Tag Archives: gender dynamics


This is my best possible recollection of something that happened about a year ago.  The quotes may be a bit off, but the sentiment is there. Also, some names are changed because I felt weird.

I wander down the broken street, and my steps start to bounce because I can hear Rigoletto floating down to me out of a high Havana window.  Bum bum bum bum-ba-da, bum bum bum bum-ba-da, baa daa daa daa-daa, baa daa daa daa-daa.  I think briefly of seeing that opera at the Met when I was in high school, and the warmth of the memory has Havana feeling like home.  But still, I get slow and cautious as I approach the tiny barrio within itself.  It isn’t about safety; I don’t want to be the first one to show up.

There are no women poking their heads out of windows tonight, no children running around and curling themselves around my ankles.  One little, bare bright, bulb shines and makes shadows out of Brittan and Fernando.  Rather than playing dominoes and crouching on the metal skeletons of chairs, they rest comfortably on a low, cement wall.  They drink, but their voices are relaxed and slow and the bottle remains upright and still most of the time.

Brit smirks and stands to hug me, and suddenly Fernando is animated.  He immediately busies himself getting me the closest thing to a proper chair and a jam jar for the clear, grainy rum.

“Heh, Have I got a story for you,” Brit quietly laughs to me.  So Fernando won’t hear it: “we’ve been talking about you.”  He seems pleased at my immediate shock, annoyance and curiosity.  But it will have to wait, as Fernando rushes back out.

We talk about what they do when it floods, where the high water marks are.  How they take to the roof with dominoes and rum, and laugh the disaster in its face.  I feel guilty for complaining about my hunger enforced by the massive flood the other day, because I was safe and dry on the fourteenth floor.  They lose everything in the barrio every time there’s a flood, but I only lost my lights and wifi, something they never have in this neighborhood, even on a good day.

“I…I cannot talk about that.  It is shit.  I cannot talk about it.”

Fernando’s suddenly stoic expression shatters into a million pieces with a high, forced laugh that seems to take up the whole alleyway.  The severity is gone as soon as it came.  I wonder if the children are sleeping, and where his daughter is.  She usually spends this time curled up in my lap, playing with my hair or glasses, or hitting Brit and calling him ugly while she laughs and makes eyes at him.  I think she likes his beard.

Instead, a woman I’ve never seen before struts up.  In typical Cuban fashion, she is wearing heels, her hair is immaculate, her clothing tight.  I’m wearing a dirty t-shirt, flip-flops and shorts that feel like pajamas.  I haven’t brushed my hair in a few days.  Fernando stops tending to me to greet and chat with the woman, something that extends for hours.  He leaves the bottle with Brit and I, and we work our way through it as he tells me what I missed.

“He wants to marry you.”

“What?!” I try to keep my voice quiet, but Brit’s dancing eyes infuriate me even more.

“Yeah, yeah, he says you’re so good with his daughter, you’d be such a good mother.  You two talk about politics and you both speak french, and you’re so nice to always be coming over.  Get it girl!”

Truthfully, I probably do send all sorts of weird signals to every Cuban I meet.  I am usually the only female playing dominó, and I do bring his daughter gum or nail polish to play with.  My presence has apparently not gone unnoticed.  But I’ve never been anywhere alone with Fernando.  I’ve never offered my contact information for when I go home, or been the one to make plans.  He gets no more of my attention than any of the other aseres we play dominó with, even when he tries to egg me on.

I look back on all the afternoon baseball games, to find what I must have done or said.  Drinking rum with my male friends as well as his, trying not to let his little girl get on my nerves when she won’t stop playing the same game for hours on end.  Winning dominó when Britito is my partner, losing atrociously when I’m paired with anyone else.  Fighting with Fernando’s friend about politics, and trying not to get myself in a discussion about Castro.

And it makes me miss home.  It makes me miss people who believe that a novio means something, no matter how many miles I am from him.

Not long after, on my last day in Havana, I didn’t say goodbye to Fernando, his daughter or the neighborhood.  I just up and left.

