“It was terrifying. It was the first time I moved abroad. I did a lot of drugs, I drank a lot of alcohol, I gained a lot of weight. My first year was awful…” My fellow co-worker shares her experiences on life in Egypt. We’ve both been expats for several years and lived in different countries. She understands what I’m going through.
This morning I had a meltdown in my bathroom, where everything about the last 3 months in Egypt just hit me all at once. It’s been extremely overwhelming, 10 times worse than China or Taiwan have ever been. And then I wondered: what do other people think about my life? Do people see me as an adventurous globetrotter who is on this #wanderlust bullshit life quest? Do people pity me because I can’t seem to find stability? Do people envy me because I ‘do whatever I want?’ …
I lower myself to the floor of my bathroom, now sitting at toilet-level height, and I stare in front of me, lifelessly, aimlessly, hopelessly. A whole bunch of crying commences. I call my mom in tears, I leave sobbing voice notes to friends. I want to go someplace else. I want to escape the escaping. But I have no place to go.
The idea of living abroad is attractive to people. It was/is for me just as much. There’s a sense of ‘the grass is greener on the other side’, visions of dreamy sceneries, a better quality of life, new adventures. But I don’t think people often touch upon the harsh reality of it. I’m not saying it’s not worth it. That the above isn’t part of the deal. But it shouldn’t be sugarcoated.
I recently learned about a term called expat-depression. It’s a real thing. Studies show that expats may have a higher risk of mental health issues (anxiety, depression) as opposed to domestic workers. Expats “experience extraordinarily high stress as well as social and emotional disruption that result from dislocation and moves.” This could be because they’re predisposed to these issues due to personality traits, which are further enhanced by culture shock, living conditions, work ethics, and social life abroad. But even so; living abroad is a lot to take in, especially if the culture and customs are unfamiliar to you. The mental decline is also often paired with substance abuse. And so far, I haven’t met a single expat in Egypt that doesn’t over-indulge. It’s a weird new reality.
And I know. I know this makes me sounds horribly privileged. I didn’t have to do this. I didn’t have to go anywhere. And look at the life I have. Aside from the personal reasons I came to Egypt; what am I even complaining about? These thoughts keep crossing my mind.
Among the palm trees and the sunsets there is always utter despair lurking. This (the duality of it) is something I’ve had to deal with throughout all my time abroad. There are ups and downs. And so long the ups outweigh the downs, it’s something that I will probably continue doing, regardless of the occasional toll it takes on my mental health. After all, and this is the most comforting, privileged quote of all: I could always just go back home.
We live in sensitive times. It’s ironic to think that the most prominent voices on the internet promote inclusivity for all, yet having one controversial opinion means you can no longer participate. And it doesn’t even matter if that opinion was said ten years ago. It doesn’t even matter that things have changed significantly over the past ten years. One strike and you’re out. And there are no second chances.
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”
We make assumptions every day. A lot of it is an automated response to our daily routine lives. Like how you assume the bus is on time, or assume your food delivery arrives at your requested destination. But when it comes to people, assumptions can potentially be dangerous. In his bookTalking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, author Malcolm Gladwell discusses how our emotions and worldview lead to assumptions about people’s intentions, which often could not be further from the truth. He writes:
“When it comes to judgments about our own character and behavior, we are willing to entertain all manner of complexity, and suddenly, when it comes to making those same judgments about others, we are depressingly simplistic.”
When it comes to human behavior, it seems to me like we often assume because we cannot accept change: we get mad at the driver if the bus isn’t on time, we’re upset if our favorite artists don’t make the exact same music they did 10 years ago, and we’re devastated after a sudden break-up. We assume people behave and think the same, forever.
YouTube star Jenna Marbles recently quit YouTube. She was condemned for racist content she made in the past. Condemnation to such a degree that she felt so overwhelmed, she no longer felt comfortable creating. At the same time, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte acknowledged that the tradition of “Black Pete” will change, after 7 years of resistance. Rutte is seen as fickle and weak for changing his opinions…… Partly inspired by Gladwell’s book, I have some ideas on reasons why we’re so upset when it comes to people talking about racism (or other narratives for that matter, like feminism or sexism, but we’ll stick with racism, because that’s a hot topic). What do Jenna Marbles and Mark Rutte have in common? The answer has to do with our our assumptions, and our inability to understand and accept change.
