Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the tag “Gender”


Until the lion learns to write, the narrative will favour the hunter.

My little sister is almost 13-years-old.  It feels as though she is blossoming into an adult before my eyes.  Almost overnight, she started asking teenager-type questions and doing young woman-type things.  I find myself telling her stories about my childhood that I haven’t thought of for over a decade.  I try to relate her emotionally and find that I’m surprisingly close to her level.  I would like to think that with the 14 year age gap, I am significantly more mature.  But I’m not.

I especially notice the same mannerisms in the way we talk about our accomplishments.  She admits to me the things she’s proud of – like finishing her math homework or learning her theatre lines – but the sentences come out unfamiliar.  When she exclaims, “Guess what, Bebe!” I can tell that she’s only telling a few people these triumphs, such as my parents and her grandma.

In North America, we’re taught to be humble.  We’re taught not to brag about our accomplishments.  But sometimes humility goes too far.  I often find myself arguing, “Oh I’m not that smart” or “I haven’t accomplished anything.”  I try to turn conversations so that they’re about anything other than me.

But maybe it’s ok to talk about myself.  I blog about myself, after all.

Blogging often feels like a self-centred activity.  “Who wants to read my words?” I think.  “I don’t have anything important to say.”

I justify it by reminding myself that no one has to read this.  Every person on this page can shut it down whenever they want.

But maybe I need to be more radical.  It’s time for a new argument: “Beth, you do have things to say.  Your ideas are worthwhile and people should listen.”

That’s the sort of pep talk I give my sister all the time because she – like all teenagers – should grow up to believe that her thoughts are valuable.

I know a lot of women who don’t inherently believe this.  They need constant validation from other people, primarily men.  Probably a lot of men feel this way too (except maybe they need validation from women), although my guy friends rarely discuss these sorts of thoughts with me.

On a related note, here’s a little story:

A few years ago I was flying on a trip that would eventually go from Vancouver to Cancun, but my cheap airline tickets had me crossing through the U.S. along the way.  On one of the flights I happened to be sitting beside an older American man.  He was a retired farmer who liked to race cars and was on his way home from a race.  He was the stereotypical southern gentleman: kept calling me a “peach” and told me about his wife who had loved since high school.

He asked me what book I was reading.  I gushed that Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is one of my favourite novels and told him the basic premise.  He showed me the book of poetry he had that was written by one of his neighbours.

He must have been intrigued by my synopsis of Eat, Pray, Love because he asked if I wanted to switch books.  We would also exchange addresses and mail the books back when we were finished.

Even though I liked the idea a lot, I hesitated.  “You might not like this story,” I said.  “It’s a really girly book.”

He insisted that he wanted to read it, however, so we exchanged.

Months later I got my copy of Eat, Pray, Love back in the mail with a lovely note that explained that he didn’t find it a “girly” book it all.  He felt that it explored emotions and actions that most people struggle with – just because it was about a woman didn’t make it any less valuable.

He was right.

In our culture, woman’s stories aren’t as valued as men’s, which are seen as normal.  Stories about women are characterized as “Chick lit” or romantic comedies.  They are classified by the fact that they’re about women.

Stories about men, however, get to be everything.  They can be dramas or comedies or action or sci fi.  It’s true that some of these stores can be about women (like Alien), but they’re few and far between.  Furthermore, men often think it’s embarrassing to watch or read one of these.

In contrast, most of the stories I read are about men, but that doesn’t seem weird to me.  That’s how the world is.

Sometimes I wonder that if I was a man, would I feel more justified about blogging?  Would I worry about coming across as self-centred by writing so much?

Regardless, I keep writing.  I enjoy it, which by itself is a good enough reason to continue.

I never want my sister to think, “I like writing a lot but I don’t have anything to say.”

So I give myself the same pep talks that I give her.


Princess Leia

Street harassment is probably my biggest issue with Ghana.  I just want to walk around without men yelling at me.  The constant onslaught is exhausting.

Luckily Hollaback Street Harassment recently made a great video to illustrate what a huge problem this is, even in North America.

Even luckier, a fantastic parody was made!  This video is excellent.

Sometimes, you just have to laugh.

Moreover, it makes sense that so many men here have no idea how to relate to me.  They probably get most of their information from TV.  Can you imagine if you judged women from beer ads?  No matter they think I’m going to have sex with them just because they say hello.

Compared to here, Canadians are way more sexually active.  Ghana is relatively conservative, especially in Tamale with its high proportion of Muslim population.  Most people probably have a friend of a friend who dated an expat and they had sex without any thoughts of marriage.  So weird!

So I try to be more understanding.  Look at how Canadians view Africa, after all.  We generalize “Africa” as if it’s one big country.  We listen to songs like the new Band Aid 30 version of “Do they know it’s Christmas,” which is full of lies, racism, and bad rhymes.  We see Africans as lazy, dependent, and vulnerable.

Which is wrong.

Sometimes I feel like an alien from a galaxy far, far away – but I’m not.  I’m not going to say something stupid like “we’re all human so we should be able to empathize” because I don’t think that we can.  More and more during conversations, I realize “I have absolutely no idea where this guy is coming from.”  I can’t dig down deep to his fears, desires, and motivations.  Our cultures are too different to understand each other.

But I think that’s ok.  I think it’s ok to accept our differences as long as I realize that it’s not a black/white thing or men/women thing.

Mustn’t Know

One of the Tamale newspapers has a poetry page full of impressively wonderful poems.  Most of the submissions are anonymous, like this one.

