Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Since moving from a study abroad participant to a leader of trips abroad, I have had some recalibrating to do.  There is a difference between the risks I’m willing to take myself and those I’m willing to allow my students to take.

This came rushing to the fore last summer when I was walking at night in Havana with the majority of our students, and at least one of the Cubans with us was stopped by the police for walking with white women while black.  It is important to note that this is a significantly worse offense than walking while black, although that’s an issue in Cuba as well.  The reason is not only due to racism and history, but also tourism, industry, and hegemony.  While I find the term “tourism apartheid” a bit strident, there is more than a nugget of truth to it, and the way it plays out in Cuba is that it’s somewhat acceptable if the white woman is visibly into it, but otherwise all young black men are assumed to be harassing your tourist dollars away.  Of course, not once has the policia ever showed up to stop genuine harassment (to my knowledge).  And the component of hegemony: when it comes down to it, some lives are deemed more worthy than others, and white skin and our little blue books protect us.  Somewhere in the 20th century, it became unacceptable for an American to lose their life abroad.  It’s cool at home, especially if they lost their life to a legally purchased gun, or if they are not white and middle class.  But that’s a whole other thing.

But back to the story, and the risks involved.  This was probably during what most people would call my time off, but it was nonetheless immediately obvious to me that I was in charge and it was my job to keep my students safe.  This is because regardless of what time of day or night, my state of mind, whether I’m with friends, coworkers, clients or students, or how undesirable the task may be, when something needs to get done, I see it as just doing my job.  This is because I have a pretty broad definition of my job, which goes beyond the things for which I am paid, things done in a cubicle, or times when I am expected to watch how I dress, speak, or act.  In my mind, my job is to keep everyone safe, and increase justice and knowledge whenever possible.  Literally all of the time, for the entire time I’m alive.  I’m off the hook if I’m sleeping, but if someone wakes me up I’m right back in it.

So this leaves me with some dueling priorities.  Number 1, I need to make sure nothing happens to my students, who are likely best served by calmly walking away from the cops questioning their friend across the street.  Number 2, I know why the cops are talking to their friend, and I know it’s bullshit.  I know we have more pull than they do in this scenario, but I also know that if I (or my students) screw up, we will not face the consequences.  The Cubans will.  And then there’s the guilt.  If these guys had been doing their own thing, without a giant pack of white women to whom they were nothing but polite and friendly, no one would be talking to the cops right now.  Oh and number 3, none of my students have any clue that the cops are questioning him for no good reason, or that they have played any role in all of this, or that they could do serious damage by trying to help.  Or rather, I thought this had occurred to none of them.

I get the high sign from one of the Cubans, and a couple of people (who I didn’t realize were intoxicated) translate my message of “keep walking, wait for me at the end of the street, and don’t cause a fuss,”  into something loosely resembling, “holy shit we got that guy arrested!  and now no one can have fun and everyone should scream!”  Somehow everyone instantly became belligerent and less logical in that moment, but eventually they reluctantly followed instructions.  I’ve written before about this, and about how strange it was the next morning to hear 22 different versions of the same night.  But after they left was the real trouble.

After they left was the real trouble because that’s when those students from before, the ones I didn’t count on understanding precisely what was happening, remained.  And they did what I would have done.  They asked the other Cubans what would fix it, and they did their best to follow through.  It didn’t work, but they’re good people for trying.  Meanwhile, I got to be someone I never imagined being: the callous authority figure, giving them instructions that would protect them but not their friends.  Normally, I would have been the one going over to talk to the cops.  Instead, I was the one with a plan for how to get their US passports here before they could potentially be taken to jail.

Luckily, my students were fine, although those who remained till the end were certainly hurt in an irreparable way, the way that only powerlessly watching complete injustice from a place of informed privilege can make you feel.  The guy who the police brought away in cuffs had to pay an unimaginably high fine for a Cuban salary, but he was a free man the next day.  I was of course fine too, as my students and I never wore cuffs and didn’t have to pay a dime, but I was left wrestling with the idea of choosing the safety of one group of people over justice (and potentially safety) for another.  When it comes down to it, I am responsible for my students.  And I don’t know them as well as I know myself, so there is a greater unpredictability to their risks than mine.  But finally, when I take my risks, I can really only take them when I travel on my own, when I am not endangering anyone but myself.  And therein lies the downside of being in a group: a risk for one becomes a risk for all, whether we mean it to be or not.

So yes, I tell them not to swim  off the malecon, but I also don’t say a word when I know they’re doing it.  I told my kids in Greece they better not go to protests, but I was pissed I missed them myself, and Sarah knew without my asking that the first thing I wanted to see in Cairo, other than her gorgeous face, was Tahrir Square.  I count their heads and make them promise me that they’ll use the buddy system, and I tell them they’re not allowed to scare me like that when they get back to the bus late or have too much to drink.

But sometimes it gets trickier, if you can believe it.

