It’s All In the Way You Look at Things

1 03 2017

If I were to describe the details of daily life in my current city, I think you’d be hard-pressed to figure out where in the world I was talking about.

In this place, dogs live on the rooftops; sidewalks lined with trees form promenades between the lanes of major streets; and the corners are lined with old-fashioned businesses like locksmiths, tailors and cobblers. Little old ladies play ancient folk songs on the flute outside the liquor store. Every day the same vendors come down my street: the gas man yells “GAAAAS!” in case the propane tank in your apartment needs a refill; the sweet potato man pulls a mini wood-fired oven on a bicycle trailer, and a whistle attached to the oven toots mournfully as the steam from the roasting potatoes escapes.

In this place, there’s a song for everything: a song you play when you say goodbye; a song you play when it starts to rain. People low-key believe in magic, and they go to the open-air markets downtown to buy potions and amulets when they want luck or protection. And the metro is a whole underground world where you can find shoe-shine men, pharmacies, barbershops, Pizza Hut, and even internet cafés.

Oh, and I forgot to mention – I share this city with about 22 million other people.

Of course, if you’re reading this it’s probably not news to you that I’m living in Mexico City. I was determined to spend this winter the opposite of how I spend my summers with Backroads, and I’m pleased to announce that I’m doing just that. I fill my kitchen with my ingredients, watch Netflix shows, have friends over, go to the climbing gym, take out the trash. Every morning on the way to work, I help an older lady who has a shop on the corner of my street to lift up the grille as she opens. “May God be with you,” she says as I head off towards the Metro.

A friend of mine had a rant once about how Mexico City has this strange energy. “We are twenty-two million here,” he said, “but more people keep coming. People come here, and they stay. Because people feel comfortable here. I don’t know why.”

There is a humanity to the people here that constantly awes me. No matter how late people are; no matter how crowded the sidewalk or the subway station; people stroll slowly so they can chat with their friends. People stop to listen to a busker then give him a coin. They say “Buen provecho” to all the strangers at the taco stand, and listen to the taco lady tell some random story about her daughter. Humanity comes first here – before work, before practicality, before all else. It’s probably part of what makes the city run so poorly, but I have to conclude that the net advantage is greater than the net disadvantage. Life here is a shitshow, but it just glows somehow.

Hand in hand with this humanity goes a certain respect for sacred moments. For example, every public space has a Virgin – usually a statue in a glass case, sometimes with flowers or even neon lights. The Virgin of the parking lot, the Virgin of the open space preserve. My favorite is the mural of the Virgin painted on the emergency room entrance of the local hospital. That mural, with all its vibrant blues and golds, was paid for by either donated money, or state money, that could have gone to medical equipment. Here in Mexico it’s a given: X-ray machine, check… autoclaves, check… mural of the Virgin, check. Obviously the emergency room needs a Virgin to bless the patients with her protection, write it into the budget, please.

If you were too type A this place could literally make you lose your mind. But there’s a certain magic to it, isn’t there?

I have been thinking about politics a lot, though obviously not as much as my compatriots in the United States. One friend who visited me told me that the release in tension was palpable when he got off the plane in Mexico – that he suddenly felt like everyone was breathing.

Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I couldn’t tell you. What I can tell you is that one question I’ve gotten a lot from concerned family members is whether there’s a lot of anti-American sentiment here.

The answer is, yes and no. There are small signs. Letters in the windows of independent shops saying “LIQUIDAMOS TODAS LAS MARCAS GRINGAS”. The guy I buy my fruit from, always with something to say about some video of police violence he saw on YouTube. And when Trump canceled his meeting with Peña Nieto, the newspapers had a field day. But for the most part, people here are even better about it than Europeans. Instead of pelting you with accusatory questions about why your country can’t manage this, or insists on doing that, they just pat you on the back, roll their eyes, and say “Welcome to the club of shitty corrupt governments.”

On Election Day, I returned to California from six months living in Europe. My first emotions besides shock were confusion and curiosity. How could so many of my countrymen have voted for this man? What were they thinking, how are they suffering, why do they feel so passionately that the Democrats have abandoned them? My main reaction was a sort of nausea: I felt perturbed that I knew so little about what was obviously rotten in the heart of my own country.

The only soap-boxy thing I’ll say in this post is, most of my friends and family didn’t seem to have this reaction. Instead, they were angry and disgusted that our populace is racist, homophobic and dumb enough to allow this to happen. That worries me.

Like it or not, democracy is compromise, and around half of the people that voted (let’s not quibble) wanted this. The only way out is to convince them that what we believe works, works. And as it stands they won’t listen, precisely because we slur them as stupid, poor, hateful hillbillies when really they’re just suffering. A circle of hate.