Mustn’t Know

Mustn’t ask questions
Mustn’t do it
Mustn’t know
When I was young
I was warned
A child mustn’t ask questions
When I turned a teenager,
A girl mustn’t do it
When I became an adult
A woman mustn’t know.
Mustn’t know?
When it is my life
You are dragging along
the streets
Behind your broad back,
And you say mustn’t know?
It is my life you know,
And I must know
What you do with it.

A Script of Petty Arguments

Scene 1

In the VOTO internet cafe, which is packed full of people.

Man: Hey white lady.

Me: [Silently types at computer]

Man: Hey china girl.

People working on the surrounding computers glance at us.

Me: Stop talking to me like that.  It’s rude.

Man: What?

Me: I would not say to you “Hey black man.”  No, because it’s rude.  So stop talking to me like that.

People on the surrounding computers start laughing.  Man looks sheepish and goes back to his work.

Scene 2

In the bathroom at nightclub. Two men lean against the walls while I wash my hands.

Man to his friend: That’s pretty, don’t you think?  Really nice.

Me: Don’t talk about me like I can’t hear you.

Man: What?

Me: Don’t talk about me like I can’t hear you when I’m right here.  It’s demeaning.

Man: You’re pretty.

Me: I don’t care.

Man: Let’s go inside and dance.

Me: No.

Scene 3

With a friend while buying fruit from a woman in the market.

Nearby man to my friend: Hey white lady, are you married.

My shy friend: [Pause] Yes.

Man to me: Are you?

Me: Yes.

Man: I want to marry a white woman.

Me: No one will marry you if you only want her for her skin colour.  That’s very shallow.

Man gets mad and huffs off.  Returns 30 seconds later while we’re still waiting for our change.

Man: [indignant] I don’t believe you’re married.  You’re only small girls.  You’re liars.

Me: Good thing you figured that out.  You don’t want to be friends with liars.

Man: You’re lying.  You just don’t want to be MY friend.  Why are you lying?

We walk away with our cut up papaya while he angrily yells after us.

Scene 4

Walking through the bus station.  A man comes up behind me and wraps his arm around my waist.

Man: Hey salaminga.  I want to talk to you.

I jump to the side and angrily turn to face him.

Me: Don’t touch me.

Man: Hey, I just want to talk.

I walk away.  He’s not worth my time or disgust.

Script Analysis

For every unpleasant interaction I have with stranger, there are at least 50 good ones.  Regardless, sometimes I want to scream, “Stop being such a stereotype! Have some fucking decency and respect.”

The thing that really bothers me is the constant harassment.  In Joburg, it was bad in Hillbrow (where I worked) but I didn’t have to put up with the comments in the rest of the city.  Back home, I know that by clubbing I’m putting myself in a situation where I’m more likely to be harassed and accept it.  It isn’t ok – women should be able to do anything and go everywhere – but I put up with it without complaint.

Here, though, it’s wearing me down.  I miss the days of anonymity.

Call to Prayer

According to the “Culture Smart: Ghana” guide, about two-thirds of Ghanaians are Christian and 15% are Muslim. The rest maintain traditional tribal beliefs, although these beliefs are also infused into local Christianity and Islam.

In Tamale, it appears to my untrained eye that about half the population are Muslim and half are Christian. Many women wear scarves over their heads and there are no pigs (because Muslims don’t eat pork). In contrast, goats are everywhere! Baby goats wander the paths and adults scamper through the streets in town. There are also lots of chickens and guinea fowl.

But I’m being distracted by cute animals. Back to religion. Meetings and business are often halted for the call to prayer. I didn’t realized how often Muslims pray every day! The first call to prayer is at dawn, which each group seems to take as a slightly different time. When I first arrived, I’d wake up at 4:30am each morning with the first chanting in the neighbourhood and wouldn’t be able to fall asleep until all the prayers were done – usually around 6am. Now, though, I wake up to men singing and what sounds like one man with a microphone, then fall back asleep again relatively quickly.

My host family are Christian and have asked, “Which faith are you? Christian or Muslim?”

“I don’t follow either. I’m not religious.”

This is unheard of! There was a stunned silence for a couple seconds before the mother asked, “Why not?”

“I wasn’t born into either of them. My family isn’t religious.”

Another short pause. “But you’ll come to church with us on Sundays?”


Put a ring on it

This time around, I’m doing things differently.  I’ve learned from past mistakes and know how to travel in Africa now.  I’m more worldly and knowledgeable!  Is this what it means to grow up?

This time, I’m wearing a wedding ring.

If anyone asks, I’m married to a prince.  The Prince of Canada.  And I’m a princess!

Yep, so much more mature.

Part of me despises this.  I should be able to tell men that I’m not interested and they should back off.  My refusal should be enough.  Why does another man have to have a claim on me for them to take “No” seriously?  It’s bullshit.

But I also don’t like the hassle.  I’m picking my battles and I don’t want to waste time on this one over the next few months.  I’m not here to focus on gender work and I don’t want to get side-tracked with useless conversations.

Plus I like the sound of Princess B.

Decisions and Repercussions

First of all, a huge thank you to everyone for their supportive messages after yesterday’s post.

Second, despite the tone of the last few days – hijackings and gender violence – I still think Joburg’s reputation is worse than it deserves.

This city has dangerous areas and safe areas.  Most South Africans that I’ve talked to have never been hijacked.  At the same time, however, many never go south of Parkhurst.  And the CBD?  Forget it.