Changes in time I: Associating Language
So what do assumptions and our inability to accept change have to do with each other? Well, it’s common sense that times change. From our understanding of the world, the language we use, to the way we interact with each other; technology, science, and media developments (among other things) keep altering our existence. Yet somehow it isn’t common practice to embrace that change. We have a hard time diverting from our beliefs, and as we grow older, we seem to lack the ability to acknowledge things are changing all around is, all the time.
Look at the meaning of words for example: just like the many waves of feminism, the meaning of- and language used to describe racism changed significantly over time, and we often go by our own personal connotations to the word. For some, it still refers to slavery during the 1900s. For some it refers to the political construct only. To others it includes individuals using racial slurs. Some see race through the lens of religion. And some groups include intersectionality and micro-aggressions into the mix. This is why you hear people say anything from “racism doesn’t exist (anymore)” to “asking people of color in your own country where they are from is racist,” to “systemic racism isn’t real,” to “if you’re offended by being called a chink, you just need to grow some thicker skin.”
I keep thinking people often believe in- or deny the existence of racism based on where they stopped in time. My mother and I see racism very differently, because she didn’t grow up with today’s understanding of the word (to be fair, it’s hard to keep track). The same goes for feminism: from basic rights (2nd wave) to mansplaining (4th wave); people disagree on what the word feminism should entail. Thus, some people say there is no longer a need for feminism because women already have everything they fought for, while others still feel underrepresented and continue to fight for change. Sound familiar?
I am probably displaying the ultimate level of agreeableness here (I am known to never pick sides. I’d be a horrible politician), but I think all of the above-mentioned examples have some truth to them, depending on the language we use to which we associate our beliefs. I mean, consider all the misunderstandings that could arise from incorrectly attaching meaning to someone else’s words, and assuming your associations are always right. Language is a very powerful tool; the fact that the meaning of a word has gone through a lot of change over time, and now encompasses a lot of different ideas, can make it difficult to understand someone else’s views. If, for example, you believe racism merely applies to things like apartheid and slavery, then it sounds valid to say that systemicracism doesn’t exist in current Western societies. That’s your worldview. But if you believe individual racism, like using a racial slur, is seeped into larger racial or systemic thinking, then it should be just as valid to say that racism is still very prevalent in today’s society, right? I feel like we should get to a point where we stop lecturing other groups about right and wrong based on the meaning of words, because I don’t think we’ll find actual common ground. But we could try to come to a common understanding that someone else may not think of the exact same thing when expressing a similar topic. Language, what words represent, and how we view them are continuously changing. We can’t just assume that our own convictions or associations are true by default.
Changes in time II: Associating Human Behavior
Another thing we can’t wrap our heads around, is how individuals change their minds or their opinions. For example, YouTuber Jenna Marbles recently apologised for content she made 10 years ago and is taking an indefinite break from YouTube because of the backlash she received from that content. But 10 years ago, a lot of similar content circulated the internet and people were not as concerned with racism the way we are now. It wasn’t at the forefront of people’s minds, and their convictions were different back then. Within today’s race and gender narrative, Jenna would probably never make that kind of content.
On The Flipside (see what I did there?), Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is actually beginning to understand that times are changing. From colonial slavery, to arranged marriages, to strict gender roles; long-standing Western traditions or beliefs have been subject to change since the beginning of time. In 2013, Rutte refused to give up the tradition of Black Pete, a character part of a traditional children’s holiday the Netherlands has been celebrating since the 1700s. This year, 2020, he has done some self-reflecting and acknowledged the experiences of minority groups. He now believes the tradition will change. He’s even having discussions with anti-racism advocates about race in the Netherlands. Ironically, he’s gotten a lot of hate for altering his opinions publicly. Where Jenna Marbles is considered racist, even though she’s no longer the same person, Mark Rutte needs to stick with his beliefs and stop changing his mind. Sounds silly doesn’t it? It’s like it’s no longer part of being human to have different opinions or to have a change of heart.
