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