This week, after a couple of months break, I returned to adding things to my project website. I've written before about the things I've learned en route to building that site (the most comprehensive round up being this post, “Newbie hacking coding tips”) but there are a few other things that came to mind during this week's foray.

Namely: what to do when you get stuck, or something doesn't work? I've written before that it's important to try and use your own logic before asking for help, and to try and follow trails as much as you can, but that's still a little vague. So, here's a summary of things I've learned to do when things break, or don't work quite as I expected.

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This week is my three year anniversary of moving to Berlin (my three-year-Berliniversary, if you will.) Here are a few things I've learned along the way – about myself, about moving abroad, and about Berlin.


Moving abroad is hard. That romanticised idea of moving to a new country, immediately surrounded by interesting people, with a social calendar brimming with exciting new possibilities, expanding your horizons and learning new things is a world away from the reality. The vulnerability of being completely and utterly alone in a country where you don't speak the language, and have never been before; the unfamiliar idiosyncrasies of a culture you know nothing about; not knowing where to go for even the very basics.

I remember getting to the supermarket when I first got here, and wanting to buy some double cream (I was planning on baking a cake for my new office – a superficial but effective way of getting them to talk to me.) I was faced with a whole array of similar looking substances – Schmand, Sahne, Sahne zum Kochen, Saure Sahne, Schlagsahne... I didn't have a dictionary with me, and ended up purchasing the whole range, to the amusement of the cashier, only to discover that not one of them was actually what I was looking for. Silly, but it was oddly disempowering to realise that I couldn't even go to the supermarket without assistance.

Having to make friends from scratch was also difficult – similar to starting at a new school, only you're the only new one, and there's no teacher to introduce you, or defined space in which you'll meet those people. Instead, the whole city is your school playground, and you have to create your own potential-friend-meeting opportunities, while working, and settling in, and getting used to the new environment. For me, a couple of people played a key role in my settling in – friends who invited me to things, and didn't mind me tagging along, asking silly questions, and generally being my 'go-to' for advice, and weekend activities. I'm certain I wouldn't have stayed in Berlin for as long as I have if it weren't for their kindness.

I'm so glad I learned (and am still learning) German. Yes, it's entirely possible to live in Berlin while knowing only the very basics, there's no denying that – but it makes a world of difference to be able to converse with people and to understand the culture. On a practical level, I found it so embarrassing to be sitting with a group of German people and have to ask them to all speak a foreign language, just for me, while we were sitting in Germany. And, I've found at least, people are much friendlier knowing that you've put effort in to learn the language, even if you (like me) make silly mistakes on a regular basis. There's no better ice-breaker than a ridiculous misuse or misunderstanding of a basic sentence or phrase. As a friend put it – just accept that you're going to get (at least) the grammar wrong, and speak.

I like being put out of my comfort zone. It's true that Germany's not so different to other countries I've lived in – the UK, France, Spain – but it's different enough for me to feel not quite at ease in many situations. I realised last year that this is something that I actually relish; it makes me pay more attention to what's going on and notice things I might otherwise have let slip by me. It's almost like a set of mini challenges that crop up again and again, always slightly different, a little confusing, and satisfying once they're dealt with.

I also notice things here that wouldn't happen in other places. The reverence for people with academic qualifications, the unwillingness to show any sort of national pride except for during international football tournaments, the cliched but accurate directness and consequently thick skin, the relaxed and unhurried attitude towards studying here in Berlin, the idea of renting apartments for years on end rather than buying... it goes on and on, and I find it fascinating.

It's made me notice the opposite, too – things that are very particular to the British. The 'pleases' and 'thank-yous', the long winded way of getting to what you actually want to say, the idea of wearing uniforms in school, the sport netball, the drink Ribena (or any sort of fruit cordial), the strange tradition of Guy Fawkes night, of Pancake Day, accepting other cultures' culinary traditions as our own, of finishing university and settling down and buying a house as if it's all a race... and so on, and so on.

Berlin has so many possibilities, it can be overwhelming. It's cheap, and fun, and you can probably find any meet up, class, or community that you want to. But sometimes, so much choice is almost too much choice – it can be difficult to know where to start, and how to stick to things. In the time I've been here, I've taken a swing dancing course, joined (and left) a folksy band, joined a yoga class, taken a meditation class, started Arabic classes, attended coding workshops, danced in a music video, learned to rollerblade, joined discussion groups, started learning the djembe... and more.

It's a complete luxury problem, but there's so much to find and to do here that actually sticking to something can be harder than it sounds. This somewhat hedonistic attitude can be seen in the way people organise their time, too. Nothing planned too much in advance, leaving flexibility in case something better comes up, with a lack of punctuality I never would've expected in Germany.

