S#*t Women Say–UAE Style

Facing cultural differences is one of the joys and challenges of expatriate life. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy living abroad. If I weren’t fascinated by different cultural practices, I would have stayed safely in the United States. Before traveling to a new country for a weekend visit, or two year contract, I do a bit of research in order to learn about my guest culture and to be as sensitive and educated as possible. However, I’ve learned the hard way, that no matter how many “Living and Working in (insert country here)” books I read, I can’t avoid the reality that I, as a foreigner, will frequently misread a situation completely or say something I later find out is culturally inappropriate. I’ve had to embrace the fact that my time abroad will be full of moments ranging from slightly awkward to completely mortifying. After the embarrassment is over, I have to hope that the experiences will make entertaining stories for others, or will at least result in some type of character development. One thing I’ve noticed is that some of the most surprising differences are the ones that jump at you when and where you least expect them.

I was born and raised in the Southern United States. Part of my heart will always remain in Atlanta, Georgia. Southern culture, like any culture, holds much to be proud of and much that could be improved on. Southern women in particular have a highly complex set of rules that we learn about navigating the social realm, and these rules make deep roots. One of the first lessons little Southern girls learn is the etiquette regarding comments on the appearance of others. We are rarely honest about appearance to a person’s face. If a woman gets a new haircut, we rave about how good she looks whether the style is red-carpet worthy, or could easily be mistaken for a stray poodle. New makeup? “Beautiful!” Neon orange spandex jumpsuit? “How flattering, girl!” “Don’t be silly, you don’t look fat in those skinny jeans.” Any negative comments, no matter well intended, are viewed as a deliberate insult, and usually result in hurt feelings, offense, or anger. If we detect a desire for a genuine opinion on something that looks bad, we can be honest, but we choose our words with the caution of a watchmaker unless the asker is a family member or extremely thick-skinned. Is this practice insincere? Maybe. Is it fake? Yeah, I guess so. Is it expected? Absolutely. It’s just the way we do things down South. It probably has a lot to do with our reputation for out-of-date hairstyles and fashion. No one has the heart to tell anyone how bad they look. Blame it on our blood—In the South, we just don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, at least when we are present to face the consequences.

(This lady is obviously Southern, or someone would have stopped her from going out like this.)

The negative side of this rule rears its ugly face the moment a woman leaves the room. Behind a person’s back, my Southern Sisters and I have free reign to think and speak freely, and speak freely we do. We focus on minute details you’d need a microscope to examine, and make comparisons and analogies worthy of a Pulitzer prize. Southern women can be extremely two-faced, and this can be very hurtful. However, since it follows the rules we learned as children, we are far more prepared to hear critiques of our appearance second-hand, than to our face.

Even though I’ve lived in other countries and am used to slightly more honesty regarding appearance, years of training on denial and avoidance runs deep. I used to tell my students back home, “if you don’t have something nice to say about a person, don’t say it at all.” Not so much here in the UAE. I work in an all-female environment, and the authority and bluntness local women employ when discussing appearance has been a source of surprise and amusement since my first few days here.

My colleagues and I were some of the first foreign employees to work at our school. We were welcomed, yet viewed with a mix of fascination and trepidation. Different preferences in clothing, hair styles, and application of make-up has been observed and commented on by both sides. These differences have led to numerous amusing, unexpected, and thankfully innocent encounters. Like women everywhere, Emirati women are obsessed with meeting the ideal weight and body structure, and the significant weight loss I achieved during my first year here made me a constant object of attention and discussion, mostly in a language I can still barely speak.

Weight is a sensitive topic with women. In the South, if it’s handed poorly, it will quickly result in tears, or passive aggression at a minimum. Here, discussion of weight combines brutal honesty with what I really, really hope is a love for exaggeration. Frequent and sincere compliments on my weight loss were always accompanied by lively comparisons to how I looked when I first began work. These “before and after” conversations always involved wild animated facial expressions and gestures that have convinced me that I must surely have been mistaken for a whale, rather than a new teacher. I should really have taken more photos of myself on arrival, because apparently, not only did my face resemble a blowfish, but my hips and rear were so large, I must have unknowingly been knocking over chairs and tables as I circulated around my classroom. I’m grateful my thunderous footsteps did not cause damage to the windows and skylights, and I’m surprised I was able to squeeze through the classroom door openings.