I take cabs and walk alone, I dress how I want to dress.  No, I will not tell my female students they can’t wear a mini-skirt to a club on a Friday night.  First of all, I wouldn’t believe in doing that even if it would help.  But second, I know for a fact it won’t do anything to keep away the cat calls and the groping.  Driving and walking alone is harder.  I think in general, everyone is safer with the buddy system.  But I also know it drove us to insanity in Cairo when for six weeks we were basically never alone.  It’s why I would hide in the lobbies between floors reading, or insist on wandering museums alone.  When I could have my independence, I took it.  There’s also something to the idea that if a guy doesn’t have a buddy, it’s not a huge deal.  If a girl doesn’t have one, whatever happens next is her fault.

I don’t want my students to be alarmist, and I sort of read one the riot act when she claimed last summer that her roommate was not only certain to be raped in Havana’s most crowded, safe, zero-violent-crime neighborhood, but that it would be the roommate’s fault, and how dare that roommate scare her like that.  I hate the pearl clutching and the victim blaming and those who would scare us into never leaving America or our hometowns or our kitchens, but I also count heads compulsively.  I always know where the exits and the cops are.  I waited behind because one of them ran off at night to get his fifteenth sandwich of the day, and everyone going home without telling him was unacceptable.

So I let them hate me for not “stopping” or “letting them stop” their friend from getting arrested.  And I do my best not to get into arguments about the futility and misogyny of dress codes as safety measures.  I want them to know street harassment, sexual assault, political violence, corruption, all of these injustices, they happen all the time.  But that shouldn’t keep them home or moving around in air-conditioned vehicles in knee-length baggy skirts in groups of ten or more.  The world is simultaneously more terrifying and more kind than they’ve ever imagined.  I just don’t know how to tell them that.

Walk for Change

UPDATE on 4/7/2014: This post was updated to reflect my 2014 donation page. I’m proud to share that quotes from this article have been featured on BARCC’s print ads, MBTA ads (share a picture if you see it on the red line!), and the back of the Walk t-shirts.

This April, I will be participating in Boston Area Rape Crisis Center’s Walk for Change.  I first learned of the organization last year, during my final semester at Northeastern, when I got involved in some related activism.  BARCC is a local organization serving the Greater Boston Area with counseling, a 24-hour hotline, medical advocates, and lobbying power.  They do good work for little pay, and their services are invaluable for the people who need them.  I will be joined by an amazing group of women who are strong, bold, smart and high-achieving.

I’m walking because I have heard so many stories that break my heart, stories of things that never should have happened.  But instead they happened again and again, often to the same people, and they will keep happening.

I am walking because I shouldn’t be afraid to name the organization I was with when I learned about BARCC, nor should I be afraid to name what we were protesting.  But I am.  I am afraid to write about it, to mention it to fellow Northeastern students and alumni, or to associate myself with it online.  Because when a group of young men and women and some of their teachers stood up and said we would not have our university associated with a group that treats this wretched violence so casually, that treats the safety and well-being and freedoms of young women so casually, members and fans of the organization set out to make us feel insane, overly sensitive, ugly, and unsafe.  They pursued us relentlessly online, insulted us in the comments and in person, wrote threats, posted addresses and personal details, and surrounded us at our protest.

I am walking because those people won a little bit, when those threats were so serious they were taken to the police, and some people were advised to stay home and stay offline.  And they won a little bit when they made us afraid, and when they made us feel small, and when they made me feel like a Super Bowl party or a sports bar was one less place where I could be safe and happy.

I am walking because I should have been able to think of at least one fellow student at Northeastern with whom I felt comfortable sharing our plans for the protest: a person I could trust not to invite the trolls, or tell me I was wrong or stupid, or downplay the importance of this issue.  But I couldn’t.

I am walking because there is no magic formula to keep ourselves safe, no right time of day or night to go out, no right type of person or situation to avoid, no dress code, no secret signal not to send, no magic way of saying no that will be honored by everyone everywhere in every situation no matter what, no appropriate number of drinks to have or companions to walk us home.

I am walking because people tell me that it cannot possibly be true that a woman is more likely to be attacked if she goes to college, because people tell me I must be lying, because people claim no one they know has ever been sexually assaulted or raped, even though we know that statistically, for a person my age, that is nigh impossible.

I am walking because I have sat in a car while men screamed out the window at women walking home alone in the middle of the night.  I said nothing while they yelled, “slut!” at women who had no way of knowing whether the car would slow down and someone would come to harm them or not.  I said nothing while they laughed about it, because I was tired of being their punching bag and I was afraid of what they would think of me if I kept standing up for the women they called sluts.

I am walking because the American legal system, the military, the lower house of congress, much of the media and far too many doctors have utterly failed the country and their humanity on this issue.

I am walking because of Delhi and Steubenville, and because those communities are not unique.  Because when an 11 year old was raped by 18 men and teenage boys, the New York Times saw fit to report only on those wondering where the girl’s mother was, and saying how grown up her clothing and makeup was.  Because a fake girlfriend received more attention than a rape victim who committed suicide.  Because so many at Penn State rioted to support its football team and its coach, instead of stopping to think about who the real victims are.  Because our collective first thoughts after an accusation are always to wonder what she was wearing or drinking, whether she flirted or was promiscuous, whether he is gay or weak, and to say what a horrible thing it is to ruin someone’s reputation, and to frantically repeat the words “Duke Lacrosse” like it’s an incantation.