Buen Dia de las Mujeres

Today is Women’s Day, something I honestly had never heard of until Maria’s breakfast rant today.  We’ve been getting “felicitaciones” all day from men walking past us, and even some freshly picked flowers.  What exactly are we being congratulated for, though?  Being born female instead of male?  Opting not to switch genders (which is covered by Cuban health care, by the way)?  Although I must say, the more time I spend here, the more I think of being a Cubana as an accomplishment of some kind.

“Are you a woman, or a book?”
-Leonardo, Cecilia

“A woman can bear anything but curiosity”

“You can fix the worst things here with drums and beer”
-Rachel, La Bella del Alhambre

“A woman in politics is like a man in the kitchen”

“You want to take care of all the problems in the world, but what about your husband and house?”
Retrato de Teresa

“It is good to have what you do acknowledged.”
Retrato de Teresa

“Because I’m the man of the house, forget about your little job.”
Retrato de Teresa

“There’s one law for women and another law for men.”
Retrato de Teresa

“But I’m a man, it’s different!”
Retrato de Teresa

“Learn to clench your teeth…like your mama did.”
-Teresa’s mother, after admonishing her daughter for wanting equality, Retrato de Teresa

“I don’t care what they say, a woman is a woman and a man is a man.  Not even Fidel can change that.”
-Teresa’s mother, Retrato de Teresa

“Your husband and children aren’t enough, you always wanted to be you, too”
Teresa’s husband, Retrato de Teresa

“If I look for her again, I’m not a man.”
Fresa y chocolate

“There are functions for men and functions for women.  This is not the function of women.”
-Hector Perez, speaking of women and tambores (playing the religious drums)

“What are you doing to celebrate Women’s Day?”
“Working, of course.”

And I leave you with this, from Brittan:
“But when is Men’s Day?”


Definition: a female of western origins. She can come in any color, and may be from Europe, Canada, the US, Australia or any other country considered to be the West.

It’s a weird fact of life here, but if you’re a gringa, you have a Cubano. Other than the women in this apartment (and some at the Burlington program), every gringa we’ve met so far has come with a Cuban man in tow. Or more often, the other way around. I wonder how genuine these relationships are, on both ends.

How are the women not more skeptical? Don’t they know what will happen when the next pack of Americans come? We’ve seen that happen firsthand. What about all the money that comes into play? It’s hard for a woman to feel wooed if she pays for absolutely everything, including frivolous things they don’t partake in, or stuff for their guy’s friends.  And I know I know, guys often pay for everything in the states, so this could be a small bit of justice.  But it’s still a very real cultural difference that can be jarring.

What about the obvious elephant in the room, the green card? How does she shake the feeling he wants one, and how does he shake the feeling she could get him one?

How are the men not more skeptical? It oddly reminds me of Dirty Dancing, when The Swayze tells Ferris Bueller’s sister how hard it is to say no to the rich, beautiful fancy women who slip diamonds in his pockets. He knows that next week he may be eating skittles for breakfast, so how can he say no? But he still realizes he’s being used, because next week he’s eating those skittles and they’re back in the city spending their husband’s money.

I don’t have any answers on this one, but we see it so often that it gets at me.

The Rum Diary

You have no idea how tempted I was to rename this blog The Rum Diary.  But if I did, a ton of people wouldn’t get it (which would depress me) and they’d be all disturbed that the name of an alcoholic beverage is involved, despite the fact that I’d be legal to drink everywhere, (especially Cuba) by the time I got to writing it.  On the other hand, a clever few would totally get the reference, and they’d know that there’s a whole lot more to be worried about than the name of an alcoholic beverage if I’m drawing these sorts of allusions.  A classic lose-lose-lose-lose-lose.

The real reason though, is that changing the title would mean that I had to, in order to reflect my new setting.  Which implies (not infers) that the blog was named after my setting to begin with, which simply isn’t so.  This blog isn’t about Cuba, any more than it’s about Egypt.  And away laughing on a fast camel doesn’t have to take place on a camel, or in some sort of desert setting.

Laughing on a fast camel is a state of mind, a way to react to the absurd situations I find myself in, like being on a camel that decides it wants to be al-Seabiscuit.  (Yes, that was inappropriate.  See, I can be politically incorrect too.)