(Me pre-weight loss—according to the miming)

None of these actions or pantomines were meant to hurt me in the slightest, and were used as an addition to their compliments. They always included multiple repetitions of Mashalla (as God wishes) to reinforce this fact, and the women hounded me for diet and exercise secrets. I will never cease to be amazed by the drama and attention given to a subject that is actually quite personal, and a potential emotional minefield. Thank God I have a sense of humor, and my Southern training made me retell the stories and gestures with my friends (behind the women’s backs of course) as I convulsed with laughter rather than tears. Had this happened in the South, such “insults” would have made it impossible for me to return to the workplace.

I am not alone in my experience of blunt and dramatic comments on my appearance by teachers from non-Western countries.  One friend was pulled aside while teaching to hear another teacher’s urgent concern for her taste in lipstick. Apparently, no one could tell that she was wearing it, and her favorite color was wasting her time and money. My friend’s response that she preferred natural colors was dismissed with speed and authority, and she was advised to switch to a brighter color as soon as possible.  The gain of a few grams of weight is immediately announced, usually with a lot of finger-pointing to the area of concern, and advice on how to lose it quickly follows.  Another favorite question experienced by many of my associates is, “What’s wrong with your face?” The feature causing such alarm could be freckles, a suntan, or even acne. It seems that several local teachers serve dual roles as cosmetic/fashion police, and their duties are often given priority over instructional time. Beauty discussions are very important, and are neither subtle, nor restricted to tea break conversation.

The importance of beauty during and outside of work came as a small surprise to me. The national dress for Emirati women is the abaya, a graceful black gown that can be completely plain, or covered in elaborate designs. It is worn outside the home, over a woman’s other clothing. All Emirati, and most other Muslim women here wear a hijab or shayla that covers most or all of their hair. A smaller percentage of women choose to wear gloves and the niqab, a veil that covers their face except for their eyes. Part of the reasoning behind veiling is to bring the focus away from women’s physical attributes and more towards their personality and abilities.

(Some particularly blinging abayas and shaylas)

(A woman wearing the niqab)

I’d previously read several articles and websites on veiling to educate myself not only on the religious and cultural traditions behind veiling, but on the opinions of the women themselves. I kept reading about the liberation felt by women who veil by choice. I could truly appreciate how wearing the hijab or even the niqab could be freeing rather than restricting, and several quotes really spoke to me:

The idea behind that was that the sexuality of one didn’t influence the other, so that men and women would treat each other like equal human beings,” *

“It keeps me protected from the fashion industry. The hijab liberates you from the media, brainwashing you into, Buy this, buy that, you’re supposed to look like this,” she says. “It allows me to be who I am. I don’t have to worry about being popular through buying things that are ‘cool’.” *

The definition of beauty is ever-changing; waifish is good, waifish is bad, athletic is good – sorry, athletic is bad. Women are not going to achieve equality by putting their bodies on display, as some people would like to have you believe. That would only make us party to our own objectification. True equality will be had only when women don’t need to display themselves to get attention and won’t need to defend their decision to keep their bodies to themselves.”*

(Bikini vs Burqa)

Women dressed in such a way would be protected not only from men’s lusty stares, but from men’s judgment of our worth based on beauty alone. Sadly, what living here has reinforced for me is that as women, we can escape men, but we can not escape ourselves.

Emirati women, just like their Western counterparts, are bombarded by advertisements and reminders of what their bodies and features are lacking.  My current job offers me daily opportunities to see what lies beyond the veils.  Beneath their shaylas and abayas, many women of this country enhance their faces with elaborate makeup, decorate their hands and feet with intricate henna designs, and beautify themselves from head to toe using every product and procedure possible. Like Western women, my Arabic sisters eagerly track down products and guidance in constant pursuit of the ideal of beauty.

