All posts by claireabellewrites

Teaching About Gender Roles: International Women’s Day 2017

When I was living in Bangkok I wrote a blog about women in Thailand and the differences between expat/immigrant women and local women, and how they are treated and perceived. Now I live in Krakow and I thought I would make a similar post about women in Poland. However, Poland is a completely different country in terms of history and culture, and so it does not have the same thoughts or structure as my previous post.
From having been teaching here for three months I have been able to make some surprising cultural observations. Despite the country’s recent history, the people of Poland can be quite racist and homophobic, to a level I was not expected. It was because of this that I felt somewhat hesitant to introduce gender roles into my classes, fearing that my students (aged thirteen to nineteen) would have a similarly old-fashioned approach. Luckily this time I was presently surprised.
In Poland, Women’s Day is celebrated to the same extent as Valentine’s Day is in the UK. Men and boys, at home and at school, buy flowers or other gifts for the women and girls in their lives to show them that they are appreciated. I have been told that the same happens in November on Men’s Day where women give gifts and show appreciation to men. It was a lovely day.
What did surprise me during the debates about gender roles was the sheer number of women who didn’t identify as feminists nor have feminist values. I noticed that the younger girls that I had were more inclined to feminist thoughts and opinions, and that often it was the older ones who didn’t, though I don’t know how much this observation applies elsehwere outside of my school!
Many eighteen and nineteen year old girls told me, and the class, that girls and women are all better at housework, and so should be required to do all the housework for their families, and that men should only have to do it if they want to. All of these girls are well-educated and planning to go to university next year, and I was surprised that such well-educated students still believed so strongly in traditional male and female roles.
I also noticed how often the boys in my classes completely ignored or disregarded the girls’ opinions. Ironically, one of my girls said “women are better listeners” and she looked at the boys for a response and not one of them was listening to her! I frequently heard scoffs such as “well, she’s a feminist so she would say that” as though feminists ought not to be listened to. 
I also witnessed some of the worst cases of mansplaining I’ve ever seen. I had thirteen year old boys explaining to me and the girls in the class that men are more suited to manual work because they all have bigger hands, which is why women should stay at home and do the housework. Did they forget that housework is manual? In a couple of classes I had boys explain that men and women are equal, and that we shouldn’t even be having the conversation! Perhaps in some countries around the world this is increasingly becoming the case, but largely speaking in Europe men and women are not socially or culturally equal. For men and women to be absolutely equal, women would have to be represented more in governments and industries, and men in more traditionally feminine positions. 
Many of my students felt strongly about these issues, but a lot of them didn’t. When I asked them to contribute to class discussions or I asked for their opinions, they nearly always sided with the person who was the loudest and most charming, and often this meant that the majorities were those who disagreed with feminist ideals. 
I don’t want it to sound all bad. Sexism in Poland is much less of an issue than either racism or homophobia. Many of my students, boys and girls, challenged the ideas of traditional gender roles.
“Men are managers and women are shop assistants.” 

“Why?”
“Science fiction isn’t for girls.”

“Why?”
“Women are just good at housework and men aren’t.”

“Why?”
Why?

These ideals are of course not specific to Poland, I just thought it would be interesting to compare what I have found to what I saw happening in Thailand.

Toxic Masculinity in Breaking Bad

Firstly I just want it known that I have not finished watching this series yet, and I am currently nearing the end of season three. These are my observations from what I have seen so far.

Earlier today I was trying to think how to explain what Breaking Bad is and what it’s all about, when it occurred to me that I could sum it up in two words: toxic masculinity. What is toxic masculinity? I would define toxic masculinity as a perspective on culutre and society that shows men as being aggressive, emotionally indifferent, and powerful. For me, the series is about men trying, sometimes succeeding yet often failing, to live up to these impossible standards.

When we meet Walter in the very first episode, he is clearly portrayed as weak. He has a loving family and a stable job (as a teacher, which is often seen as a more feminine job), though he feels seemingly inferior to other men around him. To Walt, being able to provide financial stability in excess for himself and his family is more important than the more ‘feminine’ ideals of a happy family life and steady job. Clearly, manliness is defined by money and power, and often money leads to power. Saul memorably says to Walt that a real man provides, whether he is respected/loved or not, just because he is a man. 