There we go, posting YouTube videos of those idiots with country accents who can’t find Afghanistan on a map, shouldn’t they be ashamed of themselves, shouldn’t we be ashamed of them. Shouting facts that are just skewed enough from the truth that, though they may address the spirit of the situation, can be written off as illegitimate. (No, it’s not a Muslim ban – it’s a ban of 7 politically-sensitive countries which are all Muslim. No, Bannon isn’t a Nazi – he was the editor-in-chief of a news outlet that allowed Nazi-like ideas to be published in editorials).

They sound like little quibbles, I know. In some way they even sound like moves in a game of Devil’s advocate, which in the liberal world is the ultimate act of assholery. But they’re not. Trump won. In the aftermath of that, little details about how the liberal community might not be holding itself to the highest standard; might not be engaging moderates and opponents…. they should be important. To change someone’s mind, you need to put yourself in their shoes with an open heart.

It all comes down to perspective. For example, I love Mexico, but I have a coworker who would disagree. I mean, I’m sure he loves it deep down if he’s still living here. But he always comes to work with new stories about how people in the street “harass” him, calling him “güero” (they call anyone pale “güero”, even old Mexican men); or how Mexicans are “touchy” about politics, always saying condescendingly “You’re not American! We’re also in America” (I mean, they’re not wrong).

The other day we were talking about the Mexican view of politics and he went so far as to say, “Hey – don’t say Mexican in public like that. Say….. how about…. Turkish. Just because, you know, these people get touchy if they hear us talking about them.” At which point I snapped in utter disgust, “You know what, let’s talk about something else then.”

It’s obvious to me that my coworker is somehow getting this vibe because of the expectation he puts out into the world. When I’m talking with him, I sometimes almost question my sanity, because people here are so nice to me. For example: before one of my English classes, while locking my bike in the parking garage, I once spied this super cool elevator thing used by the valets, which I can only describe as a dumbwaiter for people. You stand on a platform just big enough for your feet, hold on to the rope the platform is attached to, and then press a button to start a conveyor belt that makes you descend through a hole in the floor – then another hole in the next floor; until you reach your story and jump off.

A parking attendant saw me watching this with glee, and he offered to let me go on it– “Allllll the way down, seven floors,” he said, “then alllll the way back up.” He glanced around sketchily. “Just not today,” he said. “When we’re less busy.” Ever since then, every day that same guy greets me with, “Güero! Today after class you can take the conveyor belt!” And every day after class he looks around and says, “On Thursday, güero. On Thursday no one will see.” To which I reply, “No problem, don. Whenever it’s easiest for you, don.”

This story also represents the penchant for flaky optimism which Mexicans and Americans share, and which Europeans despise. But you know what, the other day Don Arturo did let me ride the conveyor belt, and it was awesome. And it’s moments like these that make me think of my long-suffering coworker like… I’m not sure we’re living in the same country.

This example is purely positive and negative, but it also makes you wonder about how people can see exactly the same evidence and come to different conclusions. That doesn’t mean they’re crazy. It doesn’t mean they’re shitty people. I’ve made my coworker sound like a shitty person, but in all probability, he would tell the story so I sound like an oblivious, spineless Pollyanna whom all the Mexicans are snickering about behind my back. That would make me sound like a shitty person.

But neither of us are shitty people. And neither are Trump voters. If they flout their firearms with macho bravado, or if Islam makes them uneasy, some facet of their nurture beyond their control made them that way. I know this sounds sort of apologist, but I’ve never felt that thinking this way was more urgent. People are saying “scream” and “resist”, but you don’t have to resist by screaming. The only way out is discourse. The only solution is to listen, and to invite in.

If you say you don’t have the patience for that; that you just want to make sure you’re supported and surrounded by good energy in these dark times – fine.

But don’t think for a moment that it’s anything other than an act of selfishness. An act of which the price may very well be our country.

Politics in Mexico, by the way, are not so rosy right now either. It’s a well-known fact that the current political party got people to vote for them by giving out free X-Boxes. Last year the governor of Veracruz literally fled the country and disappeared, leaving a massive hole in the city’s budget. He still hasn’t been found. And to top it all off, it’s an open secret that the national government has carved a similar hole in the funds of the state-owned petroleum company – leading to a huge national gas price hike at the beginning of this year, despite the fact that the price of oil has just gone down.

It’s easy to come out with a pretty bleak conclusion that this is where our country is headed. Or worse, that this is where our country already is; and with our fabulous red white ’n’ blue ego, we’ve just managed to ignore it.

But perspective is important. And at the end of the day, being here in Mexico has given me a fresh perspective to process all the horrible things that have happened. We hold democracy to a pretty high yardstick. Maybe it’s healthy to remember that though we’re part of a 200-year political experiment, which is going pretty damn well, the world is still the same brutal place it always was. In the end – just as it always has been – all we have is our own dumb luck and each others’ love.

Keep fighting, folks. And in the meantime, ask your taco lady how her kids are. It may not seem like a lot. But these things start from the ground up.




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