In my particular school, all of the women are married and at least half of them don the niqab when they are outside. That means that the only males who see their faces are their sons, husbands, many of whom are living or frequently travel abroad, and certain male family members. So who do we dress up at work for? Why do so many of us, myself included, spend time carefully applying makeup and hair products to spend our day working with small children and other women?  Because we constantly scrutinize our own appearance and the appearance of other women.  It is impossible to escape assessment by our own gender.

Did you get a little fat?”  “This dress is very nice on you.” “Why you no straighten hair today?”  We are constantly critiqued as well as complimented. I’m just as guilty as the next woman. “Threading is so cheap here, why can’t she just get rid of that unibrow?”  “Wow, look how much she bleaches her skin. I’ve never seen a person that color.”  “Look at her in that tight abaya. Who does she think she is?”  We are so quick to note and comment on other women, and sadly it is negative far more often than positive.  Are we so insecure, that we must be harsh on others in order to protect ourselves?

Standards and definitions of beauty differ throughout countries, cultures and classes, but the desire to be beautiful is worldwide. It’s not just about men—-hardly. Perhaps those with a stronger background in feminist theory would argue that this all stems from patriarchal culture, but I’m looking at the practicalities of daily life rather than complex theories of origin. I feel that subconsciously, I often work harder to impress the women in my life than I do the men. Let’s be honest with ourselves.  We look to other women for reassurance and validation on our own appearance.  We judge ourselves by a far higher standard and focus in on tiny details that most men would never dream of.  We examine, question and critique each other with a ferocity that never ceases to amaze me.

I began this post by comparing the frankness my host culture uses when discussing beauty with the Southern way of “softening the truth.”  We may use different words and methods, but I believe no matter how much we choose to cover or uncover, women the world over judge each other according to their appearance.  We can cloak ourselves from head to toe and hide every millimeter of skin from men, but we will never escape the eyes of other women.

I admit I have not yet braved this subject with local women, and I wonder if they would agree with my opinion. Perhaps the honesty and openness they employ when discussing appearance shows a comfort with their flaws that I as a non-hijabi Westerner do not have.  Maybe the equality and liberation they feel beneath the shaylas and niqabs extends to their relations with other women, and the harshness I describe is purely a reflection of my own insecurity.  Living in a different culture affords me the opportunity to answer these questions, and my next step should be to find the courage to ask them.

Question: Do you agree that women are each other’s harshest critics when it comes to appearance?


Quote 1: http://old.post-gazette.com/headlines/20011028muslimwomennat3p3.asp

Quote 2: http://www.islamfortoday.com/hijabcanada4.htm

Quote 3: http://www.iisna.com/articles/pamphlets/the-hijab-reflections-by-muslim-women/


Hairy Little Devils

Monkeys are exotic creatures to the average North American. We share our outdoors with birds, squirrels, and lizards, but our exposure to monkeys is mostly limited to television and zoos. This all changed for me when my travels reached Africa and Asia. Monkeys became a fairly common feature of forests and even urban streets. My travel buddies enjoyed our frequent monkey spottings, but my anxiety increased with each encounter. Rather than whipping out my camera and getting as close as possible, I found myself cringing in fear and instinctively gripping anything I might use as a shield or weapon. “What’s wrong? Don’t you like monkeys? Look at how cute they are!” My friends were perplexed and probably embarrassed by my public discomfort. 

Yes, apes are our closest relatives.  I respect their intelligence and am saddened when they are victims of mistreatment or cruelty.  That doesn’t change the fact that they have scared the crap out of me since I was five.  I once found them just as cute as the rest of you do.  Then one day after Kindergarten, my mother took me to a pet store where a tiny monkey in an even tinier diaper sat in a cage.  I walked towards it quietly, hoping for some cute monkey chirps or even a trick or two.  Instead it turned, bared two rows of pointed teeth and released an impossibly loud hiss.  It was a hiss of deep, dark hatred.  That monkey wanted nothing more than to pry open the bars of its cage and rip my eyes from my five year-old skull with its tiny opposable thumbs.  I was led from the store in tears.  Still, I’m grateful for that moment of terror because it taught me the truth about city- or cage-dwelling monkeys. 

