Friday, September 25, 2009

Mere Woman

This week I have been in a country that uses the language I have been studying for the past few years – for 3 years in undergraduate language courses and this year with a tutor. I am mostly pleased with the progress I’ve made learning the language, though I wish I had more skills, particularly with speaking.

I have found that knowing the language has opened doors (in part owing to surprise that I know some of the language), turned unfriendly people friendly, and of course helped with logistics of travel.

One thing that no amount of language knowledge will overcome is the discomfort that some of the men here have with interacting with me. At times, daily life here is easier if I am quiet and don’t try to spend money directly. I suppose it is a sign of my cultural incomprehension that I cannot really understand why some men here cannot converse with me directly or let me pay for something instead of first handing the money to another man.

The other day during a business transaction with a male employee of a major international corporation in a major city, at each step of the transaction this man handed the relevant item (my passport, my receipt) to my male colleague (also a foreigner in this country), who then handed the items to me. I know enough about the culture to know that his avoidance of direct contact with me was not a sign of respect, but in fact the opposite. This is a situation in which my language skills (such as they are) cannot make up for the fact that I am a mere woman.

Nevertheless, I like being here and working with international colleagues. The research is fascinating and I am willing to endure some unpleasant things to have these experiences.

31 comments:

steph said...

that would drive me crazy!

Anonymous said...

Here we go again. FSP I do wish you wouldn't beat on foreigners. Being one myself it is hard to support your legitimate claims of women being unfairly treated in science when I know how skewed your persecption is of foreigners. You need to know that women in your country of disdain are often better treated than women here. Really if you grew up there you would know. US is particularly shabby in its treatment of women, womens rights non-withstanding.

You are particular open minded about criticism -- not an easy thing -- speaks to your good character. But I can't help thinking foreign graduate students had better just completely avoid you as you misunderstand so much. It makes me sad.

L said...

For the longest time I thought you were studying Italian, but the scenario you paint is a lot more Middle Eastern, or East Asian, than it is anything I'd imagine happening in Europe. I know you can't say, but I wonder whether you were in Japan.

Anonymous said...

"I know enough about the culture to know that his avoidance of direct contact with me was not a sign of respect, but in fact the opposite."

How dare the people in that foreign country disrespect women? Didn't they get the memo that said that only Americans can make assumptions about cultures and stereotype people accordingly?

Anonymous said...

PS: Just so we know, would you classify this as a "macro-inequity" or a "micro-inequity" ?

Anonymous said...

FSP: A semi-incomprehensible post without the knowledge of which culture you are talking about. But, there are a number of cultures (more than one) where the handing stuff to a male colleague to hand to you would be a result against a pretty serious ban against touching a woman who is not a relative.

Mind you, that attitude still bothers me, but it's a situation (not yours, but the one I'm describing) where cultures might really clash in unresolvable ways.

I feel the same way about burka, especially that which covers the face. I would very much like to make laws opposing it -- I do not think people's faces should be covered in public, for safety reasons for one reason. But, I also know that making laws against burka would mean that the women in question might never be able to leave their homes. Which imperative do I weight more heavily? A difficult question.

aceon said...

I had some similar experiences working in West Africa. I never did get used to the social rules for the interactions of men and women. I would be infuriated when the answers to direct questions from me were addressed to random men who happened to be standing nearby. Interestingly, this came mostly from the more professional men. People scraping by in the market or even the village maybe don't have the luxury of being unfriendly to a relatively rich foreigner. Other customs though, I did get used to, like never handing anyone anything with your left hand. This makes it difficult for me to make a transaction at a drive through to this day.

mixlamalice said...

Probably some Middle-Age minded western Europe country.
The worst thing is that neither most men nor women there think there is an existing problem in their mutual relationship...

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 7:47 AM, is so incredibly off the mark that it makes me sad.

Some how FSP is a foreign basher because she finds it insulting that someone is insulting her by not handing her documents?

I think you're the one misunderstanding, anon 7:47.

