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How Travel Has Made Me Uncomfortably Aware of My Racism

sticker held over a map of Asia and Africa reading "MINORITY. A term applied to the majority of the world's population."Recently, I wrote up a travel bucket list, and in the list of places I want to go, found my own racism staring me directly in the face.

But before I get to the contents of list, first some context. When I started traveling abroad, I set a personal policy that I would not go anywhere where I couldn’t at least speak enough of the language to have a logistical conversation about travel-relevant topics. I think that policy initially came from a good place–I was frustrated with the xenophobia I saw in American travelers who complained about how terrible Paris is because the French are super rude, but didn’t bother to learn a word of the French language. “Everybody speaks English!” always struck me as deeply wrong, and I was struggling a lot as a teenager with the meaning of American empire and my complicity in it.

In high school, I was drawn to the study of French because it had always seemed like a rather sophisticated, romantic language, and I already had some exposure to it. I picked German pretty much out of a hat because I needed another elective and it worked for my schedule. So I’m not going to blame myself too hard for starting with European languages, but I do think it had a role in how Eurocentric my perspective skewed over time.

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Trend-setter for fifteen seconds

Every now and again, it’s bound to happen.  If you keep living your life more or the less the same way, the way you dress/what you eat/who you have sex with is bound to become trendy for a few minutes or so.  At various times in my life, my style of glasses, the men’s dress shirts I wear, and my haircut have been cool.  Wearing dark colours was actually cool for quite a while there.  Being a vegetarian?  That was cool at some point, I think.  Anyway, today I just realised that the tea I’ve been drinking for a year or two is suddenly trendy for the summer.

Sometimes, when I’m bored, I watch Danish talk shows on YouTube to keep up my Danish skills (which are severely lacking, really).  In one episode, a talk show host was interviewing Viggo Mortensen, an actor I happen to be a fan of (check out his performance in Eastern Promises if you haven’t yet; it’s stellar).  Mortensen spent some time in Venezuela and Argentina as a kid, and he apparently drinks a tea called maté, to which he introduced the host.  “Does it need sugar?” he host asked.  “No, no.”  Host takes a sip.  Nearly spits it out.  Mortensen adds sugar.  

I was intrigued by this clip, because I’m a huge fan of strong tea.  I got some yerba maté, as well as a blend called “rainforest” maté, from the online tea company I was using at the time, and I really liked it.  I was also thrilled to find that Red Poppy, the hookah bar slash tearoom in Iowa City, has a fantastic maté.  Searching around online, I found that the tea contains antioxidants that give an energy boost, much like caffeine.  Excellent!

Well, today I was riding my bike across the river for my Turkish exam, and because I’m lazy and didn’t want to ride up the hill to the building where the exam was, I “parked” at the student union.  And because the weather was nice and this was my last exam, I decided to celebrate with an icy beverage.  So, lo and behold, they have turned my nice hippie antioxidant tea into a latté.  Leave it to JavaHouse to latté-ize almost anything.  It’s good – basically a chai latté with maté instead of chai – and it costs $4.05 plus tax.  Ha!  Ha ha ha ha.  And of course, they have big posters advertising how it’s like caffeine but not, and organic and good for you and trendy. 

Oh, boy.