Berlin's nowhere near as multicultural as you think, or as (white) people here will describe it. From everyday micro-aggressions to the implicit understanding among many German people that even third generation Turkish immigrants who've grown up their whole lives here shouldn't be able to consider themselves as 'German', as well as the very select groups of immigrants and cultures that Berlin contains – it's not a patch on London's rich cultural setting, and I haven't stopped correcting people lauding 'multi-kulti Berlin' since I arrived.

I don't miss the UK, but I miss the people. There's nothing particularly about the UK that I ever get cravings for, but it's hard sometimes being far away from friends and family. Messaging apps like Whatsapp and Skype make this so, so much easier – I sometimes wonder if I would've stayed as long if it weren't for them. It's also a strange feeling going back to the UK and not understanding jokes, or references to TV programmes I've never seen, and getting a kind of reverse culture shock. The UK and Germany aren't so different, but in some respects my lifestyle here in Berlin is a far cry from that of my friends in London.

Sometimes, not making a decision is the decision in itself. I always imagined there would be a point at which I'd decide to really stay in Berlin, or at which I'd go back to England. I came here originally for 6 weeks, with a suitcase of summer clothes and a house to go back to in London, without any big goodbye to the UK or my friends and family there. A job came up, and I decided to stay for a year, and defer my masters. Then, another year, and I found a nicer apartment to feel more at home. Now, it's three years, and that 'decision point' simply hasn't happened... and somehow, I'm settled and happy and it's hard to think where else I'd be able to have the same quality of life for the same price.

All that said, three years after my non-decision to move here, it's incredibly satisfying to think that I've gotten through the settling-in pains, and made my own way here. Of course, there are cities where it's far more difficult to settle into, and actually I'd say that Berlin is one of the easiest cities to live in that I've visited. To friends who've moved from their homes, to university, to a city with lots of their friends in, I've not stopped recommending that they get out of that comfortable bubble, and experience a new country – if only for a few months, just to expand their horizons, see how they cope with it themselves, and experience something new. I wouldn't take back a second of my time here, despite the ups and downs!  


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Image credit: Joanna Walsh, who came up with the campaign

It's July already, which means I'm six months through my challenge of a. reading 50 books this year, and b. only reading books by women, as part of the #readwomen2014 campaign, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

People close to me have now stopped recommending books by men as default, and caveat recommendations with “Next year, you could check out...” – which I appreciate. Other people who I tell about my women-only reading habits have been pleasantly curious, and upon thinking about it, have almost unanimously agreed that they probably read many more books by men than by women.

One of the nicest things, though (and this is perhaps more related to the quantity side of the challenge) – is that for the first time in years, I've started to set aside time for reading. Prioritising a few hours each week for the delicious act of curling up in my chair and delving into a book feels like such a luxury, and yet practically speaking, relatively easy to obtain.

In an era when complaining about being busy has become somewhat of “a boast disguised as a complaint”, escaping 'the busy trap' and making space for those few hours was initially slightly bizarre for me. Sorry, I can't meet you for dinner, I have to read. No drinks after work, I have reading to do. These reasons sounded strange to my ears to start with, but I soon lost that hesitation, and realised that actually, they are very valid.

I've been keeping track of my books over on Goodreads, after I realised last year that it was difficult to remember what I'd read throughout the year. Having them all set out in a list allows me also to find patterns among my reading choices: Ursula K. LeGuin is by far my most preferred author (6 books out of the 23) and the majority, just, of the books are written by women of colour (12 books out of the 23).

My favourite book out of all of them – and one that I've passed on to friends and recommended to more people than I can remember – has been The Left Hand of Darkness, which was a book which genuinely changed my behaviour, and made me realise things about myself that I hadn't really considered before. In terms of reading, it was the first science fiction book I've read, and it hugely whet my appetite for a genre which I'd previously ignored, proof of which can be seen through the 7 other scifi books I've read this year.

Scifi aside, my favourites so far have probably been Alice Walker's The Colour Purple, which is one I'd been meaning to read for a while, Mia McKenzie's The Summer We Got Free, which was beautiful and mesmerisingly written, or perhaps Taiye Selasi's debut novel, Ghana Must Go, on identity and immigration.

In terms of non-fiction, bell hooks' The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love is another one of those books which left a long lasting impression on me, and which I've recommended widely since. My other favourite is on a very different topic; Emily Parker's “Now I know who my comrades are: Voices from the Internet Underground”, which looked at internet activism in Cuba, Russia and China, and was a wonderful example for me of recognising cultural differences when considering online behaviour.

It's also pretty satisfying, looking through my list of books read in 2014; next up is I Do Not Come To You by Chance, and The Book of Unknown Americans, which will be my first book this year written by someone from Latin America.

I've also started taking note of lists compiled by others of books written by women:

Any other recommendations – especially those written by women from Latin America, Asia or Africa (especially Francophone Africa – I feel I'm missing that perspective) – would be really welcomed. I'm looking forward to see what else I learn about in (hopefully) the next 26 books over the rest of 2014!  

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“That guy just said something really racist* to me.”

