by Pablo Harris
Doesn’t take long, living here in the ROK, before you get used to the same mundane questions from the natives. Before you just tune them out altogether. At least my first year, years ago out in the sticks, many brief interrogations/conversations went something like this:
“Ah, nice to meet you. Where you from?”
“Ooohhhh! But you have dark hair, dark eye?”
Yeah, well there’s many different kinds of people there from all over the world. Have you ever been to LA? There are many people there that look like you. And they’re Californian, many American too.
“Ah, Koreatown, LA. Good?”
Yeah, I like it.
“You can eat spicy food? You like kimchi?”
Yes. I like it very much.
“Good! Hmm, how old are you?”
“Why no marry?”
Uh, well, that’s a long story, I guess.
“Ah, ok! Playboy, one shot!”
Ha! Thanks. Gambae!
This year, though, over the last month there’s a new question that has popped up nightly. This time not from a local but from some friendly waygukin:
“Hey Pablo, hope you don’t mind me asking, I know you’re American but still. Got to ask. Who do you root for in the World Cup? What if USA is playing Mexico?”
No, I don’t mind . . .
* * *
TJB, a tall, tanned Polish gypsy who was a beast of a sous chef I once worked with before I left for Korea, came over to pick up some equipment leftover from a basement indoor farming project I once had in Sactown. TJB saw this picture on my fridge.
“That’s you, Slippery?”
Yeah, that’s me and my grandfather outside his house between Hanford and Corcoran.
After a high-pitched donkey bray and whistle, he howls, “Yeah, I know that dust! I come down sometimes for the midget car races out on the Kings County Raceway. That’s you, you little little? (Another donkey bray), I know that dust.”
There’s a kind of dust and desolation you only find along California 43 that connects the mighty 99 of the Central Valley with Interstate 5 from Vancouver to Tijuana. On the northern end just south of Fresno, William Saroyan country, The Human Comedy, veer right at Selma, the Raisin Capital of the World, down 98 miles to the west end of Buck Owens Blvd. and downtown Bakersfield. Right smack in the middle, exactly 200 miles south of San Francisco, 200 miles south of Sacramento, 200 miles north of Los Angeles, you’ll find where I’m from: Corcoran, California.
My first home was Corcoran. Now if it’s known for anything at all it’s just because of the maximum security prison there that’s been housing Charles Manson since 1991. But back then, it was called the Cotton Capital of California, a one-stoplight town of about 2000 people where at least 1900 of them were Mexican, where Ceasar Chavez is still both celebrated and reviled. Of those remaining who weren’t Mexican, Mojado, or Wetback, they were either the descendents of Dust Bowl Okies and Arkies or the progeny of the Boswells and Gilkeys who once owned all the water rights, all this land, owned all the pickers (both human and mechanical), and all the cropdusters and a couple of personal planes out at the slip and slide spit of an airport. Though it’s a good two and a half hour drive to the Central Coast, the dust is like sand from the beach: you can’t ever fully rinse off from it.
Fortunately, I grew up thirty miles east of all my Mexi-kin in, compared to the other valley towns, the posh big city of Visalia. Population of 50,000 on the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley in the windward shadows of sunrise below Sequoia National Park and John Muir Wilderness. It was a reversal of where I was born; everyone was white except for the Northside of town redolent with taquerias, panaderias, and wafting skunky schwag. But I’m not a Norteno.
Being on the westside in the new subdivision of Crestwood, there’s one question that annoyed me until my end of days there:
“What are you? “
“No, I mean, what are you? What kind of American are you?”
I’m American. Ok, really, I’m Californian.
“No, I mean, where is your family from?”
My parents were born in California. My grandparents were born here, too.
“No, I mean, are you Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, I don’t know, what are you?
Well, I guess, my parents and grandparents speak both Spanish and English but I can’t speak Spanish. My great-grandparents, grandparents, and, at times, even my parents have all had to pick cotton at some point. But I ain’t doing that. I had my baptism and first communion at St. Mary’s but I’m no longer going to Catechism. Sure, we eat enchiladas and tamales for Christmas but you’re never going to find a better turkey and stuffing for Thanksgiving than my mom’s.