Rainbow Scientist said...

It is hard to make any meaning of this post without knowing which culture you are talking about. Every culture has its own code of conduct which is consider normal inside the culture and maybe completely abnormal anywhere else. It took me years of living in European culture to understand what is considered normal here and why? Just visiting a country for a few days (even with knowing the language) may not give you complete picture.

Anonymous said...

I don't think this is beating on foreigners. I have traveled a lot through northern Europe, a bit through Russia and southern Europe, I've been to Japan and Mexico. Recently I went to Egypt and had the most severe culture shock of my life. Besides the traffic and the trash in Cairo (which may be a result of recent actions by the Egyptian government rather than normal, I'm not sure) the thing that I found most interesting is that many people would mostly only talk to my husband. Some people treated me with dignity, some did not, and that did not correspond directly to religiosity or even whether they'd shake my hand. Aceon's observations mesh with mine.

Curiously, the only place I felt "seen" and respected was in Siwa, the oasis near Libya where women stay in the home in general. It's a very conservative place, but I had some real conversations with men there and it was the one of the only places in Egypt where someone asked what I did. (Someone realized I was an individual, rather than just an attachment! Wow!)

Cultures are very different, and "foreign" cultures are very different. Don't tell foreigners to avoid FSP. I myself do just fine with people whose cultural values I share to a certain extent, and don't do fine with people whose cultural values are extremely different than mine -- and that varies a lot from country to country and person to person. When it comes to being respected as a professional (woman), I've had a wide variety of experiences, and it usually comes down to whether the individual in question has a problem with *me*.

Globalistgirl said...

Anonymous at 9/25/2009 07:47:00 AM:

I am also not an American, and I find FSP very generous in her willingness to indulge what I consider to be borderline human rights violations. What she describes here is UNTHINKABLE in my home country. UNTHINKABLE. It is unthinkable in pretty much every country I've ever lived in, and I've lived on three continents before I was 18. Evidently not in whatever region and/or country you're from though.

You do not speak for all foreigners. Perhaps there is a subset of foreigners that generally feel the way you do, but you're going to have to specify what that subset is. Let me tell you, it's not any subset I'm part of.

I agree that feminism in the US has a long way to go. Women are expected to conform to traditional gender roles incredibly strictly, powerful factions are trying to restrict legal abortion (WTF?), there has never been a female head of state, and American men are not very good at being just friends with me. My sexuality is not mine to control the way I'm used to. Somehow I don't think that was what you meant, though.

Food for thought for you - countries exist where the US is considered backwards on women's rights. Hell, where the Germans are considered old-fashioned when it comes to gender. Just think of how we see YOU.

FrauTech said...

A lot of hate in the comments for your blog FSP, I don't know how you tolerate it. I can't imagine a situation where a man not handing you the money could be misconstrued as anything else. I think someone already mentioned the possible exception that men are forbidden from touching non-relatives in certain countries, but those rules are generally in place to shelter the women not the men, the men can have no societal problem touching foreign women. They will receive no backlash (and since when is handing someone something touching them anyways). Just wanted to give you a thumbs up on the things you do, I couldn't stomach half the hate and vitrol you get on here for such obvious statements, people seem really out to get you.

John V said...

The comments here illustrate the problem evident in FSP's post. Anons @7:47, 10:09, and 11:11 all view the problem as in FSP's perception rather than a real one.

I imagine FSP's point is that no matter that "women are treated better" there, "Americans make assumptions", or there are [well-motivated] deep cultural reasons - FSP cannot deal there with men as an equal.

How can one work side by side in science when the men can't talk directly to you nor hand you stuff? Maybe women are treated like princesses, maybe they have equal rights under law (although I doubt it), but I'm guessing they are unlikely to be scientific leaders.

Schlupp said...

To those who consider it "unthinkable" that FSP would find such bahavior in Western Europe: At least one Western European country (hint: rather big one) officially states on income tax forms that the "tax payer" in a married couple is the man, and the woman is the "spouse", regardless of who earns how much.