“Really? ...but he seems so nice!”

[*Throughout this post, you can replace the word “racist” with basically any type of prejudice or discriminatory behaviour, and everything will still be relevant.]

I've had this conversation more times than I can count, upon telling someone I'm with about the behaviour of someone else around us.

Every time I hear this response, I'm filled with utter disbelief. Do people think that racist idiots somehow look or act different to the rest of us, most of the time? That they have green horns sprouting from their heads, or walk around with a sign on their head advertising their particular form of bigotry? Or that they begin all conversations by explicitly stating their prejudices?

Let me save you some time; they don't.

In fact, most of the time these people function as a regular, perfectly pleasant human beings in society. And, if you don't happen to fall into a group against whom they discriminate, it's highly likely that you might never have witnessed their ugly behaviour. It makes sense, doesn't it? For them, you may well be exactly the right skin colour to fit within their bigoted views – so, clearly, you'll be seeing their very best side ( in effect, the person that they could be to everyone, were it not for those prejudices – isn't that sad?).

To state the very, very obvious: you are likely never going to personally experience a type of discrimination which is manifested against people who don't look/seem/act/behave like you.

But, and this is crucial, the fact you haven't personally experienced it doesn't mean it didn't happen, and it definitely doesn't mean you shouldn't believe that it did happen.

If someone is telling you about an unpleasant experience they've gone through (which is undoubtedly what happened for them to have started a conversation like the one above) – please, never question them. Listen to them.

It's already awkward and difficult to have to be the one who points out that someone at the party you're at, or in the social group you're in, actually holds ugly and offensive views. It's even more horrible to be put immediately on the defensive once you do bring yourself to tell an ally about it, let alone to have someone you thought you could depend on then actually defend the person in question, using the utterly farcical argument of:

“But they've never behaved like that towards me!”

A personal aside: every time I hear this, inside I'm screaming OF COURSE THEY HAVEN'T, YOU'RE WHITE...and outside, I explain my inner screams in the most socially appropriate way I can. Because, realistically, that's probably the most constructive and pragmatic thing I can do, right?

If you find yourself on the responding side of the situation above, anything you're going to say that starts with “but....” is a bad idea. No “but's”, just, I'm sorry that happened to you. Ask if they need anything, or if they would like that person to leave, and do what you can to support them.

It's not the responsibility of the person who has been a victim of said discrimination to “convince” you of the veracity of what they're saying; if they are telling you this, it's also likely that they trust you, and you should trust them too. And for God's sake, get over the naïve idea that bigots will somehow be anything but regular people, just like you and me.

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I asked recently on Twitter if anyone had recommendations for reading material on the topic of postcolonial feminism; admittedly, a very general question, but sometimes it can be difficult to know where to start when you're new to a certain topic.

I got some great suggestions of reading material, and wanted to record them here for posterity, and in case they're useful to other people looking to learn more about the topic. I'm working my way through them now...

(Thank you to Chitra Nagarajan, Maya Ganesh, and Xeenarh for your suggestions! Any others – let me know.)

Essays and books

“Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times” by Jasbir Puar. She also has a range of other articles, including the wonderfully-titled “I'd rather be a cyborg than a goddess” and has some interesting-looking talks online, too. I'm keeping an eye on her 'Upcoming Events' for her next visit to Berlin...

Under Western Eyes:Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses by Chandra Mohanty – this came up a lot, and seems to be a good place to start

Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, by Chandra Mohanty

Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism by Chandra Mohanty

Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures by Chandra Mohanty

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color – a feminist anthology edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa – this sounds pretty wonderful, and is next on my 'to-read' list. (and it's available in Spanish, too)

Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios by Latina Feminist Group, Luz del Alba Acevedo(Editor), Norma Alarc (Editor), Celia Alvarez (Editor), Ruth Behar (Goodreads Author) (Editor), Rina Benmayor (Editor) – a set of autobiographic essays on the Latina experience

Black Body: Women, Colonialism, and Space by Radhika Mohanram

Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism by Trinh T. Minh-ha

But Some Of Us Are Brave: All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men: Black Women's Studies, by Gloria T. Hull (Editor), Barbara Smith (Editor), Patricia Bell Scott (Editor)

Re-orienting Western Feminisms – Women's diversity in a postcolonial world, by Chilla Bulbeck

Challenging Imperial Feminism, by Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar

"Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics by Kimberle Crenshaw

Can the subaltern speak? - Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

“Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” by Audre Lorde

Shorter articles

Femen's obsession with nudity feeds a racist colonial feminism, by Chitra Nagarajan

Why we need to dismantle the myth of 'Western' feminism,

Gay Nigerians targeted as 'un-African' - Chika Oduah

How not to study gender in the Middle East – by Maya Mikdashi

Less related, but interesting-looking things I came across during this search:

Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color, by Gloria E. Anzaldúa – a collection of essays

Nehanda, by Yvonne Vera – a novel set in Zimbabwe, “the portrait of resistance and struggle, a tale of a people's first meeting with colonialism.”

