Tuesday, September 06, 2011

On Being Gracious

She looks like Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan nobel peace winner. There I am screaming at her face, offering the fullest, ripest of what anger I still hoard. Pouring out molten fire...centimeters from contact. Fuck you! Goddam it! I want the world to pour down dead birds on her head. I want to rip her into particles. I want my eyes to burn into her, haunt her for the rest of her life. Never, ever forget this moment!

Why was I screaming at this woman? What happened you might wonder?

Sometimes I’m really tired of myself. Right when I think I know myself…when I’ve accepted flaws and offer the universe a better version, more calm and wise…I disappoint. Is it self-sabotage? Is it sobering up to my own paradoxes, sometimes too painful and shameful to accept? Is this what it means to test assumptions, values?

But before you can fully understand this moment. Let’s take a step back.


The night before.

It had been another long drive. This leg, Puerto Escondido to San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. 9 hours. When Cedric is behind the wheel, the sky is clear with sun. When I am behind the wheel, it is if god herself calls for the special effects. Fellas, she’s behind the wheel again…queue up the torrential storm number. It pours. And it pours hard, so hard the impossibly yellow-caked butterfly blood from the hundreds of butterflies we've killed along the way instantly vanishes from the windshield. So hard, my head hurts inside this crazy car wash, the heavy washer blades thumping and rotating in all directions, impossible to see from where I sit. And when it isn’t raining, right as I start to relax, a truck appears white dust from its open bed. Pluff! Antarctica. A sudden blindness.

The experience leaves me weary and reeking in self-doubt. Am I capable of moving through this? I’ve never done this before. The boy becomes noticeably annoyed by my need for constant reassurance…am I on the right lane?, is it the right turn or left?, are you sure I'm going the right way? I feel at any moment, I’m capable of driving us off a cliff.

“It’s only rain.” The boy says.

Even though we’ve carefully alternated between 2 hour shifts, our bodies are dismantled by the time we arrive in San Cristobal. The man behind the reception desk kindly carries 3 bags at a time, helping to unload the car. He’s warm and as real as they come. Salt of the earth. He looks like the ancient warriors I’ve seen on the walls of Chichen Itza. Handsome. Dignified.

When we ask where we can eat, he gives us a good recommendation 2 blocks from the hotel. The cost of our meal with dessert and tip is $47. It’s a splurge but we deserve the treat. We order steaks and red wine. Mine comes wrapped with spinach and cheese, a toothpick pins the meat. The boy's silver platter contains grilled slices of beef meant for wrapping with fresh corn tortillas. There’s a dish of green chilis and their seeds in vinegar. The best steaks so far in Mexico.

It is then that the universe over hears our conversation. We’re talking in the way where everything is funny and effortless. The affects of red wine on thirsty throats. Borat. I’ve binged on the best of youtube skits during our last days in Puerto Escondido. There's a hilarious scene. Sacha Baron Cohen dressed as the Afghanistani journalist goes to Cambridge where he interviews students and professors; it’s a ploy meant to expose elitism and sexism. Borat asks an American student in a white collared shirt about parties at Cambridge, naked wrestling and horse polo...and if there will be a woman, where you do like a sex with them...

The American clearly offended by the vulgar question responds, “I'm sorry you're going to have to cut that off, that's an inappropriate question. There will be no such parties...this is a serious university and there is not going to be any sort of prostitution!"

No one wants to see you explode. It’s laughable. No more questions. He runs away from Borat. A boob.

The strudel comes out, looking more strudel-esque then its namesake. I pull a “Sonia”.

“This isn’t strudel! I have beeeeen to Vienna!” I tease mockingly.

Sonia’s a friend who spent a couple of months in India. When she came back, she was so enlightened that one night at a well-known Indian restaurant in Berkeley, she declares her newfound knowledge in a flame of righteousness. Her target, an innocent waiter (but looking back, who was more than likely the owner).

“This isn’t chapati! I have beeeeen to India!