I apologize in advance to monkey owners, fans, or others who may be offended by this post.  I do not write as a personal attack, rather as a way to deal with my own fears and beliefs.  Feel free to share your opinion by leaving a comment, or skip this altogether and wait for my next post, which will not be primate-related.  For the rest of you, listen and learn, my dear readers and/or future travel partners.  Listen and learn.

5 Reasons Monkeys Should Frighten You 

1.  Monkeys are strong, emotionally volatile, and can cause can cause us serious bodily harm.  

When I see a monkey, especially one that is within a ten foot range, a little red danger sign starts flashing deep within my primal brain.  Monkeys are wild animals; highly intelligent, powerful, and dexterous wild animals.  If they feel threatened, they will do whatever it takes to protect themselves without the human fears of arrest or detention.  

I’m not an expert on actions that make monkeys feel threatened, but I imagine there are many that we would never consider.  My fear of monkeys stems from a strong conviction that all monkeys see me as a potential threat, and are thus seconds away from pouncing on my chest and tearing off my face. “She was right,” my travel buddies would say as the air filled with my muffled screams and the monkey’s triumphant screeches. “We should have been more afraid and less adoring of these creatures.”

I bet you are thinking I’m exaggerating or overreacting, but this has actually happened at least once. In 2009, an American woman lost her face, hands, vision, and nearly her life after a vicious attack by her friend’s pet chimpanzee. I don’t mean to joke about or make light of this tragedy, instead I mention it to add weight to my reasons monkeys are not to be trusted. You can read the story here, and youtube it if you want to see the Oprah interview, but I want to give a very clear disclaimer that the damage was severe, and the images are very disturbing..


 In fact, don’t search “monkey attack” in google images either. That experience was nearly enough for me to create a 6th reason to fear monkeys.  

Okay, I admit the chances of losing my face to a monkey are low, but monkey attacks are real, and they are serious! In 2007, the late Deputy Mayor died in his New Delhi home after a monkey attack on his own terrace.  


This poor man went onto his terrace, perhaps for a coffee and fresh air, and never came back because of the evil little critters silly tourists actually like to feed!  If holding a political office and having a ridiculously gorgeous actor for a son can’t protect you from a swarm of vicious monkeys, what will?

(If his dad can be attacked by monkeys, no one is safe!)

2. Angry monkeys throw feces. 

 Do I really need to explain why this is a problem?  Most of you probably still think monkeys are cute and funny, so clearly I do. Here goes.  We’ve all gotten upset and used cruel and possibly vulgar language at least once in our lives.  Admit it, you’ve also thrown, punched, broken or smashed something to smithereens out of sheer temper.  However, it is well known that monkeys have their own unique method of combining the sweet release of throwing an object with the gratification of degrading someone who has offended them.  

(Actual warning sign at a South African Nature Preserve)

I have to admit that a small part of me gives monkeys props for having the guts to actually DO the foulest, most contemptuous act I can think of.  Nonetheless, I don’t care to be within range of creature that is known for this sort of behavior.  I never, ever want to be involved in a monkey-feces incident, and avoiding monkeys in general should be a good guarantee I will never face this situation.

(Keep your distance.  They look a little angry!)

3.  Monkeys and humans do not share the same etiquette regarding activities that are appropriate in public, and those that should be strictly private.

Reason number two above eluded to this fact, but the problem is that primates’ tendency towards disturbing behavior is not limited to times of anger.  In fact, when monkeys aren’t eating or sleeping, they are sure to be shamelessly engaging in behaviors that most people would never even dream of, or at least admit to doing, even in an empty house behind closed doors.  The mother-child lice grooming is sort of sweet in its own way I guess, although the resulting eating of the lice quickly ruins that effect.  