People change. Meaning Changes. Times change. It’s exactly because of our false assumptions based the (weird) preconceived notion that nothing changes, that we seemingly have the power to eliminate or condemn a person, regardless of knowing what their actual convictions are, or how they changed throughout the years, or how time changed what is acceptable behavior, or what language can or can’t be used. One assumption can ruin another person’s life. And what good does it do in the grand scheme of things? (no good, is the answer).
The times they are a-changing
The human strength, as opposed to other animals, should be our ability to reason and self-reflect. But sometimes our hard-wired behaviors still overrule our rational minds. We need to try and self-reflect on our emotional triggers and how they are linked to our assumptions about others, as well as understand that current narratives are no longer what they used to be. Someone’s political preferences or actions in the past are not an indication of someones actual or current beliefs or experiences, and we cannot possibly know how other people are impacted by something. If we can understand that, maybe we wouldn’t feel the need to cancel Jenna Marbles, and we would have more respect for Mark Rutte’s capability of change. If we can listen to others and acknowledge their opinions, instead of letting our emotions get in the way, I think we’re on the road to a better understanding of ourselves and the world. And yes, I get it, it doesn’t necessarily solve any problems. But more humanity and a better understanding of others and the world around us probably helps get there faster, don’t you think?
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
- Bob Dylan
These days, everyone has an opinion about everything. Even not having an opinion means something. What’s more, online opinion influences the real world. It’s propelled movements and developments ranging from racism to cancel culture. In this case, both the Dutch Prime Minister and Jenna Marbles are prime examples of the current mechanisms that drive change and discussions.
The social mediacircle of life
It basically works like this: someone in the spotlight does something noteworthy. In Rutte’s case it’s taking a different stance in the “Black Pete” discussion. In Jenna’s case it’s doing skits and portraying certain characters for a wide public. Discussion ensues and everyone comments about what happened. Then, society changes and the public reviews everything and sees it with new eyes. Renewed support or backlash ensues. Rinse and repeat.
In the process, we all forget that change is human and totally normal, healthy and necessary.
But the cycle is speeding up, churning away at an ever faster pace through everything that’s happening online. It’s come so far that there’s almost immediate repercussions in the real world from what happens online. This discussion can definitely be fruitful. Because society changed and the Dutch who oppose “Black Pete” have gotten a stronger voice, it somewhat forced Rutte to flip his opinion. The flipside is, however, condemning people for the wrong thing. Because we’ve changed in what kinds of things we find acceptable to portray or make fun of in society, we suddenly hold up Jenna’s old stuff to these new standards.
What’s not entirely the same for Rutte and Jenna is their agency and representation. Rutte is a politician, representing a certain party and part of the population. People expect him to actively speak out about his viewpoints and opinions. Jenna and many YouTubers on the other hand first and foremost want to entertain their viewers. Since social media have become deeply personal, this means their outputs now reflect on their ideas and viewpoints which they probably didn’t consider when they created the content at the time.
The lines have become blurry. If your skit featured racist stereotypes, how much does that really reflect on you as a person?
How change became something to deny
It feels like we’re trying to collectively change how we view and approach things, by erasing past mistakes. That’s natural, we now have tools that allow us to get closer and have immediate discussions across cultures and borders. But in this whole overhaul, I feel we’re ignoring some very fundamental foundations that our communication is built upon. Former President Barack Obama said this perfectly in a New York Times piece from 2019:
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”
Personally, I used to be pretty judgmental about things. When I was little, the “Black Pete” discussion wasn’t as visible and heated as it’s now. I’ve never thought brown or black children were this character either. So when I was in university and the discussion started to get overheated, I simply didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I dismissed it as kind of irrelevant, just because I hadn’t ever encountered any of the stuff mentioned by the protestors. But, I now know that your own experience and bubble are only part of why these issues exist. I’ve read somewhere that good habits easily persist. To keep bad ones alive, we call them traditions.
“Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course.” - Lemony Snicket, The Blank Book
Making mistakes is human and we all need to do it
Believing to be open-minded and actually embodying it, are two very different things. True, on the one hand I see the flip-flopping of Rutte as being hypocritical. But at the same time, I’ve been through the same process and I definitely like where I ended up on the other side. Some of Jenna’s past material was racist and cringy, especially if viewed now, but everybody has her or his right to make mistakes. If we can’t make any mistakes, how will we ever learn? What’s the point of doing anything if we’re going to be held accountable for every little thing that goes wrong?
John Oliver of Last Week Tonight described it very aptly when interviewing Monika Lewinsky about public shaming and cancel culture. Basically, at the age of 22, which was when Lewinsky got ‘fully canceled’, we all do stupid things. When I was 22 I still had a lot of anxiety and behaved very immaturely. I’m happy that the stupidest thing I did at that age is not fully available on the internet for everyone to see and judge. I’d be mortified.
In another interview for the NYT, one of the teenagers says this about cancel culture: “It’s a way to take away someone’s power and call out the individual for being problematic in a situation. I don’t think it’s being sensitive. I think it’s just having a sense of being observant and aware of what’s going on around you.” This is a slippery slope to me. Who gets to decide who gets canceled? And how can we be okay with just taking away someone else’s agency?
To be honest, it’s also concerning myself a bit. I am, albeit in a much less widespread fashion putting myself out there as well, and it’s definitely impossible to never flip or do something thoughtless. I can only hope that the audience I reach will be smart enough to understand. Or just not get famous at all, that’s a good Plan B.
Jubilee recently came out with a video showing mixed-race teenagers giving their opinion on what it’s like to be mixed race. It showed the bias other people often have towards multi-racial people, and the struggles (mainly related to identity) they face. I (Sarah) am mixed-race, so I kind of relate to these issues. Li-Anne has a different background, but faced a lot of the same issues growing up.
Recently I’ve heard people say that racial identity is mainly internal, and that it depends on whether or not you take other people’s opinions to heart. To me that’s only partially true. To me, lack of identity is an internal struggle, perpetuated by the outside world.
I found this quote in an article related to mixed race on Psychology Today:
“We tend to think of race in terms of skin color and typical physical characteristics. But at a more fundamental level, racial differences are really about differences in culture.”
It seems that the experiences of mixed-race children are vastly different, and personal identification is more-so a personal matter/feeling than a racial one. But across the board it seems that the vast majority of mixed-race children struggle with some form of identity problem. From experience, three major issues come to mind that arise with growing up mixed race: (1) not fitting in, (2) not being accepted, and (3) not being able to identify yourself. I mostly had to deal with the latter.
I’m half Egyptian, half Dutch, and I grew up in the Netherlands; a primarily ‘white’ country. My parents and I used to go to Egypt every year when I was young, and I vividly remember my “other hometown” : the call to prayer, the noise, the dust, the Macarona Bechamel, the music…
My parents divorced when I was just a kid, and I’ve struggled with identity most of my life. There’s a level of acceptance, now being 30 years old, but acceptance merely helps to deal with things in a more rational manner; it doesn’t magically take problems away.
The mixed-race identity problem
I initially wondered if there’s a correlation between (interracial) divorces and identity issues: if couples had a healthy and stable marriage, and there was a perfect cultural blend instilled in the child, would that mean children are less ‘aware’ or more accepting of their identity? I realised that, yes, being a child of divorced parents, among living within a culture that is only partly yours, could be part of the larger identity problemthat some people face (that’s not directly related only to being mixed race), but the perceived difference is probably the biggest indicator for feeling like you don’t belong: how others see you and how that makes you feel.