This seems pretty similar to preferring to be paid via a man insetad of directly by a woman. I am with mixlamalice here: It can very well be Western Europe, where we just do not notice such thing very much, especially not as a problem.

Anonymous said...

You know, I always thought that the United States misinterpreted the intentions of the terrorists on 9/11.

Think about it. The hijackers were all men...right ..? Arab men to boot.

And now think of all the smart career women who worked at the WTC. I think the hijackers wanted to send a message to all career women that they should just stay home and make babies. or else....

hkukbilingualidiot said...

Well, with personal experience I would assume that you were in Japan whereby men pay for everything and it is not unheard of that women carry empty purses and not have to pay a single penny for a whole day. Those are of course the prettier girls. However, the counter effect was women don't get treated equally as subconsciously the men are led to think that they have the power of control over them. As a result, on the professional side it is often the men who get the treatment of those as an independent worker and so they get the respect they deserve. There is also the annoying outcome of the research that some women did. The ones that I've seen were very poorly executed and were highly unstructured to say the least. Needless to say they were MUCH less significant to those of their male counterparts. I don't know whether it was the subconscious boot-licking practise of women there to please the men or they just want an easy way out...as even bad research from women gets awarded...which just make them better looking wives. Sad but true.

However, culture shock aside, I think it is rather important to be prepared to be treated like the locals do, especially women. I've had the humiliation of neglect as it was the normal practise there since women are just not good enough professionally. Rather, they were more like decorations to loosen up the testosterone-filled workplaces. However, when needs be there was no better way to prove your worth to be treated equally in any culture than by your professional practise and more importantly, results.

There's an old saying, of which I cannot remember word for word but went along the lines of:

'Don't enforce change on a culture different to your own but adapt accordingly. If not, then leave.'

Conflicts often arise from foreigners imposing their practises and believes onto locals rather than trying to accept the local consensus. It is only a plus if you got treated the way you want and something not to be expected. Change to any cultural attitude is something that the locals have to do themselves. Foreigners could only be glimpses of what-if.

Globalistgirl said...

"Don't enforce change on a culture different to your own but adapt accordingly. If not, then leave."

Very true. I'm obviously never moving to a place where gender inequities are so bad that I can't accept them, like evidently wherever FSP is and wherever Anonymous at 9/25/2009 07:47:00 AM is from. In fact, I maintain a blacklist.

It particularly pisses me off when people expatriate, expect things to be like "home", and then rant and rave about how "unfair" it is of the people of their host country to not accommodate them like Anonymous above. I just endured 5 years of sexual harassment from an expat who took his ass-backward sexist views of women in the workplace with him and my advisor let him. That old principle is true for EVERYBODY - not just white rich people.

You come to a country where women have more freedom, you prepare to live with it or leave. Throwing acid in your daughter's face because she's dating a local or refusing to talk to a co-worker who told you she wasn't interested in going out with you are not acceptable ways of dealing with your culture shock.

Sorry about the rant but I'm obviously bitter. I've spent my entire life learning others' cultures and when I'm in one of my own, I have to put up with sexist shit from expats who won't do the same. Funny weird behavior I can deal with, I know what that's like and there's no harm. Discrimination in one of my homes, on the other hand, NO.

Anonymous said...

If you go visiting a tribe of cannibals and you are eaten, you should not complain; it's their tradition. Or at least, so it seems to imply those people telling that cultural reasons...

Yayaver said...

Again its case of the micro-inequities. And comment section is full of patriots saving their nation's face.. :P . If you have ever heard the name of Kiran Bedi, read her book 'I dare'. It shows the cases full of macro-inequities.

Anonymous said...

Anon#1 at the top of this list who said:"You need to know that women in your country of disdain are often better treated than women here."

how do you know what country FSP visited? are you clairvoyant?

Anonymous said...

@Anon 1:32

"If you go visiting a tribe of cannibals and you are eaten, you should not complain".