My friends and I, on the other hand, do some dumb stuff.  We’re not used to be being scared, hence we’re not automatically frightened of certain environments.  It doesn’t help that I work in Hillbrow and thus think I’m pretty tough.  Furthermore, I’m a little bit judgmental regarding yuppies and rich kids: as stupid as it sounds, I’d rather hang out in the “rough” areas with people who can carry conversations about things other than silly drunk stories or spending their parent’s money.

Consequently, we get ourselves into situations that most people wouldn’t.

And we continue despite the repercussions: we’re too stubborn to let ourselves become paranoid.

Furthermore, I might just be a tiny bit of an instigator.  Where most girls would say, “I don’t feel safe in this situation,” I tend to exclaim, “Full steam ahead!”

Although, on occasions, I do make a smart decision once in a while.  For instance, last week I was going to go camping by myself at a nature reserve 2 hours north of Jozi.  My roommate, however, recommended not to.  Furthermore, my friend had gone hiking there last year and described the following story:

“When the guide was showing us the paths on the maps, he circled an area just past the grotto and told us not to go there.  We asked why and he nonchalantly replied because guys had been attacking people with machetes around there.”

As a result, I decided not to go on my own.  See?  A smart decision.

But perhaps these are too few and far between.  You might think that after last week I’d be thinking about playing it safe.  Instead, on Saturday I’m heading to a party in “deep Soweto” – as my coworker calls it.

After inviting me, she asked, “Are you sure you’re not scared?”

“Should I be?” I asked.

“No,” she answered.  “But most white people are scared of Soweto.  And you’ll stick out.”

“That’s ok,” I laughed.  “I’m used to sticking out in this country.”

“What about your friends?”

“They go to Soweto all the time and volunteer at one of the schools.”

“There’s a difference between “deep Soweto” and “just off the highway Soweto,” she laughed.

“Perfect,” I answered.

So you see, it’s actually quite easy to spend time in this city and remain relative safe.  You could live further north and spend all your time in upscale coffee shops, exclusive shopping malls, and expensive restaurants.  The city is designed in suburban hubs so you can drive past any “unsavory” areas without even seeing them.  You could easily only socialize with upper middle-class white people.  Not saying that black people are automatically more dangerous, but we all know the stereotypes.  If you want to feel safe, you have to stay within certain bounds.

And that’s fine.  Especially for women.  I’m not advocating that you put yourself in dangerous situations.  You’ll still go through self-discovery.  You might even have a better all-around experience.  I’ve been in a bit of a grumpy mood the past couple days.  One friend started a Skype conversation with me yesterday and I said something along the lines of, “Today is not the day to talk me.  I fucking hate people.”

But I’ll get over it.

Because, honestly, this city isn’t that bad.

Brain Retrain

Cowardly Lion: Courage! What makes a king out of a slave? Courage! What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage! What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage! What makes the sphinx the seventh wonder? Courage! What makes the dawn come up like thunder? Courage! What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the “ape” in apricot? What have they got that I ain’t got?

Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man: Courage!

Cowardly Lion: You can say that again!

A number of people have told me that they think it’s super important for young adults to travel and explore – that you learn new things about yourself by pushing your comfort zone in unfamiliar settings.

I agree 100%.

Sometimes, however, you learn things about yourself that you don’t want to know.  It’s always difficult to acknowledge your flaws, but even more so when you’re not surrounded by friends and family who would say things like, “You’re being too hard on yourself.  You’re awesome.”

Instead, you have to sit with your newfound knowledge and let it sink in.

And I can tell you that it sucks.  Majorly.

For example, I always wanted to believe that I’m brave. When I watch movies or read books, I’d like to think that I’d be put in the Gryffindor House or that I’d defeat the villain.  I’d like to believe that if I lived in Germany during WWII, I’d be one of those people who joined a resistance group and risked my life to smuggle Jews out of the country – or something like that.  But I’m not one of those people.  I’m one of the people who would’ve sat by passively while the Nazis murdered millions of innocent people.

I don’t like this.  I don’t like knowing that I’m a coward.

It started to dawn on me in Paris a year ago.  Some friends and I were dancing to hip hop music during a street festival.  The sidewalk was packed and we were three small girls who stuck out from the crowd as the only non-black people.

A fight broke out about 5m away.  I have no idea what happened, but people started surging past us and making space.  I saw a glimpse of one big guy on the ground, unconscious.

A brave person would’ve run over to see what was happening.  Maybe stepped in to stop it.  But I looked at my two friends, who were moving towards the disturbance to see what was happening, and told them that we were getting out of there.

Afterwards, I was able to justify it to myself.

“I was looking after my two friends, making sure I kept them out of harms away.”
“At least we got out and didn’t give the boys an audience.”
“Everyone there was twice my size.”
“It was a huge group.  If it had turned into a big fight, I wouldn’t have stood a chance.”
“It’s normal to be nervous when you’re the only white girl.  Race adds a whole new dynamic.”

Since then, I’ve tried not to think about that incident.  It makes my stomach turn with shame.

It came to the forefront of my mind again, though, when I went bungee jumping.  I don’t like heights and I especially don’t like the thought of jumping from them.  But I love rollercoasters and crazy rides, so bungee jumping shouldn’t be that bad – right?

Wrong.  It’s absolutely terrible.

In November, my friend and I went bungee jumping at Bloukrans Bridge outside Cape Town.  I watched her jump first and started freaking out.  The bungee guys could tell I was scared and were super professional about it.  They kept me talking and walked me to the edge of the bridge.