(We’ve only just begun…)

Everyone laughs uncomfortably when monkeys play with themselves, as long as it doesn’t go on for too long.  It’s the depth and intensity of monkeys’ exploration, examination, and manipulation of their body parts, functions and fluids that sets my gag reflex on maximum.  Want to see something disgusting?  Visit a zoo and sit outside a monkey enclosure for a while.  Twenty minutes should be more than enough time.  

The smarter the species, the more horrendous the show will be.  Chimpanzees are like a winning lotto ticket when it comes to unspeakable acts, and they will etch images of horror into your mind that even a sandblaster couldn’t clear.  I won’t share my own traumatic zoo experience here, but feel free to leave a comment with your email should you wish to spend a few days fasting, or perhaps curled in a corner in the fetal position.

4.  The media and toy manufacturers frequently remind us of monkeys’ intrinsic creepiness.

Monkeys are like clowns.  While many think they are amusing or entertaining. enlightened others like myself see the evil inside.  Thankfully, we have Hollywood to remind us of the truth.

Hello?  I’m going to have nightmares after just reading the intro.  How many movies like this exist about puppies or kittens?  That’s because they aren’t inherently evil!  Look at that toy.  Do you think someone made it look scary just for the movie?  Do you think it’s the only monkey toy out there that looks like this?  No.  You can show me adorable 80s sock monkeys until the cows come home, but the rest of the world bombards me with far too many scary images to change my mind about them.

5.  Monkeys are the source of the plague, rage, and/or zombie apocalypse that will ultimately destroy our civilization.

Most films containing red-eyed, flailing, flesh eating creatures begin with a minor mishap between an unfortunate, unsuspecting, and underpaid scientist and an infected primate.  This fact alone should be enough to make us wary of monkeys lurking beyond the boundaries of a jungle or rainforest.  Did you nonbelievers learn nothing from Dustin Hoffman chasing that monkey in his clean suit? 

Even so, you don’t have to be a huge fan of zombie films or Robin Cook thrillers to notice the link between our closest species and terrifying epidemics.  If a plague involves bleeding from every orifice or your skin falling from your bones, you can catch it from a monkey.  Forget global warming, climate change, and the end of the Mayan Calendar.  Every year, some new health scare makes headlines, and the virus that will wipe us out like a summer disaster flick is the culmination of the primates’ plot to get us.  Humans can hunt them, cage them, experiment on them, and dress them in humiliating outfits, but our day of reckoning will inevitably come, and it will come from their hairy little hands.

(This guy definitely had it coming.)

Monkeys are at the lower end of the food chain now, but they will happily pick lice, examine their privates, and angrily throw feces long after our future zombie selves have eaten the appendages of Earth’s last surviving human.

 These 5 arguments aside, even after my critique of monkey behavior and their plan to destroy life as we know it, I still can’t really blame that monkey for hissing at me when I was a child.  It was an intelligent creature spending its days caged in a pet shop. The brightest future it faced was adoption by some childless woman who would dress it in doll clothes, rock it like a baby, and force it to watch re-runs of bad 70s sitcoms. 

I’ll add some balance to my diatribe of fear and disgust with some links showing how monkeys are incredible, at a distance. The two podcasts are long, but fascinating and well worth your time.




Maybe I should consider monkeys as I do other wild animals; with a healthy dose of respect, rather than fear and mistrust.  After all, elephants could trample me in a second, but I still love them.  Then again, maybe I should hold on to my convictions, and worriedly await the day when my work abroad brings me to live in a place where monkeys roam free. 

The Univited

Pokhara, Nepal: So there we were in a bar, typical of those in any major tourist destination the world over. The atmosphere was promising for a quick drink or two—lakeside location, cheerful crowd, rock covers being played by a decent local band, extensive cocktail menu. My travel buddies and I were meeting our new Nepali friends/travel gurus to discuss what the area had to offer us over the next few days. Most tourists come to Pokhara in search of paragliding, adventure sports, or a base for extensive treks through the Annapurna region of the Himalayas. The outdoor pursuits the three of us were interested in were hardly what one would call adventure sports, or even physically demanding. Thankfully, the guys were approaching the challenge with the wisdom and patience employed by most Nepalis in the tourism industry. The options they were presenting had us excited and looking forward to the mild-to-moderately active vacation ahead. The night was off to a great start.

