Media//Questions

I stay home
whilst nature takes revenge outside
With the world
pouring out from my screen
incoherent
wild
compassionate
angry
senseless

Would it be better
to go out into the storm?

Would my mind find refuge
from the stream
of images
of war?

Is it worth knowing
what happens,
if only for those
few
stories of hope?

We’re all mixed but… — A reflection on racism among Latin Americans.

I’ve been reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The many stories in this book have sparked thoughts, opened up old wounds, helped me understand my family better…and so many other things that will take a long time to process.

One of the things that I’ve been struck by is the shapeless, oppressive enormity of the issue of race in the US. I find the whole thing confusing to an embarrassing degree. More so because of sentences like “in America you do not choose what race you are, it is decided for you”. Throughout the book there are instances where the story briefly dips into how Latinos/Hispanics view themselves, how it works in the US. Apparently, I didn’t know this, “Hispanic” is also a race. And race is about sociology and the way you are perceived, race is about looks. It is not, as I’ve often thought, about heritage. I have often tried to explain to friends that where I come from people are of mixed ancestry — because of the way history has gone, in my family there have been people from different ethnicities and backgrounds. I thought the way I see myself, what I know about my history, should have an impact on my “race”. But I’ve learnt in the past few years that it doesn’t. People will tell you what you are and that’s that. So I gradually stopped arguing. People tell me I’m white, so I’ll be white. Even though I’m foreign wherever I go and that brings its own problems. I guess this post is me saying: I don’t care anymore. I will talk about it because it’s on my mind and because I care.

Whilst reading Americanah I came to the conclusion that many Latinos are in denial about this race business. Where I live there are very few Latinos so I haven’t had a conversation with any about this. So I went on the Internet, did a bit of looking around and found that Latinos are wary of identifying as black. I watched an AlJazeera news report about this blatantly racist advert that ran on local radio in Esmeraldas, Ecuador a couple of years ago — for some incomprehensible reason the people who made it and those who ran the radio station thought it was completely fine. And if that wasn’t enough, the comments section on the video was full of hatred. There is also a documentary about being black in Latin America, which I intend to watch. I am appalled by some of the things I’ve found. Just looking around it seems like any attempt at calling racism out in Latin American countries and in Latin American communities in European countries or in the US is met with dismissal. Apparently Latinos often hide behind the “we’re all mixed/mestizo” mantra. Call me naive but I didn’t know people did that. When I tell people that my ancestry is mixed, I’m not trying to erase the fact that there is discrimination and prejudice on the basis of race in Latin American countries, and particularly in Ecuador (where I’m from). Yes, we are all mixed. We are mixed because sub-Saharan Africans were traded by Europeans as early as the 16th century into what was to them “The New World”. We are mixed because when the Spanish and French and Portuguese were busy colonising (and “evangelising”) the native peoples of what is now Latin America, they also raped women. See the pattern? If you’re white European, please don’t see this as an attack. It’s not.

Latinos are mixed but that doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist. I haven’t lived in Ecuador for 15 years now. I left when I was little. But I remember looking around and clearly seeing the divide among races. And whoever is thinking that it’s about class and not race, think again. I was a child but I remember being told I couldn’t go in “that neighbourhood because that’s where all the blacks live, and it’s dangerous”. I remember going to the market, where all the white people bought groceries and the indígenas sold them. I remember my father talking about how he’d been hired at a particular job because luckily his skin wasn’t too dark and his accent not too heavy. I remember people on television being white, speaking a certain way, making fun of people who were different. Despite being Ecuadorian I was never encouraged to learn any local languages, either by my parents or school.

Racism — nowadays understood as a sociological system whereby people are discriminated according to the colour of their skin. A system that hands out privileges to those who fit the acceptable mold and hands out punishment and rejection to those who don’t — is an ugly thing. Just like with things like sexism, if asked a question about it, we’d all probably say “Of course I’m not racist/sexist/in favour of rape culture”. We don’t want to admit that something that is so ignorant and hateful perseveres in our societies, communities, and in our minds. We don’t want to admit that people who are otherwise kind and friendly harbour hateful thoughts and prejudices towards someone just based on the colour of their skin or the texture of their hair. It’s there though. There’s no point in trying to hide it. This goes for Latinos as well as for everybody else.

“Modern women have cats as family!”

