Context is Everything: When my grocery bag had a swastika on it.

So, one day, I went to the corner store and they put my groceries in this bag:

I was uncomfortable walking the 100 meters home. Because, as a white person in an Asian country, I HAD A SWASTIKA on my grocery bag.

Except, it’s not really a swastika, at least not in Mongolia.

Here it’s a хас тэмдэг (khas symbol).

Long before Hitler appropriated it for his purposes, this symbol represented many different things in many different cultures. Here, in Mongolia, it was, and is, symbolic of endless peace…kind of like the Hebrew idea of Shalom.

I’ve been raised to associate this symbol with the Nazi party, with unhealthy nationalistic pride, with hate and prejudice. It represents the millions of people who died in concentration camps and the other evil practices associated with Hitler’s leadership. But, because Mongolian history is not tied into European history the way American history is, this symbol has never really become associated with Hitler here. Mongolians were not impacted by Hitler in the same way Americans were. The swastika, or khas temdeg, is not universally connected to Hitler.

This is hard for me to wrap my mind around.

A symbol, by definition, represents something else. In the US (and much of the west) this symbol represents white supremacy. Here, in Mongolia, it represents eternal peace. Similarly, in Latin, “loco” is a form of “locus” which refers to “place.” In Spanish, these same symbols, l-o-c-o combine to form a word that means “crazy.” You can’t read the Spanish meaning into the Latin word, or the Latin meaning into the Spanish word; that’s not fair.

As a guest in this country, I need to let them determine what their symbols mean in their country rather than expecting them to know and adopt the meaning I associate with those symbols.

Knowing this on a cognitive level is one thing, but accepting it on an emotional level is another. I have a visceral reaction whenever I see the хас тэмдэг because, to me, it represents evil. I have to remind myself that there’s a 99.9% chance that it’s not a racist or oppressive symbol and that the person or business displaying it is actually displaying something that represents good not bad.

Still, you’ll never see me sewing a хас тэмдэг to my back pack and I’ll bring my own bag to that store in the future. And the “featured image” for this blog has black lines and words over the symbol because I just can’t.

Even though I’m in a new context, I can’t quite leave my old context behind.

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