I noticed the man about five minutes after we arrived, but didn’t give him more than a few seconds thought. He was well over six-feet tall, and sported the combo of loose-fitting hemp clothing, ponytail and extensive facial hair adopted by many long term travelers in South Asia.  His swashbuckling ensemble briefly reminded me of Inigo Montoya, one of my all-time favorite characters of story and film. 

The similarities were fleeting.  There was no trusty sword at the man’s side, and while Inigo had a large, but fairly standard mustache, what sprawled across the lower half of this man’s face was nothing short of a monstrosity.  His dark mustache was cut short above his lips, but the ends were long and spiraled across his cheeks like writhing caterpillars.  It was the disturbing facial hair that even made him a blip on my radar. It was like some sicko had used photo morphing technology to blend Jesus with one of those mustachioed villains on black and white silent films. You know the ones that laugh cruelly and tie flailing women to railroad tracks whilst frenzied piano music rises to a crescendo?   

The personalities of Inigo and this stranger would also prove to be very different.  Had this man’s passions involved sword figthing and avenging the wrongful death of his father, our evening may have been far more entertaining, but we were not so lucky.  After a brief shudder, I turned my attention back to the cocktail menu and discussion of whitewater rafting. Our guide was recommending a day-long excursion–just long enough to get my adrenaline flowing, but not so long as to keep me out of wifi range for an unbearable length of time.

 Then, it happened. The Mustache, whom we’ve referred to ever since as Don Quixote, left his companions and sauntered over to our table, uninvited and without warning. We knew there was no possible way this development could be positive. Mr. Quixote joined our table under the pretense of discussing trekking with our Nepali friends. However, it soon became alarmingly clear that his true interest lay not in the mountains, but in my traveling companions and I.  Even more troubling, after his flirtatious and cringe-worthy comparison of my companion’s ring with his own copious medallions and gemstones, we realized that his motivations went beyond finding female company. That could have quickly been thwarted, and Mr. Quixote was not so easily dismissed. He had far more to offer us than just his manly charms. Oh no. He had…..insight; insight he was compelled to share.  Like his literary namesake, Mr. Quixote was on a quest, and we had unwittingly stumbled into his path.

Mr. Quixote was in his late thirties, Turkish, and claimed to be a professor of philosophy. He was once a teacher of an unnamed subject and level, but had long left that life behind to find himself in Nepal.  Apparently, his search had been successful. We were all miserable, he explained in a loud and confident voice. He, on the other hand, had found true happiness. He continued to assert that he was the only truly happy person in the bar, city, country, and perhaps the world. In addition to being happy, he also seemed quite sober. This was unfortunate, because unwelcome sober people must usually be removed from a table by its occupants, rather than bouncers. None of us are fans of confrontation or awkward situations, so we were polite yet uninterested, and continued our attempts to make vacation plans rather than engage him further in conversation. However, our lack of interest in Mr. Quixote’s achievements did not deter him, but rather increased his determination to share. Like Don Quixote, he suffered from delusions.  He believed we wanted to learn more.

Thankfully, I was only subjected to bits and pieces. I couldn’t hear much over the band, and his appalling mustache combined with a high ratio of bs to logic made lip reading difficult. The already tiresome conversation deteriorated rapidly. Our answer to the inevitable, “what do you do?,” prompted a tirade on educational in general that not only lacked logic, but trapped us within the world we had gone on vacation to escape: teaching.  My friends and I, he accused, were corrupters of minds. We were part of a global conspiracy to brainwash children, and destroy their ability to think and reason.  His voice resouding of disgust and condescension, he demanded we stop our criminal and unethical behavior. “I used to earn a dirty paycheck like you do,” he informed us. “But now, my life has changed, and I teach philosophy to hundreds of people.” Well, lucky them. I hope the hundreds aren’t paying for it, and if they are, I hope it’s at least during the school term.

