Sarah Kwon, ’22, writes, “My piece details how I fell in love with Oaxaca and its people, and how this love, like all others, was at times painful. In particular, it explores how I reckoned with my Asian-American identity abroad at a time of heightened xenophobia as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.”
This is a story of how I fell in love.
But before the reader gets the wrong idea that this is going to be a cliché story of a college girl’s romantic fling abroad, let me clarify: this is the story of how I fell in love, not with one person, but with a place and the many people who call it home. It is also the story of my learning that the love for a place, like any other love, can be painful, because love in its essence demands more than shallow naïveté. More than anything, it requires patience, knowledge, and humility.
Oaxaca is beautiful. You, the reader, would know that, if only from the many photos on Google Images, so I won’t tire you with long-winded explanations. Nonetheless, there is a quality that is so completely uncapturable by even the world’s most expensive camera. Try as I might (and trust me, I have), I could never capture the bustle of my favorite street in Oaxaca City, Calle Malcedonio Alcala. The aroma of elote, the din of tourists haggling with vendors, the grand façade of Santo Domingo Church in the late evening, the smooth cobblestone underfoot – these details completely evade easy filmic representation. This atmosphere, so idyllic and romantic, is what drew me in. I fell in love with Oaxaca’s beautiful sites: its vibrant-colored houses and rolling mountains that beckoned from the backdrop of every landscape; the clamor of the markets in which I almost always got lost; its sandy beaches and colorful gondolas.
Yet if those things initiated the “butterflies in my stomach,” so to say, I fell in love even more so with Oaxaca’s inhabitants, who were so proud of their heritage and homeland. Cristina, my host mom, was an avid gym-goer and movie aficionado, an effortlessly hilarious and fun woman in her sixties with whom I would make memelas and go on hikes. Her incredible aptitude for intense yoga, love for movie theater popcorn and foreign films, and refreshing honesty taught me hospitality and charisma. The vendors at the corner torta cart, a young couple with the most smiley baby I’ve ever seen, spoke an indigenous language called mazateco and surprised me by communicating to others via mazateco’s whistle speech. They never failed to smile at me or strike up a conversation with me whenever I passed by on my way home. I met many other wonderful and friendly Oaxacans by chance, including many, many collective taxi drivers who joked about my vegetarianism, told me Oaxacan legends, shared their criticisms of the Mexican president, and told me about their families in Los Angeles.
Of these many locals whose lives intersected with mine for a brief moment in Oaxaca, one stands out in my head. Ernesto was a young aspiring street photographer who stopped me on my last full evening in the city square and asked me to strike a pose that best captured my essence. I will never forget the conversation I had with him, partially because it was surreal to have such a personal conversation with a stranger, partially because I had agreed to having my photo taken despite the fact that I was normally quite camera-shy, and partially because he was so kind. Dime algo de ti, Sarah, mientras tomo las fotas. Tell me something about yourself Sarah, while I take the photos. In that moment, I didn’t know what I would begin to talk about. It was essentially my last day in Oaxaca, and the University had recently made the announcement that we would be transitioning to remote learning for the spring quarter. I was shocked with all these changes, and sad that I wouldn’t be able to see the many friends I had missed during my time abroad.
At that moment, I began to cry, surprising both myself and Ernesto, and I began to talk to him about something that had been on my mind many times during my time in Mexico: the incidents of subtle racism I had experienced that had unnerved and upset me, more and more so as the coronavirus played on existing public anxieties and xenophobia.
As is common in many parts of the world, many Mexicans assume that “Americans” are white, and that Americans who are not white actually come from somewhere else. Students of color may be persistently asked, “No, where are you really from?” among other instances of casual racism, ignorance, or microaggressions. Students of East Asian ethnicities—regardless of national or ethnic origin—will likely be called “chino” or “china” by Mexicans or might be greeted by people saying “ni hao” or “konichiwa.”
