Thursday, December 20, 2012

Third World Green Daddy 38: Migrant blues

Yesterday I was pickpocketed.  I had never been pickpocketed or criminally victimized in any other way in my entire life, a fact of which I have always been proud, because I attributed it to my being very alert and careful.  Which means that now I feel stupid and shitty, because getting pickpocketed implies that I was oblivious and careless.

It happened like this:  I was with my mother in a crowded bazaar in central Bogota, getting party favors and things for my son's birthday, which will be tomorrow.  We had braved our way through the thrumming, thronging humanity to get paper goods, cheap plastic toys, markers, and the like, and we'd even withstood some not entirely friendly attention from passers-by who heard us talking in English.  This type of thing makes me see red; in what kind of a place do people stare or make ugly comments to others based on their nationality or their language?  I mean, for all its problems with race and ethnicity, in the US people usually don't stare or yell things at foreigners just because they're foreigners.  In fact, even in Colombia I usually don't have problems.  I have been to remote peasant villages and provincial cities (hell, I live in one), and more often than not the people there, different from me as they are, treat me like a normal person and judge me for what I say and do, not for where I was born.  What a sad situation that in Bogota, supposedly the open-minded, cosmopolitan capital, people act like uncivilized, xenophobic baboons.

Surely part of the issue is that, despite my height and my odd appearance, it seems that I blend in more or less well when I'm alone and not saying anything.  But when I'm with my very blond mother, and we're talking in English, we seem to attract a lot of attention.  Even so, why should I have to try and hide my language, hide my mother, just for us to be left alone on the street?  That's no dignified way to live.

At any rate, I was already somewhat annoyed with the general situation as my mother and I got onto the public transit bus (which you get on from a platform, just like in a subway).  We had debated whether to catch the bus or a taxi, and then we let a few buses pass as we decided which route to take and which bus didn't seem too full.  Finally, as we got on a bus, I felt a guy shove his leg against mine as if he were trying to squeeze on.  I made sure that my mother got on okay, and that no one was messing with her purse, and then I felt in my pocket to make sure that no one was trying to take my wallet.  But by the time I could do this, and I definitively felt that my wallet was gone, I was inside the bus and the doors were closing.  I thought to pull the emergency stop and get off the bus to find the guy, but for some reason I didn't do it.  In short, in various moments I had an instinctual urge to do things to prevent me from getting robbed (covering my pocket, pulling the emergency brake), but I didn't act on them.  And so I was robbed.

I feel like less of a man now, not only for being fool enough to get robbed, but also because I think that, ever since I started carrying a wallet at the age of twelve or so, it made me feel like an adult.  The heft in my left pocket was a sign that I was like other grown-up men, with money, cards, IDs, obligations, etc.  Now my pocket is conspicuously light and empty, and it reminds me with every step of my carelessness.

Beyond this, the whole affair has rekindled a fatigue and an ire that I've been feeling for some weeks now, if not for years.  Namely, being a migrant, a foreigner, has worn me down and filled me with rage.  I often feel like people second-guess me or simply don't listen to what I have to say, because they are so fixated on the fact that I talk differently from them, that I was born somewhere else.  They are so focused on what I am that they don't care to know who I am.  As a result, they treat me almost like a talking parrot or a chimpanzee.  They hear that I mouth words and even string them together into sentences, but they don't entirely believe that I know what the words mean.

This issue came up a few weeks ago at a place I was working temporarily.  A series of discussions had convinced me that, despite working with me on and off for years, some of my colleagues had never thought of me as anything more than a foreigner, something not quite human.  It really hurt me on a personal level, it offended and hindered me professionally, and it gave me that crazy, self-doubting feeling of the person who is pretty sure he's being discriminated against, but everyone tells him that he's just imagining it.  Like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia.