I thought I would be able to jump.  Just like I always imagined that I’d also stand and fight against Agent Smith in The Matrix.  Or at least sacrifice myself like Morpheus.

But the bungee guys could read me better than that.  They told me they’d count to five and yell BUNGEE, on which I’d jump.

They threw me off on “three.”

Bloukrans Bridge

Bloukrans Bridge

Yeah, it’s a funny story.  But I’ve also never been so frightened of my life.  I thought I was going to die and, no, my life didn’t flash before my eyes.  Instead my brain shut itself off.

I went bungee again last month off the Orlando Towers in Soweto.  I’d like to say that I reacted better this time, but I knew what to expect and fought even harder.  My friend let me jump first because she could tell I was super nervous (I pretty much started hyperventilating on the drive there).  The guys got me suited up and walked me towards the edge.

This time, I actually started resisting them.

“Keep walking forward,” one said,

“NO.  WHY AM I DOING THIS? I DON’T WANT TO DO THIS AGAIN!” I tried to step back and started thrashing side to side.  I’m sure I looked super dignified and daring.

Orlando Towers

Orlando Towers

Again, they threw me off the edge.

And, once again, I had to admit to myself that I’m not brave.  But, whatever, it was bungee jumping.  It’s not like it was something “important” – right?  I’m sure I’d still rush into a burning building and save a child if presented with the situation.

But I wouldn’t.  As I now know.

Last weekend, shit went down.  Worse shit than described in my post a couple days ago where I sat in the back seat of my friend’s car while he was hijacked.  Shit where I am now proper ashamed and disgusted with myself.

On Saturday night I went partying with a group of friends.  There were four of us: me and three guys – which was weird for me because I normally only hang out with girls.

We started out at one of the guy’s house in Fourways, which is a half hour drive north from where the other two and I live.  I’ve been in that area a couple times in my 9 months here, but I don’t know it all.

The night began innocently enough.  We went to a club and got too drunk.  Three of us had just been hijacked a few days before, after all, and we were dealing with it in a mature and constructive fashion: alcohol.  Moreover, the boys kept handing me jaggerbombs since I’d started the night on one, so not only was I sloshed but also super wired.  Plus I’d just watched a video my dad sent me on kyusho first aid and cured 2 guys of their hiccups using pressure points, so I was feeling pretty ballin’ about myself.

I’m not sure what happened since I spent a fair amount of time at the beginning of the night in the bathroom, washing blood off my foot from a cut (in this country, when glass breaks on the dance floor, no one cleans it up) or jumping around the side of the dance floor that didn’t have glass – but the three guys I was with started hanging out with another three people: two guys and a girl.

The girl and one of my friends began making out.  One guy, who was her brother, turned to me and asked, “How you doing?”

“Good,” I smiled.  “And you?”

“Horny,” he answered.

At that point I walked away and stopped talking to him.

The girl and I danced together and I gave her the rest of my drink.  I could tell I wasn’t that far from blackout drunk and – in my newfound mid-20’s maturity – decided to stop drinking.

The other guy, who was the brother’s friend, said we should bounce from Billy the Bum’s and go to Aruba instead.

“Where’s that?”

“It’s only 3 minutes away.”

Stupidly, I let myself get swept up with my friends – the leader of which I barely knew.  One guy said something about going home, but he couldn’t because we were all crashing at another guy’s house and couldn’t get in without the keys.

So we squished in a stranger’s car to drive to Aruba.

I hadn’t been paying attention to the group dynamics, but at that point I should’ve realized stuff was messed up.  My friend had disappeared for a while and I assumed he was making out with the girl, but now I’m not sure.  Instead, he might have been arguing with the brother.  The three of them took forever to get in the car because they were quarreling about something or other.  I sat in the backseat with the other two guys, the three of us shivering (its autumn here now and cold at night) and laughing at the drama.

Eventually the 7 of us squeezed into the car.  The girl was on my friend’s lap and they made out for the 15 minute drive (not 3 minutes) while the rest of us laughed and wiggled to the music, so the atmosphere seemed light-hearted enough.

At Aruba we tumbled out of the car.  Freezing cold, I ran into the club and waited at the doorway while the rest of group made their way over.  It took forever.  Maybe they were arguing again.  I’m not sure.

Inside, someone bought me a bottle of water and the girl and I started breaking it down on the dance floor.  Eventually she disappeared and the boys joined.  Not everyone, though.  Again, my friend, the girl, and her brother weren’t around.

By 6am we were pretty tired and decided to call it a night.  We climbed back in the car and the guy said he would drop us at home.  On the way, though, the brother started getting more and more aggressive.  He told his sister that she was selling herself cheap and had an easy pussy.  She argued with him that she’s allowed to make her own decisions, that having a fun night doesn’t make her a whore.

Even though it sounds terrible, the atmosphere still wasn’t that tense.  Maybe I read it wrong because I was drunk and frivolously flirting with a super cute Canadian – he and I kept giggling because the brother couldn’t remember my other friend’s name – but it seemed like drunken babble.  I laughed, “Hey man, I’ll vouch for my friend here.  He’s a good guy.  Seriously, he has a good heart.”

“I don’t blame him,” the brother said and continued to berate his sister.  The mood started to change and everyone had a look on their face that said, “I just want to get the fuck out of this car.”

I leaned forward to chat to the brother in the passenger seat and told him, “Hey man, I understand where you’re coming from.  I have a younger sister that I love more than anything and who I’m super protective over.  I’d kill anyone who hurt her.  When she’s older, though, I hope she has enough independence and confidence to make her own decisions and know how to have a fun night.”