I am walking because everyone’s right to a good time and their right to free speech and their right to make crappy jokes and comments is not more important than our right to feel safe or our obligation as human beings to treat one another with respect and a sense of compassion.

I am walking because there are too many bystanders, too many who see it as someone else’s problem, and too many people who call themselves “good” and “nice” while ignoring the jokes, the threats, the injustices, and the violence that happen in our own communities.

I am walking because it is a big deal, and it does happen in all kinds of places and to all kinds of people, and I’m sorry bringing up these issues bums people out but good lord, imagine what experiencing them firsthand must feel like.

I am walking because sometimes using your voice, showing your presence, and providing support for those fighting the good fight is the only thing any of us can do, and that is a very important thing.

I am walking because what they want is silence.  What they want is compliance.  What they want is fear, and what they want is power.

I am walking because no one can be silenced, no one should live in fear or shame, no one should ever be or feel powerless, and because we will not go quietly.

I am walking because I can, I am walking because I feel I must, and I am walking for those who cannot yet walk for themselves.

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The Urgency of Travel

I came across an article recently about the growing phenomenon of students who spend almost every weekend of their semester abroad traveling somewhere outside of their host city, and often outside of their host country.  I immediately thought of my students last fall in Greece, many of whom spent exorbitant sums of their (or more often, their parents’ money) to leave Thessaloniki as often as possible.  I know they did this because I was responsible for knowing their general whereabouts.  I know about the exorbitant sums they spent because so many of them told me, almost proud, about all the last minute flights they booked.  

The article details this extreme sense of urgency, the idea that this is a once in a lifetime experience.  On most of my trips leading study abroad students or being on myself, I have heard this urgency expressed in a variety of ways.  Some students spend little time sleeping in order to see it all and do it all, and inevitable crash or become ill or get sun sickness.  Others never get to know their host country or host city because they only see it in Monday-Friday terms.  Face it, if you never spent weekends in the place where you live, it would seem to be a very different place.  Then there are those who are so busy cramming in all the “right” “must-see” sites that they never see the best stuff.  The everyday things, the regular people who aren’t in the service industry, the places that no one writing for Lonely Planet noticed because they were on deadline and quite frankly weren’t being paid to linger and discover.  

For me, the lingering and the discovering is the thing.  That’s where the nature of a place is hiding, where the most worthwhile friendships have cropped up, and where I’ve seen the kind of beauty that makes a permanent spot in my heart for that place.  

I certainly do go to many if not all of the places on the must-see list, but that’s for the first day or week or month, not for your settled-in stay.  The people you meet there will likely be fellow tourists, so judging a place based on those crowds is unfair.  Often, those landmarks are old.  There’s nothing wrong with old, but I find something perverse in worshiping a place only for its past, while ignoring all the amazing things that are happening in the here and now, ignoring all the people and innovation and art and history, ignoring the current identity of a place.  Basically, if all I did in Egypt was go to the pyramids and king tut’s tomb, I would have missed out on thousands of years worth of Egypt to fall in love with.  

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with people who work in the service industry (in fact, they almost never let me down with friendliness, patience, and recommendations, at home or abroad), but it’s no accident that Americans have a reputation for “befriending” every cab driver and bar tender, and no one else.  If the only time you see a person is when they are paid to not only do something for you, but do it with a smile and inviting personality, perhaps this is not actually friendship.  

There is nothing wrong with traveling while you’re abroad, and I understand that many people see it as cost-effective since they have already paid for the “big flight,” which in these conversations is almost always to Europe.  Because let’s face it, even though other sites are gaining popularity, most study abroad participants are still going to Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.  But for those who want to travel, I recommend getting to know other parts of the same country.  See something beyond a capital city, because good lord a country is so much more than that.  Go to the country, go where residents of your city go on vacation, go to the secondary cities that matter a great deal to locals but outsiders seem to ignore.  Your time in your host city and your time studying your host country has created an outline.  Let your time traveling around familiarizing yourself with the nooks and crannies fill in the picture, slowly.  

I feel that urgency too, and I try to fight it.  That urgency makes a person look to the next thing on the list instead of noticing what’s happening around you in the present.  That urgency makes you competitively compare at hostels, instead of just happily share.  That urgency will always leave you feeling you missed out, even as you were doing or seeing something amazing, or meeting someone amazing.  

When I feel that urgency hit, I think of something a professor said to us toward the end of our time in Egypt: Do not think of this as goodbye.  Don’t think of this as leaving Egypt forever.  You can always come back, and you will come back, if it means that much to you.  There is nothing to stop you from coming back here, if you want.  

And to be honest, almost all of us have gone back.  And it was exactly what I needed, and it will be again when I return.  So when I get to feeling frantic, I tell that urgent, Fear of Missing Out voice to shut up.  I hold onto the feeling knowledge that I will be back, and try to do what makes sense in the moment.  Sometimes that means going to a foreign city.  Sometimes it means staying in to get some rest.  Sometimes it means reading a good book in the sunshine.  And sometimes it just means lingering and discovering a new side to the same old place I’ve seen a thousand times before.