No Country for Old Men


0153  |  Earlier, I had a conversation with my mother on the phone. Our conversation got me thinking…

To note, I want to write these things because it might be helpful for other people like me who want to gain self-knowledge. What I write here might be considered “shameful” by some. But my intention isn’t to shame anyone in particular. Rather, my intention is to bring about what is perhaps a small, but important, change. Also, I am writing these things down for others like me, and not anyone else — and I have nothing to hide with others like myself since we all have a common goal, the way that Plato and I have a common goal. Others like me will appreciate what I’ve written here, because it is an attempt at alleviating self-ignorance.  And so, I am writing these things down for my self really. I am writing these things down because I have a conclusion, and the conclusion is important to understand. I felt that my conclusion should have context, and be supported by facts and testimony.

Well, so I was thinking about our conversation after getting off of the phone with my mother. I asked her what she thought that I should do with the office furniture here (since I may have to move out of this space), since they were her gifts to me. She said that I should package up the furniture, and that if I couldn’t do it then I should hire some “Mexicans” to package up the furniture.

But what does this mean — to hire some “Mexicans”?

Now, there’s two interesting things going on here. (1) Why she used that tag, and (2) how it is that I could understand it.

On the face of it, of course I understood what she meant since it wasn’t the first time that she spoke that way, and I have even heard my college-educated aunts speak that way. I think that she meant to say that I should hire some “day-laborers.” But I realized that I wasn’t really certain what she’s means at all, since there are no “Mexicans” here to hire — but some Hondurans, Brazilians, Argentinians, Dominican Republicans, and a lot of Americans and some Koreans. There’s only many Mexicans in Southern California. It’s not like anyone should know what a “Mexican” is such that I should hire a “Mexican” over any other ethnic group or race to package my furniture. There are also alternative words that she could have used that would have been just as effective, such as “day-laborer” (or even in Korean, “일군” meaning “worker”) or “moving specialist.” No, what she must have meant more specifically was something like, “inexpensive labor.” What else would set a Mexican laborer apart from non-Mexican laborers? In short, “Mexican” has simply come to be interchangeable with the word “cheap.”

I had to respond right away, since there can be no other time to respond to this: “What Mexicans? I don’t know any Mexicans here! What are you talking about?!”

To her defense, her English is quite poor, and she doesn’t have a big vocabulary. And though her mastery of Korean is quite good, it is often crude. [In fact, I’ve spent a good deal of my childhood cringing whenever I heard her speak.] She likely did not make up that usage for herself; she must have adopted that usage because she’s heard others use that tag. [My mother also lacks the ability to think independently, so to her most often-used reason for anything with me is that, “It’s what most people do.”] And it’s true that there are many Mexicans in Southern California who rent themselves out from the street corners, as day-laborers. [But her usage simply doesn’t make any sense outside of that context!] She also works at a large trucking company that is largely made up of Mexican drivers and movers — and it’s possible that she simply meant “moving specialists” rather than “cheap laborers.”

But consider how offensive that is.

I have sometimes heard “White” people talk about the Chinese or “Orientals” in that way. In California, I once heard a “White” man say that it’s smart to hire Chinese workers because they’ve got great skills, and they’re willing to sell their skills for practically nothing. In period books and movies, White characters would sometimes speak of Blacks or Chinese in this way. For instance, a White woman might speak of getting some “help” around the house — but by “help,” she is specifically thinking of a Black person as if “Black” were a race of servants. Hesiod also spoke this way about women, when he said in his Works and Days as advice to the man, “First, get yourself a house, a woman, and a plow ox.” And by “woman,” Hesiod meant a house-keeper and a farm-hand, not a wife.

