Cultural Differences or The Power of Complaining

Cultural differences are a great thing. In fact, I moved over to this country because of many values I believe represent me better than those of my home country, and cultural elements that make living here a lot easier than living elsewhere. For example, I like how people here are more out than they would dare be in different places around the world and how your sexual tendencies are not seen as showing your moral worth as much as in other places.

However, I’m not going to talk about the things that work today. I see a big problem in the UK that is called positive thinking. When I moved over I found it so refreshing how people were not complaining all the time, I really admired the positive outlook on life. When you said you wanted to do something that seemed to be a leap from where you were at the time I was impressed by them saying “That’s great” or even just nodding and agreeing, like they meant “Of course you want that. It’s a good thing. And of course you can get there”. Much better than getting a snort, a look of disbelief or, even, a look that says “That’s dangerous, you’re crazy”, which is what I had grown accustomed to. What I discovered when I started working was that this branched out. I remember being confused when people gave me nervous laughter or weird looks when I said I was feeling tired or dopey or that the day felt long. I soon realised you weren’t supposed to say that. You are supposed to smile, look at the positive aspects and only discuss negative things in a balanced, objective way. And the object of your criticism must be work or organisation, always with a constructive edge. With friends, I’ve discovered something similar, though to a lesser extent. There seems to be a deep discomfort in hearing bad news or about how someone is feeling other than great. Ranting, complaining, etc. are things that nobody wants to deal with for more than a couple of minutes. By contrast I remember having hour-long conversations in which I would complain about my boss, my friends would complain about theirs and we would just laugh over beers. Complaining here seems… dangerous. It’s like your complaining might tear through the fabric of the screen to show how behind the flashy young professional look there hides a discomfort, a deep dissatisfaction with life, with waking up early, going to the office in your dry cleaned clothes, all that travel, the way you only know how to talk about work now. They think if you complain they will be forced to take a hard look at their own lives at have a nagging suspicion – no, they actually know they won’t like what they see. I much prefer the southern european version of “we all complain, it’s crap, but that’s fine.”. The core difference is that in Southern Europe we know it’s not about us. We know that if we are unhappy it’s not because we’re losers. We assign the situation some responsibility. The downside is that sometimes we assign too much, leaving people feeling stuck and powerless. Precisely what I was running away from. So, what is to be done when neither are good options?

I believe we have come too far down the path of individualism. If there is no community, no doing things for others even if it is not good for you in the short-term, who will take care of children, the sick or support others when they are unemployed or difficult things happen? Or even when they want to take a leap forward and need support in doing so? I have come to realise that individualism is only sustainable if only men hold it. It was never meant to be for women. And I see people in individualistic societies crying out for communal living arrangements. I think we need some middle ground. We need it so that we can do away with the power of gender and so that people can decide about their own lives and feel their power while also being able to express their feelings, which might not always be hunky-dory. Being able to live out your potential and being able to express your feelings and have them accepted are basic for mental health and wellbeing.

To finish, I leave you with a video on positive thinking as an ideology that serves power. It does a better job of explaining how it works in the context of the whole social system than I do. I know positive thinking has some good aspects, but I think it’s about time we looked the bad aspects in the face.

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On Benefits or an Expat’s Guide to Unemployment

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I have recently become unemployed, which has suddenly thrown me into the hands of the British welfare system. Before coming over I believed that the UK had a fully comprehensive welfare system that cushioned people and ensured that, ultimately, they would be ok come what may. Now I have a slightly less romanticised image of the system (using the British understatement). Don’t get me wrong, I see that here there are people who manage to survive on benefits and benefits are given to sets of the population that would not get them in other countries. The accent, though, for me is that surviving on benefits is just that, surviving. The idea that people on benefits should be able to enjoy their lives seems to be met with the same anger as when swimming pools are built inside prisons – in both cases it’s supposed to be something that should definitely not happen, just in case you happen to get too comfortable. It’s also seen as a safety net for people who fall into poverty because of extreme circumstances. This is quite far removed from the continental idea that, just as you pay into the system you collect when you need to (as state social insurance).

Decidedly, though, what I see worst is the inherent sexism and corporativism in the benefit system. I can only speak based on my own knowledge and experience, though, so let’s take Jobseekers’ Allowance. There are two types. Contribution-based JSA (Jobseekers Allowance) is for people who have paid at least 2 years of social security and have made no claims in that time. Income-based JSA is for the rest. You are not entitled to Income-based JSA  if you are living with a partner who works over 24 hours a week, regardless of income. And if you and your partner are both unemployed you need to make a joint claim. That means that you are both together on the claim and the claim is paid to the main beneficiary for both people, rather than to each person. Also, the amount you receive is smaller as a couple than as an individual. This seems to make sense, except that the amount you get is 50-70 GBP per week as an individual, which in London will just about pay for your food, but no other expense. There is also no London weighting, which is commonplace in other areas, like pay for civil servants, for example.