He ignored me and said more derogatory things.

Finally we arrived at the brother and sister’s place.  The brother tried to convince her to get out of the car, but she said she was going to stay.  He got out and yelled at her from outside.  I jumped out of the backseat and took his place in the passenger seat.  He leaned back and I shut the door and locked it, hoping that he would finally walk off.  Instead, he opened the back door and continued yelling.  She couldn’t find her keys and asked me to look under my seat in the front.

The driver, a big guy, got out of the front.  I also got out.  My friends told me to get back in the car but I ignored them.

The brother suddenly kicked into the backseat at my friend’s head.  Honestly, I didn’t think it made it contact because it was such a ridiculous move, but afterwards I learned that it did.  He then he pulled his sister out of the car by her hair, dragged her a metre along the ground, and hit her in the face.

And I stood there and watched it.

I didn’t even yell.  I might’ve said “Hey stop” but mostly I was frozen.

The driver ran over and the brother walked away.  I helped the girl up and asked her if she was ok.  She was crying and apologizing and I hugged her while saying, “This is not your fault.”

The driver asked her to please stay and that he would come sort out his friend in the morning.

“Where do you want to go?” I asked.

She wanted to go to her sister’s, which was only a couple blocks away.

“Then we will take you to your sister’s,” I said.

She asked if she could stay with us.

“Of course,” I answered.

Her brother stormed back.  “Bitch gave me the wrong keys!” he yelled.

He started towards her, but I stepped between them while she ran to the other side of the car.  He tried to follow her but I bounced between them with my hands up defensively.  “She’s looking for her keys right now.  Calm down,” I said.

“Look what she did to me.  She hurt me,” he leaned forward and showed me a cut above his eye that was bleeding.

I fought back the urge to say, “Good.  I’m fucking proud of her,” and instead responded, “It’s ok.  She’s looking for her keys right now.  Everything is going to be ok.”

Eventually the brother decided to stay at their other sister’s house and walked off.  We climbed back in the car, the girl still crying and my friends still in the backseat.

On the drive to our place, the driver switched from defending the girl to telling her that it was her fault, that she was inconsiderate for dragging strangers into her drama, that her relationship with her brother was fucked up, and that she was asking for trouble.

I turned up the music and my friends tried to joke around that we should go to McDonald’s and get happy meals, but the driver turned it back down and told her that he didn’t want to talk to her about her issues.  Then proceeded to blame her for everything.

At one point I opened my mouth to say something, but then shut it.  He looked at me and said, “What?  What do you want to say?”

“It’s just that you keep telling her you don’t want to talk about it then bringing it up,” I said.

One of my friends put his hand on my shoulder from the backseat.  “Bethany…” he warned.

So I stopped talking.  My knuckles were white from the tension in my fists, but I chose not to say anything.  I sat there and let him blame her for her brother’s bullshit.

We finally arrived “home” and the boys jumped out of the car and walked away.  I asked the girl if she was going to be ok.  I gave her my number and told her to phone me if anything happened, that I would send a taxi or come get her or something.

Although, to be honest, I didn’t want to.  I didn’t want to be involved anymore.  I just wanted to walk away and forget about these strangers.  I’d already walked away from the brother early in the evening, making it clear that I didn’t want to talk to him.  Why was I hugging this girl and offering to take care of her when I wasn’t the one who made out with her?  How was this my job?  All I did was dance a bit.  I didn’t even know who she was.

How selfish is that reaction?

Safe and sound inside, one guy said to me, “You’re a brave little thing, hey?”

“I watched a girl get pulled out of a car by her hair and get punched in the face.  I’m not brave,” I answered.

The three boys argued about what had happened.  One was angry with himself that he let a girl get beat up in front of him.

Another said that it was cultural thing and that we shouldn’t get involved.  Which I think means “a black thing.”

“That’s bullshit,” the first man responded.

The second guy told him not to be so hard on himself.  He rationalized that the driver, the brother’s friend, was a huge guy who could’ve easily turned against us, the four white strangers.  He said he was glad that I didn’t get hurt, because if anyone had touched me they would’ve jumped out of the car and destroyed the guy.

Yes, the night could’ve gone a lot worse – especially since in South Africa you never know if someone has a weapon – but, honestly, I’d rather be sitting here now with a black eye and broken nose than this self-revulsion and shame.

What the hell is the point of all this martial arts training if my biggest accomplishment of the night was curing a couple cases of hiccups?

On the other hand, there’s no point in wallowing in self-pity.  That doesn’t solve anything.  I’ve been telling myself that I may not like my delayed, cowardly reactions,  but that I am going to change this.

I’ve always known that I’m a reactive fighter, not an aggressive one.  Even the way I play sports is reactive – I tend to hang back and analyze the field before making my cut.  But I’m going to work on this.  I have the physical training and now I have to work on the mental training.  My brain doesn’t know what to do what someone is attacking someone else.  It goes against all my reflexes to jump in there and wrestle with a big guy – just like it goes against my instincts to jump off a bridge or a tower.

Once upon a time, however, I was also really uncomfortable with controversy and arguments.  My parents never had vocal disagreements or yelled at me, so I used to find it extremely unnerving when someone raised their voice at me.

Now, though, I don’t care.  Last week a 19-year-old laughed that she felt she had a lot to learn from me after watching the way I dealt with men in Mozambique: lots of standing with my feet hip-width apart, my hand up in the universal sign for stop, and saying, “No.”  Often this is followed with accusations of being a total bitch, but that doesn’t faze me anymore.