In some cases, this kind of usage of categorical tags are malicious; they intend to harm and hurt. In my mother’s case, it wasn’t malicious; it was more like self-ignorance and convenience. She was simply using language for its intended purpose, which is to communicate in an efficient and effective way. And she is just one person among some others — Korean or otherwise — who makes and uses generalizations. In this case, the generalization was about what sorts of things that most Mexicans do, or what kinds of occupations they generally have. Suffice it to say that there is sometimes enough truth in the generalization that if I analyze it hard and long enough, I could see what she might mean.

But there’s many problems with this kind of language use.

First of all, if I were younger and perhaps had a more passive personality, and I were surrounded by this type of talk my whole life, and the talk were somehow also reinforced with evidence all around me, I might come to think that ethnic groups were like caste divisions. I might think that “Mexican” just simply means “laborers.” I wouldn’t even notice that there was something wrong with it.

Second of all, this kind of generalizing is actually quite inaccurate and has the potential to create confusion and misunderstanding. The usage is too loaded, and there is too much hidden content. As I had noted earlier, I’m not entirely sure whether she means “cheap labor,” or “moving specialist,” or “day-laborer,” or literally a “person from Mexico.” For all I know, she could have meant a ton of other things — eg, “hard-worker,” or “a skilled person,” or anything else for that matter. There’s no rational and self-evident reason for me to know what she could possibly mean unless I had encountered many such Mexicans myself. If she were talking to Koreans who had never been to Southern California for instance, what would they think? Would they know precisely what she meant? I would think that they’d be confused at best. Being a philosopher, the longer I think about something, the more confused I get sometimes. So, after a while, even I’m confused, to be honest. I’m not even entirely sure that I’m not just making all of this up, since what I’m analyzing here is an interpretation that is implied and not something explicit!

Finally, the language is crude. I must have some sort of “sensitivity” to something in the language (in the way that dogs are said to have a sensitivity to certain high-pitch sounds, which people can’t detect at all), that my mother and aunt do not. It obviously bothers me somehow, though it doesn’t seem to bother them at all. Of course, I am only intuitively bothered, since I can’t at first give a detailed account of why it bothers me; I just cringe a bit inside. In any case, this kind of usage is crude and insensitive [to me and people with this sort of sensitivity, anyways]. Upon analysis, I find that it bothers me that language is used in such a way so that an existing word which is supposed to denote an entire nation of people is appropriated by individuals who are “outsiders” to that nation and thereby reduced to some limited functional aspect of that nation of people in relation to the “outsider” individual. [It’s something that Aristotle does quite often.] It also bothers me because there is actually some factual basis for her usage — however, the factual basis does not justify the usage! For someone like me, words exist as names that announce to the world what a thing is supposed to be on its own terms, and not what it merely appears to be in relation to a particular context. And so, this kind of appropriation is crude because I believe that a word should reflect the divine truth. And, it simply is not true that there exists such a thing as a nation of people that is entirely made up of “day-laborers!”

I think it’s important that different-looking kinds of people engage in the various occupations, so that people don’t get boxed in by past circumstances or for the sake of the convenience of others.

Also, at the risk of sounding like a Thoreau arse, I really do think that it’s super important for people to have the support and the opportunities to take up occupations that are more genuine reflections of the truth in their hearts, and not to take up occupations for the sake of convenience, or mere wealth-making, or even for mere survival. It’s perhaps not even enough that one happens to be exceptionally skilled at or particularly “useful” for some purpose or activity. No, there must be some deep relationship with the truth in one’s heart for the work to be correct and appropriate. Thoreau isn’t alone in having such beliefs. One may not know it just by looking at me (me looking Korean and all), but I too am fighting in my own way to help make this a reality.

To be clear, my intention was not to condemn my own mother. I love her in my own way, and she is after all, a part of me — and any condemnation of her is a self-condemnation. I simply wanted to help other “Kendi’s” who might be helped by what I write. It’s so important to these other “Kendi’s” that they have self-knowledge. Truth is dear. It is as dear as life. And as Thoreau says, life is indeed dear.

Let’s be reminded again of what that kindred spirit once said to us: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary.” (HD Thoreau, Walden)