activism abroad

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.


9 thoughts on “activism abroad”

  1. This is typical American self-centredness and self-righteousness at its worst. Try respecting the culture you work in and be more reflective. Everything is not about YOU.

  2. It’s an odd balance we strike as international educators: we often work in schools (like Lincoln…named for a US President) which were founded to propagate US values abroad. Host national parents see something of great value in our ‘American’ international schools, and are willing to pay high tuitions to attain that mix of scholarship, experience, and opportunity, all based, at least somewhat, in American values…(and, perhaps, the American Dream?) And yet, some of those values are not at all welcomed in our host country contexts (I’ve lived in two countries where homosexuality is simply “illegal”). Another element: the “American values” our schools are to espouse have various interpretations by Americans themselves, both Americans back home and abroad. Not every American feels the same about ‘equality’ for all, the results of which we we can see splashed across the news each day.
    At one point in my career, thinking about Christian missionaries abroad, I realized that we international school educators are “American Missionaries,” selling a mix of American values such as independence, individuality, creativity, discipline, integrity.
    What it means to be an American abroad is at the heart of the question: does our Americanness become more clearly defined when we are out of the conflicted context of the diverse American nation? It seems to me it does…when we travel, a fellow American is a new found friend, where as in Oregon, (where I’m from), a Californian is an invader, probably responsible for the inflation in housing prices…and likely not a friend at all. Perspective, then, is relative to location, context, and experience…but for many of us, the tangled roots of our imperfect American history is what feeds the flowers we bring to our classrooms abroad and our international students…

    1. Hi Wayne, thanks for your note and your lovely metaphor at the end. I appreciate your concept of being an ‘American missionary,’ although it does make me shudder a bit. It definitely is tricky to represent a culture, no matter where you are (China, Jordan, Argentina). People from all places and backgrounds have to reconcile others’ views of their culture with their own- and all of us struggle how to communicate both our admiration and love for their home country as well as our knowledge of its darker histories and realities. “How do you explain X?” is a challenge, but an invitational one.

  3. Great post. I have struggled with these same questions myself and have come to the same conclusions: I can’t assume anything, and yes, being away from my “own” country has made me more reflective and in many ways, more considerate as a result.

    1. Hi Susan, thanks for your note. This post was me sort of wrestling with that notion of becoming more ‘considerate’ or more accommodating to others’ cultural norms… and considering that I may not want to be! Which again, may be one of the privileges of being an outsider or an American….

  4. I believe now more than ever that the 5 Ws of saying/doing what we think is right is of greater importance to our personal safety – and thus our future – than what our intent is. For example, the reprimanding of those men for their rude behavior may have been met differently – and in a less favorable way – if the chastisement came from a man near their age.
    I had a similar experience with some younger men while living in Malaysia. They were also expats. From the somewhere in the Middle East. The result was not what I had imagined. I should have left the teacher at work that day. The consequence involved the police, and our having to move out of the apartment complex where the incident took place.
    In the end, we judge ourselves by our intentions and everyone else by their actions. If ever afforded the chance, I think it wise to speak to what our intentions are in what we are doing.
    Enjoyed the insight, I appreciate the colleague from Tennessee’s approach. Feel like I have witnessed it before.

    1. Thanks for your note, Hugh. I’m sorry to hear about the incident you dealt with in Malaysia. Sounds tricky. It does seem to be the default for individuals to be self-critical in terms of their intentions and critical of others in regards to their actions, if only because “Theory of Mind” is so difficult. As psychology teaches us, it takes a lot of metacognition to be able to consider other perspectives…

  5. “Being an foreigner is an opportunity to get closer to our values by removing ourselves from the context in which they were formed.”

    I find myself being a new educator, after 30 years working in the software and technology industry. I traveled a lot that part of my life as a consultant for a software development company. Back then working with adults as part of my role to our customer was to educate their people on not only how to use our software but to also set business goals and to develop policies and procedures.

    The past three years I have discovered that there is a world of difference between teaching professional adults and teaching teenagers. My school is somewhere around 75% below the poverty level because tax payers have moved to the suburbs. I love teaching the kids and being a part of their lives. I hope to inspire some of them to just be better people. More tolerant. Less judging. Seeking more to understand. Valuing education. Being respectful. Having faith in something. A higher power? Accountability and honesty. I remember being young was hard lessons, insecurities, raging hormones and tribalistic.

    It helps to figure out what’s important to your core values. Stephen R. Covey would have been proud of us. Thanks for your writing.

    1. Thank you for reading, Dave, and welcome to the teaching profession! I agree with your sentiment that sometimes we need to remember to really teach kids
      “[just] to be better people”– In 5 or 10 or 15 years, I won’t mind if the students I’m teaching now don’t remember a lot of my class content, but I do hope they remember the values of my classroom: curiosity, making connections, asking questions, seeking deeper answers.

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