Saturday, November 5, 2011

How to make change in a foreign country... I don't know!

Grappling with some of the same old same old: dismal repetitive thoughts that dampen my high spirits and leave me feeling disappointed with my own commitment to help make the world a better place.

What in the hell am I talking about?  Many a books, articles and websites are dedicated to helping people adjust to living in a foreign country.  I do find they are generally helpful for the basic stuff.  But when it gets right down to it, there are just some things that cannot be duplicated.

When it comes to having an active political life in a foreign country, there are some special challenges.  Sure, you can obtain a ballot overseas and even vote from afar.  Sure, you can sign petitions to "Save the Whale" online.  Of course, any organization is happy to get money to use towards a cause you believe in.  But in terms of building real activist community, it just isn't as easy when you live abroad.  Especially if you are an American and could be perceived of as an imperialist!  Furthermore, activism and volunteering are inherently American.  Yup, I said it.

Here in France, people seem to march because the union tells them too.   They shut down the city and piss off everyone trying to get to work.  Unions hold a lot (A LOT) of power.  So, to that end, the perceived need for grassroots organizing (people power) is relatively low.  Or even, for some causes, non existent.  There are though some cool non-profits, especially here in Paris.  But they don't seem to utilize volunteers much, at least that is according to a woman who worked for WWF. 

French Persecutive on Feminism
I have referred to this before, but when asking a French woman if she is a feminist, she will generally look highly offended and declare, "NO!  I love men too much".  She also foolishly thinks that the feminist cause isn't needed here in France.  Alas, I wish that were true.  Check out the New York Times article Where having it all doesn't mean having Equality

I am not going to claim to be an expert on anything French - to be sure.  But that is part of the problem of living abroad and being a can't-stop-myself do-gooder.  When I watch the news (Especially Aljazeera), visit Mother Jones website, read current event magazines, etc I just want to jump into action.  I want to DO SOMETHING!  But what?  And anyway, I am a foreigner, what right do I have to tell them how to live?

My own daily choices of not eating meat, recycling, use cloth diapers, buying as much fairtrade/local/bio blah blah blah, taking Sabine into nature, taking public transportation (like I can drive in France anyway - ha ha), not buying plastic water and being informed about what the hell is going on around me doesn't really feel good enough.  I don't feel good enough.

Furthermore, I feel alone in my desire to participate in making the world a better place here in France.  I know logically that simply isn't true and that we are all trying to do the best we can.  But the fact is that, all of the wonderful people I know and the friends I have made here are ALL critical of something about this country.  The Frenchies themselves are particularly pissed off.  Other ex-pats and I agree on a lot of the bullshit bureaucracy that we must deal with in living here that would "never happen" in our efficient and courteous countries.  Or on issues of education, environmentalism, human rights, nuclear energy, discrimination etc.  What are we DOING to help make change?  How are we working to make life better for ourselves and others?

My prefecture.  Photo by Jacques Mossot 2009
One little example is the deplorable conditions/treatment of my local prefecture.  This is the place where I had to go twice a year, for the last three years, to renew my Carte de Sejour - something like a green card.   From the beginning to the end, on every level, it is horrible.  They don't take appointments (anymore, cost too much), so you have to wait (sometimes all day).  Often there is only one person working (women only of course) who is very stressed out and bitchy (naturally).  Instead of a proper waiting room, there is a long hallway lined with chairs on the second floor where it gets unnaturally hot and stinky.  Often people come with their babies and toddlers (they start school at age three), so inevitably, there is a lot of crying.  AND then, once it is your turn, you must do your business standing up, talking through a little hole in a window with a crowd around you.  Oh, did I mention that after your initial visit, you get a piece of paper to tell you to come back and pick up your card.  (Oh, but, if you don't get it within a month, come back and tell us they say).  AND then when you go back to get your card, you sign in and then everyone huddles around a window as they call your name.  It is a third world country set-up.  No computers, all is done in paper with tons of copies and copies and forms and copies.  Hilariously, we asked the woman how we could obtain the much desired ten-year card. "Oh, you have to say that you want the 10 year card".  WHAT. THE. HELL? 

If you don't SAY you want the 10 year card, they will assume you want to come back every year for this demoralizing experience. 

Now, I am the first to admit, making this experience more tolerable doesn't exactly change the world.  But, in some ways it does touch human rights.  You see, as you look around at this particular prefecture, you will see that almost everyone is either Arab or African.  On the first floor, where you renew your drivers license, there are chairs, natural light, 5 windows open resulting in a short wait time, an electronic number system and much less people - French citizen people.  oh, and I guess it is a coincidence that all the tellers on the first floor are men.

Now, imagine you are new to France and going to this shit hole is your introduction to becoming a French citizen.  What does it say about your value, if anything?  I am not going to detail Hicham's experience with getting his American green card except to say : efficient (as in 20 minutes) and basically pleasant.

BUT then, the issue really is this: HOW does a person change the status quo in a foreign country?  Who do you talk to?  How do you convince them to care about this?  How do you build consensus?   How does change happen in other places?  Just so many more questions than answers.  I guess these are things I need to learn about.

All that said, when I read about American change agents, dynamic and effective activism, creative and energized non-profits challenging the status quo, community gardens in ghettos, people taking the power back, people volunteering, giving back, being invested in their environment, individuals participating in their neighborhoods.  In looking back at my experience as a political activist and non-profit work, I ask myself, how can I use my passion and skills here in France?  What am I called to do here, beyond raising my cool kid, if anything? 

Then I think, that as an American, I have within me the ability to follow the American dream as defined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams:
Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, 
with opportunity for each according to abiltiy or achievement 
regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.

This post has given me a lot to think about.  I would love to hear your thoughts, comments, ideas, etc.  email or comment please :) 

1 comment:

Valentina VK said...

you see it is interesting as I am an italian expat in France so I find the society here much more liberal,lay, feminist and gender opportunities oriented that in my country :-)
enjoyed to read your opinions, if you stop by me I am holding a small giveaway just to housewarming within expats :-)