Reflections on a year abroad

23 Apr

It’s with great sadness that I’m writing my last column for The Daily Gamecock.

Before I departed for South Carolina last August, I was asked to write an article describing my feelings about the year ahead. I called my piece ‘Great Expectations’, and listed all of the weird and wonderful things I wanted to see and do while studying abroad.ImageWhile my year as an honorary Gamecock has fulfilled the aspirations of my bucket list twice over, it’s the lessons I’ve learned within myself that have been truly life-affirming.

There are two things that I’ve discovered in the mighty Palmetto state, for which I’m forever grateful. The first is my vocation as a writer. Writing viewpoints columns throughout the year has not just been life changing because it’s transformed my resume, but it’s been life changing because it’s transformed me as an individual.

Part of the job description as a viewpoints columnist is to stay in the know about local and national news and events. As a small fish in a very big pond, engaging with my host country in this manner has been an essential way to connect with the world outside when everything around me felt unfamiliar.ImageForming my own opinions about my new surroundings has taught me to be my own person, to know myself, and to know where I stand. At many points during the year, writing has been a lifeline- the only thing that felt like concrete under my feet when everything else was like sand running through my fingers. In one year, writing opinion pieces has taught me more about life and about myself than all my years in school and university put together.

The second thing I’m eternally grateful for is a feminist enlightenment. To me, feminism the very simple belief that women and men are equal human beings who deserve equal rights.

Taking women’s self-defense classes has taught me that I don’t have to rely on anyone else to defend myself in the world. I have the right to defend myself, but what’s more is the inner belief that I’m worth defending.

Before I moved to South Carolina, these were beliefs that I held close to my heart. Thanks to my feminist awakening, they’re now part of a living reality than runs through my veins.

But what I’ve come to realise while reflecting on my year, is that these two facets of studying abroad are seamless. The year has not transformed me as a writer or as a feminist, but as both.

Renaissance poet Sir Philip Sidney once ended a sonnet with the words: “Look in thy heart and write.” Writing is not simply about using imitation and sophistry to come up with something entertaining to say. It’s about being in touch with what’s in your heart and sharing that on paper. As a woman and as a writer, never have I felt stronger than when realising that people are listening, and that they value what I have to say. Writing is my empowerment.

Becoming a columnist has allowed me to create my own space in the world and believe in my entitlement to that space. It’s my right as a woman to the freedom of expression, to the freedom of speech and to the rights of the first amendment. It’s my right to write.

In ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Virginia Woolf once said, ““Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” Thanks to my foremothers who fought tirelessly for women’s rights, I’ve been able to explore the freedom of my mind at the same time as exploring the world.

I’ve always believed in the saying that, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only a page.” My Appalachian adventure in writing has given me ‘A Room Of My Own’, a room in which I’ve started chapter one of that book, and I can’t wait to see where the rest of it takes me. Image

Social construction of gender creates rigid, harmful stereotypes

21 Apr

I enrolled to study a Joint Honours degree in 2010 in the hope that it would make me a more rounded intellectual. During my first three years of university, studying both English and History has certainly come with challenges, like trying to meet the needs of both academic departments and learning how to consider and incorporate views and information from contrasting perspectives. This semester, despite having studied periods of history that are centuries apart, and works of literature from authors all over the world, one lesson in particular has shone out from each and every one of my classes.

A couple of weeks ago I was in my Renaissance class and we were discussing Shakespeare’s comedy ‘Twelfth Night’. The main character, Viola, disguises herself as a young man in order to find a job. My teacher remarked: “Shakespeare was drawing attention to ingrained assumptions about gender, making us aware of the fact that gender is a performance in itself.”

With ideas about the social construction of gender brewing in the back of my mind, I thought back to my very first women’s self-defense class. My instructor told us: “You don’t have to emulate men in order to execute these moves. You can be the strong and independent women that you want to be without losing sight of your feminine side.” But as a class of 25 young women, it took many of us a couple of times before we were able to shout ‘DON’T BOTHER ME!’ at the top of our voices, without smiling. Attending these classes has made me acutely aware of gendered expectations of behaviour, and defying these expectations with uppercuts and pendulum kicks has been an eye-opening and liberating experience.