This morning I watched a film called Good Morning Karachi. The film follows Rafina and her family. She lives with her mother and younger brother in Faisal Colony, a neighbourhood in Karachi. She spends a lot of time looking at a billboard across from her house, where there is a woman clad in yellow, hair floating in the air, a faint glossy smile on her face. Rafina stares at the billboard and dreams about having a job and “seeing a bit of the world”, as she puts it. Rosie khala (aunty), a neighbour, works at a beauty salon called Radiance. Rafina begs Rosie to take her there and let her be an assistant so she can learn. Rosie’s son, Arif, and Rafina like each other and they often go on drives around the city and talk about the future. Rafina’s mother and Rosie agree that their children should get married but first Rafina is offered the opportunity of working for two months at Radiance, after that the wedding will take place and she will no longer work but start a family with Arif. He is involved in politics and the atmosphere is getting quite heated in the city. Arif is eventually taken to prison and questioned because of his involvement.

At Radiance Rafina goes from making tea to being a model. She is excited about it and goes for it despite the opposition of her mother and Arif. Rosie doesn’t seem to think there is anything wrong with it but Rafina’s mother is worried. Throughout the film we get a feel of how tense the atmosphere in Karachi is through the radio show Good Morning Karachi. It is a useful device for the audience – especially if you’re not familiar with the city – to understand how Rafina’s choices are seen as defiant and maybe even dangerous.

Rafina is convinced that she wants to be a “modern woman, like the ones in Paris, New York and London”. She jokes with her younger brother that “modern women have cats as family”. Rafina has a family and she is offered a proposal of marriage by Arif, with the approval of both their mothers. But by choosing to become a model she jeopardises these things, especially her relationship with Arif. I couldn’t help seeing her as a victim: going from the hands of her family to the hands of her employers, who see her as a way to make money, not a person. I’m looking at this situation from a place where models are hardly ever presented as women who are in charge of their lives — or maybe that’s just my perception. I have often thought that the moment you sell your image to be manipulated and distributed you are no longer in charge of it. Being a model doesn’t seem like a way for a woman to take charge of her life, it doesn’t seem to be a way of being free. But watching this film stirred something in me, it unmasked many of my prejudices and assumptions of what it is to be a “modern woman”, as Rafina puts it.

There is a moment in the film where Rafina must decide whether she stays at a fashion show or goes to the funeral of someone close to her. She ends up staying and doing the fashion show, which is her big break. At this point I stood in judgement for a moment, how could she?! But when she went on the runway I was disarmed by the expression on her face: determined, strong, piercing eyes and confidence. It was beautiful. Later on, when the sun goes down and she realises she’s missed the funeral, she is walking on the street in tears. But she owns up to the consequences of her decision; she asks the hard questions “I missed the funeral. How could I?” and it is Jamal, the Radiance representative, who somehow tries to justify her actions, probably in an attempt at silencing his own conscience.

I wonder how many women in cities like Karachi dream of living the life of women in Western capitals. Rafina’s modelling career has little to do with this. I’m more interested in her picture of the modern woman; one who works, lives alone, makes decisions on her own, doesn’t marry… That is the picture Rafina has but most of all she wants to be free to make her own decisions, to do something that she is passionate about. I look at Rafina’s story from a place where I enjoy all the freedoms she would like to have. But I also struggle finding a place in society, knowing what it means to be a woman nowadays. I don’t even need to be modern, whatever that means.

So what does it mean to be a (modern) woman in Europe? Often it feels like the obstacles for women are invisible walls. Discrimination against women in different areas of life is often more subtle here than it is in countries like Pakistan. We may not be told how to dress or that it is best if we don’t go out alone. We are generally not forced to marry a person we have not chosen. We are told that we can do any job we want. But it is still a struggle, from things related to women’s salaries, to women discriminating against each other, to small acts of sexism (like a male colleague patting you on the head and saying “oh, women always like to draw attention to themselves”).

At the end of the film Rafina, her mother and her younger brother are in the process of moving to a different flat. She is not marrying Arif and she is continuing to work. She has launched a campaign with the face of Rosie in it called “Unveil your loving glow”, where Rosie is shown lifting a veil off of her face. It isn’t clear what the campaign is for, I guess I’d have to read the book for that. But her actions are seen as provocative by the city’s more conservative mullahs.

Flyers with Rosie’s face are distributed on the streets, most of them are given to women, they are on cars, posters on pillars, there is even a billboard. Rafina is invited to a TV programme where she says that the campaign is a call to “show your love”. She is proud to show her aunty’s face. I believe Rafina is strong and independent, she is a “modern woman”.

Maybe being a modern woman is not about whether you decide to have babies or not; whether you live close to your family or far from them; or whether you are a model, a hairdresser or a diplomat. Maybe it is more about daring to live life to the fullest despite the obstacles you will undoubtedly find, whether they are big injustices or small annoyances. I can think of many stories of women in history that attest to the fact that this can be done. But Rafina’s story isn’t big, it is rather one where you have to zoom in: one city, one neighbourhood, one family, one life. She learns to pursue what she wants, cares for those she loves and defies social norms in a city rife with contradictions, danger, beauty and turmoil. Rafina may be fictional but her story has reminded me that we can find inspiration and courage to live with joy in the women around us, women like her mother and her Rosie khala.