Aside from the bare survival aspect of JSA, to me this is a perfect example of indirect discrimination. The rule makes no difference between men and women but has distinctly different effects on them in opposite-sex relationships. I like to call it the “housewife maker policy”. Why? Well, glad you asked. It basically assumes that if your partner works more than 24 hours a week, they should support you. That is regardless of marital status or whatever agreement you have with that person. If you share a house with someone you have told them is in a relationship with you they will assume that economic solidarity is part of your relationship. That immediately tilts the power balance quite acutely. If it happens to be a woman who is unemployed (which is, statistically much more likely, since women have higher unemployment rates and are more likely to be temping), the power balance will be tilted even further. And it will also interact with the social expectation that a woman who is not earning a wage should contribute through her work at home (even though there is hardly any social recognition for this, especially when there are no children involved). When I was in that situation in the past, I felt like I might as well get married and have children with my partner as that seemed easier at the time than getting a job, which was proving to be a real struggle. And this is coming from a woman who has regarded independence as something extremely important in her life. Now, let’s imagine a situation of actual abuse. If the abuser (a man) is working 24 hours a week or more, the woman will find she has no income at all and has to depend on the abuser for all of her money.  It’s just the situation most abusers normally have to work very hard to get to. And it makes her getting out of the situation that much more difficult. But even if there isn’t abuse the situation is not great. It’s really not great for unemployed men, but it really sucks for women.

Now, let’s assume that both are unemployed. Only one person can make the claim for the couple and the whole amount will be paid into that person’s account. Again, we know that in cases of abuse of just sexism the money is most likely to go into the man’s bank account, which again tilts the power balance in his favour.

I wish more feminist organisations and others would take this issue on, because it’s one where the state is clearly working to undermine women’s agency.

So, what can you do to avoid this situation? a) Many people decide not to live together to avoid this situation. b) If you do want to live with your partner, make sure that you have a 2 bedroom house/flat. Otherwise they will assume you are together. c) Avoid becoming unemployed under any circumstance. This is what most Brits see as the best policy and some are quick to blame. However, as we know, saying that is wishful thinking. It’s not always up to us. And, as expats, we have limited networks and knowledge of the system, which makes finding jobs that much more difficult.

To sum up, I wish you best luck and that you don’t have to subject yourselves to this system.


OpenCon

As promised, I wanted to offer you a review of OpenCon, the convention on open relationships and polyamory. I really enjoyed it and thought it went really well. It was a uncon. This means that there were a couple of people who organised the main aspects (food and accommodation, bookings, an overall schedule). Everything else was up to participants. Participants sat at the reception desk, ran workshops, could volunteer for kitchen duties, etc. This meant it was a very participatory convention. When we arrived the schedule was pretty much open. Some workshops were down, but there were up to 5 slots at a time, 4 of them free for participants to use and organise. Needless to say, the filled up quickly.

The venue, Osho Leela, influenced how the con carried on in a very positive way. I know many people were sceptical because it’s a spiritual space. I don’t think the spiritual philosophy seeped through but there was a feeling of calmness and acceptance that I think did stem from the venue and greatly contributed to the con’s success. So, other than the vibe, what else did the place offer? Beautiful double rooms in pine cabins that had their own bathrooms, kitchens and sitting rooms (some people stayed in dorms). It was in the middle of the Dorset countryside, and included fields, gardens and a maze. The stars shone very bright at night. It’s the place where I have seen most stars in the UK. The food was beautiful and vegetarian, with vegan options. I am not a vegetarian myself, but I can say I hardly missed meat (I did a bit, too many carbs in a couple of meals, but the taste was amazing). My favourite feature was the sauna. It’s one that was built by the community, with a wooden stove. Everyone went in naked, with a towel, and then dipped in the cold jacuzzi outside, or used the shower that was also out in the open. Coming out of the sauna, naked, into the cold night and watching the stars was a delight beyond description.

Field at Osho Leela

Field at Osho Leela

Another great thing about the con was the number of European participants. There were people who came over from Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain and Catalonia, as well as expats, such as myself, who live in the UK. I think this made the atmosphere more inclusive and made us consider things in different lights. And I also like to think it brought more touch. A lot of us are caress and cuddle maniacs, and we did so often. Touch was more “mainstreamed”, even though there was also a cuddle party.

