Do your best

I’ve been raised to set high standards for myself. I’ve been raised that your best is never good enough and that in order to succeed you  need to push beyond your limits and go beyond your best. I’ve taught myself that if you are not perfect you have not done your best.

I returned to my dorm in Istanbul tonight and found a woman sitting in the lobby with her head in her hands.  I couldn’t tell if she was on the phone with someone or if she were asleep or listening to music. I asked if she was okay in Turkish and then in English and she didn’t respond. When I asked again she again didn’t respond.

Her hair was matted, greasy and a spider crawled its way through the black tangles. It felt like a horror movie and that as soon as she turned her face toward the light I would be met with some three eyed demon or a bloody disfigurement. Her legs and jean shorts were covered in dried blood and the lobby smelled from drugs, though I don’t know what kind.

Another Turkish girl, Asli, approached and spoke to the seated woman in Turkish. The woman responded, got up from the chair and nearly fell after a few hobbling steps. She couldn’t make the walk the fifteen feet from the lobby to her dorm room.  There were scratch marks on her and I didn’t want to look anymore.

Asli told me the woman said she did not want to go to the Health Center, but I insisted. If the woman became angry, she could be angry at me, I told Asli. What mattered was calling someone and I did not know enough Turkish to make the call myself. Asli called Dormitory Management and Dormitory Management called the Health Center.

The woman had the contents of her purse dumped out in front of her as she struggled to find her room key, when the ambulance arrived. The flashing blue lights stopped my heart, I was terrified but didn’t know of what.

I was terrified of the woman, I suppose. Terrified of what had happened to her and terrified that just by being in presence I had somehow “caught” her misfortune. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t even communicate! Workers from the Health Center spoke to her and I left because I had done all I could.

The first thing I did when I got to my room was scrub my hands again and again to rid myself of her presence and cleanse myself of whatever I may have “caught”. Then I called my mom and tried desperately to articulate the situation, but my words were derailed by constant stammers and “I’m sorry”s. My mom told me I had done my best and that I had been a good human being for helping as I did.

Except  I don’t want a pat on the back for being a good person when there was nothing I could do. I did my best, yes, but my best didn’t mean much because I lack the skills to make a real impact. This shouldn’t be about me, but I feel part of the reason for my guilt right now over not being able to do more is because of how I’ve been raised regarding “my best”. My best always needs to be perfect and that is the attitude applied not just to me, but to everyone about how to succeed. We are teaching and learning a flawed principle.

Yes, we should always try our best and push ourselves. Yes, we should always strive for success. But we should also know that our best isn’t about being perfect and always knowing the answers. It’s about doing everything that we can and being proud of what we have accomplished.

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Dear Men: A list of what I do not owe you

In a hypothetical situation that very closely (some might even go so far as to say exactly) mirrors reality, I am walking down the street in Istanbul trying to find my way to the shuttle that will take me to the airport. A shoe-shine man drops one of his brushes. I pick it up and hand it back to him.

Dear Shoe-Shine Man:

I do not owe you

  1. where I am from
  2. my name
  3. my age
  4. my marital status
  5. my time

I helped you, but that does not mean you delay me by insisting you shine my shoes and asking me personal questions. My life is my own. My time is my own. I do not not owe you my time. Just because I am a woman walking down the street without a man does not mean I am available.

Do not take my help as flirting. I did nothing to invite your attention and I do not want your attention. Please, shoe-shine man, get a grip on your ego and do not assume that I am straight or that I am automatically interested in you.

Thank you and please be a decent human being.

Another hypothetical situation:

I am walking by myself in Izmir killing some time and decide to get a cup of tea. After passing by  multiple places I deem to be a bit too sketchy, I pick a restaurant, sit down and order.

