Tuesday, September 30, 2014

the Paris Syndrome

PARIS — Before arriving in the French capital, Wu Shuyun, a 56-year-old Chinese housewife, imagined Paris to be like a pristine film set for a romantic love story, picturing herself as a glamorous princess surrounded by elegant Parisians, decked out, perhaps, in Chanel.

Instead, Ms. Wu fromKunming in southwest China, said she was shocked by the cigarette butts and dog manure, the rude insouciance of the locals and the gratuitous public displays of affection. Though friends had warned her about thieves targeting Chinese people, she said she was nevertheless surprised when a member of her tour group was mugged on a packed Metro car, as other riders watched.

“For the Chinese, France has always been romantic, mysterious and desirable. We have been told that ‘God lives in France,’ ” she said recently after a two-week tour that included stops at the Eiffel Tower and Galeries Lafayette, an imposing, upscale department store with stained-glass domes where tour buses stop hourly to deposit tourists for marathon shopping sessions. “Once I realized that the Parisians were indifferent, I made the decision: Try to make the most of this trip, but never come back to Paris again.”

A growing number of Chinese tourists in Paris — armed with wads of cash, typically unable to speak French and still somewhat naïve about the ways of the West after decades of China’s relative isolation — are falling victim to their unrealistic expectations of the city, while also being victimized by brazen thieves who target them because they are easily identifiable as Asian, Chinese tourism industry officials here say.

Alarm that Chinese tourists are at risk from bandits is so acute that the Chinese government recently considered sending police officers to Paris to help protect them. Paris tourism officials said the proposal was shelved amid concerns over how they would operate.

The French capital — celebrated for its beauty, culture and savoir faire — still retains huge allure, making it the No. 1 destination in Europe for China’s burgeoning middle class and growing legion of millionaires, according to the European Federation of Chinese Tourism. Nearly one million Chinese tourists came to Paris last year, according to the Paris Tourism Office, spending more than one billion euros on everything from Cartier watches to meals at Michelin-starred restaurants, and outspending both Japanese and Americans on shopping. Now, however, Paris’s glittering image in China is losing its luster amid reports of robberies of Chinese tourists, according to Chinese newspapers and social media.

A group of 75 French luxury brands, including Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Hermès, warned last year that high-spending Chinese tourists fearful for their safety could choose to go to Italy or Britain instead. Concerns about the consequences for the country’s vaunted tourism industry have intensified as the French economy has stagnated.

Chinese nerves were already frayed after a group of 23 Chinese on a tour of Europe were attacked in March of last year in the gritty northern suburbs of Paris just hours after they landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport. The group leader was injured, and the thieves fled with 7,500 euros — about $9,600 — passports and plane tickets.

Psychologists warned that Chinese tourists shaken by thieves and dashed expectations were at risk for Paris Syndrome, a condition in which foreigners suffer depression, anxiety, feelings of persecution and even hallucinations when their rosy images of Champagne, majestic architecture and Monet are upended by the stresses of a city whose natives are also known for being among the unhappiest people on the planet.

The expression was first coined 30 years ago by a Paris-based Japanese psychiatrist, Hiroaki Ota, after several Japanese visitors to Paris fell ill when their culture of politeness and reserve rubbed up against Gallic haughtiness.

Dr. Ota said in an interview in his office that because China had been closed off to the West for so long, some Chinese travelers could be at risk for culture shock and depression when faced with the harsher realities of a city they had over-idealized. But he noted that the Chinese were less susceptible to Paris Syndrome than the Japanese, since they were fortified by a directness and an outsize sense of self that was similar to the French.

“Whereas Japanese are reserved, polite and formal, the Chinese have a strong sense of national pride like the French, and they are not shy,” he said.

Thomas Deschamps, the head of research at the Paris Tourism Office, said culture shock was particularly prevalent among travelers from Asia, who sometimes wrongly perceived the French capital as a museum.

“They watch movies like ‘Amélie Poulain’; they think all Parisians carry Louis Vuitton purses and smell like Dior,” he said. “They don’t know about the working-class suburbs, the overworked waiters, the grittier parts of the city. Paris is not a museum. People are busy, they are stressed, they are living their lives.”

Cara - Tuesday


  1. The clash of fantasy and reality (or is that the smell of rubber and flesh burning as fantasy hits the surface of the road of reality?). The U.S. is supposed to be "the great melting pot" of humanity, but what the U.S. experienced in the 1800s and 1900s is now pretty much a world wide experience. As the world grows smaller and smaller, the lingering cultural pockets of isolation grow increasingly rare. The world is rapidly becoming one large cesspool. Er...uh... I mean, stew-pot... um...

  2. A right on the money and timely post, Cara. Over here in Greece Asian visitors--primarily Chinese--are clearly on a dramatic upswing. So much so that major European brands are holding classes for their Greek operators on how to sell to Chinese customers! It is estimated that Chinese soon will dominate the luxury goods and services customer base. Also, I hear that high end tourist operators in China are holding classes for their travelers on what to expect and how to behave in the West--as in what to wear to elegant restaurants.

    Interesting times.

  3. This is so interesting, not only about Paris and the French people, but about China, and the standard of living for a certain number of people-- unheard of five of six decades ago.

  4. Cara, this is so interesting. I am used to Florence and its tourist-sensitive attitudes. There, folks would be worried. But, unlike Paris--which is much more economically diverse--in a lot of ways the historic center of Florence is a museum, and the only syndrome there is Stendhal variety: where people faint because they are overwhelmed by the beauty. I have felt overwhelmed by beauty in Italy, but never by depression in wonderful Paris.