When Walt is first diagnosed with cancer he tries to hide it from his family, so as to not be seen as weak. He later refuses charity from Elliot and Gretchen for fear of being seen as less of a man, and feeling inferior to his old friend. Walt feels as though he deserves a fortune similar to Elliot’s and makes it his goal throughout the series to achieve that, by whatever means. He does not want to feel as though he owes Gretchen and Elliot. He feels as though he has failed both himself and his family, by not having the same finances, and does not want to be in Elliot’s debt for fear of losing even more of his masculinity. 

Hank’s character is used to counteract Walt’s, especially early on in the series. Hank is clearly physically stronger than both Walter and Walter Jr, both of whom suffer illnesses, and he also has a traditionally more masculine job in the police force. He is loud, and brutish, and commands more attention than Walter. Though Hank does not know who is behind it, he is in a constant battle for power – Hank uses his strength, and Walt his wit. Both Walt and Hank cannot have power at the same time. As “Heisenberg” gets more successful, Hank starts to lose power and respect. For Walt, gaining power means taking it from others, and I think this is an especially dangerous aspect of toxic masculinity because everything becomes a competition. To gain power means to take it from others. When Hank avoids death or injury in El Paso, he is seen as weak and vulnerable. When this vulnerability comes out his life starts to fall apart. Hank also never confronts or accepts the PTSD which he is suffering after having witnessied the bomb in El Paso (amongst other things) and his need to always convey a fully masculine front prevents him from recovering emotionally. This is also damaging and we see all the ways in which it affects Hank.

Arguably Jesse is the most feminine of our main male characters. He cares a lot for children, and is seen crying more than once. These are both feminine traits. Jesse is constantly trying to live up to the masculine ideals surrounding him but he is frequently suffering because of this. His inability to reach the impossible heights of the portrayal of ‘real masculinity’ here makes him unhappy and lose everything in the process of trying. Jesse struggles the most to inflict violence on others, and I think, because masculinity promotes violence when a quest for power is concerned, Jesse is seen by other men as weak.

Toxic masculinity is at its most obvious in a memorable scene with Hank, Walter and Walter Jr, where Walter is insisting that sixteen year old Walter Jr can drink tequila with them. Hank tries to stop him from drinking too much, but Walter, sensing defeat, encourages Walter Jr to drink more so that he does not lose face. It’s a power struggle between Hank and Walter. Ultimately, Walter Jr continues drinking – an apparent victory for Walter – but then vomits into the pool, showing once again how dangerous it is to try to maintain masculinity in this series. 

I also want to mention language here in the form of Jesse’s favourite word – bitch. This word is often reserved for insulting women, but it gets thrown about a lot in this series. I wonder if this traditionally female insult is used to reduce the men to being more feminine? Suddenly their power decreases when they are compared to women. Men do not want to be compared to women here and it is clear that they see themselves as completely separate.

As the series continues, I am led to wonder if Walter is really doing everything for his family, or if he does it in order to fulfil his position as a man in society. I think he feels as though he is failing to be a ‘man’ when we first meet him, and I think this is more important to him than providing for his family. After all, his friend Elliot would have been able to help his family if they needed it. It is more about Walter’s ego than his finances. Is Walter a ‘man’ now because he is powerful? He is certainly more powerful but he is absolutely not a better person for it. 

Finally, do you think that Breaking Bad is a critique or a celebration of masculinity? 

I’m going to watch until the end and see!

Things I Miss About England

I’ve been living in Thailand for almost a year now and because I’ll be back in only four months time I’ve let myself think about all of the things I’m missing and what I’m most looking forward to about being back in the UK. 
My Family

I have been lucky enough to have my family come out to visit me here in Thailand. In December of last year my grandparents and auntie came for a fortnight, and then in March/April my parents and younger brother came to visit. Though of course it was so nice to have them here – I can’t remember being more excited about anything, the night before they arrived was like Christmas Eve for a child – it also made me miss them a little bit more, at least initially. I am lucky to have such a close family, and I won’t have seen many of them for fifteen months by the time I get back. Above anything else, I am most excited to spend time with my family. 
The Food

Don’t get me wrong, Thai food is some of the best I’ve had. But there are just some things you can’t get – or you can’t get how I like them – over here. I want a roast dinner! I want fish and chips (chips, not French fries). I want marmite on my toast (and I want the toast to not be sweet).
Carpet