Dear Waiter,

I do not owe you:

  1. my name
  2. my age
  3. my facebook information
  4. my phone number

I am buying a cup of tea. A woman by herself should not be a walking anomaly. I might give you my name to be polite, but you do not need to know my age. Especially when you tell me you think I’m 15. When I correct you and say that I am twenty, it is poor manners to say “Me too!” and ask if I’m on facebook then hand over your phone for my number. We do not know each other. I have given no indication that I am interested in you in a romantic fashion. Being alone and being American does not make me more available or more flirtatious. It means I’m alone and I’m American.

In the future, please check your ego before you speak to your female customers.

Thank you. Have a nice day.

People have told me the above scenarios are a cultural issue, not a sexist issue. They tell me it is to be expected if I am traveling alone. I tell them that it should never be expected for a woman to receive harassment because that is condoning oppressive treatment.

In addition there is nothing cultural about men believing they have the right to pick up women wherever they are. The same attitude from men exists in America. The pervasive attitude is that all women exist to serve men and that if a man gives you a compliment or asks for your phone number you should be elated. A man showed interest in you! That’s one step closer to the womanly ideal of marriage and a family! And while those ideals are fine for some women as long as it’s what they want, they are not fine for all women. They are certainly not fine for me.

It’s difficult to tell men “no” because of how much we’ve been conditioned to acquiesce to the “more dominant sex.” But as women we need to realize the power in saying “no”. And understanding that we don’t owe men our time simply because we are women.

Culture of Protest: Do not Fear Change, Fear Passivity

Before coming to Turkey concerned friends and family only knew Turkey was part of the dreaded Middle East. They told me not to go near Syria even though I’m living on the opposite side of the country on the European continent. They told me not to go near Gezi Park–the site of anti-government protests summer 2013 which turned violent when police used water cannons and tear gas canisters to disperse Turkish people encamped in the park. The protests have been compared to the Occupy Movement and the 1968 protests in America because of how people of all political affiliations have been involved and it is not just one issue they are fighting for.

When the Occupy  movement swept through American news, it was a joke to me. The people holding their protests against Wallstreet weren’t making change, they were making fools of themselves and contacting TB while they struggled to get organized. From my sheltered life as a college student in GA these protests were futile and I barely paid them any attention.

But living in Istanbul I’ve seen protests. I walked outside of Istanbul Cevahir (the biggest mall in Europe) and there was a crowd of people chanting in Turkish, yelling in Turkish words that I didn’t understand. The other American exchange students I was with stopped to gawk, inching closer with smiles on their faces as they felt like such big-damn heroes for braving a protest scene. As soon as the police showed up and started attacking people in the crowd, my acquaintances ran off, yelling for me to follow them. I cannot remember the last time I was so angry. How could these other exchange students be so heartless and exploitative at the expense of people putting their safety on the line for something they believe in? When did protests become a spectacle?

I believe it happens when people find them exotic. The Occupy Movement aside, there is not a large protest culture in America since the 1960s because it seems as if protests haven’t been working. Maybe it’s because America is such a large country that creating national fervor has become near to impossible. Maybe it’s because the American government is so great at turning its citizens against each other that we’re too busy to fight the real enemy of the government who is supposedly elected to serve us. I do not feel served as an American citizen, I feel betrayed by a system I was taught all my life is perfect. American Democracy.

And because have American democracy, things may not be perfect as we’re told they are as children, but things could always be worse so sit down, shut up and don’t complain. Laugh at the people brave enough to complain. Run away when things get too dangerous and don’t you dare try to stand up for your rights. It won’t work.

The protests in Atlanta after the Zimmerman trial didn’t stop the government or the court systems from being racist. The No More Names protest against gun violence following the Newtown school shooting didn’t stop the NRA from keeping its boot on the American government’s neck. They marched on Washington and nothing has happened to pass gun safety laws. It seems as if every protest we have is quickly forgotten as people turn a blind eye to suffering that does not affect them. Again, we are too busy fighting ourselves to fight the government and this is a form of oppression. Although the system of democracy advocates for the voice of the people in making decisions, the real world of living in American democracy tells you the opposite. It tells you not to make change and that maybe change isn’t possible.

