Monday, March 10, 2008

Where Would You (Not) Go?

Interesting discussion with some faculty folks here today. The others have taught way more outside the US in recent years than in, sounds like, though in different countries.

One, let's call him Ken, talked about working in an Arab country in recent years, and now coming here to work. Ken talked about some of the difficulties you might easily imagine. But Ken also talked about the changing and varied culture.

Afterwards, another woman who I know a bit better and I talked about our unwillingness to consider teaching in that country, or in other countries with similar laws. But laws go beyond sexism.

Here, another US person told me about reading the back of a standard rental agreement form at a realtor's, and seeing standard check-off boxes for unacceptable tenants--retired people, foreigners, pets. Standard practice, the person told me; it's very difficult for retired people to find apartments. (There's also a standard retirement age, someone else said. But there's a grace period.) Ken talked about how he's gotten to the point where he just asks if his age (over 50) will be a problem or not when he applies for a job. He said he's been told straight out that it is by some places he's asked.

It got me thinking. There's no perfect place, no place where everyone consistently treats everyone with respect, no place with only good laws on the books. But we're used to the stuff that goes without saying in our culture. I know there are and have been places in the US where realtors wouldn't sell or rent to blacks and such. But it's been a while since it's been against the law; on the other hand, I can't say with certainty that urban landlords of apartments where I lived didn't look at me and think "yay, white woman, no kids, rent to her."

The fact that I can't easily avoid white privilege in at least some cases doesn't mean that I'm not complicit in the maintenance of white privilege. I know I'm given leeway in some situations because I'm female, or white, or of a certain age, class. And I'm willing to guess that I don't even recognize some situations where I'm given privilege.

But, are there places I simply wouldn't go because I think so badly of the ways they oppress some part of their populations? Would I have gone to South Africa during apartheid? Would I go to China? Saudi Arabia?

Is there a difference between being willing to go visit somewhere as a tourist and being willing to teach there for a semester or longer?

Imagine, for a moment, that I had an opportunity to go to Country X for a semester. Would I choose not to go because I would be subject to sexist laws? Or would I choose not to go somewhere because the country at large was oppressive, though not to me personally?

Is there some ethical or other standard that would make you decide not to go somewhere? Tourist or teaching/working?


  1. I doubt I'd restrict where I was visiting at all.... as for teaching...

    The first question I'd have to ask is whether or not my going there to teach would make a difference in the policies of the country?

    If there is some kind of organized boycott, I would support it -- because that is the only way the government will change... so, if they can't get foreign teachers because of X policy, then change could happen.

    On the other hand, depending on the laws and what you are teaching, you might have an opportunity for grass-roots activism. In my ethics class, I could bring up the idea that in the US, it is illegal to have those kinds of discrimination -- but, that the discrimination is less formal, but just as powerful...

  2. I think not. People in countries aren't their countries. I might not work for the government of some countries, which might be an issue in a teaching job.

  3. My initial reaction is that I'd go anywhere to teach or tour. There's so much to learn from the world at large; I think anywhere and everywhere would be a worthwhile experience.

    I wonder, though, if I wouldn't have second thoughts when it came to living in a place (for a semester or longer) where I would face open discrimination. Could I adapt to a country that had sexist laws? Would I be able to conform enough not to get into trouble? Could I ignore outright repression of those around me? I'd certainly have to think about that a little longer.

  4. Anonymous9:29 AM

    Hm, I'm a bit different. I have no desire even to visit somewhere like Saudi Arabia or apartheid South Africa -- that said, I know how difficult it is to draw the line rationally, *and* how difficult it is to see problems in an unfamiliar culture. (Eg the British in India not realizing for a couple of hundred years that a nightsoil caste even existed, so hidden was it!)

    AGE is a problem with renting??? Sheesh! I think I'll take the credit check and criminal background check we have in CA!

  5. I would think twice before going some place where safety was an issue.

  6. As a teacher or tourist, I'd avoid large parts of the middle east right now b/c of general safety concerns; I don't have a particular example at hand, but in theory I'd avoid travelling in countries with lousy gay rights laws.

  7. I wouldn't go to Burma, because the people working in the democratic/human rights movement have asked foreigners not to come. Tourism in the country directly supports the military junta (through visa fees, taxes, but also because the elite own most of the tourism infrastructure as well).