This was something I missed last year too when I was in Spain. Buildings in hot countries are made to stay cool, which means flooring is mostly tiled. It works – the floor is always cold – but I sometimes miss walking on carpet.
Jumpers

It’s silly how much I want to put on a big woolly jumper and snuggle up. Thailand never – never – gets cold (unless you go to the cinema) which can be nice, but it’s nothing like what I was used to growing up and I sometimes miss cold weather and snuggling up. I also don’t have a quilt here, I just sleep with the quilt cover, because a quilt would be too hot. I just want to snuggle!
Transport

I spend a lot of time here in Bangkok using public transport, and trying to cross roads. What I really miss is adherence to traffic laws. It’s mayhem here!
Bins

This one sounds really silly, but there are so few bins on the streets in Bangkok that there are rubbish piles everywhere and this attracts rats and cockroaches. It also makes it look a mess and smell. Come on Thailand, get some bins on the streets!

Why has Brexit become an excuse for intolerance?

On Thursday, June 23rd the UK held a referendum in order to decide whether or not to remain in the European Union. By midday (Thailand time) on Friday the results had been released showing that it was a 52% lead for those who wanted to leave – those who voted in favour of ‘Brexit.’ 

Firstly, I want it to be known that this is not a discussion about the political or economic impact the decision to leave the EU has had, and will continue to have for many years, but merely a discussion about the social impact. I cannot pretend to understand all of the implications behind the decision – I’m not sure if anyone really can. But I can comment on my observations from social media and accounts from back home in England. 

Personally, I wanted to remain in the EU (and organised for my mum to be my proxy on the day of the referendum). As a Brit working abroad, I perhaps have a different take on the matter to others who are living in Britain. Though I live in Thailand now, I did in fact live in Spain (part of the EU) last year and intend to work again in Europe again from January, 2017. Ultimately I want to return to live in England and am confident that I will spend most of my life in England. In my eyes, remaining in the EU was a way of maintaining important international relationships with other European countries that will takes years to rebuild.

However, it is how it is and I am in the minority.

As an immigrant, or an expat, or a ‘farang’ here in Thailand I know what it’s like to live as a foreigner abroad. (It’s interesting to me that to Brits I am an expat, and to Thais I am a farang, and people like me in Britian are immigrants. Though all three words essentially mean the same thing, the connotations do differ. In Britain, foreigners are ‘immigrants’ whereas I am an ‘expat.’ What’s the difference? Merely the negative connotations associated with the word ‘immigrant.’) I feel like I understand how it must feel to be visibly foreign (or even just visibly foreign-looking) in the UK and to be targeted for it. It happens to me on a fairly regular basis. I am not a stranger to casual racism. I often overhear discussions about raising the price for the farang, or people who don’t want to serve me in a shop in case I don’t understand their Thai, or inflated prices at tourist attractions. This is something I thought – I hoped – my home country would not exercise. In Britain, I thought, this wouldn’t happen. 

But it has. And it makes me so sad. Because, right now, it is worse in my country. Some people have seen the result as an excuse to exercise racism and intolerance. As a developed country with access to so much of the world’s knowledge, how have we let this happen? I don’t mean the vote. Though it is not what I would have chosen, I accept what has happened and intend to find the good in it. But what I’m seeing is social media full of racism. I have seen examples of foreigners in the UK being verbally abused, with messages threatening to have them sent out of the country, or even sometimes for civilians to make it happen themselves. One that I saw said ‘Britain is a white country.’ Of course it isn’t. Yes, Britian is primarily white, but diversity is what makes a country interesting and helps it thrive. 

I have reluctantly but wholeheartedly accepted the outcome of the referendum. It is not the outcome that upsets me, it’s what the outcome means for other people. The fact that some people now feel entitled to verbally abuse those who are not British enough for them, or how some feel that leaving the EU allows them to be racist, makes me sad. 

I can accept the outcome of the referendum. But I absolutely cannot accept the racism.

Women in Thailand 

When I initially thought of writing this blog post, I intended it to be merely a collection of my own observations about the differences between men and women and how they are treated here in Thailand. However, the more I thought about it, the more I became aware of the differences not only between genders but also between Thai women and foreign women, and Thai men and foreign men. I then stumbled across an article that I just could not dismiss and so I will also draw upon the ideas I read there too.

