Clues of Colonialism in Coffee

I’m in Mexico—the Yucatan peninsula.  But this is not without a few glitches.  The first night, my brand new hotel was—well—shut down for mysterious reasons.  I spent a few hours finding new lodging.  Then, fraud protection on my card kept me from getting pesos.  I had dollars.  But we had arrived so late, that it was hard to change any dollars.


Still, that is neither here nor there.  We were just spending one night in Cancun owing to a late arrival.  And by the next morning, we were en route to another city—the grand colonial capital of Merida–looking for the one thing that keeps me going:  coffee.  And this mishap brought me to the subject of this blog, because it actually got me to thinking about how coffee can be one of those lenses by which to look at the world.  Detective fiction is always interested in looking at the tell-tale object and finding within it the source of deep violence and disturbing realities:  the bobby pin left on a counter with a lock of silver hair dangling from its clip.

You see, the story of coffee is one of deep violence.  Latin American countries like Mexico are major producers of coffee and should have it coming out their ears.  But the irony is that, of course,  they don’t.  They don’t have access to their very own natural resource.  You see, to make their money, they have to send the very best of the production abroad.  And only then, after satisfying their responsibilities to the international market, can countries like Mexico get the crumbs—the cruddy second grade product, the left-over-unwanted-ugly-stepchild coffee beans.  They can’t come up short on their obligations.  This means they get the sweepings off the floor.

I had to learn this the hard way when I traveled through South America for a year after grad school.  I naively thought that coffee would be everywhere—plentiful.  But what coffee that was available was not well processed.  Neither was it well brewed.  If you were lucky enough to come by it, the fragrant black bean was over-the-top expensive.  And the only travelers who knew this as a fact were the Israeli’s—seasoned, long term travelers who spent at least a year, often more, after their time in the army, working through their PTSD.  They always carried their own coffee, along with the apparatus to brew themselves a cup just the way they like it.


I almost didn’t bring my French Press this time.  I was obsessed with the idea of “traveling light”—that neo-Puritanism of the backpacker that elevates carrying nothing to a state of moral righteousness.  But at the last minute hullabaloo of departure, I threw the French Press into my luggage and quickly ground a small Ziploc bag of French Roast.  And this turned out to be the best decision of the trip.

Our new hotel didn’t have coffee, nor a coffee maker, nor hot water.  And only later as I tried to find coffee on the way to the ancient Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza did I realize how crappy the selection is; it took me over two hours to get on the road; the search to find good coffee landed us at McDonald’s.  An utter disappointment.


My last trip to Mexico City fooled me.  I was surprised to find that you could get coffee in the capital and this lulled me into a false sense of security in my preparations for the current trip.   I actually came across amazing coffee from the famous growing region, Chiapas where the green hills provide an ideal growing climate.  Chiapas is only one state away, I reasoned.  “The coffee must make its way to the Yucatan,” I told my wife.

But the Yucatan Peninsula is one of the poorest regions in the country, filled with the dispossessed Mayans.  The coffee goes to the richest and the most cosmopolitan in the country—the city slickers from the capital.  These are people who not only have the money but also have the tastes to consume coffee.  The native Mayans have no taste for the coffee in this region, even though it is a product that comes from the land that was once occupied by their vast kingdom.


It is only the truly wealthy Mexicans—the professional class that has been abroad, the class that drives black European cars and surfs on silver American computers—that have developed a taste for a product like coffee.  The host of my AirBNB is an architect whose house is a wonder of modern construction.  “There is no good coffee in this region,” he says.  “I love coffee, too, but it is not here.”  So he goes to the Walmart and gets his lackluster beans and he keeps one of those machines with the single-use canisters in his kitchen.