The Nine Guardians by Rosario Castellanos

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Below, in German.

Dear creators, curators, founders, employers, employees, anyone who is part of something that has been criticised for its lack of diversity,

I want to make sure you understand why we're criticising and calling you out in public. We're not trolling, I promise, we're trying to help.

I can imagine it might not be so nice for you, to launch a new [conference/organisation/company]* and be met with criticism from people you don't even know, about an issue you don't really care about, and perhaps one that you don't really think has anything to do with you.

You're wrong. It has everything to do with you, and your work.

I'm assuming here that you're a white male, judging from the 000s of examples I've seen. Let's say you have the best of intentions; you're determined to use your own (potentially, not inconsiderable) talents to change the world, and you're aware that you've benefited from opportunities that others might not have had.

So, you want to innovate, find new solutions, work with the most intelligent and talented people in your field, to make the world a better place. It just so happens that so many of those you know are, like you, white males. But so what? They, like you, have proven their colours – they've given up time to work on fascinating projects which you admire, and you'd relish the opportunity to work with them. Why shouldn't you?

Somewhere among your goodwill and desire to change the world and start something new, you're making a critical mistake. You're working with people who are just like you. You might disagree with them on a superficial level of certain topics, but essentially, your understandings of the world are exactly the same. You've all been treated in the same way by society, your worries and problems are largely the same, your priorities are the same.

What does this mean?

It means that the same stories/solutions/problems will jump out at you all. You'll focus on the same details – those that matter to you, and those around you (this example of how the Trayvon Martin case was covered in US media addresses this in far better detail). On a purely individual level, by surrounding yourself with people who are just like you, you're doing yourself a disservice – you're not giving yourself the chance to be challenged by different world views, by people who will argue with you and push you to be better at what you're doing. You're missing out on so much potential creativity that could be stimulated by getting to work with and understand people who've had entirely different life experiences to you.

And on a wider scale, you're missing out on a huge part of your audience. Outside of your bubble, people aren't like you, and they've been ignored for decades. Whatever you're doing, no matter how well you think you're doing it with all those intelligent white men around you, will never be able to address their needs as much as people who have lived similar experiences to them. In fact, by continuing to ignore them, you're simply maintaining the old status quo – anything but innovative, really.

A friend of mine recently told me that she's been trying to hire people who are “nothing like her, but who share the same passion”. It's not an easy way to do things, but it's bringing her and her team a huge amount of success; yes, there's disagreements, and debate, but if you're serious about challenging the way things are done at the moment, isn't that exactly what you want?

I'm hoping that all makes enough sense to you for you to be able to understand that initiatives like Gender Avenger, or 50 Prozent calling you out for a lack of diversity should be a wake up call to you; we're not rabbiting on about diversity simply for diversity's sake, but because having a diverse (and, let's be honest, interesting) work force, or conference line up, enriches whatever you're doing, and will help you do it better.

Listen to the people criticising you; we know that you can do better, and we're trying to help.

PS. There are so many other arguments to be made as to why diversity is needed; I just wanted to focus on a certain few here!


Auf deutsch- danke an Julien Simonet für die Übersetzung!

Liebe Errichter, Kuratoren, Gründer, Arbeitgeber, Arbeitnehmer, alle welche Teil sind von etwas was für seinen Mangel an Vielfalt kritisiert wurde,

ich will sicherstellen, dass ihr versteht, wieso wir euch an die Öffentlichkeit zerren und kritisieren. Wir wollen euch nicht schmähen, ich verspreche es, wir versuchen zu helfen.

Ich kann mir vorstellen, dass es unangenehm ist für euch, eine neue [Konferenz/Organisation/Firma] zu lancieren, um mit Kritik konfrontiert zu werden, von Leuten welche ihr nicht einmal kennt, über Aspekte welche euch nicht wirklich bekümmern, vielleicht über etwas worüber ihr denkt, dass es gar nicht wirklich mit euch zu tun hat.

Ihr denkt falsch. Es hat alles mit euch zu tun und eure Arbeit.

Aufgrund der x Beispiele die ich sah, vermute ich nun dass du ein weisshäutiger Mann bist. Lass uns annehmen dass du die besten Absichten hast; du bist entschlossen deine eigenen (potenzielle, nicht unbedeutende) Talente zu nutzen um die Welt zu ändern und du bist dir bewusst, dass du mit Möglichkeiten bevorteilt bist, über welche andere nicht verfügen.

Also, du willst innovativ sein, neue Lösungen finden, mit den intelligentesten und talentiertesten Leuten Arbeiten in deinem Gebiet, um die Welt zu einem besseren Ort zu machen. Zufälligerweise sind die meisten von diesen welche du kennst weisshäutige Männer. Aber was soll’s? Sie, wie du, haben sich bewährt - sie haben Zeit aufgewendet für faszinierende Projekte welche du bewunderst und du würdest die Gelegenheit geniessen, mit ihnen zu Arbeiten. Warum solltest du nicht?

