Did my Culture Really Make me who I am?
Contrasting Two Vastly Different Worlds
By Jessica Wright
I’m starting the “Love Men Again Movement.” Yep, it’s true. After living my whole life trying to be as strong or stronger than men, pretending I don’t need them (but secretly wanting them to need me), I’ve decided I’m not doing that no more. My culture be damned, I want to start a revolution. I was the same person for 29 years thinking I had chosen to be this person, but after leaving the U.S. to live overseas for 2 years, I’m back and I’ve seen another way to be. I’m a new person after wander-lusting after my true identity in the Southern Hemisphere.
What I’ve decided is: I’m finished trying to do more than men just to be able to have power over them, and grouping all men together for the negative actions of one man. When women first got the right to vote, go to college and play sports, they did have to prove themselves for awhile, but that time is over in my opinion. We are now Senators, CEO’s, Olympians and anything else we want to be, so why can’t men be on our team anymore? Why must they continue to be seen as enemies and then figure “Heck, why even try? I won’t be seen for my strengths anyways.” Why can’t we concentrate on the positive light that men do bring to a woman’s life, which would spawn more love to come right back at us?
See, I can justify my earlier mistake. I thought I had to be “strong” to reach my goals because my family did not have a lot of resources. I couldn’t be distracted by touchy-feely relationships with guys because I grew up poor. At one time we were even on food stamps and I had to do my best at school and sports to get scholarships for college. My dad went to college for seven years because he already had two kids in tow and had to work his way through being a custodian at a cement plant. I even went to class with him as a five year-old sometimes, being told to be quiet in return for a can of Coke. At age 5 I knew I couldn’t struggle through the same fate that my parents did. I had to finish school first and get a career and then I could have kids. The problem was, even after working as a teacher for 5 years and getting my Master’s, I forgot to drop my defenses. At least that is until I broke down and built myself anew with the help of my sisters and brothers overseas.
Emotional Reserve Among The Swazis
My journey to find my true self started in South Africa. I did not intend to discover that who I had been previously was a lie. It was an accident. I thought I was going to South Africa to fight racism and help communities affected by HIV. Little did I know I would realize a year and a half into my job my strengths were not helping me or my community.
To me, growing up in the U.S. in the 80’s and 90’s, I thought that being a strong woman meant performing well in academics, going to university and working outside the home at a “real job.” I also believed a “strong woman” would not let a man carry her things (for he was merely implying she was physically weak) or fix something for her that was broken (for he was merely implying she was stupid and couldn’t figure it out herself). In retrospect, my first requirements of a strong woman served me well to be self-sufficient financially. However, my second list of requirements shows why I didn’t have my first boyfriend until the age of 22. (As having brothers and no sisters is not reason enough.)
To Swazi’s (Black South Africans originally from the country of Swaziland), a “strong woman” is someone completely different from my previous vision. A “strong woman” is someone who cooks and cleans for everyone in the house every day until she has a daughter-in-law to do her duties for her, raises her kids and takes care of her husband. She is someone who enjoys her duties, never nagging because her duties make her more of a woman than if she didn’t have them. She has a role as a wife and mother and is thankful for her role. Swazi men have other roles like bringing in money, butchering cows, making decisions for their families and community and protecting their families. Together they have a strong partnership and in the rural area I was in, there were very few divorced couples.
From South African women I learned not only to enjoy the sisterhood of cooking for a party (that’s when the really good jokes are shared) and solitary zen of sweeping my floors daily to smile at the comfort I had brought myself, but also I learned to not stress so much, push so much, or have expectations of men or women. And after trying to use my Type-A ways against strikes, electricity outages, corruption and African-time to no avail, I broke down. I cried, and cried, and wept that I was not who I thought I was, invincible and in control. But thank Nkhulunkhulu (God) that this happened to me now, as I shudder to think of my life if I had continued on my course of being driven to keep my achievements-based character.
As for what I learned from men in South Africa, I have to say I learned from not being too close to them. In the Swazi culture I was not allowed to share drinks or the same space alone with a man. As a volunteer representing my country I was not even supposed to have other American volunteers spend the night at my house if they were male. This distance from males even as close platonic friends (which isn’t supposed to exist in the Swazi culture, as well as the tradition that husbands and wives don’t share affection or even touch each other in public), made me realize I need men in my life, and yes, in a romantic way for sure.
Then came South America
So the absence of men and the chance to have a boyfriend due to my very public status led me to appreciate the small things that make all the difference in enjoying life. As I finished my job in South Africa I traveled to South America to celebrate in a culture where affection between everyone is very much encouraged in public. After all, I was a new me. Some of my favorite memories from both continents include: Having a guy carry my purse, being sung to in another language, sharing an unexpected moment swimming in the current of a whale-shark when a guy and I got separated from our snorkeling group, and a sneak peck on the lips (in a culture that did not support it) after going for a motorcycle ride in South Africa. Enjoying being around men on vacation in these other cultures when previously denied contact showed me the greatest gift we give each other is time and love. Love can come in many forms, from friendships to passionate and it is now what I base my character on. Accomplishments are for one ego only, love for two hearts-yours and theirs. And we were all sponsored by love in one way or another, so why not give it back to the world? This is what I found makes a “strong woman.” One who loves openly and fully and not conditionally. So let’s start a revolution. And if you’re not there yet, go overseas and see how other people do it.
Below: Colombian police before a Nationals versus Millionarios (Bogota versus Medellin) soccer game in Medellin.