Mexicans have to import their coffee from abroad.  They don’t have the technology to process the bean well.  And in any case, all the best beans are gone—gone abroad.  So, rich professionals like the architect pay a premium for a middling bean that returns with the imprint of Nestle—a boomerang that smacks them in the head and becomes deprived of its feeling of being an indigenous product.  Coffee—once you get it, after a brief hiatus, following an interlude in another man’s hands—has all the scent of a strange fruit from a far-away mountain, a place of wild and monstrous beauty that is almost as unimaginable as pyramids rising from a dense green jungle.


USC Graduation Speaker: Sean Rad, the Founder of Tinder

I went to my nephew’s college graduation yesterday—a fact that makes me feel ancient.  I used to carry this kid on my shoulders and, for a brief period, I even drove two hours every day down to Orange County to pick him up and tutor him after classes. He was kind of failing out of his very expensive private school—a school that charged 40K a year–and I was enlisted to put him back on the right path.

“Don’t worry if you can’t help him.  You’re my last ditch effort.”  My sister–his mother–thought he needed to be medicated, thought he might have ADHD.  I agreed because I’m easily guilted, but it turned out to be a bad idea:  My sister got kind of pissy when he started getting straight A’s immediately.  It turned out he just needed to be supervised.

My nephew ended up graduating from USC Marshall School of Business and it was a brilliant ceremony.  USC is in the heart of Los Angeles, minutes away from Downtown, and it knows how to put on a display in that way that only a Hollywood Industry heavy-hitter with lots of money can.


I’m no stranger to graduations.  I spent almost half my life in academia and I’ve done my fair share of pomp and circumstance.  I’ve donned the funny robes and waited to throw my cap into the air.  I’ve also put on the regalia as faculty, too.

What was interesting for me was that the commencement speaker for the Marshall School graduation was the founder of Tinder—a dating website that has become incredibly popular among young people.  Tinder is one of the kinkier apps—part hook-up app, part dating app—it’s one of these social platforms that is transforming the way that we mate.  Swipe to the left, Swipe to the right—you can unlock a database of images.  For the harshest critics, Tinder is kind of douchey.

I’m used to graduations at institutions with slightly more august speakers.  My own undergrad ceremony featured the accomplished Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes—the man who wrote the classic Terra Nostra.  And the last graduation at my small liberal arts college featured the radical philosopher and activist Angela Davis, the woman with the crazy frizz of signature Afro, who asked the question that upset all the parents:  How does it feel to be graduating in the middle of the war?

Sean Rad, the CEO of Tinder, never graduated from USC.  He dropped out.  But he went on to found the company along with his undergrad friends—a company that “is among the fastest-growing social platforms in history.  Tinder has tens of millions of active users and has created over 11 billion new connections to date”–this, according to the digest on the commencement program.  Perhaps it is the way of the new generation.  Or perhaps it is the way of the business school.  But the choice of Sean Rad made me think  that I am an errant planet floating among space debris–dislodged from the ellipses of my trajectory, becoming increasingly remote from this new generation of interplanetary travelers.

Sean Rad

As soon as I saw my nephew on the jumbotron, I headed out to the free food.  There was a nice display of fanciness put out on a fenced in green lawn in that way that only a school with a heavy-hitting endowment musters:  fancy sandwiches on fancy bread with veggie options and the profusion of fruit that is the pride of Southern California.  Strawberries so big and thick and scarlet, you might think they were irradiated with plutonium.


I arrived early to the reception and hogged a prime table.  But I shared it with a nice Japanese American family—three generations—waiting for their man-child.  They carried a huge blown up image of the young boy’s head, wrapped in one of those Macy’s shopping bags you get when you buy bedding.  We all agreed that the ceremony was so impressive.  We dwelled upon a particular moment:  that moment at the beginning of his speech when the CEO of Tinder mentioned that he had never graduated from USC.  “My mom would never believe that this drop-out would be here to address students who have something I don’t.”  That was the moment Dean of the College—James Ellis—rushed up and gave him one of those plastic diploma holders to the hoots and applause of the audience.  There was something so magnanimous and spontaneous about the gesture.