But it was in my literary theory class that lessons about gender performativity became especially apparent. During the week we were studying gender and sexuality, my professor opened up the floor for discussion. My classmate said something particularly important: “I feel like nowadays everyone just wants to put everyone else away in boxes and categories. Like when people become obsessed with trying to figure out if someone else is gay or straight. Can’t we just be people?” gendergoggles

Can’t we? Judging by the long string of disheartening personal anecdotes that were shared in class that day, sadly, the answer seems to be no. Modern society is disturbingly preoccupied by the need to categorise, to classify and to stereotype. Gender and sexuality have become such a guessing game that the word ‘gaydar’ has made it into the dictionary. ‘Legally Blonde: The Musical’ even has a number called ‘Gay or European?’ splitting sexuality and identity into two easily identified boxes. But couldn’t he have been gay and European? Or neither?
Just yesterday I was completing an application form. Under the subheading ‘gender’, the form offered three categories: ‘male’, ‘female’ and ‘prefer not to say’. Rather than properly acknowledging the existence of transgender applicants, the form chose the usual ‘male’ and ‘female’ boxes and lumped everything else together in one indeterminate limbo space.

In a modern world that is so strongly characterized by diversity and difference, wouldn’t the best option be to leave the boxes open so that we can write our own identities? Definitions of gender and sexuality should be set free, so that we can be who we want to be without having to conform to ideas of what is ‘male’ and what is ‘female’. flexible gender identity

 

 

 

On the importance of humour

10 Apr

This semester I’ve taken a senior seminar about suffrage and women’s rights, and have been fortunate enough to meet and interview incredibly influential feminists from the women’s movement in South Carolina. These women are from different creeds, different backgrounds and fought for various different rights within the feminist movement. But a resounding message that surfaced from these interviews touched upon a particular life lesson that I have found especially worthwhile.

We asked one of our esteemed guests how she chose to deal with gritty disputes and confrontation. She responded forcefully, “Never, ever, forget to use humour. You have to try on different styles and see what works for you, but I chose to approach confrontation with humour. I’ve had men come up to me, yelling, and calling me a bitch. I used to respond with, ‘Well if life’s a bitch, so am I.’”

Call it wit, call it sass, call it a pinch of salt, call it banter, satire, or flair- whatever you call it, there’s no doubt that using humour in politics is an enormously beneficial skill. Winston Churchill, the stalwart bulldog of British politics once said, “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to Hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.”
Image
Responding to opposition through equally derogatory slights- even if they deserve it- will always blacken your own reputation before it exposes their ill repute. But responding to opposition with humour maintains a level of dignity, intellect and style that rises above cheap and petty insults.

After I met with the South Carolinian feminists, it occurred to me that the importance of humour is not simply confined to the world of politics. As a viewpoints columnist, I often have to write about potentially provocative topics without adding provocation or causing offense. Renaissance philosopher Desiderus Erasmus mused over this topic, “I long ago persuaded myself to keep my writings clean of personal invective and uncontaminated by insults. I wanted to mock, not to attack, to benefit, not to wound; to comment on men’s manners, not to denounce them.” Using humour in writing allows writers to get their point across in an entertaining, skillful and sharp way while keeping their reputation and grace in tact.

This valuable lesson also applies to the modern world of social media. Nowadays, when celebrities’ lives are thrust into the public eye, they come into contact with unscrupulous criticism on a daily basis. But the best comebacks are the ones that throw wit and banter in the face of ignorance and discrimination. Leading actress from the 2009 film ‘Precious’, Gabourey Sidibe, replied to criticism about her Golden Globes outfit by tweeting “To people making mean comments about my GG pics, I mos def cried about it on that private jet on my way to my dream job last night.” Humour breaks the tension, lightens the tone, and challenges ignorance to think outside the box. Image
President Pastides recently showed the USC community that he has a fun-loving sense of humour, when he endorsed the satirical front-page story about his sporting enthusiasm in the April Fools’ edition of The Daily Gamecock. Whether it’s politics, speech, writing, social media or simply daily life, a little humour goes a long way. The feminists of South Carolina reminded me that of everything we learn at university, not all of life’s most important lessons can be taught by the book.

The struggles of a British pedestrian in America

8 Apr

You might have seen me around campus. I’m the bewildered pedestrian found visibly regretting the maverick decision to jaywalk across Columbia’s roads.

No matter how many times I take a confident step from the curb, my brazen decision is always met with an unwelcome reminder that America doesn’t rank the rights of pedestrians very highly on it’s list of concerns. So much so, that allowing them the simple right to cross the road wherever they want is against the law.

America’s motoring lifestyle has been one of the greatest sources of culture shock during my year abroad. I am 21 years old, and I can’t drive. I have never had a driving lesson, nor have I ever wanted one. More to the point- I have never needed to drive. England is home to an extensive public transport system that, despite inflated ticket prices over the years, has allowed me to go about my daily life without having to spend thousands of pounds on a car with all the trimmings.