In primary school I was often asked if I was adopted, having a mother with blonde hair and blue eyes. Then when 9/11 hit, kids started making fun of me looking Middle-Eastern (I come from a small, small town). I also used to have a very Arabic name, which was the butt of the joke very often, not only in school, but even within my very Dutch family. Kids commented on my larger nose, my “hairy” arms. Adults commented on my thick hair, my “exotic” look. As a joke, people called me Turkish or Moroccan, or they yelled some Arabic slurs. I’ve even been called a terrorist – a harmless joke.
I was never bothered by the teasing, but there’s one clear message in all of it: I was different. It’s funny because It’s not like I wasn’t excluded from anything. I was included, but not fully accepted. I never felt part of anything. I never felt Dutch enough to partake in the overall narrative of “being Dutch,” But I identified far less with being Egyptian, so a part of me just kept floating all over the place.
In the Jubilee video on mixed-race teenagers, the half-Iranian kid hit the nail right on the head. He said: “These past couple of years I’ve been trying to reconnect with that part, because I shoved it down for so long, and it’s been really heartbreaking(…). I too have tried very hard to become Dutch in the past. I changed my name, I rejected everything related to Arabic/Egyptian culture (I started learning Arabic only in 2018), I have no Arab friends, I haven’t been to Egypt for over 15 years… I don’t even know my family.
I tried really hard to belong (to one thing) and not belong (to the other thing) at the same time. And that is heartbreaking. And stupid. I adapted based on how others saw me, and then pushed aside what I didn’t want. But what I didn’t want was just as much a part of me.
“Mixed race identity, for me, comes down to how I see and identify myself and whether I choose to accept or reject the box other people will try to put me in.” - some very accurate comment on YouTube
So now, the next step is not only to accept, but to fully embrace. And I feel like that message doesn’t merely apply to being bi-racial.
Looking like a certain nationality, but growing up in a different country, probably was a big factor in me not having a very strong racial identity.
To be honest, I always joke about the aspect of mixed race people being hot. I think it has to do with the fact that I find it would be a bit easier to stand out in society if you are good-looking and different, than when you are just clearly foreign-looking. However, I am able to escape the standard stereotype for Asian and Chinese people as well, since I have a fully Dutch name and no ‘restaurant background.’ I also grew up in a very white part of the country, which makes me stand out more, but also blend in better at the same time, since people assume that everyone, no matter what they look like, is Dutch.
So I don’t really belong in any common box; I don’t identify with Chinese-Dutch people nor do I identify as any of those 2 nationalities separately. For me, my racial identity feels very fluid.
Put me in any box but not the wrong one
Because of this situation, and the reason that Dutch culture probably puts less emphasis on racial identity than American culture, I found it interesting to hear what the mixed-race teens in the Jubilee video had to say about racial slurs and what ethnicity you pass as vs. your race. I don’t use racial slurs at all and I also don’t think too much about my racial identity. Therefore, I haven’t felt like I needed to hide part of me, but I have also been aware that I stood out and could be misunderstood for ‘something else’. In other words, I am always more focused on making sure I am not put in the ‘wrong’ box than making myself belong to a specific group.
I think this is also because the Netherlands still really prides itself on its multicultural society and being a real melting pot. Even being further away from the bigger, international cities, I still lived close to the German and Belgian borders. Such an environment made me less focused on something like racial identity. Even though I could pass as Chinese, people in my area knew I was ‘not the standard Chinese-Dutch girl’, because my parents didn’t have a restaurant and I spoke Dutch without an accent.
Embracing a fluid identity and living abroad as well, really made me more aware of my behavior in this regard. And also to find ways to use it to my advantage. Especially living in China, I became used to ‘taking on’ different identities. For western people, I would simple be a fellow foreigner. Saying I was adopted, was often enough to make them put me in a more ‘correct’ box as an international person instead of a second-generation Chinese person.
With Chinese people on the other hand, I often took full advantage of them thinking I was a local or a Chinese person coming from abroad. Speaking the language fluently, albeit with an accent, blending in with the crowd, conversing with locals without being explicitly seen as foreign was very comfortable. It made it possible for me to actually feel what it’s like to belong to a specific group, without really belonging.
