POSTED ON Mar 04th 2014 BY LESLIE LOFTIS UNDER Abortion, Bloggers and Blogging, Reverse Culture Shock, Sexism, Travel, US Media
America is big and surrounded by oceans. We don’t need a passport to go skiing, sailing, or sunning. We can do all that without leaving California. Insulated, we develop second-hand assumptions about the rest of the world. For many of us, the rest of the world is enlightened and, with the exception of customer service, Americans are backward. We are racist, sexist, materialist, militaristic, unhealthy, wasteful—our list of offenses is long and our national habit of introspection is unappreciated.
We go abroad while thinking of American practices as the upper plateau of societal vices, and get surprised. Note what the scenes from a train ride in the link show: a little bit of anti-American hypocrisy—we are supposedly the ones who see no fault in our country, right? I’ve seen others go though the shock. Posts like this one about a gay couple trying to get a hotel outside of Oslo aren’t difficult to find on expat blogs.* I’ve talked with many friends who found exchange family life discomforting because women are still expected to do everything domestic. It makes our typical complaints about 40/60 domestic chore splits seem like fiddling on a thumb violin.
My own surprise involved sexism and was a bit more memorable than scenes on a train. In college, I spent some time studying in the South of France. About a week into the program, prompted by our very appalled teacher, we called the police to complain of daily instances of men approaching us while masturbating. They’d corner us at the end of a pier or deserted area. They’d also lie in wait in cars and point in a way that, the first time, I thought the guy was asking for the time. The police laughed us off. Apparently, we were the prudish American girls making much ado about nothing. We resorted to laughing or snorting to dampen the exhibitionists’ enthusiasm. Happily, it mostly worked. None of us got attacked, just grossed out and inconvenienced. (If cornered, we’d have to wait until they were finished.)
Later, a few of us girls went out with some local kids, who complained about boorish and sexist American men. I recall thinking that America might have gender issues but that I’d never been cornered for a one man sex show at home, and if I had, then the police certainly wouldn’t have refused to act. Heck, other men on the street wouldn’t have refused to act. Being left to my own devices in Texas over something like this was inconceivable to me.
Serial expats can tell many such tales, like having to cope with distraught pregnant housekeepers or nannies in countries where you have to ship them back to their country of origin as soon as you learn of the pregnancy (see paragraph before Fees and Payments) because the generous welfare state of the host country only applies to citizens and Western immigrants. I know not to wear skirts or dresses and to yell if ever grouped on public transport thanks to friends who spent time in Hong Kong. Someone might still grab your buttocks but at least won’t be able to get any further.
I do not mention any of this to excuse America from self-inspection, as if others’ larger problems is an excuse for our problems. Hardly. We must be honest with ourselves about our shortcomings, although, we are far more introspective than the world gives us credit for.
What worries me is that the illusion of pretty and perfect Europe colors our analysis. Many of our elites think that Europe is better than us, and many Americans have assumed that the near constant refrain of Europe’s superiority is true. It isn’t. Yet we spend inordinate amounts of time beating ourselves up for being such Neanderthals. This often leads us to look for new solutions when the current solutions are in fine working order, or to copy supposed solutions that will make things worse.
But back to Sochi. Journalists should come home with some new perspective. Such as…
- Communism followed by a tight grip central government doesn’t make for a green environment.
- Centralized governance over vast spaces leads to graft, waste, and poor quality.
- Reliable central plumbing is a luxury not known in much of the world.
- Women, people of color, and homosexuals outside the US face levels of discrimination on a daily basis that Americans can hardly fathom.
Hopefully these journalists, the people who tell stories to masses, will return home and open their eyes.
One last little tidbit: my husband did three years in Moscow. (He fled the first coup. He drank tea and watched the second coup from his office balcony. Those are good stories.) He thought Sochi was an odd choice for the Olympic Winter Games. No, not because of its sub-tropical climate, or not only because of that bit of consummate absurdity. During the Soviet era, “three days in Sochi” was the euphuism for getting an abortion. That is what women did. They would spend three days at the abortion clinics in Sochi.
*Actually, those entries are not hard to find, but hard to re-find when you need them years later. I’m still looking for some expat blog entries, one about a Brit in Texas cooking cookies on her dashboard in August and another about comparing hospital heart care to a visit to the eye doctor with the shabby waiting room. But finding something on the web that wasn’t popular or isn’t recent is very difficult if you can’t remember the name of the blog. #expatbloggerproblems