March 23, 2013

CITYLIFE MAGAZINE: First world writer problems

I wrote something for the blog of Citylife magazine. It's about how I was afraid of coming off as a self-serving, insensitive, first-world asshole who thinks she can save the world by writing 2,500 words on why Thailand laws do fuck-all to protect women. But then it goes on to say that (spoiler) I'm not afraid anymore. I thought it was important to talk about why writers in new locales shouldn't shy away from critiquing the culture of others, particularly when it's discriminatory. Here goes:
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My biggest fear as a writer is getting something wrong. Actually, it's getting something really wrong.

In these last few weeks, I thought a lot about domestic violence in Thailand, then wrote about it for a feature that will appear in the next issue of Citylife. It’s been six years since the country passed its first-ever law to protect victims of abuse. I listened and learned (from social workers, police officers, and NGOs) before making the claim that the laws to protect women here are seemingly stagnant.

I don't know everything about Thai culture. I hail from Canada and I’ve been in Chiang Mai for just three months. But I do know better than anyone that I fall easily into that tired trope of first world writer comes to second/third/whatever world country and slams it for its social atrocities.

As much as I hate a trope, I don't think a journalist has to write what she knows. Rather, she should write what she wants to know. My fear of offending (and it's a big fear) shouldn't stop me, or any journalist, from writing about important issues abroad even if it means critiquing someone else’s culture. The best part about writing in a new country is that it takes you out of your bubble and into others'.

As a foreigner, I’m perfectly positioned to spot the imperfections, just like I’m perfectly positioned to appreciate the beauty. Foreigners, here and everywhere, can expose injustices that locals don’t or can’t see.

At times when I was writing the feature, I worried that I wasn't being "culturally sensitive," that I wasn't fully grasping the Thai mentality that it's acceptable for a husband to beat his wife. You know what though? Cultural sensitivity, whatever that means, is overrated.

When we can't comprehend why other people do X, Y and Z, we chalk it up to "culture" and carry on. I can justify turning a blind eye to overzealous nose picking in the name of culture. I just can't justify it to potentially dangerous practices. As far as I can see, violence against women isn't cultural; it's criminal.

I know, I know. As Westerners, we like to think our culture is the best. It’s not. Canada is not the holy grail of do-gooders. We've got a laundry list of embarrassing crimes against women, too. We have a scandalously high rate of aboriginal women who go missing or have been murdered. We have an isolated community in the west where teen brides and underage sex are sanctioned.

I didn’t write about domestic violence to save the world or slake my thirst for a cause. I wrote it because I care about other women in other countries. It’s that simple. I think Sally Armstrong, a Canadian journalist and global crusader of women's rights, said it best when she said violence is everyone's business. "Women have found their voices and told the rest of the world that it is our business, that cultural traditions are no excuse for criminal behaviour."

For all my worries about being inapt to write about Thai issues, I’ll remember that line. Besides, I’m not interested in using my words for the polemic. I'd rather use them for something more worthwhile.

My story on Thailand's domestic violence act can be read here.