Borderlands: Embracing Otherness

We traveled to a different country over the 4th of July. Now that I’m thinking about it, it seems a bit odd that we would celebrate the ‘birth’ of our country by traveling to another, but the truth is we used the holiday as an excuse to hang out with friends we haven’t seen in a while. They just all happened to be gathering on a small island in the middle of Rainy Lake located in Canada.

Although I hadn’t been to Canada before, unlike some of the other border crossings I’ve experienced, I didn’t worry at all about this one. I spent a fair bit of time en route thinking about why this border crossing didn’t seem like a real border crossing to me. It’s obvious, really. We look alike and we mostly speak the same language. (What the heck is poutine, anyway?) And besides, Eric is always kidding me about how living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is basically like living in Canada. It wasn’t going to be different than what I was used to: it was going to be like going home!

It turns out that all that thinking I did was (mostly) wasted. Crossing the border wasn’t as easy or as comfortable as I had assumed it would be. They made us go inside to have background checks done. They asked us nosey and unfriendly questions. Perhaps it was the result of being on heightened alert due to the holidays. Perhaps the customs guy was having a bad day. Who knows? It doesn’t matter. It was uncomfortable.

The reality is that we don’t have to cross an international border to feel discomfort.

Chicana cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa speaks to the discomfort we may feel on a regular basis due to our interactions with those who are different than we are. She uses the term “borderlands” to refer to the space wherever “two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.”[1] Based on this definition of a borderland, there is obviously a lot of opportunity for discomfort!

Here in Dubuque, there are many people who live in the discomfort of the borderland everyday. Relocating to Dubuque, although similar to our previous location, required some adjustments for me and Eric. It hasn’t always been comfortable driving around in circles trying to figure out the one-way streets.  Imagine what it must be like for someone moving to Dubuque from someplace very different, perhaps inner city Chicago, or from an entirely different culture, which includes speaking a different language, wearing different clothes, and eating different foods.

For those who have lived in Dubuque a long time, interacting with newbies must also be uncomfortable on some levels. Who are these crazy people driving around in circles, or turning the wrong way on the one-way streets? Who are these people who speak a different language, wear different clothes, eat different foods, and don’t look like a typical Iowan?

Traversing the borderland of difference and otherness is not always easy, but there is an upside to all of this: the borderland gives us an amazing opportunity to actually look at our differences head on, and learn from each other: “It’s about honoring people’s otherness in ways that allow us to be changed by embracing that otherness rather than punishing others for having a different view, belief system, skin color, or spiritual practice.”[2]

If this becomes our practice at our borderlands, we can end up creating a new space in Dubuque, one where everyone feels accepted and included regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, age, sexuality, or gender expression.

[1] Gloria Anzaldua. (1985). “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.”

[2] Gloria Anzaldua. (2002). This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation.

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