Erik

Erik

The first time I saw Erik was when he asked our tour guide at the Bundestag to speak in English. The second time was when the guide stopped the entire tour because my shoe was untied, and Erik stooped to tie it for me before I even noticed why we’d stopped. Our brief exchange in that moment was in German because neither of us knew yet the other spoke English fluently.

The third time was when we paused for a break and we sat in couches across from each other and he asked for everyone’s name and major. I told them about my plans for a Social Justice degree and wanting to work with children. I told him about my summer camp. He listened intently to my stories. He nodded eagerly when I explained how I preferred to explain the rules to the kids rather than just enforce them, give respect rather than just demand it, and learn from the kids rather than just act as the “sage on a stage.”

“What you’re doing, that’s what the world needs more of,” he said. “It’s amazing that you took the time to stand on the same level as your students.”

I smiled, self-conscious but pleased that someone was finally appreciating the extent to which I strived to help my kids. I went on the tell the story of how a group of the kids had started throwing a banana around until was brown and splattering against anything it touched; how that was the only time I spoke sharply to the kids, scaring them all a bit with my sudden firmness as I explained the food they ate was free and they needed to respect it.

“See, I hate that,” Erik said, leaning back on the couch. “You should never tell a child they have to do something. It shuts them down.”

I thought about that—he had a valid point, but I still believed what I had done was appropriate.

“Maybe I could have gone about it better,” I said. “But from my perspective, food is a precious resource. And I know a lot of these kids come from low-income homes, where food is not always easy to come by. For me, food is a task. It’s a commitment and a struggle. And I know a lot of the kids face the same things. So when they come to summer camp all the free food seems phenomenal. But I don’t want them to take it for granted. They have to understand that it comes from somewhere, too. And they’re lucky to have it, just like I was lucky to have free meals three times a day for taking that job. I appreciated every single one. I wanted them to, as well. And since it was the only time all summer I raised my voice at the kids, I think most of them didn’t shut down—they took me seriously, because they knew if I was yelling it must be serious.”

Erik looked at me keenly and leaned forward again. “You know, you’re right,” he said slowly. “Thank you. I take back what I said.” He reached over to shake my hand. I accepted the gesture, a bit taken aback by his graceful but significant redaction. I couldn’t remember the last time someone told me I was right about something like that.

Erik left a good impression on me then. I saw him here and there throughout the course of the trip, but it wasn’t until I almost got left alone on the train heading back to the hostel that we had our next, and last, significant interaction.

He waved at me through the window, already outside with the others, and seeing him out there I quickly jumped off the train right before it started off again. The others were a ways ahead of us now, leaving me and Erik alone amid the city throng.

“You almost got left behind,” he said, leading the way out of the train station. “That would not have been a good thing.”

“No, probs not,” I said, a bit uncomfortable by how close he was walking to me. I tried to inch myself away but it was difficult as we wound through crowded streets and up and down stairs. He had a habit of grabbing my every time I stumbled or tripped, and I found I had to shake myself free. I knew it was a cultural difference in spacing and contact preferences, but I couldn’t help feeling violated by how many times he grasped my shoulders or clutched my elbow to steer my around corners.

“Do you know which way to go?” he asked when we were about halfway to the hostel.

“Kind of,” I said, afraid that he didn’t and we were going to be lost. I hadn’t been paying much attention to directions to and from the train station during our excursions. I was irritated to be caught off guard.

“I ask you because I want you to be able to find your way back, if you are walking back by yourself sometime,” he explained.

Of course, that is totally logical and makes perfect sense, and it’s nice he was looking out for me. But his method was so annoyingly like that of my ex that I instantly became pissed off and defensive. I stepped away from him again and quickened my pace.

“I’m pretty sure we go down this street and then turn left,” I said, which was fairly accurate.

“Look, here’s the street sign. Boxhanger Strasse,” he pointed out. “You can always look for Boxhanger Strasse.”

“Boxhanger Strasse, got it,” I said, hoping we were almost there. I hopped off the curb and made my way across the street, half zoned out with thoughts of consent and exes, and half used to the small-town world I grew up in where pedestrians have the right of way and crossing lights aren’t a thing.

“Whoa, whoa!” Erik snatched me back again as the cars barreled towards me. Still irritated as hell, I yanked myself free of his grip and snapped, “I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, but we have this rule about no touching in my country.”