Even to somebody who knows very little about Thailand, we all know that the country is famous for its beautiful women and its ladyboys. And it’s true. There are a lot of beautiful women and equally beautiful ladyboys. I absolutely have to praise Thailand for its acceptance of genders other than the standard male and female. There are many countries around the world where these women would be shunned and forced to be something they’re not. Similarly, Thailand as a nation also accepts people of all sexual orientations. For that, Thailand, I applaud you! For a country that is still developing in many ways, you have certainly taken the lead in this case.

Having been living in Bangkok for a total of nine months so far, it has come to my attention the number of male expats and the number of female expats differs greatly. From my observations, there are many male and female twenty-something expats seeking adventures in the land of smiles. However, as the expats get older, fewer and fewer women choose to move to or stay in Thailand. Many more foreign men than women choose to stay here long term. The reason? Their Thai women. Why is it that foreign men are so attracted to Thai women? And why is it that foreign women and Thai men do not have the same relationship? 

It all comes down to stereotypes. In my mind, stereotypes are never a good thing. They are dehumanising and take away from our individuality. However, I do accept that stereotypes come from a common trend or truth. Though I do not believe we should stereotype, it is important to recognise where these stereotypes come from. In Thailand, stereotypical Western women are fat and rude and out to destroy men. It sounds to me that those creating the stereotype are intimidated by these women. On the other hand, Thai women are seen as caring, domestic goddesses and sex kittens. The extreme differences are not flattering to foreign women, and unfortunately that imagine, to varying extents, is pushed on us. Though clearly the Thai women stereotype is far more flattering, it is equally unjust. Both are unjust, and should not be applied to any group of women as a whole.

This makes me wonder where this stereotype comes from. Are these stereotypes the fault of Thai culture and society? Or is it in fact from the expat community itself? I would argue that the stereotypes have been more created by the expats than Thai society. There is a popular image of western women that we all hate Thai women and are jealous that they are stealing our men. Who do you think started that rumour? It sounds to me like some bitter, older men who have had bad relationships with Western women in the past, projecting their anger and bitterness from the memories of white women onto all of us.

Which brings me onto my next point. I recently read a blog post on Single Dude Travel (http://www.singledudetravel.com/2015/08/what-ive-learned-about-western-women-while-living-in-thailand/) entitled ‘What I’ve Learned About Western Women While Living in Thailand’ though I think a more appropriate title would be something along the lines of ‘Sweeping Generalisations and What I’ve Projected onto All Western Women’. This article praises Thai women and frankly insults Western women. He begins by detailing a bad relationship with a German girl he had had in the past and goes on to say ‘I had absolutely no idea that there were continents full of loving, caring and supportive women who don’t create drama at every possible opportunity.’ To suggest that women in entire continents all share exactly the same personality traits is unrealistic. 

He then goes on to say ‘before I spent several months in the land of smiled I thought that it was normal for women to behave like men,’ suggesting that Western women are acting like men. Surely that is a good thing? Surely this means that the gender inequality gap is shrinking. In a perfect world it would go without saying that both men and women should act only like respectful and decent humans, and not have to live up to any gender roles prescribed to them centuries ago. I applaud the women who ‘are acting more like men’ – perhaps they are expressing their own personalities rather than what they feel their personailities should reflect. In my mind, this just shows that there is more gender equality in the Western world and is something to be encouraged.

I started to read his blog post with an open mind. Everyone is free to have their own opinions and should be free to voice them however they choose to. However, the more I read the less I took seriously. At one point he refers to Western women as ‘obese western dragons’ and I could no longer take it completely seriously. The post is full of biases and cruel stereotypes and ridiculous sweeping generalisations. One particular statement that stood out to me was ‘99% of Western women know that they are inferior to most non-western women.’ He argues that all Western women fear the day that their husbands realise that they made a big mistake and leave their women for Thai women. Unless my female friends and I all fall into that 1% that feels differently, then these statements are anything but true. We accept and understand that we are different to Thai girls in some respects, due to differences in the societies and cultures we were brought up in. However, we are all essentially the same; we are all people. 

