"So, Chen, You Are In L.A. Now?"

photo: quai d'orsay, expo, seine

Mr. Chen's home office on the Quai d'Orsay in Paris.

Unusual French Diplomat To Take New Post
In San Francisco

by Dan Bloom

Taipei/Paris:- July 2001:- In a recent New York Times article about California's booming business climate, a French diplomat in Los Angeles was asked to comment on the news that the economy of the state of California has now surpassed the economy of the entire nation of France - to become the fifth largest economy in the world.

The Frenchman, a press attaché who speaks fluent English, replied 'philosophically,' saying, "We all know that California is a big state, and we knew a long time ago that if California became independent it would be the sixth or seventh economy. Now it's the fifth - and since California is a big trading partner for France, we congratulate it."

But then he added, "We still believe France produces the best wine in the world."

This Frenchman was none other than Yo-Jung Chen.

Chen was born in Taichung in central Taiwan in 1947, the son of a Taiwanese father and a Vietnamese mother. He currently serves as a vice-consul in the French consulate in Los Angeles and is director of the press and communications department.

He is, of course, a French citizen and has been since 1981, although he never lived in France until 1995.

Married to a Japanese woman he met in Tokyo, working for the French government as an overseas diplomat, fluent inphoto: gate, quai d'orsay several languages in addition to French and Chinese, Chen recently said in a recent e-mail to this reporter that, "It's a long story." He left Taiwan, he noted, 40 years ago.

A gate on the Quai d'Orsay, with the ministry's working entrance around the corner.

When I first contacted Chen at the French consulate in Los Angeles after seeing his name in the paper, he replied, "You are not the only person surprised to see a native of Taiwan working as a diplomat in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Even today, when I introduce myself to an American at a cocktail party here, the first reaction is very often 'Ha ha, very funny, but seriously, which country are you representing?'"

"So every time I introduce myself in a speech," he added, "I start off by saying 'Let me assure you that I am not a Japanese tourist who came to the wrong party!'"

After the New York Times article appeared in print and online on Friday, 15. June, Chen said he began hearing from reporters and diplomatic colleagues around the world.

"What fascinated me most is the power of the New York Times worldwide," he said. "Since the article came out, I was contacted by a number of people - a radio station in San Francisco wanted to interview me about my unusual name for a Frenchman, and several French people said they wanted to thank me for defending the honor of French wine. I also heard from former colleagues in different parts of the world now - 'So, Chen, you are in L.A. now?'"

Chen, who speaks seven languages - French, Japanese, English, Chinese, Taiwanese, Cantonese and Vietnamese. "I almost lost my command of Mandarin Chinese during all my years in Japan and Paris," Chen said.

"I started speaking Mandarin again only after being posted to Los Angeles in 1997. When I first came to California, I was speaking with my Taiwanese cousins here in English. Then, about a year later, in 1998, I progressively switched to Mandarin while recovering my ability in Taiwanese too, and now, three years later, my cousins and I are talking again more in Taiwanese, like we did 40 years ago in Taichung."

While at home, which language does Chen use with his wife and children?

He explained, "I speak Japanese at home with my wife and children, who are all French citizens like me. And I speak Vietnamese with my mother who lives in California, English with my threephoto: chen, photo shigeharu higasi, cultural news my sisters who are all US citizens, French with my brother - who is a born Parisian married to a French woman - and I speak Chinese and Taiwanese with my cousins here in California."

The details of Chen's life would make an interesting novel or memoir, although some readers might not believe all of it.

In Los Angeles, Yo-Jung Chen has shares his working space with his personal collection of flags.

When he was born in Taichung after World War II, Chen's father was a professor specializing in South East Asian history at Taiwan University and was well-known scholar in his field. Chen's mother, the daughter of a high-ranking Vietnamese scholar who served in the court of the last Emperor of Vietnam, taught him his first few French words when he was a child in Taichung.

"My paternal grandfather was president of the Taiwan Medical Order, and I can still introduce myself to Taiwanese people in Taichung - to people over a certain age, of course - as the grandson of Dr. Chen Moti and they will know who I am," Chen said, who also noted that his father passed away in 1995.

Growing up in Taichung, Chen attended elementary school and middle school there, but in 1959, he moved to Vietnam with his family. His father had been invited by the South Vietnamese government to re-compile an historical archive of the former imperial court and teach at the three main universities there.

"It was in Vietnam that I first became acquainted with French education," Chen told me. "I spent two years at two different Catholic schools where French was the language of instruction."

In 1962, another move, this time to Hong Kong where Chen's father was appointed a professor at the Hong Kong Chinese University. Once again, Chen was enrolled in French schools.

"In 1965, when I was 18 years old, instead of going to France for college as my brother had the year before, I was sent by my father to Keio University in Tokyo," Chen recalled. Both his father and grandfather had attended the same prestigious university in Japan.

"I spent seven years at Keio as undergraduate and graduate student in Oriental history, thinking of becoming a professorphoto: moliere memorial and researcher like my father," Chen said. But then fate intervened and changed the course of his life, re-directing him toward the completely different field of diplomacy.

While promoting French products abroad, Yo-Jung Chen also boosts French culture.