Yesterday, March 11th 2014 marks the death of Berkin Elvan a 14 year old who left his home to buy bread during the Gezi Park protests and was hit in the head by police. Elvan had been in a coma since he was attacked and yesterday he died. In Istanbul and Ankara (the two largest cities in Turkey) there were massive protests and looking at the pictures  I wondered if protests like this could happen in America today. I wondered if protests like this do happen today and the government is great at covering them up or turning them into parodies to be laughed at.

But no matter what I wonder, there is one thing I know. One of the most striking ways Turkish protests differ from what I have seen and understand about American protests is that in Turkey, the protesters are not pushing for the government to enact small reforms. They are asking the government to resign. 

That is what American protests are missing: the belief that large-scale change can occur and that we are not beholden to the current system. I do not have all the answers for a perfect government but I do not fear a change in the system, I fear living my life under the belief that change is impossible.

Be a Good Ally

I took a five-and-a-half hour bus ride out of Istanbul to get to the Gallipoli peninsula.

For those five-and-a-half hours, I had a long conversation with a man also studying abroad through the same program as myself. We had talked a bit before, but had never had the time to just sit and get to know each other. He’s an environmental engineer and I’m a writer, but we talked far more about real world issues we were each trying to solve through our chosen profession.

He knew about racial profiling and understood that racism is still alive today. He knew that when I was canvassing over the past summer, it must have been more difficult for me to be walking around as a woman. I told him it was worse for the canvassers of color who were stopped by the police. He was sympathetic and understood that he has privilege as a straight, white, cisgender man.

But, though he said he supported gay marriage, he would not actively pursue the issue because:

 it wasn’t his issue.

By this point in our conversation, I had explained how I do not believe American governments on any level (from local to national) are actually committed to making positive change. I told him that I wanted to use my creative writing to write better media representations of women, people of color, the queer community and any intersection or variation of the above. He was receptive to my ideas and was clearly considering his own opinions on the matter because he told me he wished he were more informed and could give a stronger opinion.

This is why his response that certain issues were not his issues floored me. By all accounts he was an ally. Not just to the queer community, but to the feminist community and to people of color. He understood that oppression is a contemporary issue that needs to be immediately addressed. So how can he see the problems of the world, know people who are affected by these problems and still believe he is only obligated to care about his issues?

His issues are environmental. I respect that. The earth needs an ally too. However, he is not a good ally.

Being a good ally is more than acknowledging issues exist. It is more than saying you support gay marriage or women’s rights. You can say all you want, but if in the end you won’t do anything because you believe you are somehow exempt from responsibility toward helping people who are not your own, you do not understand what an ally is.

The reason I believe American governments are not moving toward equality is because my friend’s reasoning is the norm. Progressive people are saying they support gay rights, anti-racist policies and gender and sexual equality for women but they are not doing anything about it. And if the people on the ground aren’t doing anything about it, how will our government know we are serious about what we say?

Be a good ally and put action to your words. Do more than tell the world you won’t sit back and let bigotry continue. Stand up and don’t let bigotry continue.

Weapon of Choice

Traveling about in Istanbul, I finally made it to Sulanhamet and then the Topkapi Palace.

                         

Now, while I hate to skip over a description of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, you can find descriptions and pictures of these buildings anywhere. I need to speak not on the sightseeing experience, but one room I saw in the innermost courtyard of the Topkapi Palace: the armory.

The group I was with saw swords that were jeweled along the hilt with stones in every imaginable color. We saw curved swords, impossibly sharp daggers, sheathes that sparkled with gold inlay even under the harsh museum lights. We saw guns over four feet long and strung up behind glass. There were great-swords with hilts over a foot wide and blades at least six feet long. The artistic peak at the top of the helmets never ceased to amaze and armor made for horses lay flat on black velvet, the eye sockets blindly staring.

It was breathtaking. It was jaw dropping. It was violence done up in finery.