Include me too please
Wanting to be part of a group, is a universal feeling. That’s why it saddens me to see many people becoming more entrenched and focused on, in my eyes, superficial characteristics that makes them feel others don’t belong. I think racism, especially in recent years, unfortunately always finds its way to the surface, whether in a national or international context.
At the same time, I really feel blessed with a multicultural identity that allows me to be more aware of these issues and provides me with more tools to move through societies as respectfully as possible.
Ahhhhh, turning thirty. The supposed downfall of every young woman. You can still be a frolicking teenager at 29, but by 30 you need to have it all figured out. By 30, you will have found stability, a long-term partner, a flourishing career, you’ll be thinking about motherhood (or you already have one of those crying little humans), and you probably might want to invest in some anti-wrinkle cream.
I just turned 30 and I have mixed feelings about it. For one, my adult years have been met with existential dread, and growing closer to death produces an enhanced sense of: I HAVE SO MUCH LEFT TO DO – but more on that later. Let’s start with the really bad, and then end with the not so bad.
But what about my face though?!
The main thing I want to address is probably the most superficial. One that’s overtly present in our lives, yet also considered taboo: outer appearance. Ever since discovering that I was seen by the outside world as ‘attractive’, I have wholeheartedly embraced my looks. Slowly but surely, and with age (funnily enough), I started to love my body, my face, and although it shouldn’t matter, I love that other people find me attractive. I even have a public fitness-related Instagram, where I show off the front, the back, and close-ups of my face.
I love how I’ve learned to love myself, but at the same time, I admit that I also feed off of positivity by others. I read an article a few years ago that stuck with me (and if I find it again I’ll link it here) about this woman who had been a model all her life. She basically grew up on the perceptions of others, being in the spotlight constantly. She said ageing was hard because, if the focus of your existence is solely based on your looks, how do you still find your own value as a human being after all of that fades away? Looking at the vast landscape of anti-ageing commercials and prominent figures in the entertainment industry, we are truly made to believe that we have to find a way to prevent growing old and/or hold it off as long as possible.
Ms. model went on to do charity work and being a spokesmodel for women’s rights (as you do). That’s how she reinvented herself and her value as a woman. Now, I’m not a model, but I definitely have similar fears. Don’t get me wrong, I have hobbies, and I’m passionate about lots of things, but I also have anti-wrinkle cream. I do believe I have value as a woman, as a human, but I also inspect my face for fine lines. My looks kind of go hand in hand with my other qualities. Society is (and will be) based on youth, probably forever. Recently I found out I’m already behind on new technology – another very common phenomenon that comes with age. New idols and actors are now in their late teens and early twenties. Yet I don’t feel different. And I wonder if that’s just what it’s going to be from now on: feeling exactly the same, but looking different, and being perceived as ‘old.’ And that scares me.
It’s just a ride
A little positivity: an article in Forbes takes on a different, but equally true perspective:
"I know your twenties get glamorized in the media, but it is a brutal decade. The good news is, your learning curve is not as steep in your 30s, you have more of a sense of self and self confidence, the benefits of the lessons you learned in your twenties, and less patience for toxic people."
There’s one age-related thing I have grown less and less concerned about over time: stereotypes & expectations. The expectations of what you need to have achieved before you turn 30 or where you need to be seem completely arbitrary to me. A lot has changed over the years, but the majority of us monogamous humanoids will have settled down by their early thirties. My closest friends all have long-term, stable relationships. Most of them are married, are getting married, and some of them already have children. A lot of them have a house, or are in the process of getting one. Which is amazing. I am so, so happy that we privileged people can live the lives that we want. Which is why the above-mentioned life has never been mine. Although I have doubted my sense of self here and there, stability in the traditional sense is just not something I ever longed for. It never appealed to me as something that I needed. That’s not to say it will never happen, but I don’t want to let age determine where I should be or what I should do in life. I don’t believe it actually matters. I’ve been successful in my own way, and I don’t deem my choices as less important.
We’re insignificant specs on the earth. There are consequences to our actions, of course, but I don’t think there exists inherent right or wrong when it comes to finding direction. Life is just life.