Hello Winter My Old Friend


The view from my window this morning

And so it is. The stunning oranges, reds, browns and yellows of the crisp autumn have given way (or more likely, been pushed aside – this is Korea after all) to the dull greys of the North East Asian winter, also known as Hell. Now that the sun has gone AWOL and there have been a few half-assed snowstorms, it’s time to hibernate.

I find myself contracting. I become anti-social (even more so than usual) in the cold weather. I don’t want to leave the house. I stop exercising and lose motivation to do anything except lie in bed eating Dorito’s and mindlessly surf the Interwebs. Or read memoirs about people giving up their corporate careers to train as chefs and open restaurants. These books are an escape into la dolce vita where a large part of the protagonist’s daily quota of mental energy is spent thinking about what kind of cheese to eat next. As far as work goes, I can’t wait for each day to be over so I can run home and jump into a steaming hot shower and stay there until my skin is pink like a pig’s (and the lack of exercise is making me chubby like one too).

And when I’m not occupied with the winter blues and/or cheese, I’m thinking about one of my former students in Cambodia who sent me a message the other day telling me how heartbroken she is because her secret boyfriend is getting married to another woman. I’ve also been vicariously experiencing Afghanistan through Marianne Elliott’s great memoir about her time as a UN peacekeeper in that country. More than the political aspect is the internal journey she takes into yoga, meditation and self-compassion and her descriptions are often so acute that I feel like she has been inside my head. Also, I can’t imagine how she endured such harsh conditions, both in her internal and external worlds. Inspirational? Littl’ bit.

In other news, my cousin sent me a Christmas stocking full of chocolate things that can only be bought in New Zealand. It arrived on the day I decided to give up sugar. And now I have to delay my plans for another week as I must dutifully consume all of it. It would be disrespectful not to. Can copious amounts of Chocolate Fish take make the sun come back? Let’s find out.



An Ugly Truth

sadstatueTwo friends brought to my attention the tragic cases of sexual violence that are currently making headlines in New Zealand. Writer and human rights lawyer Marianne Elliott has summed up the issue on her blog:

If you are reading outside New Zealand, the short version is that this week one of our TV news shows broke a story about a group of teenage sexual predators who, for the past three years, have been boasting on Facebook about  ‘roasting’ drunk and underage girls. They call themselves the ‘Roastbusters.’ I looked up what ‘roast’ means in urban slang. It means multiple males having sequential sex with a single female…As I said, there was a reason I was afraid to get drunk at rugby parties when I was a teenager. That is rape culture and I’ve seen it everywhere I’ve been. But it’s not inevitable.

Drawing on her extensive work in documenting cases of violence against women in Afghanistan, Elliott goes on to compare how the rape culture in New Zealand is not so different. She talks about her own personal experience of growing up a teenaged girl in small-town New Zealand and how she always had to be careful and never take risks with drinking too much or wearing “provocative” clothing, because it was likely one of the boys she socialized with would take advantage of her, and if something did happen, it would be her fault. She talks of how the police have shied away from taking any consequential action, despite being privy to information that would suggest there have been many miscarriages of justice in sweeping these now very public cases under the rug while insinuating that the victims were asking for it. Finally, she concludes that:

What we are missing is the courage to be honest about how ugly some parts of our beloved country and culture really are, the courage to own the part we all play in letting this go on, and the courage to speak up..to take action where and when we can…So I’m starting here. Because rape culture is pervasive, but it’s not inevitable.

While Elliott’s exploration of this is more personal, University of Auckland academic Nicola Gavey published an article on sexualpoliticsnow.org.nz that probes into the roots of this occurrence and how the culture at large has come to normalize sexual violence and misogyny. In her own words:

I have become more and more convinced of the connection between sexual violence and a wider cultural tolerance of misogyny. Sexual violence and gang rape are not new. But something seems different about the narcissistic performative nature of these violations. That they are sometimes filmed and distributed, or gloated about, on social media. That the boasting is so open, online for anyone to see, is made possible by communication technologies that weren’t around even 10 years ago. Different kinds of behaviour become possible. That these boys and men use this technology without any apparent sense of caution for the repercussions – not only for their victims but also for their own reputations later in life and their chances of getting caught – suggests that cultural norms are changing with the technological possibilities.

Both these commentators have written so powerfully and concisely on this topic that I don’t think I can add much that hasn’t already been said. However, I do want to add, in the vein of Elliott whose title for her piece resonated with me (‘There’s a reason I was afraid to get drunk at rugby parties’) that many of my friends were victims of sexual violence as teenagers. Some of these girls were early bloomers with an appetite for experience which was taken advantage of by older men who should’ve known better than to ply a fourteen year old girl with alcohol, drag her outside and then rape her. Other cases would be less black and white in the face of the law – girls whose beloved boyfriends get carried away and demand and force sex despite their partners’ protestations. In fact, recently a friend in New Zealand told me about her experience of date rape with a boyfriend from years ago and said, ‘I’ve heard it from so many other women – it’s so common it’s not even talked about.’ Part of me was shocked to hear this, but part of me wasn’t surprised either – after all, some of my friends have told me similar stories about their own experience with men they knew and trusted. I hope the culture can change. After all, in the 1950s, it was socially acceptable for men to go out and get drunk then come home and beat their wives. Now I would hope that such behaviour would be duly punished and would-be perpetrators would think twice. To paraphrase Elliott, rape culture might be pervasive, but it’s not inevitable.