Ta-Nehisi Coates Sums Up My Experience in Mexico

As usual, incisive and miraculously concise:

You are the cultural conqueror. You wield the biggest guns. Somewhere in your home there is button which could erase civilization. And then you come to this place and find yourself disarmed. You see that it has its own culture, its own ages and venerable traditions, that the people do not tremble before you. And then you understand that there is not just intelligent life in outer space, but life so graceful that it shames you into silence.

From “English is a Dialect with an Army,” The Atlantic.

This article, and this ending quotation especially, sums up something I’ve felt for several weeks now of my experience in Mexico, but haven’t quite been able to describe in words. I’ve also been baffled as to why I’ve felt such dissonance, more than I even felt when I was sweating away in a rural orphanage in inland China.

I realize now that much of the reason I never felt this way in Asia, especially not in China, is because I never approached China as an American–nor with the resultant Conqueror/Imperialist/Master mentality.

Rather, I am daughter, sister, and technically, citizen–certainly Asian on the outside, and of some unknown percentage of Asian on the inside too. There is a sense in which I feel of the crowds in Beijing–“You’re my people, and I’m one of you,” and from the international terminal in the Shanghai airport, what I feel when I step off the plane is “Welcome home.” A code switch and a parasol and I belong.

But I’ve realized that’s not the identity I default to here, and I suspect it’d be this way anywhere else in the world, I have defaulted to being American, and suddenly along with that identity comes all the “baggage” of privilege.

I do wish, though, that Coates had finished his essay on a slightly more hopeful note; what comes after silence and shame? A sense of humility, I think. A willingness to delight in all the local sights, smells, flavors and to make all the idiotic mistakes that we as foreigners are bound to make. There is so much freedom in laying aside our superiority complex and entering instead as a learner, and I’m glad this is where I’ve arrived, despite the cognitive dissonance it took to get here.

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