Carnegie Mellon University

Cheryl ZhangCheryl Zhang

Paris Mosaïque

Advisors: Dr. Mame-Fatou Niang and Dr. Sébastien Dubreil
Majors: Humanities Analytics, French and Francophone Studies and Flute Performance
Minors:  Human Computer Interaction


Paris is widely depicted in media and popular culture as a fashion and culinary capital, and tourists flock to see the Eiffel Tower by the millions. It is a city with a long, rich history, but many voices are often neglected in the narrative. Previous work has shed light on individual communities that live in Paris today, as well as the impact of race and universalisme, the idea that one’s identity as a French citizen transcends race, ethnicity, gender and religion, on the experiences of these communities. However, my project will bring race back into the discussion by examining the disparate diasporic communities together and portraying the way they collectively make up the mosaic of the city. Why are non-white people referred to as migrants when their families have lived in France for several generations? I aim to explore this question and other related questions with an interactive map interface that is itself a “mosaic” of mediums to include videos, written material, music and interactive elements. With this project, I want to depict Paris without the myth of universalisme, and without the romanticism that is so prevalent in popular culture, so that people can start to understand how race is, or isn’t, discussed in France and how the histories of these different communities have shaped Paris as we know it today.


One of my teachers once said that I see things like a poet. I think that’s because I’ve always looked for things that often go unseen and tried to capture them in time. The way the light comes into the room at an angle. The way flecks of dust sparkle in that beam of light like fairy dust. I did this for places that had meaning for me: the barn where I rode horses, the lake near my house, places that made me feel something. I did this with sound too: I recorded music I heard that I found beautiful, and in my daily practicing I recorded myself playing the flute all the time. I will never remember the sound I made on a specific day, but I can record it and hold it there so that I can listen to it whenever I want. I think I’ve always found impermanence beautiful. Fleeting moments, they’re impossible to capture. Yet I try to capture memories of them, in pictures and in sound. The most recent place I’ve tried to capture is Paris. I studied abroad there last fall semester, and from the very beginning I fell in love with the city. Cliché, I know, but I will never get tired of the Jardin du Luxembourg on a sunny day when kids are sailing their boats in the grand basin, or the Seine at sunset when the bridges in the distance are shrouded in pinks and purples.

But Paris is not paradise, no matter how beautiful it is. I was interested in talking about race and racism with my host mom, with my Parisian friends. But when I asked my friend a question about race, she told me that the word “race” isn’t used like it is in English. In French, “race” is used to refer to the human race, the canine race, the feline race. How, I wondered, can we talk about race if we can’t use the word “race”?

In my class Paris Mosaïque our professor, Christelle Taraud, took us to different neighborhoods, including the Jewish quarter, le Paris Noir and le quartier Asiatique. Each visit was eye-opening in a different way. One especially interesting visit was to the African quarter, more specifically Château Rouge and La Goutte d’Or. I had previously asked several Parisians which areas of Paris to avoid, and I was repeatedly told to avoid La Goutte d’Or, especially if I was alone or if it was nighttime, so I was curious to visit with our class. Was this area truly dangerous, or were people avoiding this neighborhood for other reasons? These questions as well as many others inspired me to try to find answers in a project such as this one.

In my few months living in Paris, I tried to explore as much as I could, both physically and intellectually. I loved walking around the city, getting a little lost and seeing what I found, or simply sitting and people-watching. I also kept learning about French culture every day, whether I wanted to or not, and it was really fun. By the end of my semester, I had learned so much vocabulary, so many new expressions, and I had also gained a deeper understanding of French culture and the city of Paris. Even so, I am just as fascinated with the city as I was when I first arrived there last August. Maybe it’s being in a different environment, or speaking a different language, but I tend to notice those little things, the fleeting moments that I find so beautiful. The last tolls of a church bell, the snippets of different languages spoken on a crowded metro. However, now that I’m familiar with the touristy parts of Paris, I want to get to know on a deeper level the less cinematic parts of the city and the lived experiences of the people that live there.