-Oaxaca study abroad student handbook
When I first read this excerpt from the study abroad student handbook, I thought little of it. I had worked with many nonprofit organizations providing social services to Mexican communities. I had many Mexican friends and co-workers and had grown up in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Southern California. Furthermore, as the daughter of first-generation, low-income immigrants, I held the issue of immigration very near to my heart, and it fueled much of my involvement in academic and extracurricular pursuits. I fiercely denounced Trump’s blatant racism and xenophobic rhetoric, and empathized with Mexicans, who were often the targets and victims of his bad policies. All of this to say, I had long ago become accustomed to the microaggressions, the looks of surprise and awe when Spanish-speakers realized that esta chinita habla español.
Or… so I thought.
It was different in Mexico. No one in Oaxaca really cared that I could speak Spanish. They wanted to know about “my country” – not America, but Korea, the distant land of K-pop and Samsung. Of course, I was always met with the obligatory question: “North or South?”, followed by expressions of relief when I answered: Corea del sur. When the film Parasite won Best Picture in the Oscar’s, my host mom asked me more about Korea. Is it really like that? When I attended a local church service, the energetic young pastor continued to announce to the congregation that I was visiting from Korea, despite my repeated corrections that I was from America. Multiple local children I met in the city square asked, with wide eyes, if I knew BTS, the extremely popular K-pop boy group.
Mostly it was harmless. But I was getting a bit tired of hearing “sayonara” and “ni hao” from sneering men in the streets, and I hated being called a puta japonesa when I politely declined to buy sweets from a street vendor or something of the like. While on a weeklong excursion to Mexico City, I realized just how apprehensive I was.
Mexico, as it turns out, has quite a history of violence fueled by anti-Chinese sentiment, which is to say, anti-Asian sentiment. From Sonora to Sinaloa to Mexico City, anti-Chinese sentiment has found itself a formal place in political parties and legislation, and an informal one through various massacres and riots. The 1911 massacre of over 300 Chinese in Torreon, the prohibition of Mexican-Chinese marriages in the early 1920s… these were not anomalies. Mexico City’s Chinatown, decked out as it was with lanterns and beautiful decorations, rang hollow, and Mexico City’s famous cosmopolitanism seemed merely performative.
That same week in Mexico City, I was walking the streets with two Mexican-American friends when we passed by a clown. He took one look at me and said in a booming voice, “Beautiful girl! The Mexicans – ugly!” We brushed past him and broke into laughter at the ridiculousness of the whole encounter. But when I reflected again on the incident alone, later that night, I felt puzzled and annoyed. In Mexico, I felt as though I were constantly viewed with an overly racist gaze, or an overly exoticizing one. Neither one was desirable.
The growing coronavirus threat, which no one could have foreseen, only intensified the ugly reality of xenophobia against Asians in Mexico. My host mom began to talk of the virus every day without fail during our morning tea, and I would frequently pass by locals in the streets who glared at me and walked faster upon making eye contact with me. I would overhear comments when walking around with my roommate, who also happened to be Korean-American like myself. One joke from a group of friends my age was particularly hurtful: “A platter of chinitas coming to infect us.” Things of course got much worse when I got sick during my last few weeks in Oaxaca. I was genuinely terrified to cough in public, in light of the growing body of Asians in the United States, London, and all over the world, who were experiencing hate crimes.
As I conversed with Ernesto, I cried for my own fear and sadness at the racism I had witnessed in Mexico. I cried for the victims of this xenophobia in Mexico and elsewhere in the world. Finally, I cried because it hurt to come to terms with Mexico’s complicated track-record on the issue of immigration, both with regards to Asians and Central Americans.
Looking back, I realize that I, too, had subscribed to the false one-dimensional stereotype of “Mexican culture” that exists in the American imagination: mariachi bands, sombreros, cinco de mayo fiestas, tacos, narcos, and immigrants. The poor and exploited Mexican worker who, against all odds, holds proudly to his culture. I realized that I too had contributed to the flattening and exoticization of mexicanidad. But that is not love – it is mere fetishization. Infatuation. Truly loving Mexico meant facing, head on, the ugliness of its realities, and knowing that it can do better.
Falling in love with Mexico was not just a long montage of spontaneous boat rides and kite flying and tacos al pastor. It was all of those things and more. Through both my positive and negative experiences abroad, I have grown to truly love Oaxaca: neither as a naïve tourist who merely exoticizes its customs and peoples, nor as a sensationalist who warns of how dangerous Mexico is, but as someone who can balance both its ugliness and beauty with a nuanced perspective.