But all of this is avoiding the main point, which is what went on in the convention itself. That, I think, is very personal. For me, it was being with the people I’m seeing and with many friends, making new friends and in an atmosphere of complete acceptance. Because of that we were able to explore poly in much deeper ways than would otherwise have been possible. There were many people who had never been part of the poly community even if they did identify as poly. It was great to be able to see the community grow like that and learn from people who had developed outside it. There were people of all styles and configurations, people who were just starting to explore it and people who had been doing it for a few decades. I really enjoyed the richness and variety of it and it’s an experience I can’t wait to repeat. It’s a shame that I have to wait another year!


On Cons

Lately I have come back to life through the cunning use of Cons. What are “Cons”? – you might ask. Yes, they are also ways of making people part with their money in exchange for nothing. But the cons I am talking about do give so much back. I am talking about Conventions on specific topics. A well-known example would be Comic-Con or ShibariCon. However, these are in the US. The UK does, however, have its own host of Cons.

About a month ago (time flies) I went to BiCon. BiCon is the annual Bisexual Convention. What happens at BiCon? Lots of interesting things! First of all, for me it is the chance to spend 3 or 4 days surrounded by people who are primarily bisexual. That, due to the enormous crossover, also means that there is a poly and kinky majority (or, at least, hegemony!). This happens to the point of there being a safe space for monogamous bis. That said, not everyone there is bi. There are people who go for gender expression. It is an extremely safe space for transgender, genderqueers and transvestites. Allies and supporters of bi people also go. There are people who are considering whether they are bi or not, people who have had relationships and/or sex with all genders and people who have had them with just one.

But what actually goes on? There is a full programme of workshops and there are also social spaces. The workshops are on a variety of topics. Most of them, surprisingly are not directly on the topic of bisexuality, but on topics of interest to the community, such as BDSM, massage, sci-fi… I see this as a sign of maturity. A lot of people have been going for over 5 years and came out of the closet long ago, so the non-specifics cater for them. Since it is usually held at universities, people stay in halls of residence, which means that often people will meet in kitchens to cook, have a drink and have parties. And there are also many organised parties, which are a great place to meet and mingle.

It is a space for elation and community. I have managed to meet quite a few people there and form relationships that seem to be ongoing. The general idea is that once past the hurdle of the first BiCon it just gets better and better.But BiCon is not the only Con.

 

In a few weeks time OpenCon will be taking place in Dorset. It is the Con for open relationships and polyamory. This will be my first year there, so I cannot tell you much about what it’s like. From what I know, it involves workshops and socializing around the topic of poly and open relationships. In 2010 they had amazing guest speakers, like Deborah Anapol. I’m looking forward to hearing what the programme for this year is. It’s held in a meditation retreat venue. That means it is cheaper and full board. There are morning meditations, no caffeine and strictly vegetarian food (and vegan upon request). Not all people who go are spiritual and it is not a spiritual event, but the venue does have an influence. I know some people are put off by this, so it is something worth considering if you are thinking of going. As for the accommodation, the default is dorms. If you are planning on getting up to mischief I would recommend getting a double room (you can get a bed in a double and they will pair you up with somebody or book two people to share the same double), or camping. You can also, of course, stay off-site. In my experience, however, staying off-site means you miss out on a lot. Part of the great thing of the con spirit is spending most of your time with people. For those of you like me, who need quiet times, I would recommend not getting a dorm bed, as you will have people around you even there. However, I anticipate that the meditation sessions will provide some respite to those of us needing quite spaces. I will provide information the event, so you know whether it is actually something you want to do in 2012.

Cons are amazing places for self-expression, meeting people, learning new things – and just generally having a great time. I would recommend it any day of the week.


On Books and Feminism

One thing I absolutely adore about this country is that you can go into a mainstream bookshop and buy 3 or 4 feminist books that have been published in the past year. That’s just what I did last week.

So, what did I buy? 

It all started with Living Dolls by Natasha Walter. I did not actually buy this book. I got it for free from the nice ladies at Women’s Views on News. In it Walker goes over princess culture for little girls and our oversexualised culture for not so little girls where women have learnt to view their bodies primarily in terms of their sexual attractiveness. But her main thesis is that there really hasn’t been much sexual liberation because women do not define their own sexuality. Women are just more available for men’s definition of sexuality and depend on that for status. She also goes on to dispel the myths around neurobiological differences between men and women that are used to justify gender roles. I found it a great read though a bit judgemental at times, as she didn’t seem to understand young women’s ‘promiscuity’.

That book got me wanting more. So I looked up the bibliography and found two other books. I am currently reading Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality by Rebecca Asher.

