Today I identify proudly with my Mexican culture, however, that wasn’t always the case. Growing up in a predominantly white town, it wasn’t easy for me to embrace and be proud of my culture. As I grew into adulthood, I began to realize the importance of maintaining my culture, along with being proud of it. Therefore, by the time I was starting college, I was fully embracing being Mexican.
When I started college, I saw this as an opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and try new things. For this reason, given that culture became such an important part of my identity, I wanted to challenge myself to learn about other cultures. I ended up choosing Asian cultures to learn more about, given that I didn’t grow up around many Asian people, therefore I thought that Asian cultures would be much different than mine. I started taking Mandarin classes at my college along with other Asian studies courses. What I learned was shocking. As I took these classes and learned more about Chinese culture, I realized that our cultures weren’t so different. For example, one of my Mandarin professors told me that every culture has their own version of a dumpling. As she said this, I realized that she was right. In Mexico and other Latin American cultures, empanadas are very popular. Chinese dumplings have a variety of styles, from pork stuffed dumplings to soup dumplings. Same goes for empanadas -- they can be a dessert or a savory meal. While I’ve never tried samosas before, I believe they would also fall into this category! Samosas are fried pastry stuffed with various fillings. It’s incredible to see how this simple dish can have so many different styles, yet still have a similar foundation.
The similarities don’t stop with just dumplings, though. I began thinking more about it, and many other examples began surfacing in my mind. Dia de los Muertos is a holiday celebrated in Mexico where we honor the dead by setting up altars for our deceased relatives. These altars usually contain pictures of our deceased family, along with candles and their favorite foods when they were alive. Interestingly enough, Filipinos also celebrate Dia de los Muertos! This Mexican holiday strongly resembles a Chinese holiday called the Qingming festival. During the Qingming Festival, many families will clean their relatives' tombs and also make offerings to the dead. Both holidays emphasize the importance of respecting your ancestors.
The importance of family is not just isolated in the previous holidays. In fact, I’ve observed that many non-white countries and cultures share this type collectivist ideal, where family is valued above the individual. In Mexico, it is very common for multiple generations to live together. We believe that elderly people carry with them a lot of wisdom, therefore the elderly are highly respected and protected by the younger generations. It is for this reason that retirement homes are less common and accepted in Mexico. The Confucian concept of filial piety also plays a role in the respect of parents and ancestors. Some Chinese parents believe that because they’ve raised their children into adulthood, it is the duty of their children to take care of their parents once the parents reach an old age.
“I’ve watched ex-boyfriends dedicate more than half their monthly salary to their parents, and my dad discreetly sliding money into my grandparents’ pockets every other time we go for dim sum. This tradition is so deeply ingrained in the Chinese culture that no discussion is even necessary to know that it’s expected.”
Some similarities are not coincidental, as Asians can be Mexicans too! Mexican is only an ethnicity and a nationality, therefore all races can be Mexican too. Due to migration, many Asians from all different countries have immigrated to Mexico. For example, in the early 1900s, approximately 1,000 Koreans immigrated to Mexico to do labor at the henequen plantations. Many Koreans immigrated for new opportunities, while others were escaping Korea under Japanese rule. Despite working hard for Mexico's benefit, these Korean immigrants were treated like second-class citizens. In order to survive such a hostile environment, most of these Korean immigrants would go on to assimilate to Mexican culture, their Korean identity lost. 100 years later, the Mexican government would begin remembering and honoring those Korean immigrants and their continued legacy in Mexico. Currently, there has been a big wave of Korean immigrants to Mexico for business-related migration. I find this fascinating because I can really see the influence Mexican-Asians have had on Mexican culture. For example, I grew up drinking Yakult religiously. To this day you can find them sold in mostly every Mexican store. I was under the impression that it was only a Mexican drink, but in reality this drink is Japanese! This is due to Japan heavily marketing this drink in Latin America. The Mexican division of Yakult was even founded by a Japanese Mexican!
Mexicans and Filipinos also have a shared history! Given that both countries were colonized by Spain, us Mexicans and Filipinos are often mistaken for one another -- I know I have. Nothing is more embarrassing than accidentally speaking Spanish to a Filipino! Filipinos have incorporated many Spanish words into Tagalog, and many even have Spanish last names. In addition to Spanish, many Filipinos are Catholic like Mexicans. Plus, there are many more similarities! Spain is also the reason there are many similarities with Spanish and Arabic. Before Spain went to colonize Mexico, Muslims had taken over Spain. Although the Spaniards eventually took back Spain, Muslims influenced the Spanish language substantially. One example is the Spanish word for watermelon, which is sandia. In Arabic, it’s sindiyyah. It sounds almost the same!
You may be asking yourself -- how is this relevant? As the world becomes more globalized, there is a need for humans to adapt. I’ve found that learning about Asian cultures has allowed me to grow my cultural competence. Given my background knowledge of Asian cultures, I can more easily relate and converse with people of Asian heritage. I'm able to draw these connections, and therefore make more meaningful connections. Now I’m able to connect with just about anyone. I allow myself to talk to others that are different from me, to try foods I’ve never eaten before, to watch media in languages that I do not understand. In a globalized world, this type of skill is ideal!
Additionally, by making these connections between Asian cultures and Mexican culture, I’ve had to pick out those little details about my culture that I would have otherwise not paid much attention to. Therefore, I have a better understanding and appreciation of those little things. In my case, drawing connections to Asian cultures has made me have a better understanding of my Mexican heritage. I encourage others to step outside of their bubble and explore! When was the last time you’ve explored a culture different from your own?
Aneliz is a Mexican American woman from the suburbs of Chicago. She is a summer 2021 intern interested in UX-design and social justice. She is currently attending Smith College studying computer science and east asian studies.