The man responds graciously without being offended. He welcomes the remark.

“Well, when you chew and swallow it, it tis all the same in the belly.” He shakes his head as the way of the world.

The strudel reminds me of that self-righteousness moment, the mask we don to show our uniqueness, our ridiculous knowledge…as if the man hadn't been born in India himself, as if he too hadn’t eaten the foods of his home country his whole life!

The moment makes me laugh. It makes me squirm. Because I know all too well; I’ve bumped my head, stubbed my toe too many times, on all those things I’ve regretted saying in my own heat of self-righteousness.

I hope I can be gracious as the man to my friend, when one day the occasion arises. Yes, I look forward to being as gracious.

So there it was, our conversation over heard by the universe because not more than 14 hours after, my prayers are answered.


The next morning, we come back from a morning walk where we’ve been hunting for a free patch of grass for Manly and Biela (all the squares and parks are fenced in Mexico). It’s pouring by 11am. San Cristobal is dark and depressed. You can feel the harshness on the streets, the cracked walls, moths living off dust. I mistake male shouts as a violent protest rather than drills from the tae kwon do school right next to the hotel.

We sit completely drenched in rain on a table next to the lobby. Both wet dogs, bundled between human feet. We can’t run up to our apartment room quite yet because a woman with a breathing mask is still cleaning the room.

The boy goes to the receptionist to pass time.

I listen in and stand from a distance leaving the boy to manage the Spanish. She smiles at him in a too familiar way, I don't like. The boy asks where to have lunch. He throws in the normal words to show what we have in mind. Menu del dia. Economico. She doesn’t seem to listen or understand. Offering places with the same prices back home. There’s the restaurant we’ve already had dinner. Another place that is more expensive. All the restaurants in the centro mostly cater to tourists. Her explanation. We find a restaurant later on our own with a menu del dia, paying $6.50 each…a little more than what we usually spend because I have 2 beers that day over lunch.

And then it happens.

I’m standing across from them when she asks the boy, the question intended between the 2 of them. Is she American?

Yes, the boy tells her.

But she asks again a second time.

I can tell that the boy doesn’t understand the point of the question but I understand too well its intent.

I come closer. She looks at me indifferently.

Are you American? The question comes again as plain as day.


“Well, it’s just that you don’t look…”

I know what’s going to happen. It’s happened before. Only a couple months ago with a friend over crab. And other times before then...branded on memory.

2002. Valencia, Spain. I’m on the phone with a woman on the phone in our rental car. We’re driving from Barcelona. Her English isn’t so good so we try in French. She’s warm and kind. When we meet face to face her reaction is the opposite.

“I didn’t think you would look…” She traces an imaginary circle around her face. "You know what I mean?"


I try and imagine what I could have done back in Spain, and here again in the precise moment with the receptionist. What I could have done to prevent it. Why didn’t I walk away? Why didn’t I look confused? Look up at the sky. Ignore her. Why didn’t I jump up and down and shout so she could not start this ugly dance. Why didn’t I do anything…anything rather than stand there numb, separating myself from my body. Trying to look god dam gracious...instead of opening my mouth and choking down the stale communion cracker.

“Well, it’s just that you don’t look…” She takes a finger and makes the slant on the corner of her eye.

I look away.

I speak from under my breath piecing Spanish words. Not looking at her.

“My mother and father are from Vietnam.”

The words knock the life from my knees and that afternoon and hours afterwards, I try and make peace with myself...what happened and what should have happened?

I didn’t want to waste my energy on her. I didn’t want to go there.

But it happened.

A rotten apple core inside the chest.

I blame the boy for the rest of the day. That he should have said something in Spanish. But the truth is, I’m so angry at myself. A coward. Is this the cost for being gracious? Betraying yourself to save face, to act cool, to be above it all?

So what do you do? What do you say? What should I have said?