Can I take a break from the Internet?

I’m having one of those moments when I feel like I need to ask for permission to take a break from the internet and everything within it.This may not be a very healthy attitude. I wonder how many people feel the same way.

I was reading an article in the Guardian this morning – by now I’ve established that I’m a sucker for The Guardian, I always find interesting things there…or maybe they find me! Google knows I like their Facebook page. Spooky, right? Anyway, the article was about this crazy feeling you get with all the information that is on the web. There is such a broad expanse of territory to cover and very little time to dive into anything for more than a couple of minutes. Most sites you visit will have a stream of posts, photos, shares, likes, ads… IT NEVER ENDS! On top of that you have the people trying to reach you; the phone buzzing with emails, notifications of all sorts, messages and maybe even the occasional phone call (!).

I’m a reader, I love a good article. I like to be aware of what’s happening but I always get this nagging feeling that I’m not keeping up. I miss information all the time. I find out about things days after they happen. Sometimes I decide not to read about a specific issue because there’s just not enough of me. I’m interested and I like to be attentive but my social media sites go unchecked for days, I read messages and decide to go away, think about it and answer later.

We live in this fast-paced, real-time reaction, on the spot reporting society that tweets, shares, comments on, blogs and Instagrams everything and anything. But I usually think before I blog, I don’t share things I don’t actually appreciate, I didn’t see the point of Instagram after a couple months so I quit, I’m horrible at tweeting, I don’t comment on videos or articles…seriously, people are so abusive and horrible on comment threads, why bother?, I usually think a lot before giving an opinion about current affairs, I’ve disabled most notifications on my phone and I’ve lost the grasp of what constitutes a Facebook status. I’m mostly okay with being this way but when I look at social media or read articles on newspapers it seems like everybody else is on this wave of being up to date with the world and I lag behind. I sometimes have this overwhelming sensation that I’m just too slow for life in the 21st century. And there’s this strange need to apologise for it. As if somebody were telling me that I need to keep up, that it’s vital. But I am happier when I take my time to think.

These past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about this. My life, my thoughts and opinions may seem small in light of the huge things happening in the world today. It may seem like I drown in the midst of all the other voices on the web. But there is a part of me that believes that there is a place for mine out there. There is value and relevance in every voice.

I hope to learn more about how to use the internet without going insane. For now I’ll just keep telling myself that it’s okay to take a break and I won’t be a total failure if I don’t keep up with the world (whatever that means!).

The “I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-my-life” issue.

I have been worrying about this question a lot lately. I had a very busy summer of teaching English. I enjoyed myself. I felt like my days had purpose and, even though I was tired most of the time, I was happy! As the summer came to an end so did my job as a teacher. And that is when the wondering and endless over-thinking started.

Recently I made a come-back on social media, I hadn’t posted anything on Facebook (or Twitter) for quite a few months. I wrote a status about my concerns regarding the future. Many people reacted to it and I was surprised but I guess I shouldn’t have been. I’ve had numerous conversations with people who wonder what to do with their lives. Like me, they seem not to be able to turn to their parents for advice. I wonder whether the generation gap is just too great. Maybe 21st century people face different challenges but that’s a topic for a different time. I am sure we all want our lives to have purpose and that goes beyond professional development. But the question of what to do with our lives professionally appears very large at the moment.

Some of the people who reacted to my status gave me hope. They are a little way down the road and can say that uncertainty is not always a bad thing. I love getting different perspectives from people. I often get so caught up in my thoughts that I cannot see that there may be other ways of thinking. Someone I met a couple of years ago is using his years to push himself and do things that he would otherwise not do. Maybe it all comes back to taking advantage of the stage you’re at. I worry quite a bit about money: will I be able to make my rent this month? what about food? and bills? and….?!!! I know the money won’t just appear unless I work for it but money won’t appear because I worry about it either! I worked all summer and maybe having a break isn’t a bad thing. In regard to the future, I still don’t know what I want to do. I know there are many people in my situation and I just hope that we will learn valuable things along the way.

Some things I’m learning:

From time to time uncertainty feels exhilarating. But it is mostly terrifying.

Comparing myself to other people isn’t helpful. It really, really isn’t.

Figuring out what is going on with my emotions isn’t a waste of time. After all I spent 18 months in therapy trying to sort it all out and I have to make that time count.

Catching up with the news has made me realise that I care deeply about certain issues.

I actually have time to write, paint, dance, talk to friends, go for walks, do yoga, visit my mother, take online courses, spend time with the cat…

Maybe there isn’t just ONE thing I’m meant to do.

Sharing my experience has helped other people feel understood and a little less lonely.

God. Do I trust him? More questions than lessons there.