“Whatever, man.  No one here wants to talk to you.  Fuck off.”

But it took me years to get to this point.

Maybe in a couple years I’ll be the sort of person I want to be, the sort of person who would’ve jumped between that guy and his car as soon as he lifted his foot to kick my friend’s head.  He was off-balanced; I easily could have pushed him away or pushed him to the ground.

I don’t want excuses.  I don’t want anyone applauding the little action I finally took, or saying that it was the men’s jobs to get out of the car.  It wasn’t.

I’m only here another month.  Thank goodness.  I’m starting to get sick of all this new found self-awareness and self-reflection.

Refuge of the Incompetent

For someone who gets annoyed when other people bring up the concept of race, it feels like I write about it a lot.

Honestly, I don’t want to think about race or ethnicity.  It’s just so dumb.  Can’t people get over surface differences?  Talking about race makes me feel like a teenager again, trying to judge someone’s character based on his or her outfit.

Yet I need to talk and write about racism, because it’s impossible to get away from.  Especially in this country.  I was already frustrated back in Canada, where my white friends insist on calling me “Asian” even though I consider myself white because of how I grew up.  Furthermore, I’m equal parts white and yellow – so why does the yellow automatically become a conversation topic?  I was already sick of hearing “Because you’re Asian” as a punch line to statements that have nothing to do with race.  I’d already determined that if a man asks me about my racial background right away, he’s off the “long term potential” list.  Don’t get me wrong – he can ask about it after we know more about each other, like our favourite movies or hobbies or if he wants to tell me about his ancestors that migrated from wherever – that’s fine.  But anyone who feels the need the question me upon introduction where I’m really from, because Canada isn’t a good enough answer, is probably never going to get a dinner date.

In summary, I moved to South African already a bit sensitive regarding race issues.

As you can probably guess, living in this country hasn’t helped matters.

On the one hand, I like that people here acknowledge racism.  They understand that racism still exists in their society and most people want to overcome it.

But I still don’t like the way that race seems to underline everything.  Sometimes I wish I could go a day without discussing ethnicity.

A couple months ago, I stopped into the Hillbrow MacDonalds at 7am to Skype with my friend before work.  At that early in the morning, it was empty except for me and a small group of men.  I sat down with my iPod near the window so I could watch my car (not that I’d be able to do anything if it was stolen, but I liked knowing it was still there).  The men ushered me to sit with them, but I put one my headphones and ignored them.

As I Skyped with my friend, however, I could hear their conversation behind me.

Man 1: “Why are you bothering with her, man? She’s white!”
Man 2: “No way.  She’s Japanese.”
Man 1: “White enough.”
Man 2: “There are only 2 colours: black and white.  Asian counts as black.”

To be honest, I had a hard time keeping a straight face and not laughing as well.  Even though I was still frustrated.

But not all my stories are funny.  In Cape Town last year, my friend and I stopped to get food at 2am on our way home from a club.  Two guys at the neighbouring table tried to talk to us, but we ignored them.  In response, they started sending racial slurs my way.  My friend, who often teases me about being Asian, picked up our garbage and dumped it on them.  Then we flounced out.

Outside, she said to me, “I’m the only one who can make fun of you for being Chinese.  No one else can talk to you like that.”

Last week, however, events unfolded that once again made me question my own reactions to other people’s stupidity.

One of my Canadian friends is leaving next week and she had her going away party on Friday.  A bunch of girls and one gay guy went to her place to drink and snack and chat.

(Side note: I brought Nanaimo bars and the South Africans loved them.  Not for the first time, people told me I should move here and open a bakery.  If anyone out there is planning on doing that, definitely include Nanaimo bars in your store!)

My friend loves partying in Greenside so we eventually made our way there.  I personally don’t like Greenside.  I think it’s pretentious and yuppie.  My friend knows this and once accused me, “What about clubs in Sandton?”

I answered, “At least in Sandton, everyone knows they’re a tool.  When I go there, I recognize that I’m just there to party.  But in Greenside, people think they’re authentic and cool for hanging out there when they’re just a bunch of rich kids blowing their parent’s money.”

“But the men are hot!”

I’ve yet to see any real evidence of that statement, but perhaps I’m not looking hard enough.

Anyways, we went to Greenside and friends started to drift home until there were just my friend, her other friend, and me left of our original group.  The dancing got crazier as people got drunker.  Guys tried to dance with us and we danced away, not interested.  One boy kept coming back, but we continued turning away from him.  He got more and more aggressive and started stepping on my friend’s toes.  I said “No” (my most-used word when I go clubbing) and put my arm between the two of them to shield my friend.

Meanwhile, his friend chatted to our other friend a couple feet away.

Angry, he threw his drink on the ground.  The glass shattered.  My friend and I both stared at him incredulously.  She ran off to the bouncer while I shook glass out of my shoe.  The bouncer kicked the guy out.

My friend and I looked at each other, asking if we were ok.  We both got the last of the glass out of our shoes.  I glanced down and realized some glass had cut my leg: blood was trickling down my calf.

We decided to call it a night.  It’s hard to convince yourself to dance when you’re bleeding and there’s still glass all over the dance floor.

Outside, the boy was arguing with the bouncers.  My friend pointed to my leg and yelled at him, “You did that!”

The kid flipped out.  He started screaming at her “Dumb bitch” and other profanities.

Again, I stepped between them.  “Hey,” I said.  “Stop.”