I couldn’t tell if he was offended or just annoyed. To be honest, I didn’t care. We crossed the street at the green light and he told me that I looked “irate” when I jumped into the street like that and people would think I was crazy or going to get hurt. All I could think was You mean erratic. But I didn’t say anything.

We made it to the hostel and for the rest of the Berlin trip I saw very little of Erik. Maybe he was avoiding me because I’d offended him. Maybe it was a coincidence. Either way, once we got to Kassel he seemed to have forgotten about our escapade. During a tour my shoe came untied yet again and he smiled at me, saying it was a habit my shoe seemed to have. I said only “Yeah, I guess.” At one point he quoted me in his notes during class and made sure I saw. I was confused but also pleased that he once again made a point to show his appreciation for my opinions. I wasn’t sure what to think. I didn’t have many more opportunities to test my feelings.

The last time I saw Erik he was surrounded by people and music and laughter and tears. He was a popular guy in our group. His smile seemed genuine and his farewells were touching. I even appreciated the poem he read at the talent show. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he was wrong. Or maybe we both learned from each other, since that was what this trip was about.

People flicker in and out of our lives and I always wonder what impact those short-term relationships have on us. I’m still figuring out what the definition of Erik is in my life. For now I’ll just appreciate it as it stands. Annoying, yes. Uncomfortable, yes. Touching maybe, and funny. The man who stooped to tie my shoe on the front steps of the German Capital building and didn’t know about consent in touching and holding hands. People are a lot more complicated than I was raised to think.

 

 

 

Cultural Experience

One of my favorite things so far is being able to meet people from different countries and cultures from all over the world—not just Germany. I’ve met people from Hong Kong, Australia, Maryland, Massachusetts, California, Jamaica, The Dominican Republic, Panama, and probably others (I wasn’t able to catch all the names). The people from California and Australia talk about how cold Germany seems while I’m thinking how it would be much colder in most of the Midwest right now. The students from Hong Kong (many of which, interestingly, are studying in Queensland right now) very emphatically informed the entire group multiple times that Hong Kong is not in China or Japan. The man from the Dominican Republic (to whom I dedicated an entire post, for various reasons) was shocked to find that most of us had heard of his country. I loved listening to the various accents and languages and words, and eagerly answered questions about my home and culture when I saw others were as curious as I was. I hadn’t even begun the educational portion yet and already I was learning so much.

At our New Year’s Dinner, though, I was stuck at a table with various students from America and one Australian who didn’t say much. For the past two days I had enjoyed the feeling of being on equal footing with most of the students there—equally lost, equally stupid, equally fascinated, equally curious. But at this table I found myself back in the same old boat. It was like I’d never left the States. Here, once again, my limited experiences in certain areas prevented them from acknowledging my expertise in others. My input was rendered invalid because I disagreed with popular people. My preferences were ignored because they were unconventional.

After a while I shut up and sat quietly seething at the table listening to the Americans banter around me. I had come on this trip partly, if not mostly, to escape my stupid self-centered individualistic non-inclusive fast-paced culture, and yet here I was smack in the middle of Berlin surrounded by fucking American privileged middle-class white college kids. Just like back home.

When I’d talked to my Australian friend about ethics and gun control we exchanged ideas and opinions on equal footing and listened to each other’s experiences and input. When I’d talked to Erik (see other post) about my summer camp experience he listened in fascination and applauded my methods, asked me a lot of questions, and supplemented my narrative with his experiences and input. The one time he mocked my method I calmly explained my thought process, and he went so far as to apologize for passing judgement too quickly, and shook my hand. But when I asked Grace to be respectful of the food she refused to eat, she and the other Americans acted like I was pushing it after the second time. The three girls from my school act so petty sometimes, but I feel like I can’t say anything testy to the people who were nice enough to give me a ride.

People are actually judging me because I don’t have much money. I’ve experienced subtle prejudices against lower-income folks in general but so far I’d been lucky enough to avoid direct jabs against my personal financial situation. These people were mocking me for not bringing money I didn’t have, and making me feel stupid for getting cheated out of almost half my Euros at the conversion kiosk at the airport. Most days I didn’t have enough money to buy water or go to the bathroom and had to ask people for loose change or favors, which made me feel horrible about myself and my situation.