Mr. Quixote’s disdain for our profession, personal space, and attempts to converse with our original companions drained the remaining enthusiasm and joy from our evening with the power of a Dyson vacuum. The previously pleasant and upbeat bar suddenly felt irksome, and the covers the band played seemed cliché rather than charming. Perhaps the final straw was when he chastised my friend, who was being the most polite to him, for using her “small mind.” How had our relaxed evening spiraled into a night of annoyance and frustration? Who was this creep, and what right did he have to force his views on us? Even more importantly, why, oh why were we dealing with this on our vacation? Finally, after enduring several minutes of awkward silence while we avoided further responses to his monologue, he left, but it was too late to rescesitate what was left of our evening.

I chose not to share with Mr. Quixote that I, myself am a disenchanted teacher, and like many, I fight daily frustration with local and global trends in education. I too worry about the impact mainstream educational practices have on students, but I certainly don’t view myself as a corrupter or a brainwasher. Part of the art of teaching is stimulating the interests my students already have. If I can inspire a love of learning, the rest will happen naturally.  I have to hope that seeds will be planted rather than destroyed. 

Do I want to teach forever in a world where exams are often the ultimate tool to judge knowledge? Hell, no! However, I have to earn a living.  I don’t want to be a complete sell-out, but really Mr. Quixote, we can’t all run away to Nepal, invest in a hemp wardrobe, and spend months cultivating mustaches large enough to house the small children we used to teach.  Sometimes, we have to do the best we can, and that means seeking our own answers rather than imposing them on others, especially during their vacations.

Question: How do you get rid of uninvited guests in these kinds of situations? 

Pride and Privilege

Here’s a conversation I experience at least twice a day: “What country, madam? Oh, you’re American! Very nice country.” “Um, thanks.” I always feel strange when I’m complimented on my country, especially when the person I’m talking to has no connection with it. It’s not something I chose, like a shirt, or something I have created, like a drawing. It’s something I was born with. To complicate matters more, I often feel that revealing my American identity while living abroad is far more complex than just naming my country of birth. It seems to come with a role I have to play. I’m an American. Therefore, I feel the asker is waiting to judge whether I am a) a Cool American (just like our movies, music and pop culture) or b) an Ugly American (arrogant, wasteful, demanding, and at least partially responsible for any problems their country happens to be experiencing). Let’s not forget that since I’m female, if the asker is male, there is a good chance they think I’m at least moderately slutty, so the minute I admit I’m American, I start to feel slightly uneasy.

I suppose all nationalities come with a certain amount of baggage. Every country’s name brings certain images to mind, and these images vary from person to person. When my inquisitive taxi driver is Egyptian, I think of pyramids, the Nile, and Tahrir Square. What are his images of America? Jobs? Friendly people? Hollywood? Bombs? Intrusive foreign policy? Support for corrupt and dangerous regimes to support our own interests? My sense of unease increases.

The worst is when asker then shows shame for their own country. “Oh, madam, America is very nice. My country __________ (insert developing country here) is ___________ (insert some criticism that makes me want to crawl under the seat in front of me). On the flip side, so many Americans, particularly a certain type of Americans, are always talking about how proud they are to be American. I love my country, but I find this particular sentence difficult to relate to. What does it mean to be “proud” to be an American? What does it mean to be proud of any nationality? To me, pride is reserved for achievements. I am proud of my MA that I worked hard very hard for. I’m proud when I see my students learning something I have taught them. All countries offer beauty, culture and insights to the rest of the world, and everyone should have love for their country of birth. It’s the word pride that troubles me. How can I be proud of something I have no control over? In a sketch about Americans who are particularly hostile to immigrants and other nationalities, Chris Rock pointed out, “all you did was come out of your mother’s p**** on American soil. That’s it. That’s it!” Vulgar, yes, but most definitely true! Congratulations to the 300,000,000 of us for being delivered within a certain geographical region. Luck of the draw, baby!