We exchanged our pleasantries—where we were from, who we were waiting for—and the conversation veered toward our own upbringings, the things that are so intimately related to our professional careers:  our colleges, our parents, our neighborhoods, our extracurricular activities as young people.  “I went to Cal State Dominguez Hills,” said the aunt.  “You probably don’t know where that is.”

“I do.  I played piano competitions there every summer.”  I played piano from the age of six to seventeen.  Nothing is more impressive to Asian people than accomplishment in the arena of classical music.

“That’s a long time.  Do you still keep it up?”

“No, that was my mom’s thing,” I said.

“Well, did you get anything out of it?”

“I learned how to size people up in a room as soon as I walked into a competition.   And I learned how to find pleasure in things that I don’t really enjoy.”


Their man-child showed up after a half hour and wanted to leave.  “I’ve been drinking since six o’clock in the morning,” he immediately announced.  He didn’t want to eat the fancy sandwiches.  He said it would be disappointing to eat this food.  “C’mon I just graduated.  I want to eat something really nice.  I feel like I’m going to barf if I don’t.”  The boy was wearing one of those red and gold sashes that had embroidered upon it his various extracurriculars.  I could see he was in a fraternity and I could imagine the lead-up to the graduation.  The Greek lettering was the biggest embroidery—“Let’s get out of here.  I have to return this ugly robe, so if you want pictures, we need to take them now.”

“Of course we want pictures with you in your robes.”

“Then, let’s do it.  Traffic is going to be a bitch if we don’t do it now.”

The mother took a quick bite of her veggie sandwich.  It was already almost 2 and the party was probably starving.  “Well, let me see your diploma first,” said the grandmother.

“There’s nothing inside.”  He opened the little rectangle of brown that looked just like the finish of leather.  “Just a note that says you’ll receive your diploma in three weeks.”

Colonialism and Gentrification in a Garage Sale Find

The other day, I was visiting my wife’s old neighborhood—Silverlake—and happened to stumble upon one of my favorite things:  a garage sale.  If you’ve been going to garage sales, you know there are all sorts—all different categories:  the spring cleaning garage sale, the old person garage sale, the hipster garage sale.

I like the old person garage sale—a sale filled with the hoarded stash of a lifetime (some trash, some treasure).  You can always find something interesting that an oldtimer no longer wants and make off with it for a song.  Once I got fifteen French cut glass serving bowls for four bucks.  They came in a punch bowl, which I did not want and which I promptly donated to Goodwill.  “I don’t have any use for jello.  I’m glad nobody eats jello anymore,” said the old man.  It was a steal: These bowls normally go for 5 bucks a pop on ebay but I was never going to sell them.  I immediately saw in them a new purpose:  side dishes for all the little pickles that Asian people love to eat.


The Silverlake sale was a hipster garage sale—my least favorite sale.  Hipster garage sales are usually overpriced.  At the garage sale was all sorts of knick knacks and useless interesting-ness, artfully arranged and the hosts were busy drinking wine from mason jars and talking about their favorite bands.  It was there that I saw the bust:  A small chalk sculpture of a beautiful black woman with striking blue eyes, wearing a muzzle on her mouth and chain around her neck—a gruesome image that evoked slavery and sadomasochism.

“Look,” I said to my wife.


“Do you know what that is?” said the German man.  He seemed embarrassed to be in possession of the sculpture.  “An old roommate left that behind and I kept it on display but had to take it down.”


“That’s Anastacia,” I said.  “Anastacia is a cult figure in Brasil—a religious saint.”  I launched into the kind of Wikipedia explanation that only a one-time college professor can give:  that Anastacia was a mulata slave, a child born of rape perpetrated on her mother by a white master; that Anastacia resisted her own white master’s advances; that she was punished for her resistance through the manacles and the muzzle; that her story is one of triumph.  “Anastacia’s eyes are blue because they are testimony to her rape.  They are fierce because they signal that she can be silenced but unbroken.”

Her story and image are legendary in Brasil.

Her story and image are legendary in Brasil.