Right around the time this problem happened at work, I saw a new Canadian movie called Mr. Lazhar.  It is about an Algerian refugee who becomes a teacher in Montreal.  There are many subtle, accurate depictions of the little slings and arrows that come one's way as a foreigner trying to operate in a professional milieu, especially one like teaching where you are supposed to form people and inculcate your values in others.  In many parts of the movie you can see that colleagues, students, and parents discredit or disrespect the main character or his teaching methods.  You never know for sure if it's an honest disagreement with method and philosophy, or if there is an undertone of intolerance or suspicion because the character is a foreigner.  I felt like the movie captured perfectly what I was going through at the moment.

In the case of my problem at that job, I more or less resolved the situation through some difficult arguments and conversations, and now I feel that the people who were mistreating me give me more consideration and respect.  I had thus calmed down, and now felt okay in my place as a foreigner in Colombia, especially insofar as I recently finished rehabbing our house in our small town.  I now have a safe place where it's just me and my family, and we can live life as we see fit.

But yesterday's robbery, along with the stupid comments from stupid people as my mother and I walked around Bogota, all this rekindled my general rancor with Colombia, and especially with Bogota, which I am more and more convinced is not a place where people can live like human beings.  I am sick of people mistreating each other, especially when it doesn't even lead to much personal benefit for the abuser.  I mean, I had the equivalent of maybe $15US in my wallet (between pesos, dollars, and a charged bus card), which even in lower-income Colombia doesn't amount to much.  The thief can't use any of my credit or debit cards, and my IDs and health insurance cards don't do him any good, either.  So he only got $15US, and I lost much more than that in the personal value that my wallet had for me, in the notes from my wife, in my kid's photo.  It is a problem that repeats itself across Colombia.  Politicians and contractors think up scams that rob millions of dollars of value from the public, but only give them a few thousand dollars' profit in their pocket.  Grave robbers search for gold and pottery that they can sell for a few hundred dollars to collectors, and in the process they steal from the nation an incalculable cultural wealth and a sense of identity.  Agroindustrialists replace family farms that generate millions of dollars of profit for the local families with gleaming, modern plantations of oil palm or bananas, which only generate a few thousand dollars for the one oligarch that now controls all that land.  It all makes me want to send the whole country to hell sometimes.

Of course this isn't coherent in my case, because my wife, my child, the people I love, and even professional colleagues and neighborhood acquaintances that I esteem, they're all Colombian.  Furthermore, I can't rightly complain too much about my life here.  I live well, better than most Colombians and probably better than most people in the US.  I am hardly an oppressed victim, a hapless refugee.  Above all, I chose to come here, just as I chose to leave the US.  This decision to leave was in part because there are many aspects of life and culture in my birthplace that I detest (I mean shit, no one in Colombia is storming grammar schools and shooting up 6-year-olds with assault rifles), and in part because my way of thinking and my set of skills aren't very highly valued in the land where I was born.  So it's not realistic for me to think that I should just leave Colombia behind because everything will be better in the States.

I guess this is part and parcel of being a migrant.  You don't fully belong to your original homeland, because you chose to leave it and have chosen to stay away.  But you won't ever fully belong to your adopted home either, both due to your own traits and due to the prejudices of your new compatriots.  You can no longer naively think that by leaving a place behind you can get away from your problems, because you've already done that and have seen that there are new problems (perhaps even some of the old ones from your homeland) in the new place you've arrived to.  In my more optimistic moments I muse that these challenges of living as a migrant make one stronger, make one a better person, even as they cause one to suffer.  But lately I have to say I wouldn't wish this fate on anyone.  It's very possible that all this suffering doesn't have any redeeming value, and is just more hassle and hardship piled onto what you already have to deal with in life.  I dread the prospect of my wife having to live and feel all these things if we live in the US or elsewhere, and I especially feel bad for having thrust my son into a position whereby he may never be at ease, where he will always feel like a migrant split between two worlds.  I'm going to try not to make a big deal of this with him; he might not mind it at all, and my constantly bringing up how awful and difficult it is to live between two cultures might be like the parent who frets so much about spiders that his kid ends up learning to be afraid of them too.

But for right now, I'm sure not liking this whole migrant thing.  It's a tough way to live sometimes.

1 comment:

  1. My heart goes out to you Greg and "the blondie"