Redux: Stranger in a Foreign Land


This story has little do with science. Unless you consider the science of empathy. We often think of empathy as a form of pity but in ethology that’s not what it is at all. It’s about seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. And nothing has help me more with that than living in Mexico.  
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I know this guy. He’s a good guy – hard working, wants to do right by his wife and kid – but somehow he’s found himself in an unusual position in the debate over US/Mexico immigration.

This fellow adores his home country but also has a healthy sense of wanderlust. Yes he loves his countrymen and his family but also wants to see the world and take on new challenges. So a few years ago he crossed the US/Mexico border in a less-than-legal way.

He could have stayed home, he made enough money to support a meager existence there, but he sensed there were more opportunities if he crossed the border. A better life – more money, better living conditions – and adventure to boot! Imagine the things he would see and the stories he could tell when he got home. He’d be a man of the world.

So he did it. He didn’t have paperwork but he had a plan and he managed to pull it off. And he was right. This new country was everything he’d hoped for – work, adventure, opportunity. Finally he could afford to raise his family and live the life he wanted. He worked hard while socking money away with an eye towards buying a house back home someday – all the while trying desperately to not insult the people around him.

It was tough at times, he didn’t know the language and the food seemed so strange. Plus, the culture was just so different. So he mostly spent time around other immigrants – people who spoke his language and understood his culture. People who reminded him of home. When he did jump that chasm of the English/Spanish divide, he did so timidly and usually only for work or to buy something.

But here’s the amazing part. His adopted country embraced him. When he struggled to speak the language, people smiled and encouraged him. When he made cultural blunders, people were patient and often pretended nothing had even happened. And even though his skin color was different than most people in the country, they welcomed him to their tables and never made him feel like an outsider.

Eventually this man had a son in his adopted country. Legally, his baby boy was a foreigner to him and he may grow up with two languages and be afforded rights in this country that his father would not. And while the man worried that his boy would grow up with a distorted image of himself and his homeland, mostly he was just so grateful to his adopted country for allowing him to be able to afford to raise his child happy and safe.

Who is this illegal immigrant? This man who flouted the law and upset the natural order of things? He’s me. And that land of opportunity is Mexico. Chances are, you knew that already. I dropped a few hints early on but the one that really gave it away was when I said his adopted country embraced him.

Still, when I talk to my fellow illegals – those who’ve gone north rather than south – their reasons for crossing illegally aren’t all that different from my own. Sure, they want better jobs, more money, that kind of thing. But they also want the adventure. Working in in the US is something of a right of passage for some communities.

We in the US often assume that Mexicans come north to steal our jobs – take things that don’t belong to them. But do we ever stop to consider they don’t actually want to live up in the frozen north? After all, what’s so great about Topeka, Birmingham or Fresno? Do you really think it’s so much better to live in Orlando than Puebla? Do you think Detroit is really a utopia compared to San Cristobal de las Casas?

No, for many of us, it’s an adventure. It’s something different, something to tell your kids about when you are old. I know this because occasionally I hear the stories. Wild tales of exotic places with names like Phoenix, Chicago, or Atlanta. I hear of the strange people they met in the north and the bizarre food they ate.

“Did you like it up there?” I’ll ask sitting in the back of the cab they bought with the money they earned in Minnesota.

“Si, Minneapolis es una ciudad bastante bonita.”

“Was there racism?”

“Si, claro. Pero hay mucha gente muy buena tambien.”

And listening to this man describe my countrymen, I am deeply ashamed. I wish I could have met him there and introduced him to my best Midwestern meatloaf recipe and made him feel welcome in that strange place. I wish we could have gone backpacking in the Sierra Nevadas in California so he could have seen those incredible mountains and so he could have told his friends about the amazing wonders up north that nobody here talks about. I wished we could be sitting here reminiscing about our time in my native land as he shows me around his own home.

You know, the way neighbors sometimes do.

“Do you have kids?” I ask.

“Si, dos. Mi hijo mayor trabajando en Raleigh.”

I pay my fare and step out of the cab knowing I’m not that guy. The guy who opens his home to outsiders. Back home, when I meet a Mexican immigrant, I don’t treat him like a guest or a neighbor, I mostly look the other way. And as I stand there on the curb, I take a moment and pray that somewhere there is an American in Raleigh who is a better person than me and that they are being kind to a quiet, skinny kid working construction next door and having his youthful adventure. I hope they talk to him and laugh with him and treat him the way I was treated when I backpacked around Europe as a stupid, skinny kid.

The passage of labor across the US/Mexico border (both ways) has existed for centuries, with both countries profiting from the arrangement. There are towns in Mexico that have annual celebrations that go back long before anyone can remember to welcoming the immigrants home from their time among their neighbors to the north. They’re not celebrating the stealing of American jobs, they’re celebrating an old, established tradition. Migration, not immigration.

Someday, I imagine I’ll join them. I’ll go home to my native country and tell of the adventures I had in the south. Perhaps my son, a Mexican citizen himself, will spend some time in the south, getting to know his culture and its amazing cuisine. Maybe have a few adventures along the way.

Or perhaps not, perhaps I’ll just stay. After all, I’m legal now. You see, when foreigners have babies in Mexico, their parents automatically get the right to become permanent residents.

How very neighborly.


Photo Credit: Shutterstock


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Categorized in: Erik, Miscellaneous