This blog is about a lot of things, like politics, language, cultural exchange, social relations, gender dynamics and travel. But it’s not about Cuba or about Egypt or about Thailand.  It’s about making sense out of what happens when you mash a bunch of very different people together, and doing it with a smile and an open mind.

So take that, Hunter.

The Hillary List

Lately, there has been many a rumble in lady-land.  I have been reminded again and again that there are certain rules that should never be broken by people who are any combination of a) female, b) in authority, or c) driven, straightforward and intelligent.  I have come to think of this, aptly, as the Hillary List.  Love her or hate her, we’re all going to be treated like her, so we may as well learn a lesson or two.

  1. Everything you do will be subject to far more scrutiny.  Rather than complaining, accept it and adjust accordingly.
  2. Never let them see you cry.  This is imperative. See: Sex and the City
  3. If you lose it, everything you say will be discredited.  You’ve just given them an excuse to do what they already wanted to.
  4. Know when to hold em, when to fold em, and when to walk away.
  5. Own shoes that are comfy and shoes that are sexy.  Know when to use which ones.  Bonus points if they are in fact the same pair
  6. You will be called a bitch.  You can’t stop it, so don’t try.  Just deal with it, and see #2.
  7. Blow sunshine up their ass.  This is great advice from my mother
  8. Also from my mother: if you ever need to get out of something, bodily functions are an excellent excuse.  No one will want to chat about your period, and you simply can’t argue with the runs.
  9. Follow the rules.  You can get away with a lot if you stay within the lines, especially if it’s not that big of a deal for you to do so.
  10. Be cautious about who you trust, or: don’t air dirty laundry in public.  You don’t want to be considered a gossip, and many females will actually go out of their way to make you look bad.  Think very carefully about what you are saying (and to whom) before you speak.  Even if you disagree with something, be careful who you air that disagreement with.  Nobody likes someone who complains about their own team/boss/friends/whatever to people who aren’t involved

Break these rules at your own peril.  And remember, sometimes you just have to settle for Secretary of State.

Originally posted Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 10:01 PM

Play Nice

Lately I have received a lot of similar criticism, all stemming from a behavior about which I am offended to be criticized.  This is mostly because a successful male equivalent commits the same behavior and is revered. 

Also, it is because I am not wrong.  It is simply a choice of style, and in my mind, the style of those criticizing me is more offensive, but in a different way.  I do not meet their definition of nice, but they don’t meet mine, either.  I brought these points up to someone when they made a snarky remark about my behavior, but they claimed my male equivalent loses respect too.  And yet, no one makes snarky remarks to his face.  Even if people lose respect for him, they do it in private, and they still maintain a healthy amount of respect for him in other ways, like intellect and presence.




Why can some people get away with it and others can’t?


In Model UN and Model Arab League, we have chairs who lead committee.  Mine have run the gamut from almost-impeached (more than one) to award-winning (quite a few).  This year I had a great chair that was abrupt and rules-oriented.  I must admit that at first I bristled, but it turns out my chair was great.  She didn’t chair the way I would, but there was nothing inherently wrong with her chairing, and she had vast experience.


Unfortunately, some others didn’t agree.  They were a  vocal minority, and there were enough in the undecided column to cause a stir.  


Essentially, she wasn’t nice enough.  She didn’t break any rules, but she passed down a ruling quickly, without explanation, and without a smile.  All weekend she was fairly no-nonsense, and whipped an incredibly green bunch of delegates into shape.  Apparently, they didn’t appreciate it.  So they motioned to impeach her, not based on a violation of the rules, but on a personality conflict.  Because she wasn’t bubbly; she didn’t smile and mollycoddle them.  


I brought up, in my defense of her, that delegates could have approached her personally before taking such a drastic step.  But I guess that’s the issue.  No one felt they could.  When people feel that you are unapproachable, they won’t bother until it all gets to be too much, and then there’s a bit of an explosion.  Allegedly, it’s a sign of respect when someone criticizes you–it means they think you can change, and care enough to help you.  Perhaps my…colleague?  Acquaintance? is too unapproachable for anyone to confront him for the behavior that I am chastised for.  I’m hoping that my reception, compared to his, will save me from an upset down the line.  


