1- A few days ago, I stopped to yell at some guys on the street. I had been running, and ahead of me on the sidewalk I saw a woman with long hair in a ponytail, a sports bra, and running tights. She jogged towards me and passed me, as I watched 3 local men whistle at her, make rude gestures, and shout things. Maybe because of the adrenalin, or cortisol, or because I was already hot and sweaty so prone to making questionable decisions, I decided to interrupt them. Stopping my run, I said to them in terrible Spanish, “Don’t do that; she doesn’t like it,” and despite their looks of confusion and claims of “No entendes” (‘You don’t understand’); I persisted in speaking to them in English, using gestures to make my point: “Does anyone look at you when you walk down the street? Is *your* body for others to talk about?” I said, disdainfully (hopefully) eyeing one of the men up and down. “It’s rude!” and I ran off. I don’t think it was very effective in convincing them catcalling is wrong and that they should stop; but maybe they’ll look around next time to see if a red-faced stranger is present before they do it.
2- I’ve attended 3 protests now at the US Embassy: one last year for the Women’s March (after the inauguration of Trump); one this January in protest of the Muslim Ban; one a few weeks ago in support of gun control and in response to the recent school shootings in the US. Each time, I’ve made signs, invited others, connected with other expats (American and non-) upon arriving at the protest, and marched, yelled, and discussed. They were small – the Women’s March in Buenos Aires was probably at the max 200 people; and the other two had less than 30 participants- but it maybe felt even more important to be seen making our voices heard (thank you, local media, & social media as well). Even Americans that live abroad have convictions about what’s happening our country, even though we don’t live there.
3- At school I am now the lead faculty sponsor of the GSA: Gay Straight Alliance, or, if you prefer, Gender/Sexuality Alliance. This year we’ve gotten much more active- partly spurred by a few key student leaders and partly just because we now have the numbers. During our Ally Week, we hosted a 50+ student ‘town hall’ discussion where students shared their views on gender rights. The GSA planned and presented a workshop at SPEAK, the school’s student-led conference, on the ‘myths and facts’ of gender & sexuality. We have a whole-school assembly planned for this Friday, co-created with the Feminist Club. And later next month, we’ll have our Day of Silence. This year, one of our faculty members came to share with us his personal stories of coming out, and one of our alumni stopped by to explain her experience being out and lesbian in Buenos Aires. We created and led a workshop for faculty about ‘Safe Space’ issues. The school nurses are now supporting our efforts and faculty give strong and consistent support. It’s been busy, but super stimulating, and the note that I received from a student about how much she appreciates my vocal and visible support hammered it home.
Can I do all these things because I’m American? Is my activism a privilege, or a duty, or a right? When is it appropriate to celebrate individual rights, and when is it crossing a line into cultural disrespect, misunderstanding, or impoliteness? Should I yell at cars that run stop lights (hell yes), even though it is extremely common and largely unpunished in BsAs? Should I challenge my Chinese students who believe democracy could never happen in China (maybe, but first ask them why they think so)? At what point do I hesitate and consider that I may be overstepping my place?
Some years ago, the intention I set for the school year was ‘Seek to understand’. At that point I had realized that my feisty righteousness, which in some settings was celebrated and admired, could also go too far. I finally was recognizing that I needed to be careful in making assumptions, especially about sensitive political or cultural issues. Some of my friends here are much better at this than I am– my friend from Tennessee, who asks questions to others about gun control before sharing his considered opinion, or my friend from Iowa, who is always careful not to succumb to the party line. Maybe the longer we live abroad, the less attached we are to our original political identities; the more self-reflective we are; the more self-defined. Being an foreigner is an opportunity to get closer to our values by removing ourselves from the context in which they were formed.
But as I hone in on the values I truly believe in, I realize how prone to propagation I am– I went on a rant about not shopping at Wal-Mart in my Psych class the other day- so I must needs also consider my effect. When I lived in Jordan, it was obvious to me how ignorant of its political/religious/historical context I was. Asking questions and pursuing knowledge was my priority. Here, it’s trickier: Buenos Aires feels much more like the US, and so I can sometimes slip into having expectations informed by my experiences back home. I judge Argentine cuisine (too much meat, needs more spices), its gender roles (hello machismo, anorexia, high heeled fashion). The separation between what is good for me and what is good for others is murkier. In Jordan, I didn’t presume to impose- but in Argentina, I feel more comfortable, and thus more able to critique.
In my history classes, we study social reformers; in psychology; we consider why we do the things we do. In activism, we share our values with the world, and assume that others should hear them. I still have convictions, but I am learning to listen too.