This I Believe

Miguel - Oxnard, California
Entered on December 11, 2006

I Don’t Want to Be Here Anymore!

I’ll be honest with you: it’s going to have to take something exceptional to keep me in the United States. No. I’m not talking about a general amnesty. I’m not an illegal immigrant. Never was.

Allow me to explain. I lived and worked in Shanghai, China for several years. No. I’m not a communist either. In fact, I believe in democracy, freedom and equality as much as any other patriotic US citizen. And I would never give up my US Passport. I’d have to be crazy to do that.

The funny thing is—I never felt truly free until I lived in China. It was, paradoxically, while living in a closed authoritarian country that I came to feel fully emancipated—and free. Oh how sweet freedom is!

I worked as a teacher there and there I was seen with different eyes. Everywhere I went—I received courtly treatment, from shops to jobs to restaurants to bars. I was rich, I was educated, I was handsome. Women loved my eyelashes and my nose. Oftentimes, I was confused for Italian or French. I’d smile and correct them: I’m Mexican-American, while going on to explain that the United States is a land of immigrants.

In China I felt especially safe because someone else did all the dirty work there. The Mexicans and Mexican-Americans I met were all educated and bilingual.

One night a small group of sailors were sitting at a coffee bar in Shanghai. I overheard them speaking Spanish so I started talking to them. They told me they were the commanding officers of the Mexican navy’s tall ship the Cuauhtemoc, which had docked in Shanghai. They gave me a poster of the ship and told me they were on a worldwide friendship tour.

Another night, walking near a street lined with seedy bars, I met a group of musicians. They belonged to a visiting orchestra from Vienna, Austria. One man, a violinists, and a soloist at that, is from Mexico. He tells me about his hometown and asks a lot of questions about China.

On a flight a young Mexican man tells about his family’s shoe factory in Guanajuato, Mexico. He’s on his way home after meeting his Hong Kong broker and visiting a shoe factory in Guangdong, China. He shows me his college class ring. He is a graduate of Mexico’s top university.

Other Mexicans and Mexican-Americans I met, who lived in China and were not just visitors, were also educated: business people, artists and teachers. They carried passports and designer suitcase.

I have returned to the United States since. And quite frankly: I don’t want to be here anymore. For one, it’s turning increasingly undemocratic and mean: “You’re either with us or you’re against us…etc…etc.”

Mainly though, I have come to loathe how this country looks at me and makes me feel. Feelings I thought were permanently laid to rest returned from the grave as soon as I got off the plane at LAX.

I am no longer confused for Italian or French. No. Here I am just Mexican. And to be Mexican in the United States comes with serious consequences. I am poor again. I’m uneducated. I don’t speak English. I’m ugly. I’m illegal!

I have tried everything to gain acceptance. Oh believe me I have! I learned English, put on surfer t-shirts, graduated from college, became a US citizen, registered to vote—voted—but nothing I do is ever good enough.

In China, whenever I said to a Chinese woman in Spanish, “Your hair is beautiful. I love your soft skin.” My Spanish was met with a lovely smile and a compliment. In the United States I am harshly told: “Speak English!”

Here I am the doe eyed man on CNN sneaking across the US border with black trash bags for luggage. I am the little girl in a Los Angeles classroom with bad breath and a painful cavity. I am the short, plump woman selling flowers in a sushi restaurant. I am the day laborer loitering outside the hardware store.

I’m at the post office sending query letters to New York literary agencies. Suddenly, before I have a chance to react, I am the confused Mexican-Indian lady who unmasks me and asks, “Do you speak Spanish?” It was like looking in a mirror.

I hate seeing myself like this. And more than that—I hate being seen like this.