It seems to me that the author of this post is extremely bitter about previous relationships with Western women and is projecting his impression of Western women onto all of us. I have heard many stories about disasterous relationships between Thai women and foreign men. Whether or not a relationship will last does not depend on the nationality of the people involved, it merely depends on the people themselves.

There are also things in Thailand that affect both Thai and Western women in the same way. For example, I recently went on a trip to a town in the north of Thailand called Chiang Mai. There I went to visit many Buddhist temples, and it was at one particular temple I noticed a peculiar sign: 


“Women are not permitted.” I could see no reason why this should be the case.

Similarly, not only are women not permitted to be monks, but we are also forbidden to touch a monk or sit next to a monk on the bus. In Thailand there is a law stating that women are forbidden to enter temples when menstruating. Though I strongly believe that Buddhism teaches some very important moral lessons, I do think it has a long way to go in terms of achieving gender equality.

Finally I want to talk about the sex trade in Thailand, but also in south east Asia more generally. It is not uncommon for young women to enter the sex trade in order to fund and care for their entire families. Many young women are forced into prostitution by poverty. They come from poor areas to tourist areas in order to earn money to support their families. 

I have personally been to a handful of strip clubs and a ping pong show here in Bangkok and I hate it. It’s not that I hate the industry as a whole – women should be free to do what they please. What I dislike about it is the fact the so many women seem unhappy to me. If a woman is unhappy – no, if a person is unhappy – they should not have to remain in the job that makes them unhappy. However, for many of these young girls, they lack the skills to get positions elsewhere. 

I love Thailand. Though perhaps, as is the case with many countries arounf the world, it has a fair way to go before it achieves compete gender equality. 

Rice Farming on a School Trip

Two days ago, four of us teachers went on a school trip to a farm called Ban Kru Thani, an hour or so outside of Bangkok. Two teachers were already there, having been selected for the overnight camp, but myself and one other went for the day. By 7am we were on a bus full of children on the way to the farm.

Firstly, we were asked to entertain the students on the bus. Begrudgingly – we both tend to suffer from travel sickness and were a bit apprehensive about standing and entertaining on a moving vehicle – we took it in turns to teach new vocabulary (words that might be useful on a farm) and indicate how they were to fill in their worksheets. To be completely honest, that was a challenge in itself. Does anybody know the difference between a sickle and a scythe? Neither did I. 

When we arrived, we met the others, played a few games in English and sang some songs to get everyone excited for the day ahead. Even in the shade at 8.30am it was extremely hot and it dawned on us quite how hot it was going to be out in the sun all day. We were encouraged to take off our shoes in order to really experience the farm how it’s experienced everyday by Thai farmers. As nice as that sounded at the time, we all regretted having left our shoes behind when we realised how hot the floor was under our feet!

Once we had split the group into smaller and more manageable teams, we then went to pay our respects to Buddha and the farm. Not really understanding what we were doing or why, we followed the farmers to a room containing a shrine and paid our respects, after which we listened to a talk about the history of the farm and architecture of the building. Of course this talk was in Thai, and we understood very little! So many times as an English teacher have I been thrown into a situation with almost no knowledge of what’s happening or why, and this was another one of those times.

Shortly after, each group was taken to a different area of the farm where we all took part in different tasks, and then moved onto the next. We rode in a tractor, rode a cart pulled by a buffalo, collected eggs, climbed a tree on a bamboo ladder, sat on a buffalo, helped to prepare a rice dessert, fed some fish, kayaked a little (very difficult to do when the students on your boat don’t understand the difference between left and right – I lost count of how many times we crashed into the bushes!), shimmied across the bamboo bridge suspended across the lake (it’s not an exaggeration when I say it was like a bamboo tightrope that was so hot to stand on it hurt the underside of your feet), and finally helped prepare the omelette for lunch. 

We all sat down in our groups to enjoy our traditional Thai lunch. Again we paid our respects, and tucked in. There was Thai omelette, chicken and pork, soup, som tam (spicy papaya salad with prawns), green curry with chicken, and of course lots and lots of rice. 