“Hahaha, I heard that about your mom. I heard that she’s good for stuffing .”
Fuck you, Matt.
“Haha, Paul, come on, it’s a joke. Speaking of jokes, I got one. Why do Mexicans eat tamales for Christmas?”
I don’t know.
“So you have something to unwrap.”
Fuck off, Scott.
* * *
Come middle school, high school, there’s a different kind of awareness and identity that I was confronted with on a daily basis. Outside the boys bathroom was an intimidating wall of bussed-in vatos and cholos that made us evade their gambit and their epithets, such as pocho (English-speaking Mexican), maricon (gay),or joto (faggot), just to take a leak. Later in college, girls from La Raza would call me a coconut (brown on the outside, white inside) or a Mexican’t (can’t speak Spanish, can’t play soccer, and certainly cannot dance).
* * *
With the U.S. hosting the 1994 World Cup, my identity and rooting interest was definitely questioned. Do I root for my home country with the presidential looks of Captain John Harkes and a footballing version of Grateful Red Alexi Lalas (who I swear I once got two ganja gooballs and a miracle from outside of Shoreline Amphitheater before a kind Touch of Grey opener)? Or do I root for Mighty Mouse in goal in Jorge Campos and the cagey veteran of Marcelino Bernal, especially with Bernal being a family name? I chose to don the jersey of El Tri. Tired of the insults and somehow being an inferior American because of my skin, I wanted to see some brown people victorious over the honkies. Before Jorge Campos, all we had as Mexican-American or Mexican heroes was Pancho Gonzales and Fernando Valenzuela. Though Mexico was certainly better in soccer, we still feel like an underappreciated, undervalued, underdog versus America, especially on their home turf. Therefore, Viva Mexico!
This continued on through the Campos, ‘El Matador’ Luis Hernandez, and Rafael Marquez (a true captain for life). But really, at an English pub on Koh Samui there to watch the 2009 Confederations Cup semi-final of U.S. against Spain, the switch was flipped.
A local who saw me watching the game with great interest (me being a Tim Howard/Everton fan) approached me and asked,
“Where are you from?”
Uhh, hmm, I guess I’m Mexican but I’m from California?
“Ah, hmm. Ok. But where are you from? Are you from Mexico?”
Uhh, no. I’m from the States.
“Is your passport from Mexico?”
No, I have an American passport.
“Well then, that’s it, you are American.”
* * *
Growing up, somehow, I could never feel American. Or Mexican, for that matter. It wasn’t until I got to Asia did I truly feel American. Now, I’m perceived and understood as American. What’s your passport? American. No more questions asked.
Furthermore, as Mr. Motgol has described the plight of many, some of us wash up on these kimchi shores looking for something better, something they just couldn’t find in their hometown, or (for many) just an opportunity to start over after all the shortcomings, failings, and inability to cut it back home. But I don’t know about that. For this California Vato in King Joseon’s Court, I simply no longer have to answer the question what are you? I’m American. Love it or leave it. Or maybe some of both.
Also, being from Red-State California, it wears on you and I knew I had to leave from a very early age. I knew there was a whole different country out there, different world, out of the valley, back then when all that mattered was Pop Warner football or Future Farmers of America. Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts, Wranglers, or Guess Jeans; it was all about Soashes and Shit-kickers. Perhaps I just wanted to go someplace where status is not determined by how big is your ranch, your ski cabin in the sierras, or the size of your speedboat. That it really doesn’t matter how many acres, horses, pick-ups, or Mexicans your family owns.
There’s also the fact that I’m allergic to dust. Right between Waukena, population 108, and Corcoran, is the cemetery. My great-grandparents from my maternal side are buried there. My grandparents from both sides rest there. There is also my Uncle Larry, my nino (Godfather), my Uncle Fernando, my Aunt Cecelia, my Uncle Ee-Dee-Wah (a name he picked up from the Korean War), my cousin Racquel who is even younger than me, other Mexi-kin I’ve only heard of but don’t really know. I’m allergic to that dust. But one day, I probably will return there. Should return there. I hope to return to that dust. But Inshallah, God willing, not today.