Absolutely! I guess the real question would be: Why would a rational person visit a tribe of cannibals without taking precautions in advance?

Similar truisms include:

"If you jump off the Empire State Building and you die, you shouldn't complain"

OR

"If you drink from the gutter and get diaorrhea, you shouldn't complain".

EliRabett said...

The comment at 7:47 is the sort of stuff you just say stuff it to.

Gingerale said...

FSP, I appreciate your post.

Anonymous said...

"Don't enforce change on a culture different to your own but adapt accordingly. If not, then leave."

If an american said this about people coming to the US, they would be excoriated. At least by most readers of this blog (though perhaps not viewers of Fox News).

Anonymous said...

Schlupp,

that sounds like the US. I live in Arizona. For some time, I was supporting my hubby in school (hence I was the sole breadwinner). Still, the accountant files our taxes under the man's name. We bought a house together. The standard form from the title company says, under buyer, "man" and "wife". The house was sold by a divorced woman; after her name, the title company added "a single woman". Other example: I didn't change my last name. Our kids have my husband's last name. As a result, I have to carry a birth certificate that lists my name as the mother when I travel with them. BEcause I don't have the same last name, I had to go to HR in person with ID and marriage certificate to be put on the hubby's insurance.

So I don't know where you live/come from. I come from a western Europe country perceived to be very backwards when it comes to women (and for some things, it is). Yet my mom kept her name after marriage, like everybody, and worked outside the home all her life. L, I don't know why anything in what FSP had written before this post had made you think of Italy. I'm Italian, and the thought never crossed my mind. You have watched too many neo-realism movies from the forties.

Schlupp said...

"made you think of Italy."

Anonymous, I'm surprise you thaught I thaught of Italy, bcause I most certainly did not. I also reread what I wrote, and I really do not hink I write anything that justified your attack in any way. Please point out where I wrote anything that suggests Italy.

(As for deeper levels of text comprehension: I was also NOT really bashing Western Europe - AND, SINCE IT APPEARS IMPORTANT, SPECIFICALLY NOT ITALY -I was rather reacting to all the people who were sure it could NOT be Western Europe, but had to be a "much less civilized" country.)

Anonymous said...

Schlupp: Hello???
I really wasn't attacking you at all. I pointed out that the anedocte yo reported reg "large country in western Europe" could very well happen in the US. As I said, much worse happens in the US (i find it very offensive that I constantly have to prove I'm my kids' mom, just because I don't have their last name-- in other words it would be fine if everybody had to show proof of "motherhood")
The last part of my message was obviously an answer to "L". I don't know what's his/her knowledge of italy, but again, it does not appear to be accurate at all.

Ms.PhD said...

I've been in these situations before, fortunately only when MrPhD was with me. Sometimes he's useful that way!

But geez, imagine if you wanted to or had to travel alone-!

It's easy for men to say you are being sensitive, or skewed in your perception, but they rarely try to put themselves in our shoes. They have no conception of what it would be like to live their lives with so little personal freedom.

some of these comments amaze me. I do not own a house, but I would think twice about going through with a purchase if it was going to involve signing a form that said "man" and "wife/spouse". But I completely believe that this is the norm in the US. I just try to stay out of the mainstream as much as possible, for precisely these reasons.

p.s. re: the haters, Chelsea Handler said something about this on her show last night. She said there's nothing you can do. Personally, when I get too many redundant hater comments, I start deleting, because I find it just clogs up the discussion and doesn't add any new insight.

Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum said...

I'd have been sorely tempted (as the man in the situation, being handed your documents) to grab the hand of the other guy and hold it over to you so he could actually hand the documents to you against his will.
Probably would've broken some obscure 5th century law and gotten my head chopped off, though, so I guess it's just as well I wasn't there...

Ursula said...

If it's Japan, then the following book might be helpful:

http://www.amazon.com/Doing-Business-Japanese-Men-Handbook/dp/1880656043

from the comments:
...how to handle Japanese men who ignore you and insist on talking to your male subordinates...