Let’s just establish from the get-go Darren Star, who wrote ‘Emily in Paris’, has clearly never been an expat. It is a great premise for a TV show but fails miserably at even giving a glimpse of the reality of moving to a new and foreign city.
‘Emily in Paris’ is one of the latest offerings from Netflix. It follows Emily, an American who moves to Paris for a marketing job. Her role there is to bring an American point of view to the French marketing firm she has joined. (She likes to remind us of this in every episode). It is supposed to be a bit of a mashup of cultural clashes and faux pas as she adjusts to the challenges of expat life in Paris. However, most of the clashes feel shallow and manufactured and Emily doesn’t seem to register the faux pas so they just end up making her look a bit silly.
Let’s run through some of the glaring problems with the way Emily’s expat experience is portrayed.
It’s a thing! Not according to Star though. The whole basis of ‘Emily in Paris’ is that Emily has to step in for her boss who can’t take the job because she finds out days before she’s supposed to fly out she’s pregnant.
How many expats do you know who have had to find an obstetrician within days of arriving in a new country? And honestly, it would take about 3 minutes of googling to find out that maternity leave in France is a thing and a very generous thing. A thing not to be turned down.
Visa, What Visa?
We all know it takes at least 20 passport photos, 50 bits of paper, 4 different signatures and stamps from 6 (give or take) different government officials to get a visa that allows you to live and work in a country. And usually weeks and weeks of back and forth.
Not for Emily. Poof, she just turns up in Paris with none of the headache of getting her ‘visa sorted’. Visa’s, PR, RPs, or whatever you want to call them are a necessary evil of expat life but it is not even mentioned on the show. How much simpler expat life would be if that was really the case.
Books over Food
No expat ever has shipped peanut butter across the world and not their books. We love to ship boxes of books around the world with us regardless of if we read them or not. For reasons we can not articulate clearly, books are very hard to part with so we don’t, we just cart them with us from place to place.
Back in the day us expats used to love reserving all our suitcase space for food. I may have been known to sneak a few jars of peanut butter into my luggage but these days it is so easy to get whatever you desire almost anywhere you are.
Many years ago when people used to still write letters to each other, and I lived in China, my mother would send a packet of instant cheese sauce to me in every letter she sent. My flatmates and I would have macaroni and cheese the day it arrived. Anything to give us a break from the local cuisine. Even then you could get a reasonable amount of international food in Beijing but not on our budgets. Those days are long gone even for people on tight budgets. Emily didn’t get the memo that you can get fabulous peanut butter in Europe.
Emily can’t even say “I’m sorry, I don’t speak French” in French. She doesn’t even try to say it. Unlike the rest of us who manage to butcher even a few basic phrases on arrival (even if we never manage to get past that!). Her lack of shame was a wee bit eyebrow raising. It is a thing of the past. These days you are expected to at least pretend to make an effort with the local language even if you have just landed.
And let’s be honest in most workplaces where everyone speaks the language aside from you they are not all going to switch to English just because you walked through the door.
Get With The Times
Her attitude of ‘where I come from things are done right therefore this is wrong’ was a little much. I will admit to actually rolling my eyes when Emily tells Gabriel that counting the first flight up as the first floor just doesn’t make sense.
We all love to tell the Americans that they are stuck in the dark ages still using the imperial system, that their dates are backward and their money is all the same colour (or is it color) and size and its time to get with the program. So much so that even expat Americans are mostly on board with the fact when it comes to some of the basics it’s them that need to change not us.
Doesn’t everyone know that it is almost impossible to fire anyone in France. It is a laugh out loud moment when Emily gets fired by her boss. Any expat who has spent more than a minute working in Europe knows you need to jump through a 1000 hoops to fire anyone for anything so mostly no one ever bothers. This ends up being addressed in the show but there is no way your boss in France is just going to blurt out ‘your fired’.
Emily is impractically dressed in every sense of the word but the shoes are the most ridiculous part of her outfits. If your primary mode of transport is walking on cobblestone streets then stilettos aren’t really the go! Even at the best of times it takes sensible walking shoes and lots of concentration not to roll an ankle while strolling along the picturesque cobblestone streets of Paris, never mind while you are rushing to work while holding an umbrella and texting.
This may be one of the most unrealistic parts of the whole show. Poor American expats, they are expected to explain/defend/analyze the American political landscape to one and all these days. Constantly being asked what their perspective is on all things political. But not Emily! Apparently, it’s not a thing in the world of ‘Emily in Paris’ (perhaps we should be grateful for that).
Let’s try to ignore the fact that her friend from Shanghai doesn’t have a Chinese name and seems more American than Chinese. Or that they have rolled all the diversity into one Black, gay work friend. I’m not sure where all the other diversity in Paris disappeared to. It made the show feel dated.
Anyway I left this until last, because the dated stereotypes aside, her making hard and fast friends with another expat not long after her arrival in Paris is one of the few things they got right. We love to latch onto others who have come before us and know some of the local secrets or someone who arrived around the same time as us who we can navigate the craziness with. Some of my closest friends are people I meet within the first few weeks in a new country.
And the fact that two of her work colleagues take her under their wing (even if it takes them a bit to get to that point) is also true to expat life. Expats tend to be far more reliant on their colleagues for general guidance on everything from social norms to where to find a good doctor and after hours socializing.
I am not sure what I was expecting when, quarantined for a few days, I settled into binge watch ‘Emily in Paris’. More perspective perhaps. Less tone-deafness maybe. In the age of streaming, it is hard to believe the show was just made for a US audience yet it very much feels like it was. One thing is for sure it is not a reflection of the real expat experience. It feels like how someone who had never lived as an expat might imagine a move to a big vibrant foreign city might be.