Friday, February 22, 2013

Of Shoelaces, or Reason #29 (?) to Love Taiwan


 It's almost impossible to see in this photo, but at the very end under the white boat in the distance, there's a solitary woman sitting on the beach in a little bikini.

During our last few days in Sri Lanka, we stayed in the southern beach town of Mirissa. While not nearly as touristy or over-developed as places like Bali, Phuket, Ko Samui or Boracay (or Goa, which doesn't even have great beaches), and not even as developed as Sri Lanka's own Hikkaduwa or Unawatuna, it still had tourist infrastructure and that vague beach-bum-rich-Westerner "a dash of reggae with a hint of banana pancake" cultural undercurrent, which I don't particularly care for. That meant a lot of Westerners - especially Europeans - prancing around in tiny swimsuits.

On a slight tangent, can I just say this? Mirissa is a pretty place, but it looks as if it used to be stunning. What was once a soft beach of golden sand and blue topaz waters has become a thin strip of beach in which, on the main tourist drag, all the palm trees have been razed and in their stead you can find guesthouses, tiki-hut restaurants and bars blasting reggae (?) music, and line-of-sight sea views from hotels across the road. Down the road is at least one "surf club" that I swear had a sign saying "foreigners only". Ugh. It's really sad. You can't keep people from the beach, and to some extent you'll get local backlash over the lack of development if you try, I wish there was a way to preserve at least some beautiful beaches from the tanned hordes, the sunburned locusts, from descending and totally fucking up the place. Can't they all just go to Bali and Phuket and leave the rest of the world's beaches to people who don't want to tear it all down to build tiki bars?

Our hotel is behind me, but you can't see it behind the palm trees, which is why I liked it.

And yes, I realize the irony in that sentiment, and yes, I did try to pick a hotel that blends more naturally with its environment -  one that didn't raze all the palm trees for a direct line to the beach.

While there, I was reading Pankaj Mishra's Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. Mary Roy's (mother of Arundhati Roy of The God of Small Things fame) line in that book popped out at me as I read it at an outdoor cafe: "I think white people are a curse on mankind. Wherever you look, they are busy causing destruction to something or the other. And they think themselves so superior to everyone else! They are really awful!"

I could find some things to debate about that line, but sitting in Mirissa as reggae (!) thumped in the background and I looked over where palm trees should be, and couldn't help but think she was right, and then blame myself for being part of the problem.

This all used to be palm trees.

Anyway, back to the main point.

At one point, we were preparing to snorkel off a far quieter beach beyond the one in the photo here (the boat beach here being far quieter itself than Mirissa's main beach), and two young foreign women were taking sexy pictures of each other playing in the surf or laying in the sand. Neither was wearing very much, especially the one in the little black bikini that I am pretty sure was made entirely of shoelaces. And not very many shoelaces.

My first thought was "She shouldn't be wearing that...not a good idea."

Now, here's the thing. I don't personally care what she wears. I don't think it reflects on her character (except to show she's perhaps a bit clueless about her surroundings, but then, in that case every other foreigner in Mirissa is just as bad). It doesn't make her a "bad girl" or someone who deserves scorn or ridicule. I support her right to wear whatever she wants - as much or as little as she wants. In the West I'd say her even wearing that little doesn't give anyone the right to victim-blame ("Well look at what she was wearing, she was asking for it!") if she's harassed or assaulted. It doesn't really bother me that she wants sexy pictures of herself on a tropical beach.

(I did think it was funny that to get to our snorkeling spot we had to walk behind her, so some of her photos will include a pair of t-shirt wearing pasty-dough white dweebs with snorkels - is there anything dorkier than a snorkel? Even the word is dorky - waddling by, but that's because if I got sexy pictures uploaded to my computer only to find a pair of tummy-fatted nerds shuffling behind me I'd find that hilarious. She might not find it so funny).


My second thought was "Why would you think that? You have no right to judge her based on what she's wearing."

What bothers me is that, even in a touristy area like Mirissa, in Sri Lanka what she - and pretty much every other woman, possibly including myself (I like to think a boy-short suit and a t-shirt over it with a sarong when not in the water is enough, though) - was wearing, well, was inappropriate in the local cultural context. Especially her; at least other women had a bit of fabric covering up the T&A (I can't say I was too fond of the European men's banana hammocks, either). She had...shoelaces. I hate victim-blaming but if she were ogled, catcalled or harassed by local men, it probably would be in part due to what she was wearing - not that that absolves the men.


My third thought: "But what she's wearing is very inappropriate in Sinhalese culture."

And while I support the right of everyone to wear what they want and not be overly judged for it - especially women, who have spent most of history judged more harshly than men for what they were wearing - I do feel that when you travel, there has to be some allowance for cultural standards. I support the fight for all women, worldwide, to have greater freedom of dress (Sri Lankan men are pretty free in what they wear, I'm not too worried about them).

My fourth thought: "But Sinhalese culture still as a ways to go in terms of women's equality."

Perhaps that fight, in countries such as Sri Lanka, is a fight that needs to start with local women. Perhaps a white woman, or any foreign woman, in an itsy bitsy teenie weenie black thong shoelace bikini isn't going to help matters much. Certainly it's not fair to say "this group of women needs to do it for themselves and we're not going to help them" - by all means, get involved in feminism on a global scale, but be aware of the racial issues that your background and ethnicity bring to the table, and be aware that not every strike is an effective one.

My fifth thought: "Yes, but a foreign woman in a tiny bikini isn't going to change that."

Not that I think this woman was trying to agitate for freedom of women's dress in Sri Lanka. She almost certainly just wanted some sexy pictures and wasn't even thinking of the racial and gender implications of her near-nudity.


My final thought: "This is one reason I like living in Taiwan. There's still a ways to go in terms of gender equality - there is everywhere - but at least we have far greater freedom of dress."

I appreciate that I can wear a bikini or a t-shirt and shorts on the beach and not be judged too much. I appreciate that I can wear a sleeveless or low v-neck shirt and not be immediately judged as a bad girl, harlot or outright prostitute. I appreciate that I can choose not to wear those things. People, especially women, are still judged harshly by their dress, but at least I am living in Asia without having to worry too much about overly strict rules of dress imposed on women, with the wrongheaded assumption that the problem is not men's inability to control themselves, but those trollopy women and what they wear which beckons ALL TEH SEXXX.


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