You forget (or you make yourself forget) that each of these weapons was a weapon. It’s purpose was never to sit in a museum to but to stain itself with blood or gun powder and always to kill. Even the ceremonial weapons were not innocent because ceremonial weapons exist to perpetuate and glorify violence and war.

I do not seek to make judgments on Turkey’s past or present. But upon exiting the museum, the people I was with began talking about their “weapon of choice” still lost in the fantasy of war heroics and the glory bestowed upon warriors. If it registered with them that these are dangerous objects, I couldn’t tell. The group was irreverent toward the history we saw but burned with desire and laughed and joked about what they could do with their weapon of choice. They chose their swords and their daggers and I had to struggle not to choose with them.

I understand the temptation to equate heroics with violence and I understand that our world showers glory upon the heroism of battle. I’m a Lord of the Rings fan, I know how breathtaking and appealing it can be to imagine yourself as the hero wielding a sword, or a bow or an ax. But this temptation is dangerous and perpetuates the myth of glorious warfare and masculinity on the battlefield.

The exhibit needed to address the wars these weapons were used in. We needed more than a small placard telling us the type of sword and the century. We needed to be turned away from our fantasies with the bloody facts of what war really is.

Museums should value history over violence. Museums should take responsibility to educate its patrons that though violence and history have gone hand in hand, this does not need to be the future and it should be no one’s fantasy.

Hate is not a Perspective

I’m studying abroad in Istanbul! I’m in Istanbul right now and will be in Turkey until June and I tell you this to put this story into context.

Istanbul From Space with Place-Names

Our whole study abroad group of Americans went out into the city the other night for us to get accustomed to the city and know the transportation. We wind up at a club around 11:30 or so and I don’t drink and I rarely dance. The bass music was jarring, but not any worse than I was expecting,even as it rocked its way up through my bones.

But it wasn’t the volume of the music that left me seething. It wasn’t the flashing lights.

It was the misogyny of the music and the music videos. Blasting in my ears was date-rape song blurred lines, songs about dicks and  grabbing hold of your own sexy lady for a night of manly fun. The songs were American, but I didn’t know half of them. Still, I knew enough to hear the words and feel violently ill. The music videos were just as bad if not worse. It’s nothing new for music and music videos to sexualize women, so I know this isn’t groundbreaking news. But, in any other situation I would have had the opportunity to leave. However, I’m in Istanbul. I don’t know my way down the block let alone the public transit two hour commute back to campus. I don’t speak much Turkish. So I stand and I seethe and no one approaches me until finally other girls in our group ask if I want to leave.

As we hail a taxi, someone comments on how the club was too empty. I say it was full of hate and misogyny. One  of the girls laughs, not a mean spirited  laugh, but an awkward laugh because she doesn’t know what to say and she’s amazed I’m being honest. I’m crying now from so much pent up emotions and a Turkish student who accompanied us to the club says he never thought of it from that perspective before.

He was trying to help, but hate is not a perspective you can validate or invalidate. Hate is a fact. Yes, you can choose to notice it or not, but that doesn’t make it any less real or impactful. But it’s simple to see hate as just a way of looking at the world: half full or half empty. In other words, if you choose to see a hateful world that’s your problem and your judgment should be adjusted accordingly.

This is why it’s so difficult to speak candidly about oppression against any marginalized group! Far too often you’re invalidated and told that you’re just misinterpreting the situation. Shift your perspective and suddenly the awful racist comment is just a joke. Or the sexualization of women (and specifically women of color) in music videos is just clever marketing for their target male audience. Suddenly you are the overly sensitive one, ruining the rose-colored glasses of those around you. How dare you see the world for what it is and want to make change.

But though I felt awful crying in front of people I met just the day before, I felt validated that I had stood up against hatred and did not shy away from telling the truth. Hate is currently an ugly truth of the world and it cannot be combated until it is recognized as a real problem that needs immediate attention. If anything, those who deny hatred and bigotry need to shift their perspective.