Compliments on my country obviously come from people who are not American, and often come from people from countries with far less available resources and opportunities. I say “available” because so many of these countries contain vast wealth held hostage by a greedy and powerful ruling elite. Back to Chris Rock, “What, you think you’re better than somebody from France ’cause you came out of a p**** in Detroit?” I sure don’t think I’m better, but many times I wonder why me? Why was I born in a country where we buy bottled water to suit taste preferences, but someone else was born in a place where they will die before the age of five because their water comes from a sewage ditch. Is there a obligation that comes with my “lucky” birth? If so, what on Earth is it?

I was blessed to be born in a country where, God willing, I will never starve. I’m not hustling folks to buy necklaces so I can feed my babies. No one is going to come and drag me from my home into a jail because I blogged something negative about my government or signed a petition. It goes beyond that. I can lose everything, but I will never truly be in danger of living on the streets, because my social safety net involves parents happy to welcome me back to their large home. Yes, we have plenty of ghettos and bad neighborhoods, but at home I’ll never drive past acres of homes made from corrugated steel and tarps. In the current state of the world economy this could change, but probably not in my lifetime. Why me, and what do I do with this?

As a woman especially, all I have to do is turn on the television or log onto the internet to see examples of lives I escaped only due to chance. I was born in a country where I was entitled to choices. I was not married off at 13 to a 35 year old man. No one mutilated my genitals at 9 to destroy my sexuality and make me worthy of a future husband. No one expected me to stop my schooling and cast away my talents and interests because it was time for me to be a good wife and stay under the watchful eyes of others. Why me, and what do I do with this?

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel to many countries that do not share the same protections and privileges I have in my country of birth. I’ve seen the slums, I’ve been asked for money by dirty children and mothers holding empty bottles. I’ve turned my head and refused in order to protect myself. Protect myself from what? More begging? Losing money I want to spend on souvenirs? Or to protect myself from a unique phenomenon I think of as Privileged Guilt.

As a budget traveler, I can easily “slum it” in cheap dive hotels, use candles during 12-18 hour power cuts, sleep on railway station floors between connections, and spend days fearful of being less than 30 seconds away from the nearest toilet knowing the pesky traveler’s curse could strike at any time. However, my privileged Western behind will never truly know what it is like to live like this. This will never be my reality, and I thank the Creator for that. Because I have been blessed with an easier life, some part of me wonders whether this obliges me to somehow do something to better the situation of those who have it much harder. Is this a valid way to feel, or is it the just another expression of condescension from a relatively wealthy member of the developed world? Am I just another douchebaguette-bleeding-heart-wanna-be sitting in an exotic destination writing about poverty? Who knows….

Do we ever transform Privileged Guilt into something productive? Usually we return from our journeys or documentary viewing to gather with friends and discuss it over coffee. These sessions include lots of head-shaking, sighs, and “we shoulds.” Living in an insanely wealthy country like I do, we like to point the finger at those with more wealth and talk about the changes They should make and the wrongs that They perpetuate. This provides an excellent distraction from our own potential, and leads to far less uncomfortable conversations, like the wrongs of governments that, as expats, we have no control over. I often wonder if I am a poster-child of fruitless Privileged Guilt. I pursued not one, but two degrees in the hopes of aiding the fight against global wrongs and inequality, but found the whole thing to disturbing for ongoing work on the subject. Additionally, I never did marry the Che Guevara-in-the-making I dreamed of at university, and I thank the Creator for that as much as I do my privileged birth! I sure wasn’t cut out for that sort of life, although perhaps his revolutionary activities could have lessened some of my feelings of obligation to those less fortunate.

So back to the original question: What is pride in one’s country? Where does Privileged Guilt come from, and is it valid or uber-patronizing? Do you feel it? Do you do anything about it? Give this expat some answers before my next trip. Or, I guess I could always just visit a wealthier country.