Closing the Gap Between Vietnamese and Mexicans

November 22, 2007

Closing the Gap Between Vietnamese and Mexicans

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Nguoi Viet, Commentary, Ky Phong-Tran, Posted: Oct 11, 2006

MEXICO CITY — Here, I walk down streets with names like Insurgentes and Reforma. It is morning and the city wakes with me: the smell of fresh bread drifts from a bakery, a deli owner chats in Spanish with his wife, the early traffic putters and beeps and honks.

I turn into Chapultepec Park, the capital’s main gathering of museums and monuments. The lush grounds are filled with walking trails, statues and lakes. I’ve never been here before, and yet somehow it feels familiar. Perhaps it’s the giggling pack of teenagers in school uniforms flirting with one another and kicking a soccer ball around. Perhaps it’s the old European touch, a colonial place with its canopy of large trees and wide, cobbled roads. No, no, it’s the trash cans that look like penguins and the pedal boats that are ducks.

When I close my eyes and take a deep breath, Mexico City’s pace, people and street life remind me of Sài Gòn, which reminds me of Vi?t Nam, which reminds me why I travel in the first place.

***

I grew up in Long Beach, Calif., which in 2000 was the most diverse city in the United States, according to USA Today’s Diversity Index. I studied with kids who went to both the Ivy League and to prison. At homecoming, we didn’t have a king and queen; we had international ambassadors that represented the dozens of ethnicities on campus. I was one of them.

Fourteen years later, old habits are hard to break and I still go out of my way to travel, to meet people, to learn new histories, to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. In 2001, I went on my return pilgrimage to Vi?t Nam to see the country my parents left and my life that might have been. It was a life-changing experience, and still, I felt like I would have short-changed myself if I didn’t go to Cambodia as well.

Why? Long Beach has the largest population of Cambodians in the United States, second to Paris for the most outside of Cambodia. My classmates and neighbors were Cambodians, and I wanted to know more about them. I hoped that a week-long stay in their homeland could give me a glimpse into their global view. From Angkor’s majestic ruins to Phnom Penh’s hustle and bustle, I was not disappointed.

So when a graduate-school classmate invited me to Mexico City, I jumped at the chance.

I needed to see it not just as a tourist, but as a person trying to confront my own racism. Though I claim all responsibility for my point of view, I can say that in the United States it’s very easy to be racist. In a country built on the notion of race, racism naturally follows.

What an irony, right? I grow up in Southern California, formerly Mexico, surrounded my Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and I’m prejudiced to the point that I find it hard to reach out to Mexican Americans.

But why? I think it was two factors. First, there were no or few Mexican American kids in my classes so I never had a real life model to engage with. Second, and much more tangible, the rampant gang activity in Long Beach.

From the mid-1990s until now, there has been a deadly war between Mexican gangs and Asian gangs. Shootings, drive-bys and killings are common occurrences. In fact, at the peak of the “beef” in 1999, there were 17 homicides in one year. The terrifying thing about the conflict is that you don’t have to be a gang member to be threatened, just the wrong ethnicity in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So for a large part of my life, I have lived with the fear that some gang member was going to pull up next to me at a stop light and blast me with a machine gun. Was it rational, paranoid or even fair? Of course not. But was it real? Real as a coffin.

***

The Mexico City I see charms me, surprises me, challenges me. My classmate Gaby and her husband are from the middle- to upper-class and both grew up here. They are locally engaged artists— she a poet, he a video-installationist — and we spend the week going from film premiere to art opening to warehouse/garage-band party.

They live in the Condesa, a quaint walking neighborhood sprinkled with trees, cafes and restaurants. It was once destroyed by an earthquake in 1985, but has been revived into the hipster scene of the city. Its energy and vibe remind me of Greenwich Village in New York.

The other neighborhoods I visit all have their distinct charms: the history of downtown and its massive town square; the street life of the Roma; the upscale posh of Polanco; and my favorite, the villa feel of Coyoacán with its weekend market and Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s home.