For those of you who think this is too cutesy, I agree.  While I am aware it is the appropriate inner-growth zen-type thing to say, I feel otherwise.  I feel like maybe this applies if people criticize you constructively, but not if they simply judge you and are unreceptive to criticism of themselves.  And a part of me says why the hell should my chair have to play nice?  She already followed the rules, why do you have to throw in the smile?  


Well I guess you don’t.  But it means you have to be willing to be impeached.  


Originally posted Friday, April 24, 2009 at 1:02 AM

Southern Man

This past weekend I was down in South Carolina.  Having returned, I’ve noticed a stark difference in the way delegates handle themselves, especially with regard to gender, in the South as opposed to the North.

Oh the accent. The twang is gone now, but while I was there, and a few days after, my delightfully charming Boston accent was dulled and the twang came out.  I wasn’t really expecting this, as I’ve been to the South before, but this past weekend I spent all my time listening to southerners speak for hours on end, where the only other non-southerner in the room is from the blandly-accented land of Seattle.
Throughout the weekend, I was called Darlin’.  As in, “Don’t you worry bout a thang, darlin’, I didnt mean to fuss you up any!”  I was thoroughly confused by how often doors and chairs were held for me.  In fact, it rubbed off on my own team, a group of guys who generally sees me as a, uh, witch, nuisance or male.  Instead they were being downright chivalrous all weekend.  My natural tendency has been to open doors for myself, shake hands with male delegates, and to wear pants.  Part of my treatment was due to Vince and my success as a pair, and part was being female.  I started to get less annoyed by the politesse and actually enjoyed it.  Strangers always greeted me with “Mornin!” and even people who disagreed with me remained extraordinarily kind, a behavior quite foreign to the northern conferences.
The more time I spend as a delegate, the more I focus on every specific aspect of my behavior.  For example, I, like all Harringtons, stand with shoulders squared, feet hip-width apart, and my arms crossed in front of my chest.  If you look at pictures of the Harringtons, we all stand this way, and in person nod repeatedly.  This is our listening posture.  Unfortunately, this is considered an aggressive stance, especially for a woman, and especially for a younger woman in the south.  I have done my best to eliminate this from my conference behavior, just as I actively turn off my Boston accent when I’m using my intelligent conference voice and vocabulary.
It’s not that I endorse permanently changing myself for others, or doing what makes males comfortable for a prize, but I think it is important to realize that postures and mannerisms mean different things to different people.  Really, I only hesitate to change because it is males who are made uncomfortable.  If I were instructed to speak up so people could hear my good ideas, no one would be concerned in the least.  This is just another way of making it easier for everyone to hear my ideas, instead of focusing on everything else.
It was pointed out to me by my advisor and partner that the reason we got second and not first is my behavior.  I am an intelligent, straightforward human being, and I tend to be more agressive and blunt than most females.  This is offputting to the guys on my own team, and to many guys in my life in general.  Take this down south, and it doesn’t go so well.  Especially when the other teams expected my tall, muscular male marine partner with the booming voice to be telling me what to do, even though it was his first conference.  (For the record, he never once tried to tell me what to do, and I hope I didn’t order him around either.  Vince is pretty much the portrait of a gentleman, and I think our partnership worked really well.)
Reflecting on these ponderings and the discussions with my lovely UNA mentor and our advisor, the accent is actually kind of an advantage.  As my partner mentioned to me today, he will miss the sweet smiles of the southern ladies, as opposed to the hostile and frigid demeanor of their northern counterparts (his words, not mine.)  The female delegates I went up against were formidable.  Many had done more research than I, and several had more experience.  They wanted awards just as much, maybe more.  And yet, they never came across as masculine, dominating or terribly negative at all.  Perhaps the over-emphasis of the accent is just another one of their tools, one that allows them to be aggressive like I am, without losing any votes in the final tally.  In the end, the first place pair had one partner who was dead weight, and another who never controlled the room like I did, but neither of those two ladies pissed anyone off.
Originally posted Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 12:56 PM