I have to say I am loving this book and it is also driving me up the wall. Why? It paints a very bleak picture of the mechanisms that use motherhood to create an inequality that is much worse than the one suffered before becoming a mother. And she also discusses how fathers are sidelined, creating long lasting imbalances. The picture is worse and more nuanced than I knew. Then she goes on to describe possible measures to improve the situation. Anyone who has read about motherhood and fatherhood probably knew this, but she presents it in a very compelling way and with a couple of new angles that are very enriching. Probably what I am liking most about the book is how it is allowing me to understand what the situation is like in Britain and the differences with where I come from.

The third book I bought was The Equality Illusion by Kat Barnyard. From what I know of this book, it has been quite influential and much loved. It goes over the main areas of gender inequality today showing that the idea that there is gender equality is really an illusion. I shall tell you more when I have read it!

Need I say how much I adore that feminism seems to be more mainstream here than in other parts of the world? Yes, it still gets bitchslapped (by men and women), but it does so because it does not toe the line and still calls itself feminism.

My bookshops

Where do I go shopping?

Despite Amazon having great delivery times and often delivering for free, I have to say that I’m a sucker for going into a bookstore and looking through the shelves. I can’t help feeling that we live too great a part of our lives online – and starting at screens. Having said that, I want a Kindle. Soon.

So where do I go for my books? I have two favourites, which are not very original, I have to admit. If any of you have any suggestions, they’d be most welcome.

Waterstones is quite an obvious one. I mainly go there for fiction. Easy reads are badly needed when you have just moved and your mind is still trying to adjust to the changes. And they have wonderful 3 for 1s on paperbacks that offer just that. But the bigger stores also have lots of books on different topics. I’ve found their business section to be quite complete.

Foyles I enjoy because it is a little less mainstream. Its Tottenham Court Road shop is huge and covers a lot of topics in depth. On the other hand, the one on the Southbank has the feminist books plus sunchairs facing the river. Need I say more?

As I said, not terribly original. I’d love to hear tips from you on bookshops to spend an afternoon lost in and find some great books as well.


Upcoming: Polyamory Meetup

In an earlier post I mentioned what a great resource Meetup is for us expats looking to meet people. I have to say that this is perhaps even more true for the alternative scene, where it is often even more difficult to get to meet people, unless you know people through your pre-existing networks. Meetup allows you to just show up to an event where people are friendly and open to chatting and getting to know you. So there’s not as much of that awkwardness of trying to come up with a good opening line and keep people engaged in conversation. It’s especially good for introverts!

One group that is meeting very soon in the London Polyamory Meetup Group – this coming Tuesday. I you are interested in poly it’s a great place to go and have discussions. The good thing is that there are a lot of practising polys – most of them were the last time I was there. That means that newbies and experienced polys alike can find something to talk about. And there are people in all sorts of configurations. The last time I was there we had some quite in-depth discussions. Another thing I liked was the mixture of ages, ranging from early twenties to sixties.  This means that you can ask people how they’ve been doing poly over, say, the last 20 years, which I find is quite rare.

Don’t know what polyamory is? *Ironic gasp* Check out polyamory.org.uk or any of the links on the right hand side ==>


Sunday Activities

So, we all know that Fridays and Saturdays there are plenty of things to do out there. What is not so common is to find kinky activities to do on a Sunday. Last week I attended London Fetish Fair.

It is a fetish market held near Moorgate once a month. It starts at noon with many stalls selling all sorts of apparel and tools (crops, canes, nipple clamps – you name it). After six a party starts, which includes performances. Last Sunday we say a suspension of two women together using complex machinery, and a burlesque by VJ Spankie. The venue is a sort of cave (in French), which makes it look very dungeony. And one room contained very nice machinery that was at the public’s disposal. Indeed, it was used.  It was your normal Saturday night party, as the atmosphere was chilled. People were relaxed and quite open.  There was also not that feeling that if you left early you would miss the most interesting part, as there were many parts to the day. Entry before six (when the party started) meant no code was required, which made for an interesting mix and I think contributed to the general relaxed atmosphere.

Though it was my first time there, I can say I really enjoyed it and would certainly go again.

This weekend I thought I’d go for something much more traditionally British. I was invited to a supper club‘s high tea (which was actually afternoon tea). For those of you not familiar with it, it looks something like this:

It includes one or several types of teas and sandwiches, cupcakes, scones, cakes, pastries, etc. (not necessarily all of the above). It’s quite a formal occasion, though in non-posh circles some silliness soon ensues. I find it’s a great way to while away the afternoon in nice company, tasting different food and teas. The only problem I can find is the high sugar content. The next time I go to one I will perhaps choose one with more sandwiches than high-sugar cupcakes!