When I started traveling, it was because I wanted to figure out some essential, core truth about the world. After all these years, I think I’ve found it. It’s simple: people are essentially the same everywhere, except all human beings are biased and that bias is called their culture.
The first time you have a conversation about your home country with someone from another country who has never been to your country, you see it. In the beginning, you laugh. Your language teacher in Guatemala asks you if all Americans have swimming pools and chuckling, you say, “Oh god no… why do you think that?”
But over time what you begin to see is your own bias. I’ve discovered my deeply ingrained Americanism. I fundamentally believe, reflexively, that people should follow the rules. That lines should not be skipped. That we should be safe – a definition that is specific to my culture, for example, my line starts somewhere around lighting fireworks in the crowd at soccer stadium or riding a motorbike without a helmet – but other cultures have vastly different definitions of the same term. I believe when you say 1 PM you should mean approximately 1 PM – and my approximation gives about 30 minutes leeway… a relatively random number if you think about it, but it’s my unspoken assumption. I have a personal boundary that means if we sit next to each other, our thighs should not touch. When we talk, you should keep about 12 inches or more away from my face. If you get closer than 6 inches I think you’re trying to kiss me.
Who made up these rules? We did! And we teach them to our kids and enforce them with strangers.
And in Japan or India or Kyrgyzstan they have their own set of rules that they assume are natural, normal and correct – but they are wildly different than mine.
Then, if you move from travel to living in a place, you see even more. You start to notice little things. This morning I saw it, while watching a video in Spanish about Tacos Al Pastor. I’d seen a few articles in the last year about the origins of Al Pastor in Mexico… I think NPR did a story on it that went viral and a bunch of other places have done their own version of it. It’s a cool story. The Mexican taco favorite is actually Shawarma, just with different spices. But in this little video there was a slight twist.
It says, “Other similar dishes are the kebab in Turkey, the gyro in Greece and the kas in Iraq.” The part that stood out to me was Iraq. Most of the other stories leave the Iraq example out, even though they are writing the same story. It’s not listed on the Wikipedia page, but the Turkey and Greece examples are. Here is what I think writers consider:
– What examples are representative?
– What regions are my readers familiar with?
– What is interesting?
So what I’ve seen is a lot of Western English-speaking (not all, but most) outlets leave out the Iraq example, perhaps because they think, “Well, I have Turkey and Greece… and do people want to hear about the food in Iraq? Is it necessary?” and that question lets their bias justify itself and leave out what is uncomfortable. We don’t like to talk about Iraq in those terms, we don’t like to humanize them, or think about what they eat for dinner, because that makes it harder to ignore and not consider what it was like after 9/11 when we bombed their country and occupied it. We put that into a black box and our cultural agreement is that everyone, including food writers, will avoid the entire subject.
It’s through this selection process that we begin to create not just cultural biases but systemic cultural blindness. I grew up before 9/11 and I experienced that awakening with the rest of America… “Wait, where is the Middle East? What has been going on there?”
But this video made me think of something else… while places like the Food Network are serving an audience they feel don’t care about Iraqi food, if you go to Instagram you can find thousands of entries:
But what’s really amazing to me is the power of just writing about a place. When I was living in Beirut in 2012, I felt like no one cared about the Syrian refugees. I know some people did, but I’d tweet stories and get no response. I was frustrated that terrorists were being described as “Islamic” even in publications like National Geographic. In 2013, I wrote an open letter to Nat Geo to call for them to stop using that term and I spent the next few days battling ideologues who refused to see the subtlety. It’s 2016 now and I don’t think I’d have to write that same piece again. The shift has been drastic. It’s not that everyone agrees, it just that it’s been said by enough people, enough times, that the people get it: Islam is not terrorism. They might not agree but they know that’s an opposing viewpoint. In 2013, it still felt like breaking new ground to explain it, just me in the jungle, whacking through the overgrowth with a machete.
Right now, I’m writing about Oaxaca, and I feel the same way. Each time I write about a non-beach resort in Mexico, it drops a tiny pebble into the cultural ocean. There’s an American blindness to Mexico, except Puerto Vallarta and Cancun, and we’re conflicted on immigration but still love Mexican food (sometimes it feels like Americans are like: it’s ours now!). I can’t even remember what I used to think about Mexico before I first visited in 2008 – I wish I had interviewed myself on the subject, it probably would be hilarious in hindsight. But my small contribution these days is to not lecture about it (boring! also doesn’t work) but to just do my thing and write about my life. I live in Oaxaca with a 5 year-old and a 2 year-old. We like it here. We’re Americans. Just the fact we exist and share our lives offers a rebuttal to those politicians and conservative journalists that would like to paint this country another way. It’s not aggressive. It’s just like, “Oh really? A country of rapists and murders? Did you see what I ate for lunch? It was amazing.”
I refute your politics with a picture of mole.
That dish does something 1,000 words on the subject can’t do: we’re receptive to it because it looks delicious, we assume it was made with some care and love, and without even realizing it, we feel connected to the people who made it.
Even more than a beautiful shot of a beach in Mexico (and let’s face it, a lot of travel literature can turn any destination into a consumable product, dehumanizing the locals even as it touts the inherent value of visiting), a picture of food makes us think those people must be nice. We know that someone must of have made it. It’s connected to the people. After all these years of traveling, unearthing my own preconceptions, it occurred to me this morning, as I watched that video, just how powerful knowing and loving the food of a certain country can be.
This election year, I’m staying far away from the debates. In a time when two politicians argue their level of Spanish fluency in the context of who is more anti-immigrant, I think it’s better to say nothing. I’m just going to cook, eat, photograph and share photos of the food here in Mexico as my counterpoint.