When I applied to study abroad at USC, I read some feedback from a previous exchange student that explained how difficult it is to get around Columbia without a car. Having already fallen much too far in love with the prospect of becoming an honorary Gamecock, I applied anyway and decided that, if I got accepted, I’d worry about the small print later.

I’ve been in Columbia for seven months, and I’m still worrying. I open the fridge to see nothing on my shelf and worry about how I’m going to hitchhike to Wal Mart to get some food. I stand on the curbside in the rain and worry that the taxi I ordered to take me to Publix is never going to turn up. So I walk up the hill to Russell House to become an honorary meal-planner, and worry that my savvy decision not to invest in driving lessons is becoming nullified by spending my grocery money at Marble Slab.

Overcoming logistical difficulties hasn’t been the only shock. The extreme degree to which Americans rely on their cars has provided me with an endless source of bafflement. I’ve been offered rides to CVS from the Byrnes building, and from the volleyball courts at Blatt to go ‘back to campus’. I’ve also realized that for an American teenager, not only is getting a car a logistical necessity, but it is perceived as a right of passage to adulthood. In my first week at USC I was stunned to learn that it’s quite normal for American students to drive four-by-fours, pick-up trucks and family saloons around campus. In England, new drivers can be seen squeezing into Clios, Ford KAs and smart cars in a bid to reduce their insurance quote.

I knew something was wrong since the very first day that I spent in Columbia. In a bid to explore my new home, I decided to walk from campus to Five Points to have a look around. I started to get a sense that I was Columbia’s lonesome pedestrian when a taxi driver spontaneously pulled over and asked if I needed a ride. Other trepidatious highlights experienced when commuting by foot include setting off on a trip to Todd and Moore to find the pavement stop dead. It suddenly just ceased to exist. So my innocent attempt to buy new trainers turned into a life-threatening expedition along the side of the road and across train tracks like I was some sort of Hobbit on the road to Mordor.

Before I departed for the US, a member of staff from the study abroad office at home told me that the degree to which I would become acclimated to my host culture will be phenomenal. He told me that when he was my age he studied abroad in France, and recounted the night that he realized he was fully acclimatized to France because he started dreaming in French. It just so happens that the night that I became fully acclimated as an honorary Gamecock was the night that I dreamed, for the first time ever, that I could drive.

I will be returning home in June having overcome many obstacles. Some have tested the heart, some have tested the mind, but battling against daily life as a pedestrian in Columbia will forever remain to be the ultimate test of my soul.

Image

What it’s like being terribly British in America

1 Apr

I am British. Not only is that a factual statement about my heritage, but it’s a statement that’s loaded with a cartful of social and cultural connotations.

Before I moved to the United States, I didn’t realise what it truly means to ‘be British’. Now that I’m here, surrounded by Americans, living with Americans, going to class with Americans and hanging out with a handful of other Brits, I’m constantly reminded just ‘how British’ I am.

Last night I went to Tios and winced my way through drinking a margarita with salt instead of sugar. The waitress got the order wrong but the Brit inside me was too polite to send the drink back. Generally speaking, this is an extremely British thing to do. Barman
We tell hairdressers that we are happy with awful haircuts while we are sat in the salon chair, crying inside and wondering how to get away with wearing a hat for the next month.

We enjoy expressing our strongest views through the wonderfully offhand mediums of sarcasm and irony. So to avoid causing offense, we find it difficult to turn down social invitations without giving an apologetic running commentary of all the reasons we are unable to attend.name
Our sense of humour is, as many Americans will know from our increasingly popular TV shows, extremely dry, and we engage our friends in something affectionately known as ‘taking the piss’ on a daily basis.

Southern American comedian Reg D. Hunter hit the nail on the head when he said,
“You know, British people, y’all got a lot of subtext. Y’all like stuff like irony and sarcasm, tongue in cheek- you know, clever ways to be indirect about what you think. Sometimes a British person will insult me and it will take me three weeks to figure it out, man.” ImageBefore I departed for my year at USC, the study abroad office told me that I might experience completely natural phases of ‘hostility’ towards my host culture. In a typically British fashion, I adopted a cynical view towards this prediction and vowed to enthusiastically embrace all aspects of American culture and never look back.

Seven months down the line, I’ve come to terms with the harsh truth that there are just some aspects of American speech and behaviour that will bother me eternally.