Irgendwo zwischen deinem guten Willen und Wunsch die Welt zu verändern und etwas neues zu starten machst du einen kritischen Fehler. Du arbeitest mit Menschen welche sind wie du. Zwar widersprichst du ihnen vielleicht in gewissen oberflächlichen Aspekten gewisser Themen, aber eigentlich stimmt dein Weltbild exakt mit ihnen überein. Ihr wurdet von der Gesellschaft alle gleich behandelt, eure Sorgen und Probleme sind nahezu die gleichen, eure Prioritäten sind die selben.

Was bedeutet das?

Es bedeutet, dass die gleichen Geschichten/Lösungen/Probleme aus euch herauskommen werden. Ihr werdet alle auf die gleichen Details fokussieren - jene, die euch etwas bedeuten und jene die euch nahe stehen. Auf dich bezogen bedeutet dies, sich mit Menschen zu umgeben welche so sind wie du, dass du dir einen schlechten Dienst erweist - du verbaust dir die Chance, von verschiedenen Weltsichten herausgefordert zu werden, von Menschen welche Einwände anbringen können und dich vorwärts bringen um besser zu werden, in dem was du tust. Du verpasst so viel potenzielle Kreativität, in dem du darauf verzichtest mit Menschen zu Arbeiten welche komplett verschiedene Erfahrungen haben wie du.

Bezogen auf das was über dich hinausgeht, verzichtest du auf einen grossen Teil deines Publikums. Ausserhalb deiner Blase sind die Leute nicht wie du, und sie wurden über Jahrzehnte ignoriert. Was auch immer du machst, unabhängig davon wie gut du dich glaubst mit all diesen intelligenten weisshäutigen Männern um dich, wird nie in der Lage sein, ihre Bedürfnisse so gut abzudecken wie es Menschen täten, welche ähnliche Erfahrungen taten wie sie. Vielmehr, indem du sie weiterhin ignorierst, pflegst du den alten status quo - alles andere als innovativ, echt jetzt.

Eine Freundin von mir erzählte mir kürzlich, dass sie versucht hat Leute einzustellen welche „nicht sind wie sie, aber die selbe Leidenschaft teilen“. Es ist kein einfacher Weg, Dinge zu tun, aber es bringt ihr und ihrem Team haufenweise Erfolg ein; ja, da sind Meinungsverschiedenheiten, Debatten, aber wenn es dir damit Ernst ist, die Dinge wie sie im Moment sind herauszufordern, ist es nicht genau das was du willst?

Ich hoffe, dass alles genug Sinn ergibt für dich, damit du in der Lage bist zu verstehen, dass Initiativen, welche dich um einen Mangel an Vielfalt kritisieren, einen Weckruf für dich darstellen sollen. Wir labern nicht über Vielfalt einzig um der Vielfalt willen, sondern weil eine vielfältige (und, seien wir ehrlich, interessante) Arbeitnehmerschaft, oder Konferenzteilnehmerschaft das was auch immer du tust bereichert und dir helfen wird, es besser zu tun.

Höre auf Leute die dich kritisieren; wir wissen, dass du es besser machen kannst, und wir versuchen zu helfen.

PS Da sind so viele andere Argumente anzubringen, wieso Vielfalt nötig ist; ich wollte mich hier nur auf ein paar wenige konzentrieren.

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When I was starting off my professional career, I was lucky to receive a number of pieces of advice. I absorbed them gratefully, very conscious of my naivety and inexperience, but slowly realised that many of the tips just wouldn't work for me; not because of my inability to implement the hints, but because of circumstances beyond my (immediate) control.

For example, my first business trip saw me travelling in the Middle East, in a conflict zone (Libya, in September 2011; Tripoli was under rebel control, but Gadaffi had not yet been found).

“If you get into trouble, be as authoritative as you can.”

Okay, I thought. So – speak loudly, and try to be intimidating.

“If people in positions of authority – at border crossings, army checkpoints, or airports – question you, speak louder and don't show them you are intimidated. Try and project your own importance as much as possible- no weakness, and if you need to, get angry at them, and they won't question you.”

Right. Any unexpected questions by army men with guns, I should respond with... anger. Hmm.

“Never let on that you speak anything but English, especially not at border crossings. You're British, you have a British passport, you speak only English, and pretend you are always more important than they are.”

Project self-importance. Don't let on any understanding of local culture. Duly noted.

There were lots of wise words, from well-respected and experienced people; I noted them down carefully, and resolved to be as intimidating, angry and self-important as possible, if it came to that.

