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The Conversation We’re Not Having: Sexual Harassment and Third Culture Kids

sexual harassment

A CNN iReport about the sexual harassment endured by American college student RoseChasm (her iReport name) during her three-month stay in India went viral a few months ago. Responses poured in. Condolences and apologies. Defenses of Indian men who don’t harass women; accusations that she brought it on by making poor choices; frustration that yet again a white woman harassed by brown men draws viral attention while the day-to-day harassment experienced by Indian women goes relatively unnoticed (barring the trial of the men accused of gang-raping an Indian woman in a bus, a horrific attack which resulted in her death).

I, for one, applaud RoseChasm for her courage to speak honestly. I didn’t interpret her essay as an attempt to vilify a nation or a nation’s men. I don’t blame her for any of the things that happened to her. I don’t believe she was attempting to write a scholarly, or even journalistic, piece about harassment and race. She told her story, and it is hers. She owns it and she can tell it.

I also am thankful to her for this courage. It reminds me that I need to speak about sexual harassment. I, too, experience it often. But I don’t hear it discussed often among expatriates. And if adult expatriates aren’t talking about it, I highly doubt our children are talking about it, or being helped to speak about it well.

When I tried to find statistics, information, or simply personal stories about sexual harassment involving Third Culture Kids (children who accompany their parents into another society) or expatriates, my own blog post about it came up in the top five results. Few of the other sites directly addressed expatriate kids and sexual harassment. A few addressed the issue in the context of boarding schools and that was the end of my search.

In other words, the sexual harassment experienced while living as an expatriate isn’t being talked about often. At least not online.

While I do have children in boarding school and so must be aware of sexual harassment and bullying in that environment, what about in the day-to-day life of Third Culture Kids in their host countries?

I am raising three children, sometimes in America, sometimes in Kenya, most often in Djibouti. No matter where we live, I need to talk to them about sexual harassment. I need to tell them my stories, to let them tell me theirs. I need to give them words to describe what they see, what they feel, what they hear, and why they don’t want to walk past a group of high school aged boys, or girls. I need to help them respond bravely in the moment, brokenly when the humiliation sinks in, and with redemptive healing as they walk away from that moment.

My own stories are really hard to talk about. I know it will be so much harder when my kids begin to share.

My reactions have ranged from swearing, crying, quietly ignoring the advances, praying, speaking calmly, shouting, asking for help from people nearby, slapping the offender, throwing stones, and burning with anger. Some, clearly, are better responses than others.

While sexual harassment is always awful, shaming, and wrong, experiencing it as a foreigner carries the added dimension of isolation and uncertainty and experiencing it as a foreign kid is especially traumatic. In addition to the shame, you have the confusion of:

  • Not understanding the words or the hand gestures.
  • Not knowing how to respond in the local language.
  • Not knowing who to turn to for safe assistance.
  • Wrestling through questions of identity, acceptance, and belonging.
  • Feeling targeted by nature of skin color or different clothing.
  • Different cultural boundaries, attitudes, and expectations.

These feelings are not just experienced by white Americans living in the Horn of Africa. They are experienced by both genders of all colors, when a person is living anywhere outside their passport country.

I am learning to share my stories, at the proper times, with my daughters and my son, to the extent that their ages can handle it. I want to demonstrate how to bear up under the sometimes straining difficulties of being a woman in a world where we are still viewed by some as sex objects, as less than human, as unworthy of dignity. I want to give them words, to be an example of courageous vulnerability, and to show them some possible responses.

Because if we can’t talk about it at home, where will they talk about it?

I also want them to hear the stories about the men who have protected me, defended me, apologized to me on behalf of others, the men who have helped restore the dignity others stole.

Moms and dads, I don’t believe we will be able to raise our children in a world free from sexual harassment or violence no matter what country we live in. But I do believe we can, and must, raise our children to not be the perpetrators of it. That is obviously the first step. We must also face the inevitability that they will endure harassment at some point and so we must instill in our kids a deep conviction of their dignity. We must raise our children honestly and courageously, raise them to bear up under trials with grace, dignity, compassion, and humanity.

This article on What’s Your Brave gives helpful suggestions for raising this topic with teenagers and pursuing the conversation.

If you know of other helpful links regarding sexual harassment and Third Culture Kids, please share in the comments.

*image via flickr

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