July 24, 2014
I often wonder about how people perceive me, especially because of how I have been perceived in the past. I have been put into so many “boxes” over the years, and each one has frustrated me more than the next. I have been labeled: an atheist, a hippie, a feminist, an antifeminist, an American, white (whether it be a “mzungu”, “gringo” or an otherwise offensive term that defines me based on the color of my skin), a tourist, a nomad, a pescetarian, a Cealiac, a socialist, a liberal, a republican, an environmentalist, an optimist, a pessimist, and countless more.
Every single label hit me like a flashback and made me remember high school. I agree I was not among the popular ones cause I had a little difficulty in studying, but the will to not give up and few online courses involving sheet solving consisting of possessive nouns, synonyms and a few other things made me come out of that shell proving everyone wrong who ever doubted me.
The trouble with labels is that they lead to prejudice, promote ignorance, typically don’t accurately describe a person, and certainly do not define a person. Instead they give false and misguided impressions of someones identity and prevent people from looking past a few qualities they may not fully understand.
When I think of how absurd labels are and how they ignite stereotypes, I always recall a comment made to me several years ago: “You have dreads and you watch Gossip Girl. How is that possible?”
Well, Confused Stereotyper, it is more than possible because my hair style does not need to correlate with my interests, wether it be a TV show that is a guilty pleasure, my career, or anything else.
Granted I have gone through a series of experimental phases with my hairstyles, fashion sense, jobs, boyfriends, friends, living situations, political affiliation, religious and spiritual beliefs, diet, television and book preferences, hobbies and pastimes. But that only further proves my point: people don’t fit into perfect little boxes that you can stamp a label on and call it a day. My journey to creating myself has been unique, and ultimately has lead me down many different roads, chasing varying dreams, goals and trends. To an outsider it may appear that I am indecisive, irresponsible or immature. In reality there may be some truth to that, but at the end of the day I am independently living abroad, chasing my dreams, accomplishing my goals and I am happy.
Quite frankly, I am sick and tired of condescending remarks about my lifestyle. I have chosen to be nomadic, however I do not believe the fact that I do not have a”home” in the traditional sense, defines me. I am passionate about traveling, but resent the constant notion that I am a tourist everywhere I go. I constantly feel lost somewhere in limbo between being a tourist, an expat, and a local. Ideally, I’d like to be perceived simply as a curious person who truly cares to learn about and understand every culture I encounter. However, I prefer not to learn through museums or tour guides, but rather from personal experience from just diving into a place.
I also resent the idea that my lack of desire to work a 9-5 desk job, with regular health benefits, and a 401(k) makes me irresponsible. I am responsible for my life and my actions and I am perfectly capable of living a productive and happy life without conforming to those societal norms. Furthermore, if and when I decide to “settle down” and start a family someday, I have no doubt that my experiences abroad will benefit me both in my personal ability to do a job, and in hiring considerations.
Similarly, I disagree with the common misconception that because I am currently an ESL teacher in South America, earning a local salary relative to the cost of living here, that I don’t have a “real job.” I work full-time and I assure you teaching English as a second language is not as glamorous and easy as you may think. It requires planning, patience, extensive knowledge of the English language, and the answers to unlimited grammar questions you never considered until stepping foot into an ESL classroom. However, it can be fun and rewarding and I am grateful for the experience.
I do not believe in a higher being, nor do I care to conform to any sort of organized religion. Despite this, I don’t appreciate being lumped into a category with others that consider themselves to be atheists. Specifically, this label irritates me because it is often linked to “not having morals” or “not being spiritual.” However, I am quite spiritual in the sense that I believe the universe and the earth are greater than any one person, and the entire human race. I believe in science and maintain beliefs in regards to how everything is connected through energy and that energy is not lost after death, but rather escapes back into the atmosphere in another form. Furthermore, I have a strong set of morals that I have developed over trial and error, and thought about at length, rather than simply accepting a set of life guidelines that were passed down to me.
I also believe we do not have the right to treat the environment as if its contents are ours for the taking. I believe there should be a universally recognized respect for the Earth’s natural resources. However I do not consider myself an environmentalist, because I don’t like all that is attached to that word and the extremist approach that so many “environmentalists” take. I ultimately choose not to identify with that term, because I don’t want to be held to the high standards of fully living by that belief system. However I do my best to lower my carbon footprint by: not littering, recycling (when my location permits it), turning off lights when I leave the room, walking when possible, and driving my Prius when I’m in the States.
One of the more persistently frustrating boxes I get put into is being “American”. This annoyance often overlaps with the “white” stereotype when I am abroad. First of all, I reject the idea that the nationality on my passport defines me. Yes, I was provided with certain opportunities because of my citizenship, and I am forever grateful for the lottery I won there. However I do not identify with being “American,” because I do not agree with the majority of the politics, social norms, or economic institutions. Secondly, I do not like the reactions I get when I tell people where I am from. They are immediately surprised that I have a passport, or they assume I am an arrogant, capitalist, gun-loving, greedy, slutty, ignorant woman with no regard for current events or other cultures. Ironically, many of those stereotypes are why I am not living in the U.S.
As far as the wealthy white stereotype goes in predominately non-white countries, it is always assumed that you are rolling in the dough. This topic has been discussed into the ground by expats, but never-the-less it is worth mentioning. I am not rich, although I have enjoyed some advantages from growing up in a middle class family. Even so, I had to work hard to get to where I am, and I had to find creative ways to travel. From applying for study abroad scholarships, fundraising to volunteer abroad, and getting certified to teach ESL; I have managed to fund my trips. I am financially independent and I take offense when people think or say otherwise. Either people in the States think I’m rich and/or handed everything on a silver platter because I manage to travel around the world, or people abroad think I’m rich because I’m white.
The moral of the story is: I am choosing to step out of the box and just be me. I am a girl who is constantly growing, adapting, learning, and trying my best to be true to myself. I have learned not to judge a book by its cover; and when I have in the past, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how wrong I was. I don’t always get along with everyone I meet, but in the future I will not allow a box to prevent me from getting to know someone.