All throughout Northern Brasil—that plantation zone where slaves were worked to death under the merciless hot sun—it is common to see striking black people with blue eyes, eyes as blue as Dresden China.  I spent a month in Northern Brasil, in the city of Salvador, which was the entry-point for the slave trade and the administrative center for the surrounding plantations.  The historic center, which stands at the top of the hill, affording views of the harbor upon which ships filled with slaves arrived, is called Pelourinho:  The Little Pillory—the place where slaves were whipped as public spectacle.

At the center of the historic district--Pelourinho--stands the pillory at the top of the hill.

At the center of the historic district–Pelourinho–stands the pillory at the top of the hill.

During that time in Salvador, I bought a rosary with Anastacia’s image at one of the major white-washed cathedrals on a hill.   This is not uncommon:  throughout the region, you can buy trinkets of Anastacia to put on your home altar.  She is a major figure in Candomble–a religion that fused Catholicism with West African religious traditions.  And people do worship her.

“What is that?” I asked a young black man, when I first bought my rosary.

“Anastacia,” he said.  But he did not say it like me—with a shock of recognition.  He uttered the name with reverence, as if she were everything to him, and that everybody should know who she was, and that there was no need for further explanation—even to a tourist.

“This is just like the Antique’s Road show,” said the German.  “Do you know what it’s worth?”

“Probably not much.  The images are common and probably brought back as a tourist souvenir.”

I didn’t buy that bust of Anastacia.  I would feel weird displaying it in my house.  I didn’t even take a picture of it, because of some superstitious idea about graven images—the indelicacy of taking pictures of pictures.  Of course, Anastacia was a picture of a picture herself:  We don’t know what she actually looked like.  Her image was made by the hand of a Frenchman who visited the Portuguese colonies much earlier—a man who then created a lithograph of an anonymous slave girl as a document of his travels.  And this lithograph with the eyes later painted blue would become the de facto image of Anastacia whose eyes may have done the witnessing but who herself was never witnessed by anybody who could live to document her.

The Frenchman's image of an anonymous slave that would stand in for Anastacia. The blue eyes would be added later.

The Frenchman’s image of an anonymous slave that would stand in for Anastacia. The blue eyes would be added later.

After the garage sale, we drove past my wife’s old house—a beautiful house behind the reservoir.  Silverlake is one of Los Angeles’s first gentrification neighborhoods and has moved from the grungy to ritzy over the course of two decades.  Today, it is a status area, filled with muckety-mucks and industry-types.  Eric Garcetti, our very own mayor—a man of much wealth and status who grew up in hoity-toity Bel Air—bought his first house in Silverlake.  And monied hipsters from all over the world converge upon it.  I doubt that we could ever live there now.

Our mayor, Eric Garcetti.

Our mayor, Eric Garcetti.

And this got me to thinking about the strangeness of the life of an object—how it can move in and out of so many people’s hands and have so many different meanings, from sacred to profane.  You see:  the image of Anastacia, only a few months earlier was the object of a big internet war.  A designer in Brasil put her image on a dress and marched it down the catwalk on the body of a white Brasilian model.  And that image, much like Anastacia’s image, got sampled and instagrammed.  It took on another life in different continents and when it made its way to England and America, it became the source of outrage—an image of white people appropriating the image of black slavery and turning it into a money-making opportunity.


In none of these discussions was Anastacia named.  Anastacia was simply now a black female slave with a muzzle:  demoted to the position that the white Frenchman gave her when he first created her.  And in the outrage, the fact that Brasilians revere Anastacia—that they have even created a popular television soap opera depicting her life—was notably absent.

All this was floating in my mind as we visited my wife’s old neighborhood.  “Do you think you could bring yourself to display that thing in our house?”

“We have too many things already,” said my wife.  “You go to too many garage sales.”

“We could turn around and maybe I could buy it and put it away.  I could give it as a gift to Tracy.”  Tracy is a professor of African American Studies and I was sure she would find it interesting and not insulting.

