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Cultural Islands
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This Sunday morning I was in the mood for some breakfast tacos. Instead of going to a local chain restaurant, I instead tried a little orange stucco taqueria I'd seen not far from my home.

It was a place where all the workers are Hispanic, where everybody speaks Spanish and they're not used to speaking English. It's the sort of place that you almost imagine is a sort of cultural oasis for a particular ethnic group. I got uncomfortable looks when I walked in. The guy at the counter wouldn't look me in the eye, and obviously wanted me out of there as soon as possible. The menu was only in Spanish.

Now I grew up a couple hundred miles south of here. I speak a bit of Spanish, and having lived in a foreign country, I'm not uncomfortable being the odd one out in a particular setting. But there was definitely a sense of discomfort in the atmosphere when I walked into that little orange stucco building. I got the sense that I was intruding in some way.

No doubt if you live in a big city, you've had a similar experience (then again, perhaps not). There are those ethnic restaurants that seem "open"...that is, you get the impression that welcome all stripes. Then there are those that have a feel of exclusivity about them. They tend to cater to a particular local minority, and I think tend to act as a culturally distinct place, where people of the same ethnicity can speak their language, watch their TV, listen to their music, without catering to the public at large. There's no sign out front saying so, but you definitely get that vibe when you walk in.

There were definitely such places for Westerners when I lived in Japan...gaijin bars, where mostly Americans, British, Australians, and Canadians tended to hang out. In general, I tended not to like such places, because of the sense of artificiality and exclusivity. So when I wanted a beer and a late-night snack, I visited by local izakaya.

I understand the inherent comfort in being surrounded by people that speak the same language and have a generally more similar worldview. But I can also understand it more in a country like Japan, which is very culturally uniform. Here, in America, I'm not so sure it's a very healthy phenomenon.

I feel like one of the major problems with our culture is a strongly continued resistance to integration. We still tend to isolate ourselves into little camps and pools, rather than crossing lines and blending together.

Now I'm not suggesting a new law or anything. I'm just remarking on a slightly dispiriting experience buying tacos. I won't be going back to that particular taqueria because the feeling of discomfort and intrusion was palpable.

I just think it's a shame.

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