I miss tutoring International students. I miss their open curiosity and eagerness to learn, and I miss talking to them in that nonjudgmental environment. I learned a lot about language from them and them from me, and neither of us made fun of each other for cultural differences or previous experiences. Honestly, sometimes I feel more similar to non-Americans than to Americans.

Selfie Culture

People tell me I will feel better about myself if I accept the fact that I am pretty and my body has few flaws. I notice I take more “selfies” when I am feeling especially pretty or especially upset. I try to capture the moments when I feel good about myself so I can look back on them and know that they exist. A weird thing about our culture is that older generations complain when our generations post too much gloom and doom on social media, but they also complain when we post too many “selfies” or “groupies”, which for many people serve to capture the positivity that tends not to last nowadays. So we’re not allowed to be negative OR positive, essentially. We can’t point out the flaws in this world or the good things we see about ourselves and others.

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I know it can be annoying to see pretty much the same pictures of people over and over again, and it’s rough getting criticized by the older generation who says we’re attention-seekers whose happiness is dependent on how many likes we get on a given picture. I’m not going to say some people aren’t victim of that, but try thinking of it another way.

I’m not posting these pictures for you. I’m posting them for me.

I don’t care how many likes I get on my pictures because it doesn’t matter. I know who likes me, and I know who loves me, and pressing a button on a web site doesn’t change that.

I don’t care who sees my pictures, but it matters to me that I have the confidence to put them out there.

Because here’s the thing.

I already know I’m pretty.

I’ve known since I was little, and I’ve always appreciated the fact, because everyone kept telling me how pretty I was.

But it was never that important to me.

It actually got kind of annoying how hung up people got on that.

It got embarrassing. It made it seem like they thought that was the only important thing about me. How I looked.

It backfired. I started hating my face. My body. My shape. Everything about me on the outside.

I wanted people to appreciate what they couldn’t see. I wanted to be smart, to be clever, to be artistic, like my brothers were.

Because on the outside I’m perceived as a girl, the language about me changed.

It took me a while to reclaim my appearance. To remember that I’m not trying to be pretty for anyone.

Not even myself.

I’m not trying to be pretty at all.

I don’t feel like I have to be.

That’s not what’s important to me.

I post pictures of myself when I feel good about myself or especially upset, and I do it to remind myself that my ultimate goal is not the number of likes I get or how good my face looks.

My goal is to be loved and wanted for who I am inside.

And more than that, my goal is to make a positive impact wherever I go in this world.

And that has nothing to do with the way I look.

There are many reasons I still dislike the way I look but none of them are because I don’t think I’m pretty enough. I learned that about myself kind of recently. I don’t feel my current body reflects who I am on the inside, but it has little to do with societal conventions of beauty.

I already know I’m pretty. And yes, it’s nice to hear that, especially since current society’s definitions of “beauty” are so strict. My body has flaws that few people ever see, but I’m lucky that for the most part I happen to fall into this mold of “pretty.”

But that’s not important to me.

The reason I’m smiling in these pictures is because I know I’m a good person. I know that I try my hardest. I know that I’ve already started to make a positive impact. I know I have a lot to look forward to, a lot of work left to do. I have good people in my life. I have people that expect good things from me.

People tell me I will feel better about myself if I accept the fact that I am pretty. What they don’t know is that I’m past that. I’ve tried that, and at this point, for me, the “feel better” I get from thinking I’m pretty doesn’t last nearly as long, nor have nearly as much of an impact, as the feeling I get from reminding myself I have worth as a human being.

It was really hard getting to this point and I’m still struggling to stay there. I’m struggling daily to remind myself what’s important to me.

But I have moments to fall back on that help remind me. I take pictures like this to capture the light of those moments.

I don’t like everything about who I am. I don’t know many people that do, and those that do tend to be self-centered, terrified of life or boring. Knowing that I can dislike parts of myself and still like others gives me more strength than just looking in the mirror and thinking “Yeah, I’m pretty.” Being able to look at my reflection, turn away in dissatisfaction, and remind myself that actions speak louder than appearances, is what I need the most right now.

Being able to be dissatisfied with my appearance but know that it’s okay, that I have more important things to focus on, gives me more confidence than saying “I’m pretty” and believing it.