He yelled more racial insults as I stared at him in drunken wonder.

“Did you really just pull the race card?” I asked.


“Christ, at least try to be a little more clever with your insults,” I muttered.  “Racism is so unoriginal.”

I turned away from the boy, who was still yelling at me, and looked for his friend.

“You have to take your buddy home,” I told him.

“I’m not responsible for his actions,” the guy said.

“I know.  But he’s too drunk and you have to take him home.”

Meanwhile, my friend had gotten frustrated with the bouncer’s lack of action and gone to find the biggest guy she could.  When I looked for the drunk kid again, he was gone.

At some point, I realized that tears were running down my face.  I don’t even know when I started crying.

I sat in a chair by the entrance to the club while my friend complained the bouncers and told more guys our story.  A couple men came over and offered consolation.  They wanted us to go back inside the club, but we wanted to go home.  They offered to buy drinks – coke, water, not necessarily alcoholic – but we shook our heads.

One man said to me, “Don’t let him get to you.  You’re a beautiful woman.”

Which annoyed me.  Yes, I shouldn’t let some dumb kid make me upset – but what does my attractiveness have to do with the situation?  Once again, it all simplifies to physical appearance.  Men are always complimenting me on my beauty and I want to laugh in their faces.  Who cares?  If I was to list my top 10 best attributes, I wouldn’t even consider my physical attractiveness one of them.  People who focus too much on appearance are going to miss out the best parts of who I am.

Anyways, we finally determined that the kid was gone so we left the club.  We walked down the alley to the main road where we could get a taxi.  A couple big men accompanied us.

A tall black man walked beside us and asked what happened.  A tall white man answered.  Even though the two were standing beside me, it felt the whole conversation happened over my head.

After hearing the story, the black man asked, “Was it one of my kind?  Where is he?”

“No,” said the white man.  “It wasn’t a darkie.  Don’t worry, we sent some guys after him.  The kid is running.”

Back at my friend’s place, the tears continued to run down my face.  We sat around and smoked and ate chips until we were all calm again.  Then we decided it was time to sleep.

I went to my friend’s roommate’s room because he wasn’t home.  My friend crawled into bed beside me and I apologized again for getting upset, since it was her going away party.  She whispered, “Don’t be sorry, Bethany.  It’s been a long time since I’ve had a friend like you.”

Then we both snuggled into bed and fell asleep.  I got to be big spoon.  Honestly, I haven’t felt safe sharing a bed with someone like that for years.  Maybe because men never just want to cuddle – no matter what they say beforehand! – (and my sister kicks a lot in her sleep) but there’s something incredibly comforting about friendship that I’ve never been able to achieve with a romantic relationship.  I think it comes down to trust.  Anyways, I needed a friend that night and, as I drifted into sleep, I was grateful for her warmth beside me.

The next morning, we talked about the event and tried to figure out what we could have done better.  I told her I was glad she went to the bouncer right away since I probably wouldn’t have done that – I have issues about asking for help, especially from authority.

She told me that when I stepped between her and the kid outside the club, she was excited because she thought she was finally going to see my jujitsu.  “I thought you were going to fuck him up!”

“I’m a pacifist,” I laughed.

“But he deserved it!”

“No.  He was just a child.  He got too drunk and used whatever tools he had to vent his frustration.  I’ve gotten too drunk in the past and I hope people don’t hold it against me.  I also hope that he remembers his behaviour this morning and is ashamed.  But no… I don’t think he deserved to get physically hurt.”

What else can I say?  I agree with Issac Asimov’s character Salvor Hardin in his Foundation novel: “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

At the same time, though, racism is pretty close to the top of that list as well.

I’m still going over the event in my head, trying to figure out what we could have done better.  Neither of us should have engaged with the kid outside the club.  The bouncers have little jurisdiction over the sidewalk so they couldn’t have made him leave any further, but we could’ve asked them to accompany us to the main road and the taxis.  Not that I was afraid for our physical safety, but I just don’t want to deal with someone else’s drunken bullshit.

The night has made a lot of issues much more personal to me.  Racism, obviously.  But also concepts of machismo and gender roles.  Embarrassingly, I’ve had a couple tearful nights at the clubs in Canada as well.  Strangers have never offered to help before.  Even if they did, though, I don’t think Canadian men would chase down some drunken kid with intentions to beat him up. 

My dad complains that Canada is a nation of “pussy men,” but violence stems from disempowerment and frustration and anger – “the last refuge of the incompetent.”  I’d rather have a nation of passive men if it means we don’t have as much overt racism.

In conclusion, seriously, SERIOUSLY – racism is so ugly.  And unoriginal.  Whether it’s supposed to be a compliment (how many times have I heard “Mixed girls are so hot”?) or an insult, it’s stupid to use ethnicity as a justification for any argument.


[Updated below]

In light of recent events, I’ve been thinking a lot about my personal safety and the dumb choices I often make.

Back when I was in high school, my dad dropped me off at a party with these words: “Beth, I’ve done the best I can with you and taught you everything I know.  If you get yourself if in bad situation, it’s probably your own fault.”

At the time, I was a little taken aback by his statement.  Ten years later, though, I finally appreciate how awesome my dad is!

Lots of women are taught to be dependent – financially, physically, emotionally.  My parents, however, taught me that my life is 100% my own, yet also gave me the education and support necessary to cultivate my sense of self.

That being said, they’d probably be appalled at the stupid things I do.

Which they’re now going to find out about via my blog.

They’re probably already cringing.