First of all, y’all are pretty blunt. So blunt, in fact, that on numerous occasions I’ve started to wonder whether Americans actually like me. If ever I invite my American friends out for a lunch or drinks, sometimes they respond with simply “No.” Or I’ll say thank-you to someone for holding the door, and they’ll respond with a brief “Mmmhm”. It’s taken me a while to realise that that’s just how you guys roll out here.

Another thing that startles me is that Americans tend to be louder, more vocal, and a lot more hyperbolic than us Brits. Where a British person might say, “I’m pretty chuffed with my mid-term results, yeah.”, an American would say, “Lidderally I was SO shocked I made an A, like seriously I am so happy right now I could DIE.”

Finally, I must be terribly British and correct some aspects of American speech. Ending a sentence with the words “or no?” does not make grammatical sense. As is ending a sentence with the phrases, “I can’t”, and “I can’t even”. I spent at least a month asking numerous Americans, “you can’t what, sorry?” Note the obligatory apology there. Very British.Sarcasticemoticon
I am totally aware of how essentialist this all sounds. I know many Americans that are subtle and sarcastic, and lots of Brits that are loud and blunt. But having studied abroad in another country for seven months, these general Anglo-American differences have presented themselves loud and clear.

As much as these differences do, on occasion, make my inner Brit wince, embarrass me, and cause me to digress into a painful string of awkward English stuttering, something useful can be said for immersing myself in a highly vocalized and straightforward American culture.

The next time I have a terrible haircut (hopefully never) and the hairdresser asks me for my verdict, things are going to go a little differently. When he asks me if it looks okay, I’m going to say “No.” Then when he asks why, I’m going to shout, “I cannot even!” And I can assure you that any terribly British apologies from the salon will be met with a nonchalant “Mmmhm” and I will be giving excruciatingly honest feedback on my feedback form after my visit. Because that’s just how I roll now. Literally.

Couch-potato altruism and the #nomakeupselfie

28 Mar

As an exchange student from England, I’m often reminded just how far I am from home when I log into Facebook. Recently, my news feed was infiltrated by endless amounts of ‘#nomakeupselfies’, the latest internet sensation to sweep across the UK. It wasn’t until I mentioned it to my American friends that I realized the campaign hadn’t made it across the pond.

The #nomakeupselfie craze began in defense of actress Kim Novak, whose looks were criticized at the Oscars. Women and girls all over the nation began ‘baring all’ by taking a selfie without wearing make-up, and posting it to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Since then, the trend turned epidemic. Taking what is now known as a #nomakeupselfie became connected to raising awareness of breast cancer, and female Facebook users would take a selfie of themselves without their slap on, and nominate their girlfriends to do the same, writing hashtags like ‘#breastcancer’ ‘#awareness’ and of course ‘#nomakeupselfie’ alongside their snap.

Then came the onslaught of virulent criticism and debate. Selfies would be accompanied by hundreds of Facebook comments in which users would exhaust the question: how does taking a #nomakeupselfie add anything to fighting cancer? Feminists everywhere (myself included) were rolling their eyes and scratching their heads in sheer bewilderment that taking a picture of one’s self without wearing foundation was considered to be a courageous pledge to the dark fight against cancer.

The loosely based visual metaphor of ‘baring all’ for breast cancer awareness did nothing to add to cancer research. As convenient as it is to pretend that you’re doing your bit by taking a natural selfie, cancer research needs cold hard cash in order to make progress.

As a woman, I found the epidemic to be highly insulting. Not only did it turn charity into self-indulgence- a transparent probe for compliments about one’s appearance over Facebook- but it sent out a damaging message about women. The trend made it clear that many women see wearing make-up like breathing air, and that giving it up for the sake of a picture was like making a dramatic sacrifice. Basing the selfie trend around make-up also eliminated roughly half the population and isolated women with an association to surface-level values. What’s more, connecting cosmetics to cancer is as insulting and degrading to women as it is to cancer patients themselves.

Thankfully, the weak and self-indulgent gesture of taking a natural selfie was soon vindicated by monetary donations. Selfies are now accompanied by screenshot evidence that the nominee had donated £3 to Cancer Research UK by texting ‘BEAT’ to 70099. Within 24 hours, the internet sensation raised £1 million for CRUK. Now, that astonishing figure has reached £8 million. What began as an individualistic, half-hearted attempt to ‘raise awareness’ of one of the most widespread forms of cancer became an inspiring lesson that taught us of the wonders that can be achieved when fundraising via social media outlets.Image

Unfortunately, the trend appears to be dying down. The money raised from the #nomakeupselife campaign has reaped the benefits of technological fundraising, because like all internet phenomenons, it went ‘viral’. But, like all internet sensations of the same nature, such as Gangnam Style and The Harlem Shake- (remember those?) they always die out. Sadly, cancer hasn’t.