Next we were told to change into the clothes we were happy to get dirty and make our way over to the rice fields. We were to plant rice in the mud. Slowly my students and I – all aged between 6 and 11 – waded into the thigh-deep water to find that we sunk to our knees in slimy mud! Some of my students were holding onto me for support, though that made it harder for me not to fall over! Once we were all over the initial shock of the mud, we had a great time – splashing around in the water and painting each other with the mud. After, we got hosed down and it felt like it was songkran festival all over again! We all had a great laugh but were very happy when we were told it was time to shower. We all queued up for our showers – I didn’t know it took little girls so long to shower! – and waited our turns.  What a relief it was to finally wash all of the mud off! 

Once we were all clean and changed, we were served some Thai desserts – banana fritters, and an ice puppy-esque, grape flavoured treat. Finally, it was the last activity of the day – thanking the staff at the farm, and giving out the rewards. We awarded 5 students special prizes for participation and excellent use of English during the day. Some students told us their favourite parts of the day, and then we were ready to get back on the bus and go home to Bangkok. 

Finally back in Bangkok, we went out for a well-deserved pizza, followed by an inevitable early night!

Being Cool

Pressure to conform to societal expectations is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Here are my thoughts and experiences.  

I’m not going to lie, my job is really cool. I’m an English teacher and I live in Bangkok, Thailand. That’s pretty cool! How many other people have an outdoor pool in their apartment block? Or the ability to go to a beautiful beach just a couple of hours away? Or to eat street food every night? Admit it – it is a cool job. 

However, sometimes I think the job is cooler than me. I have done so many cool things, and seen so many amazing places here in Thailand. Though despite this, I often find myself feeling pressured to be cooler and do more cool things; not by my friends at home, but by others here. Because, let’s face it, they’re cooler than me. And for the most part – I don’t care. I really don’t. I’d rather do what I enjoy than what is cool. But sometimes I let it get to me. 

In Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, us farangs (foreigners in Thai) are often found drinking. Now I understand that for most westerners Bangkok is a holiday destination, and people want to get drunk and party when they’re on holiday. This image of drunk foreigners has, in many minds, become synonymous with farangs in Bangkok. Many of my western friends here enjoy this aspect of Bangkok, and why wouldn’t they? Everybody likes to party! But not everybody likes to party as much as others. I’ve found in Bangkok – what with all of the cheap alcohol and the lax age restrictions – it’s so easy to go on a cheap night out and get very, very drunk.  

I don’t like it. 

Of course I like to go out. And of course I like to drink sometimes. What I don’t like, is the constant pressure to take advantage of being in a country where alcohol is so cheap and readily available to foreigners. Many bars here run ‘ladies’ nights’ where women drink for free, or at a hugely discounted rate. As a woman, I’m finally the gender benefiting more from something – I get to drink a lot and save money. Though even despite this supposed benefit, I rarely feel like the ‘winner’. I just feel an enormous amount of pressure to drink until I can no longer stand. I often go to these events with both male and female friends and I often feel pressured by both. My girl friends are encouraging me to take advantage of the fact that, for once, we are the gender to be envied. My boy friends are laughing at me for drinking less than them when they have to pay. That’s pressure from both sides to drink more than I want to. And it’s not something I enjoy. 

I admit, I do succumb to the pressure more often than I’d like.  Though I don’t often get blind drunk, I do find myself drinking beer and wishing I had water. Other times, I find the strength to ignore the pressures and I enjoy whatever drink I want at whatever pace I am happy with. Though I am sometimes aware of being a little judged by it, I find that I feel much better about myself. 

On a different note, I am a self-confessed nerd. In my spare time, I’m an avid reader, and I spend a lot of time reading about and watching videos about my favourite fandoms. (Quiz me on Harry Potter, I dare you.) I’m a history nerd too. You can often find me googling historical events or people, just because I’m interested. My favourite things to listen to on my way to work are podcasts of book reviews and different interpretations of historical events. I’m an outspoken feminist and rarely back down from a debate. These are things that I enjoy, and things I feel strongly about. They’re not the coolest hobbies, but I enjoy them. However, I sometimes find myself, not denying these things, but being selective in what I admit to. And I often ask myself, why? People don’t care as much as I sometimes think they do, and I know that. To be honest, the reason I’m writing this is because I’m much better at being myself now, rather than hiding parts that weren’t ‘cool’. 

I really do enjoy being in Thailand and I have some great friends here. I have done and seen some amazing things in the last eight months and I’m excited for the next few too. 

This is me saying I’m not the coolest person in the world. But I’m a happy one.