Only... for those of you who know me, associating me with those adjectives will probably bring a smile to your faces. I don't think I've ever been intimidating (all 5”3 of me) – and I hate confrontation. Still, though, I tried... and, of course, it didn't work. At first, I thought I was doing it incorrectly – I wasn't being angry or loud enough, I wasn't acting the part of self-important Brit convincingly enough, my English accent wasn't pronounced enough... but after a few (in retrospect, far too many) attempts, I realised it wasn't my fault that the advice wasn't working.

As it turned out, that kind of behaviour worked for some combination of physical traits that I, unfortunately, did not possess. For those people, it worked better than I could ever have imagined, and it was almost astounding, the inherent respect assigned to a kind of behaviour which to my mind was, in a way, obtrusive and rude – but there was no denying that it worked.

The way that I could get out of (luckily, the very few) tricky situations I found myself in was by playing to the judgements and preconceptions that people made based upon my physical appearance. I wore a ring on my ring finger, and made up a fictional husband; I smiled at potentially threatening looking men, and tried to disarm them with small talk of their sisters and mothers; I laughed far too much at unfunny jokes... and realised that I'd found my own 'wise words.'

But while doing so then, and now, I'm conscious that I am, in a way, strengthening the very judgements and perceptions which frustrate me so much. Clearly, me getting angry at an egotistical man at a border crossing is not going to get me anywhere; but is me smiling and laughing along with his awful, self-important jokes in order to play to his ego and get myself across the border, actually any better?

Sadly, pragmatically speaking, yes. It gets me safely out of that situation, and that (in this case) is the main thing.

But then, how to change their perceptions and judgements? I suspect the answer lies not in behaving differently in difficult situations – there, I stand by the tactic of doing whatever you can to get safely out of said situation – but through other means, coming from the culture in question itself, namely education and awareness.

Being aware of how different cultures react to different demographics, and bearing that in mind while receiving advice has been very valuable, though. In retrospect, it probably took me longer than it should have done to reach that conclusion rather than simply trying, trying and trying a failing method again.

It's also made me, I hope, a bit more conscious of what I say to whom when I'm attempting to impart advice upon people; the tactics I use would in many cases not work for other people from other demographics, with different physical characteristics. I'm not saying by any means that this is right, or this is the way it should be; but pragmatically speaking, giving and imparting advice needs to take into account external factors as to whether it would, or could, be relevant for the other person. 

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Realising that not all of my friends had a “rice bin” in their kitchen was a revelation to my 11-year-old self. I had gone to fetch some orange juice from kitchen when my friend noticed the bin, and asked what it was; her astonishment at realising it was full of uncooked rice in turn astonished me.

It became a star attraction in my house when friends came over and in a way, I quite enjoyed the attention, despite not really understanding why it was such a big deal. My family bought rice in huge sacks, and immediately emptied it into the bin, and that's where my mum got it from when she cooked it every day for the family. How did the rest of my friends' families do it? Directly from the big sack of rice? That's not very practical, I imagined, they were hard to close once you'd cut the sacks open.

A-ha. They weren't eating rice every day! This revelation came later, when I realised that eating at friends' houses meant eating funny things like mashed potato, fish fingers and burgers. They were quite a novelty to me, and in all honesty, I felt a little sorry for my friends, not getting to eat rice and all the tasty things that came with it every day like I did.

There were other moments like this dotted throughout my childhood; realising that playing carrom was an activity to do when other Bangladeshi families were round, but not with my school friends; observing that some people had all of their family in the same country as them, or that they could name all of their cousins, and count them on just one hand!; my friends' amazement at seeing my mother's beautiful sari wardrobe, full of gold and bright colours and gorgeous silks; understanding that weddings in the UK were small affairs, over in just one day. (Those poor things, only getting to have a one-day-long party, I thought.)

When I was at university, I wrote essays on biculturalism and bilingualism, focusing on Latino communities living in the US, and looking into how the mix of languages helped them make sense of their split cultures. I loved, and still do, delving into the links between culture, language and behaviour.

But somehow, I never considered myself as part of that 'bicultural' tribe about whom I was writing. The city where I went to university was overwhelmingly white and middle class, as was the high school I attended, and the area I grew up in. I spoke English at home with my parents, I took part in all the same activities as my friends, I wore the same clothes as them, all of my friends were British, (or Irish). I wasn't 'between' two communities, as were the people in my studies of biculturalism, we were simply British, and that was that. I couldn't (and still can't) even hear my parents' Bangladeshi accents when they speak English – I was so surprised when people told me that they had an accent.

But then, of course, I left my little bubble, and began noticing, and appreciating, more of those little things that set me apart from my (white) British friends. I travelled around India, where I paid the same price as Indian nationals to get into the Taj Mahal, leaving my (white) friends to pay the 'foreigners' charge of 100 times the price. I moved to Spain, where people assumed I was Italian, or Brazilian, given my 'funny' Spanish accent. I travelled in the Middle East, where people spoke to me in Arabic, and ignored my (white) colleagues.