“It’s too late.  I don’t want to turn around,” she said.  And I guess I was already thinking too much about things.  I was making too much about something that was simply a bust.

A Refugee on Refugees: The 41st Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon

The Fall of Saigon occurred 41 years ago and this week there were commemorations of this event that dispersed Vietnamese people across the globe—a river dumping into the ocean.  I was just a baby then, all but 3 years old when we boarded the big American boat that would take us to safety.  And family legend has it that I almost jumped into the ocean after my pacifier, so panicked to lose something that had given me so much comfort.

The First Wave of Vietnamese Were Evacuated by the US Military in Seaworthy Vessels.

The First Wave of Vietnamese Were Evacuated by the US Military in Seaworthy Vessels.

It hasn’t been easy growing up with the status of refugee.  There were so many images of us—so many unflattering images—that saturated the media landscape—images of skinny malnourished scarecrows like rats overflowing from the decks of sinking ships, images of naked young girls consumed by napalm fire…these images, they chopped my life up into a thousand mirrored fragments, and these fragments came to be reassembled into an elaborate prison house:  that thing that made me a joke, a spectacle, an amusement, an object of pity—always reflecting to me the bits of me that are alarming distortions.

The Girl in the Picture Wrote an Autobiography--"The Girl in the Picture"--Because That Would Be the Question Everybody Asked Her All Her Life: "Are You the Girl in the Picture?"

The Girl in the Picture Wrote an Autobiography–“The Girl in the Picture”–Because That Would Be the Question Everybody Asked Her All Her Life: “Are You the Girl in the Picture?”

For me, this was the most difficult part of being a refugee—the way that you could feel belittled.  And it was far worse than the mundane difficulties of acquiring a language, finding financial stability, learning the customs of the country.  I’ve filtered out most of the overt racism—the taunts—but still some things linger:  like the bearded professor in the tweed jacket—my college Chaucer professor–who was so moved by my excellent paper that he had to ask me the burning question, “Have you ever heard of the term ‘boat people’?”

I had, of course, and I told him that I was not one—that that term referred to people who arrived a few years after 1975, the year Saigon Fell.  Those people were so desperate to escape Communism that they took a gamble: launching boats they knew would never make a real voyage into international waters—launching boats that were bound to sink—because to sink meant that by international law, a passing ship would have to take them to safety.  Sometimes this gamble paid off.  Sometimes it didn’t.

In the 80's, a Second Wave of Desparate Refugees Living Under Communism Used Rickety Vessels to Escape Vietnam.

In the 80’s, a Second Wave of Desparate Refugees Living Under Communism Used Rickety Vessels to Escape Vietnam.

The professor didn’t understand what my “no” meant.  He was too excited.  He told me about a refugee family he sponsored—a family of boat people.  And how he developed a special bond with the young boat boy.  He had taken the boat boy to see his first baseball game.  The boy would have been just about my age.  And I knew what he was thinking—that it was him, the boat boy, not me, sitting before him with a paper that was A+ work.  “The family moved away after a while and then I never heard from them again.  I’ve always wondered why.”

Refugees always know when to speak their mind, when to keep silent.  We are aware of who has power over us in a room.  I had my ideas–theories–about why the boy should go away and never look back.  But I didn’t say anything.  What is there to say, anyway, when someone only wants to use you as their sounding board–their distant echo chamber–and isn’t really listening to you in the first place?

The thing about being a refugee is that you know quite a few things about being a refugee and sometimes this is a blessing and sometimes, a curse.  Right after I finished grad school, I spent a few months beach camping in Hawaii—an event that coincided with the announcement that George W. Bush invaded Iraq.  And as my beach camping friends sat around a pit fire, drinking beer, and speculating about the outcome of the war, I blurted out the obvious:  “No matter who wins or loses, there will be refugees—new refugees that the world will have to deal with.”  Everybody looked at me like I was a genius but, really, I wish I wasn’t in the position to possess this knowledge.

Refugees in Greece.

Refugees in Greece.