I dress up or down for myself. I opt out of makeup not because I believe it’s a scam but because I just don’t feel like wearing any. And when people tell me I should I shrug it off because that sentiment doesn’t matter to me. I might play around with it and enjoy it but right now I’m fine not putting any on in the morning.

I wear clothes that hide my shape because I happen to like loose baggy clothing. I think it’s more comfortable. And when people tell me it’s a waste of my curves I don’t pay much attention because I know what feels right to me.

And then there are days where I do feel like dressing up, I do feel like wearing skirts and leggings or fancy shirts, and when people tell me they wish I’d dress like that more often because I seem so confident, I look at them and wonder what is it about them that prevents them from seeing that same confidence when I wear my normal clothes. They may not see it but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel it.

I don’t care how I look to other people. Society tells me I should. That’s what I struggle with the most. Living in a society that tells me I have the wrong priorities, that I should care more what people say about how I look. But I don’t, really. I care what people say about my actions and my character.

I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this; it turned out a lot longer that I thought it would. But it’s my two cents for the day. I hope you got something out of it.

Who Am I?

I don’t think I’m ever going to be secure in my identity. Every day I encounter a situation, a person, a comment, an emotion, or an expression that makes me question how I present my gender. For almost a year now I have known that I am neither male nor female but some interesting thing in between. Some days I feel masculine or feminine but for the most part I feel comfortable outside of these expressions. But it is a struggle every day knowing that this is not the norm. It is a struggle every day fighting against ignorance and assumptions; attending large events and being left out when the speaker addresses “ladies and gentlemen” or speaks to “our young men and women.” This binary distinction leaves me and others like me out of the discussion. It is a struggle every day dealing with friends and family who tell me I “would be more comfortable” if I “embraced my femininity.” No, I would be more comfortable if people like you would accept me for who I am.

I’m terrified of telling people I want a different name and pronouns. I have been asked multiple times by some awesome people what my pronouns actually are and each time, though I usually tell them I’m “fine” with the pronouns assigned to me at birth, I feel a little more safe knowing that there are people out there who will switch without a problem if I ask them to start using they/them instead. But unfortunately these times are outweighed by the number of times someone reads my “Ask Me About My Pronouns” button and laughs because they think it’s an “English Major joke” or get uncomfortable when I tell them what it really means.

Like, why should my identity affect anyone else at all?

But then who am I kidding: a huge part of why I’m still hiding part of my identity is because I’m afraid no one will ever be comfortable enough with who I really am to spend the rest of their life with me, or even date me at all. How will they be able to explain me to their friends and family? How will they feel about themselves dating someone who doesn’t have a gender? How will they deal with my fluctuations in gender expression, my panic attacks when I feel like I’ll never truly be accepted in this society, my insecurities, inconsistencies, eccentricities, and emotions?

And do they even have to be a romantic partner to feel uncomfortable? What if my friends reject the real me, too?

It’s only been a year, but it’s been one of the longest years of my life and there are (thankfully) many yet to come. I’m powering through what I can and leaving be what I can’t, and I’ve learned to rely on my friends as best I can. I have support, and I have some privileges, and I have the security to know that, right now at least, I am relatively safe. I could be myself if I want to.

I don’t know what will happen. Maybe I’ll come out to everyone tomorrow; maybe I’ll wait for years. I’m almost positive I won’t be able to tell my parents until I have no obligations to visit them anymore. Most of my supervisors already know. I’m hoping to go into this summer at camp with everyone knowing as well. But telling them will be terrifying. I love my summer camp so much it would be awful to be turned away, but I love it so much I feel like I can’t go back hiding my true self from my kids.

I still have time but what comfort is that knowing I will go back to work and class on Monday hearing people use the wrong pronouns because I’m too afraid to tell them otherwise, and dealing with stupid remarks from classmates who just don’t get it? I hate feeling like the only one who knows anything about being non-binary and the only one who bothers to speak up about it. I hate having to hide myself when everyone tells me I should be authentic. I hate living in a world where what you say, what you do, how you act, and what you feel is restricted based off parts of your body you have no control over. I hate how almost everything and everyone who is the least bit “different” is seen as some kind of threat.

In some ways it would be easier to keep hiding. But I also know that hiding is exhausting. Is it more exhausting than constantly fighting to defend and validate my identity? I don’t know. But I will never know until I try. And I’d rather die knowing I tried and failed (but hopefully won) than die wondering what life would have been like living it as myself.