Perhaps most significantly, I moved to Germany, where I've had to self-identify as 'Bangladeshi' more than ever before. Maybe because of this, I spent time reading and learning about Bangladeshi culture and history, and chose to spend last winter there, with my extended family. And I realised that there's no denying I am 'bicultural' despite my thoroughly integrated childhood into white, middle-class Britain.

So many parts of Bangladeshi culture are familiar to me that would be alien to my British friends – and in some ways, I've managed to combine the two so I get the best of both worlds. On an entirely practical level, for example, most of the clothes I'll be wearing this summer were tailor made for me in Bangladesh, but look like regular European dresses. At the same time, though, so many parts of Bangladeshi culture are completely alien to me, especially the lack of independence I face there as a young, unmarried woman.

The best way I currently have of defining biculturalism, though, is different to how I did when I was thinking about it while at university. Back then, I thought of biculturalism as simply having two cultures present in one's life. Now, I'd define it as a paradox of feeling at home in two cultures, while not not really fitting in 100% in either.  

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This weekend, there were two hashtags that caught my eye on Twitter: #sexismturnedaround and #YesAllWomen. The former started as a discussion about women pastors, but soon got much wider, and the latter began as a response to the awful Santa Barbara shootings.

Both were important discussions- I'd strongly recommend checking them out on Twitter, and I'm sure there'll be more of both in coming days. It's powerful to see a community come together around a shared topic or interest, especially ones as close to my heart as these - but they also reminded me of something I've been realising over the past few months.

Since I began writing and talking more about feminism and discrimination, women – both friends, and new acquaintances – have been sharing their stories on similar topics with me. And it's made me realise that, sadly, I'm lucky to be able to be writing about my experiences, and talking about them openly; with all of the experiences I've written about thus far, I've been able to get out of situations where I've been faced with bigotry or discrimination within a few hours, or at most a couple of days. I've always felt like I'm in a safe space (both online and offline) by the time I'm writing about these experiences. This is not the case for so many women out there.

Women who I've spoken to are faced with sexism as part of their everyday professional lives; some are living with the threat (or reality) of domestic violence or abusive partners, but who are too scared to leave; and almost all of them know that if they call out or even mention the abuse they are facing, it will almost certainly lead to even more difficulties for themselves, without any such certainty that their abusers will face any kind of consequences. With odds like that, it's not hard to understand why they choose to stay quiet.

It's been truly eye-opening for me to realise how many people around me are faced with those kinds of situations, and I have no doubt it would shock most other people out there too. Men around me have commented on how they're surprised that I face discrimination so often, and while I take that primarily as a compliment that they're really paying attention to what I'm saying or writing, and I appreciate hugely the discussions that have come out as a result, I'd also like to explicitly point out that my experiences are a minuscule drop in the pond compared to what women around all of us are facing every day. This might sound obvious, but I think it's worth saying: the fact they're not talking about it doesn't mean it's not happening.

I truly love the fact that writing has opened up these conversations with women and men around me, and I've learned an incredible amount from them (and, I hope I will continue to for a long time!). Writing, for me at least, is also a very cathartic act – it gives me a space to get things off my chest, to share experiences, and to think through ideas. Sometimes, it's been a way for me to say what I wanted to say at the time, but I couldn't – through fear, or shock, or a mixture of both. Knowing that other women out there don't even have this kind of outlet, is painful to me.

So back to Twitter; it's inevitable, then, that the women writing on these hashtags and sharing their views are just a tiny, tiny proportion of the people who are faced with discrimination and sexism. Obviously, it's only those of us who feel safe enough to write without the threat of repercussions who are participating.

I'd suggest that the large majority of women who are faced with abuse on a regular basis feel compelled to stay quiet because of the unsafe space they are in. However depressing or shocking the online discussions might get- bear in mind that they're just a tiny glimpse into the wider societal problems being addressed.

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As I've mentioned before on here, I'm in the middle of setting up a new website for my project, the Open Development Toolkit. I'm forking an already established site, Source, and customising it to the project needs, and, excitingly, it's almost ready to launch.

I've learned a lot of new stuff along the way, and I thought maybe some of the more general tips might be useful for other newbies to coding – for those of you who are old hands at this, I imagine a lot of this will sound incredibly obvious! Just trust me; it's not.

Context: I use GitX, Sublime, and Google Chrome, running on my MacBook Air. I'm trying to learn by doing, rather than starting at the beginning or with the basics...whether this is wise or not remains to be seen, but it's a lot of fun.


  • Don't panic: yes, this screen can look incredibly intimidating, full of multicoloured words and symbols, none of which make sense. That's fine! It doesn't all need to make sense – it doesn't even need to mostly make sense. You'll learn tiny little chunks at a time.