On my own, I do the tourist thing and see the National Museum of Anthropology as well as the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán. Near the city’s center, I fall in love with a building that at first seems out of place: a squared, angular five-story structure highlighted by blue tiles. It is Spanish, from the colonial days but distinctly influenced by the Arab Muslim Moors from Africa. With five or six rich cultures crammed into one structure, it lets me see the variety within Mexican culture.

***

It’s a hippie cliché to rave about “the people” you meet when you travel. But just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true or important. And hanging with my classmate and her husband and all their childhood, college, and professional friends, I feel like I had an insider’s access to local life in Mexico City.

In addition to everyone’s kindness and friendliness to their new Vietnamese friend from the United States, I was blown away by their diversity and worldliness. (Granted, I know I am around a very privileged class of people). A sampling of Gaby’s friends includes a Lebanese Mexican filmmaker, a Dutch ex-pat filmmaker, a Lithuanian-French-Jewish-Mexican best friend and her Egyptian Mexican husband. They worked in editing, translation, film, art and media.

Most had traveled the world, living in New York, Paris, Toronto, and were gracious enough to speak in English with me. (Though I speak rudimentary Spanish, I did awfully regret not studying harder in my high school classes).

From meeting this group of young jet setters, artists and intellectuals, I was stunned at how many were immigrants or the children of immigrants. As Americans, I think we often associate immigrants only with coming to America. Seeing Gaby’s eclectic, talented circle allowed me to see Mexico City as a world city, with the coming and goings of both new arrivals and global corporations. It opened my mind to a Mexico, a Mexico City and a Mexican culture that was much bigger than what I see in Long Beach.

In an “It’s a Small World” kind of way, Gaby’s friends reminded me of my friends in the U.S., immigrants and the children of immigrants from the Philippines, India, China, Vi?t Nam and Japan.

***

I’d by lying to say that after my seven days in Mexico my racism had been purged and I’m now a color-blind person. And it’d be lying to say I no longer get annoyed at my neighbors who play loud mariachi music into the night or I don’t still get scared walking certain parts of my neighborhood. But it’s easy and truthful to say that my trip gave me a fuller, more complicated, and more realistic view of both Mexico and Mexico America.

Of all my experiences on the other side of the border, the partying, the sightseeing, the delicious food, what stands out to me most is this: Wherever I went, people spoke to me in Spanish first. They asked me for directions or for a lighter. It surprised me, because even here in the U.S., many individuals assume an Asian face does not speak English. The assumption that I was one of “theirs,” a Mexican, was one of the most welcoming things I’ve ever felt in terms of dealing with my ethnicity and nationality (a lifelong struggle for me as a refugee).

On the Metro alone, no one stared at me. If I stayed quiet, no one knew I was a foreigner and did not speak the language very well. My brown skin and average height fit in well in Mexico and comforted me. (And if you believe that the indigenous people of the Americas came from a land bridge to Asia, then “racially,” this could be considered a long-delayed family reunion.)

***

Last month, congressional candidate Tan Nguyen allegedly sent intimidating and illegal flyers to Mexican American households. It was quite a despicable act, made a little more hurtful because it was one immigrant picking on another. I didn’t write about my time in Mexico City as some sort of rebuttal or political thought piece. But if I can make amends, build one bridge, lull one reader with my experiences, I also wouldn’t mind.

Back in the U.S., I miss Mexico City very much. I’d like to spend a summer or even a year there to get to know it better. I want to work on my novel at a café in the Condesa or talk world politics with my new pals at a bar. On a whim, I’ve looked up home prices there and found them manageable. After graduate school, I plan on taking Spanish classes. I’ve been to many of the world’s great metropolises — London, Paris, Rome, New York — and Mexico City is right up there with them, but with that something extra, a wild flare and charm, that fits me well. Along with Hanoi, it’s the only other city I’d consider moving to.

It’s a bit sad that a city and culture so close — only a four-hour flight — had been so far to me. But not anymore.

And that, that is why I travel.

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