So while we can take a positive message from the story of the #nomakeupselfie and the way that it morphed, we must not forget about the danger of relying on technology in the name of raising money for charities.

Technology allows us to dip in and out of fundraising from the comfort of our couches. Donating a couple of quid on JustGiving or taking a #nomakeupselfie quickly became the standard means by which altruism is converted into money. But altruism must not lose touch of its original cause and become a hedonistic hobby of the middle-class. While couch-potato altruism is an effective way to raise awareness and money on rainy days, it must not become the only way that humanitarianism is transformed into money. The ‘old fashioned’ methods of philanthropy like dancing for 24 hours straight, volunteering in a soup kitchen, or running a 10K must not be pushed off the shelf in favour of disconnected, remote and dispassionate forms of fundraising.

To find out more or to donate to CRUK, follow this link:

http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/

“Freedom is blogging in your underwear”

21 Mar

During Spring Break, I took the opportunity to visit one of the most historic and political destinations in the USA. I bypassed the alluring Florida sunshine in favour of a cultural stay in Washington DC.

As a history student, walking around such a legendary place brought some of my favourite parts of the past to life, landmark by stunning landmark. ImageMuch to my surprise, the place I visited that moved me the most was not the Lincoln memorial or the White house, but the gargantuan, seven-level interactive museum on Pennsylvania Avenue. What can only be described as the ultimate mothership of news and journalism history, ‘Newseum’ reminded me of all the reasons why I want to pursue a career in journalism. It educated me, tested me, and I left after five hours- feeling exhausted- but totally inspired.Image

The museum is home to real sections of the Berlin Wall and evocative remains of the World Trade Center. It has an open terrace with stunning, unobstructed views of the Capitol building, and a 4D theatre that takes audiences on a journey through some of the most groundbreaking investigative reporting stories of all time. The infamous Anchorman Exhibition features props and costumes from the 2004 film and the interactive galleries challenge visitors to create a front page, present a news story in front of the camera and decide upon some of the most controversial reporting decisions in history.ImageYet the reason I found Newseum so incredible was not because of its endless, expansive and informative galleries, but because the entire spectacle was in effect, a moving tribute to the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

The First Amendment prohibits the making of laws that breach freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the right to petition and the right to peaceful protest. Newseum’s devotion to these rights is made clear before visitors even walk through the door, as the words of the amendment are carved into the building itself, next to an enormous banner that reads ‘NEWSEUM CELEBRATES FREEDOM.’

Having studied various aspects of American history during my year abroad, I have learned predominantly about the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th amendments that infamously opened the gates of democracy to millions of citizens on the grounds of race and gender. Much less attention has been paid to the importance of the first amendment, which in the modern Western world, can be taken for granted on a daily basis.

As I walked around Newseum, I came across a world map that displayed the proportion of countries that practice the right to free press, those that are partially free, and those that are completely censored. I was immediately struck by the utter mass of countries labeled by the colours red and yellow, as opposed to Western territories that were depicted in democratic green. In the split second it took to cast my eyes over this map, I was reminded how comparatively lucky the Western world is to have the right to free press.ImageIn light of recent global news, affecting testimonies to such rights could not be more topical. The Pussy Riot protests at Sochi, North Korea’s Crimes Against Humanity Report, ongoing turmoil in Syria and Russia’s dark assault against Ukraine show us how even in 2014, natural human rights are being engulfed by wicked tyranny.

Not only are millions of people in the East subject to violence and oppression each day, but the right of their countries to freely communicate about such disasters is censored.

By sharp contrast, I looked around the gift shop later on and smiled at a fridge magnet that read ‘Freedom is blogging in your underwear.’ Having the right to express myself freely through my blog and through newspaper columns is part of my identity. It gives me a voice, and a way to interact with the world. I could not imagine living in a country that did not grant me this right- something I have grown up with and never had to consider being eliminated.

Deciding what makes a story newsworthy must be judged by the concern of social urgency, human rights and democracy. Until censorship has been eliminated, journalists working with the right to free press must celebrate, relish and utilise the tenets of the first amendment in order to spread awareness of people whose natural human rights continue to be repressed by despotism.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,123 other followers