First, if I’m going to take my own advice from yesterday’s post, I need to stop driving around Joburg during the wee hours of the morning with my windows down and music blaring.  On the one hand, I’ve probably woken up half the people in my neighbourhood.  On the other side, it’s stupid behaviour.  I love driving in the city at night when the roads are empty and blasting through red lights (perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, behaviour here) – but I need to start keeping my windows up.

Second lesson: Durban is not like the community in which I grew up.  It’s the third largest city in South Africa.  Consequently, I need to stop taking rides from strangers.

The first time I visited Durban in September, it was raining and a police officer stopped outside Wilson’s Wharf to offer my friend and me a ride to our hostel.  My friend hesitated but I jumped right in.

Last weekend I visited the Durban a second time.  Once again, someone offered my friend (a different one this time) and me a ride while we walked away from Wilson’s Wharf.

The funny thing is that when I saw the guy drive by us and smile, I almost flipped him off.  My friend and I had put up with two days of men honking and catcalling, mostly due to her long blonde hair and short skirt – but I didn’t have the energy to react belligerently so I smiled back instead.

The man must’ve pulled a U-turn behind us because he drove by again and asked if we wanted a ride.  Our taxi was late, but I knew we were only a 10-15 minute drive to the train station.  I accepted, even though I could tell my friend was not happy.

I got in the front seat and she got in the back.  I didn’t know how to communicate with her not to put on her seatbelt and to keep her bag ready in case I decided we needed to jump out of the car, but “luckily” she was so uneasy that she didn’t need my safety advice.

The man drove us right to the train station and I got his number and told him I’d call if we were ever back in Durban so he could take us out for Bunny Chow.  Obviously a complete lie, but in a situation like that I feel like it’s less likely to turn out bad if you make plans for the future.  Manipulative, selfish, and conniving?  Absolutely.  Not that I’m proud of my behaviour, but that’s what I did.

After we got on our train, my friend could no longer contain her amazement that I was so nonchalant about getting in a car with a stranger.  Then I told her some more of my stories to show that even though I’m nice and polite, I’m not a pushover.

I told her about visiting Zambia shortly before Christmas.  I was only there for a few days, but one evening I drove around Livingstone with a local guy I met, visiting the various bars and letting him buy me a couple drinks.  As he dropped me back at my hostel, he leaned over to kiss me but I ducked out of his arms and spun out the car.  From outside, I blew him a kiss and he said, incredulous, “Are you seriously doing this?”

“Yes!” I cackled with laughter as I ran into my hostel.

I also told her about an argument I’d gotten in the night before with a guy from the band at the bar we were at.  He told me, “You’re the hottest Asian chick here.”

I glared at him and said, “First, I’m the only person with Asian heritage in this whole town, so that’s a really lame compliment.  Second, I already told you that I’m Canadian so you can fuck off.”

He tried to backtrack.  “You could be white, black, Asian, whatever – you’re still really fucking hot.  I haven’t been able to keep my eyes off you all night.  I don’t care if you’re from America or Korea or –.”

“This conversation isn’t worth my time.  This is the last time I’m going to tell you to fuck off,” I said as I walked away.

Lastly, I reiterated that I work in Hillbrow.  I walk around the projects every day and often men try to touch my face or grab my arm.  I’ve really improved upon my death glare since working here, as well as my small-circle jujitsu to sweep a hand away or break a grip.

As I explained to my friend on the train, I don’t normally tell these stories because I don’t want people to think I’m more bad-ass than I am.  (Her response: “Omg Bethany you are bad-ass!”)  I don’t want people to expect audacious behaviour from me in the future.  In every “dangerous” or provocative situation, I’ve only reacted the way I did because I felt 100% comfortable.  I know how to read body language and I take my own intuition very seriously.

But sometimes that’s not enough.  Sometimes you have to stop playing the odds.

One of my South African friends always gives me safety lectures – as a result of my everyday attitude, not because I’ve told him any stories.  He says that foreigners come here and don’t understand the risks.  They do stupid things and don’t realize how lucky they are not to get hurt.

“Maybe you overestimate the probability of risk,” I once said, but then he drowned me out with anecdotes.

My Canadian friend thinks it’s really sweet when South African men show their concern for her by giving her safety advice.  I, on the hand, find it extremely irritating.

But now here I am, trying to take all this information a little more seriously.

Although, I admit, my change of thinking is not a result from the stuff that’s happened over the last couple weeks.  It’s come about because a friend is visiting me from Canada for a month and he arrives tomorrow.  I know his parents are nervous that he’s traveling to Johannesburg; I would never be able to forgive myself if something happened to him because I was too cavalier about our security in this city.

Furthermore, he’s the type of person who would worry too much if I put myself in danger.  If I did something stupid, his concern for my safety would ruin my flippant attitude and I’d probably end up creating tension in a previously lighthearted situation.

So don’t worry Mum and Dad: I’m going to take care of him better than I take care of myself!  This next month is probably going to be my safest in this country!


A bunch of people have emailed me their concern after reading this post.  Maybe I shouldn’t have admitted to my dumb behaviour.  However, I would like to explain a bit regarding the ride in Durban.  When the man stopped, I did a quick cost-benefit analysis of the likelihood of our taxi arriving, of being able to get another taxi, of missing our train, the mannerisms of the man offering the ride, and the ability of two strong, fit women being able to take out a skinny Indian who looked like he weighed even less than me.  In the end, I decided the risk of missing our train was greater than the risk from our would-be chauffeur.

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