  • Focus on what you need, and expect to understand very little of the rest: the skill set needed here reminds me a lot of the skill set needed to do foreign language comprehension exercises. In those exercises, you're given a long text in a foreign language and asked some specific questions which test your understanding of it. To answer the questions, you really don't need to understand most of the text – you just need to know what you're looking for, and look out for the key words. Context is key – for example, a question about food means you need to look out for 'eating' or 'food' or 'meals'... it doesn't matter at all what the rest of the passage actually says.

    Apply the same logic when you're looking for something in code. If you want to change, say, a colour, you don't need to understand anything else in what you're looking for, apart from where that colour code is. I use the Chrome plugin 'Eye Dropper' to find out what the colour code is – search for it using “Find in Files” in Sublime, and then replace it with your desired colour. That is all you need. Save, refresh, and check you changed the correct thing.

  • Use your logic, before asking for help: this relies on the code you're looking at being well-written, which in my case is true. For example: I wanted to change the way in which articles were being displayed on the site when they're shown in a list, so I looked at article_list.html. I couldn't find the relevant aspect to change there, and I asked for help... whereupon I realised that the first line in that file was:

  • 	% extends "articles/_base_articles.html" %}

    Even without having a clue what the { or % do, the term extends is a fairly big clue. It appears to be building upon (ie. 'extending') base_articles.html, so I looked there, and found the aspect I wanted to change – which, more helpfully, changed it everywhere rather than just in that one place.

    • Change one thing at a time, and don't be afraid to get it wrong: especially when you're not really sure whether you're changing the right thing, this will help a lot. Make an educated guess as to what might be the relevant section based on the code around it, and have a go at changing it – at worst, you'll have to click 'Undo', and at best, you've found what you wanted! Changing one thing at a time allows you to understand which of your guesses was the right one, which will help you understand future problems.

    • Follow the breadcrumbs yourself: even if you're almost certain you have no idea what's going on, try to at least look at where bugs are coming from. For example, when I get errors on the site, the error message tells me which file the problem is in, and usually the line in question. Most of the time I'm fairly sure I'm not going to have a clue what's gone on, but I try to find the file in question and read through it. Slowly but surely, errors are becoming more obvious – and a lot of the time they're little semantic things that require only logic, like a missing </div>, or not closing brackets, rather than advanced coding knowledge. It's satisfying to fix!

    • Commit often, and with clear commit messages: I like using GitX because it becomes really clear what you've changed, and where. Once you've added a new feature, or modified a specific aspect, don't forget to commit it so you can always get back there, and try and be as specific as possible in the commit message. ie. No “Add new feature” but “Add 'training' to navigation menu” for example. Not only does it allow you to get back there if/when you break something, but it's also pretty cool to look at all the things you've added and changed! I really like this Git style guide, from GDS

    • Inspect Element” in Chrome is pretty much your best friend: when you want to change something, 'inspect' it to see what it looks like in code. You can modify things in the inspect element window to check that you're looking at the right thing, and you can see what line in the css affects how it looks. It's wonderful.

    • Online documentation (sometimes) has the answers – admittedly, sometimes it's written for the expert rather than the beginner, but try not to let the long words/chunks of code/general gibberish put you off. If there's a particular problem you're having, or feature you want to add, Google it first. Look at what other people have done, and in online fora where people might have asked similar questions, or in specific documentation. If there's a step by step guide, try the simpler steps yourself, and if there are terms in there that you don't understand, Google again. Rinse and repeat.

    • Keep an eye out for jargon – my best example of this was with 'white space'. For me, the term “white space” means blank space. I have a plugin installed on Sublime which turns this whitespace into pink space, to make it more obvious to see; so, I described it as “pink space”...which, it turns out, sounds funny to a lot of people. Moral of the story: there are lots of funny programming terms out there, and people you talk to might take many of them for granted, and expect you to understand. It's okay if you don't! 
    • From a pedagogical perspective – don't take people for granted. Just because someone has helped you make sense of a certain problem does not mean that they've signed up to hold your hand throughout your entire learning curve; do yourself (and them!) a favour, and try and get through as much as you can yourself before asking for help. It'll help a lot if you can explain the problem you're having along with your attempted solution – not only does it demonstrate that you're really trying to fix it yourself, but you might find some revealing holes or mistakes in your understanding of how it all works. Remember the first tip here- don't panic!

    • Another pedagogical one: try not to let other people type for you. It might sound silly, but having to do the steps yourself, rather than watching a more experienced person do it for you on your computer, can make a lot of difference. Even if they have to literally spell out what you need to type, typing it will help you internalise and remember it. Ask whoever is helping you to imagine that your keyboard is made out of lava – it's too hot for them to touch, so only you can touch it. (I can't remember who told me about the 'lava keyboard' teaching method – if it's you, remind me!)

    • Be realistic, and patient: you're new to this! Nobody learns a new (spoken) language in a day, and you're not going to learn a whole new (coding) language in a day, either. It'll come. My guess is you'll never stop coming across new things to learn, and that's half the fun, really.

    Any others to add? Let me know

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