"As a graduate student, I was also teaching Japanese to a group of foreigners, including the wife of a French diplomat," Chen recalled. "She introduced me to another French diplomat who wanted to learn Chinese from me, and then that man introduced me to the Press Counsellor at the French Embassy in Tokyo who wanted to hire a French-Japanese translator in preparation of a coming state visit by the then French President Georges Pompidou in 1974. Unfortunately, the president died suddenly of illness before making the trip, but I got the job, and a door opened to a whole new future."

Chen began working as a part-time translator for the French ambassador in Tokyo in 1973. A year later, still holding a Hong Kong passport and having completed his Master's degree at Keio, he was offered a full-time job at the French embassy.

"The job involved dealing with VIPs, world affairs issues, international events, and it was so fascinating to me that I finally gave up the idea of pursuing an academic career and decided to stay on at the French embassy in Tokyo," Chen said.

By this time, he had married a Japanese woman and their first child had been born there. Thinking of his children's future - Chen's Hong Kong passport provided no Hong Kong or British protection - he decided to apply for Japanese citizenship. Easier said than done, however.

In those days, any non-Japanese receiving Japanese citizenship was required to abandon their family name and take a Japanese name, according to Chen. He was not too keen on doing that. When he spoke of his dilemma to his French boss at the French embassy - the ambassador himself - it was suggested that he could apply for French citizenship instead, a fairly easy process compared to the Japanese application process.

"The ambassador said to me if would be a great honor for France to count such a talented Chinese as one of its citizens and that he wished to see my talents put to the service of France," Chen recalled. "I was touched by his remarks."

Chen learned that while getting Japanese citizenship papers might be a long and difficult process, he was told that any foreigner who worked for more than five years for the government of France is qualified to apply French citizenship no matter where he or she lived.

In Chen's case, since the French embassy in Tokyo was considered legally to be French territory, he could also say in his citizenship application papers that he already had five years of residency in France.

"So in 1981, after a lot of paperwork and the recommendations of several French politicians andphoto: morris col, flags high officials that I had come to know through numerous translation jobs I did for them when they visited Japan, I found myself having become a French citizen in Japan - without ever once having stepped foot on French soil," Chen said.

On becoming a French citizen in Japan, Chen was re-hired at the embassy again under a contract with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a press attaché, with a job as the deputy director of the public information department.

Bits of Paris that Yo-Jung Chen only sees on infreguent, working visits.

In 1994, Chen was sent to Paris to take a French foreign service examination that would stamp him as a formal diplomat. When he returned to Tokyo he was given the title of vice-consul. He had a wonderful job, a bright future as a career diplomat for his adopted country. Better yet, he retained his Chinese name, Yo-Jung Chen. French law permits citizens to keep the names they were born with.

However, since diplomats around the world are not allowed to stay put in one country forever, Chen moved to France in 1995 with his growing family and was assigned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' press and communications department in Paris.

Put in charge of the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East regions, Chen's job was to coordinate the activities of France's press attachés in those areas and to invite foreign journalists to see France.

Although Chen had visited France several times in the past as a tourist, his move there in 1995 represented the first time that he had actually lived there - 15 years after becoming a French citizen.

"I must say I was amazed at finding myself in the heart of one of the world's most prestigious foreign service institutions," Chen said. "And to be in Paris!"

"I also enjoyed seeing the initial surprise on the faces of journalists from Asian countries who visited our department in Paris for a briefing upon their arrival in France, and who were greeted by someone like me speaking their native tongue."

"I was lucky that my job in Paris, which consisted often of arranging interviews and visits for visiting foreign journalists, gave me a solid training in becoming familiar with the very complex system of different branches of French institutions, public as well as private. This experience has greatly contributed to my later duties as a diplomat abroad."

Fast forward to 1997 - Chen was appointed to be the Vice Consul in the French consulate in Los Angeles, working directly under the Consul General and Deputy Consul, and once again in charge of the press and communications office. Because of his press duties at the consulate, Chenphoto: expo, quai d'orsay, l'oeil voyageur has often been quoted by name in newspaper articles, in various papers from the Las Vegas Sun to the Los Angeles Times.

Sunday strollers on the Quai d'Orsay taking in 'L'Oeil Voyageur' photo exhibition, which extends around the minstry and the National Assembly next to it.

Chen's next move, coming on August 1, will be to San Francisco, where he has recently been appointed as a Deputy Consul, responsible for press and communications at the French consulate.

His mother and three sisters live in the area, Chen said, and he is looking forward to seeing them more often. One sister is an architect at the University of California at Berkeley, another is a registrar at a major museum in San Francisco and a third sister works for the U.S. Postal Service. All three sisters are U.S. citizens now.

With his new position in San Francisco, Yo-Jung Chen hopes to further serve as a conduit for good Franco-American relations, working to promote the charms of France - and Paris! - for both American business people and tourists alike.

Find out more about the outdoor exhibition of photos 'L'Oeil Voyageur' currently displayed on the railings surrounding the National Assembly and the French Foreign Affairs headquarters on the Quai d'Orsay in Paris, at the Ministère des Affaires étrangères Web site. Yo-Jung Chen has also been responsible for the French Consulate's Web site in Los Angeles.

Text: Dan Bloom©2001
Photo of Yo-Jung Chen: ©Shigeharu Higasi, Cultural News
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