An American Girl
As a young girl, my mom told me that I could do anything and be anything–and I believed her. I took the classes I wanted, played the sports I wanted, and wore what I wanted (much to the dismay of my future self as I look back now on old photos).
Today, as a woman in the workplace, I have yet to experience the glass ceiling or to be slighted because of my gender. The fact that I have not thought much about my “role as a woman” outside of suffragette history lessons or worried that my salary may never reach the level of a male counterpart shows I live in a country which boasts an (arguably) equal and open playing field.
Planting a Seed
Growing up, I looked to my Great Aunt Charlotte as our family matriarch: a strong woman with outspoken ideals about human and animal rights and global politics. A woman who never followed the pack. I especially admired her sacred travel room. Floor to ceiling bookshelves were full of worldly trinkets, endless photo albums, and vials of sand from exotic beaches and terrains like the Galapagos Islands, Fiji, the Italian seaboard and more. Each piece had a story from a different time and place, both intriguing and inspiring.
With the travel bug rooted in my genes and dreams, I gathered the funds and support to study abroad with Semester at Sea for my last semester of college. Along with 700 other students from around the US, I took classes on the MV Explorer and docked in cities around the globe. We traveled from the Bahamas and Brazil, around the southern tip of Africa, to various ports in Asia, and back to California for more than three months of compounding culture shock.
A Global Education
Our weeks at sea were spent learning about the countries we would visit – their history, politics, language, art and music, and cultural nuances. Each professor would give us assignments that involved interacting with the people, visiting sites of cultural or historical relevance, and observing daily life through the lens of a particular subject matter. My human sexuality class not only discussed anatomy and relationships, but also delved into gender roles: specifically, how women in society differed from country to country and in various contexts.
- In Brazil, to the sounds and colors of Carnival, women wear revealing clothing with confidence and empowerment.
- Women in South Africa wear bright colors and walk tall with heavy loads on their heads and backs, standing proud amidst a painful history of apartheid.
- In Malaysia, Muslim women wear hijabs, which inspired me and my friends to cautiously cover up in sleeved tops and long bottoms so we didn’t inadvertently offend any passerby.
- In India, women ride behind their men on the back of motorcycles. Despite the sweltering heat, they drape themselves in traditional sarees and adorn their forehead with a glittering bindi while males almost exclusively sport ‘western’ clothing. The vast difference in gender freedom echoes a long history of practices like arranged marriages and class pyramids.
- In Cambodia, women fill massage parlors, will walk on your back or provide “happy endings.” A not-so-subtle reminder of the sex trade and horror stories about trafficking through Thailand, Myanmar and other parts of Asia.
- In Japan, young, almost cartoon-like harajuku girls contrast the rural/traditional idea of Japanese modesty with their miniscule skirts and tall stockings. My friends and I were turned away from a “pod hotel” reserved only for businessmen and we were gazed upon with disapproval as we reserved a room in a hotel normally intended for extramarital affairs.
In class, we watched a graphic documentary about female genital mutilation that still occurs in many countries in Africa, and learned about the staggering ways and alarming rate at which HIV continues to spread. Visiting a clinic in a township in South Africa, where the HIV rate was 12% of the population, was emotional and eye opening.
Bringing it Home
After visiting each port, I would write back home to my family about the experiences I had and the cultural extremes I witnessed. My Aunt Charlotte would respond with stories about traveling as a woman in the 1950s and 60s and give me her ongoing and entertaining political commentary.
Unfortunately, Aunt Charlotte passed away soon after I returned from my travels, but her life taught me to explore all that you can and to give back as much as you can. At her funeral, loved ones were asked to donate to her favorite charities in lieu of flowers. She continued to inspire even as she departed.
Life Lessons and Paying it Forward
Through the strong women in my life, messages of empowerment, and the gift of travel, I have an unwavering appreciation for my rights as a woman: to my own body, to vote, to dress how I like, to practice any or no religion, to work in nearly any profession, and to travel as I please. Not only am I thankful for being American (despite any shortcomings as a country), but also for the generation I was born into and the opportunities available to me.
It is my hope – with care, persistence and generosity – that other women around the globe may someday have the same experiences and freedoms that I enjoy. And through our time, our charity, our advocacy, we can help make it a reality! As a proud young American woman, I can’t think of any greater legacy.
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Author: Michelle Koffler