I replay the moment again and again over 2 beers at lunch. In the attempts to talk about it, then letting it pass, then bringing it up again, then letting tears leak out, I can’t deny that it happened.

It happened to me. It happened. It happened to me.

Life isn’t a TV show where you’re being interviewed by Borat. Where it’s all about capturing candid reactions for laughs. There aren’t any punch lines. No perfect come backs. Life is real and ugly and unpredictable, ungracious.

I didn’t need to offer an explanation. I wanted to lean in and slap that bitch! That’s how I felt. I didn’t need to explain jack shit!

And so coldly and plainly, I send an email to the owner of the hotel and make my case.

I'm wondering if it's hotel policy that your employees show what type of eyes your guests have. After your receptionist asked my husband twice then myself if I was American, she then put her fingers on the crease of her eyes, to show that mine were slanted.

Although it was very educational, I wanted to share this to you first before I share my feelings and what I think of the hotel to the rest of the world.

The owner, Francesca calls me within an hour. Her voice trembles. She’s ashamed and shocked. She laughs nervously. She tells me that she has 2 children from Africa. That it’s never happened before. That they have visitors from all over the world. Especially Asians...the best customers. The roles are clear. She's the doctor and I, the person newly diagnosed with a disease. I’m no longer human. A patient. Sympathy and flowers.

It was a misunderstanding. It’s never happened before.

I don’t accept the answer. It wasn’t a misunderstanding. It was poor judgment. The receptionist knew exactly what she was doing. I don’t want it to happen again. Not to any guest who looks like me. I’m tired of speaking with this lady who has 2 children from Africa. Click.


The day we leave San Cristobal...it is just as dark and dreary as when we arrived. I notice that the cleaning lady smiles and almost gloats over the boy as the receptionist had…in that too familiar way. But with me her reaction is indifferent, as if she could care less that I was standing there.

I drive along the curving shoulders of the mountains of Chiapas. There are little girls walking on the side of the road. They walk with heavy loads. They sell their goods. They hold their brothers or sisters in their arms. Where are the schools I wonder? What does a girl in Chiapas grow up to be?

In that moment, I realize there was no judgment. No malice. She didn’t know any better. The look the receptionist gave me, the look from the cleaning lady…all there looks passed down from mother to daughter. You will never grow up to be anything more than I am. You will clean homes. You will marry and have children. You will not go to high school or even university. Your value will always be less than a man’s.

I think of my grandmother. Throughout her 92 years on earth, she only had a 2nd grade education in Vietnam. She had 7 children. She lived a long life witnessing her country being torn apart. The French, the Americans, then in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge who kicked her family out. Her heart torn too many times by my grandfather’s infidelities. Before then, a father, a mother... who left her to grow up on her own, too young like these girls I see walking along the road. I loved my grandmother. I loved her very much.

There was no judgment. These women were my reality check. A glimpse into a life that is not mine.

I am grateful for the university education; grateful to study abroad... Vienna, Austria, Oxford, England. Grateful that my life is not defined by the number of babies I make. Grateful to be rewarded by a career. Grateful to be behind a car exploring the roads of Chiapas...for all the journeys and memories enriching my life. And even grateful still to see kernels of my own dream take form and manifest.

What of the lives for my sisters’ in Chiapas?

The day that it happened. The day it happened to me, she waited for me that night to come back to the hotel, she waited to apologize to me. As I walked up the stairs, I listened to her words.

Life is not gracious. Life is full of lessons. I am grateful for this woman who looks like Rigoberta Menchu. She gave me more than I could imagine. A chance to understand my own nature, my own ridiculous pride, my own fragility. A chance to allow my own ungracious feelings to surface. I allowed the moment to slip the first time. But not now. She’s giving me another chance. Try again.

That night, I’d already thrown away ideals that keep us separate.

For the first time in my life, I am no longer afraid to lean into it. To come closer...to reconcile and make peace, to see fully, that her eyes are not much different than my own.

By Mai Brehaut

Rigoberta Menchu

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