Women who argue with men are often told to “calm down” simply because they’re expressing themselves. This gaslighting term, used in one form or another around the world, often acts as a quick phrase meant to brush off women’s ideas and opinions, and reduce them to irrational hysterics. But we know women who speak their minds to be strong, and sometimes, it’s where we come from that gives us our voice.
While growing up in New Jersey is thought of as a curse by many, those of us with the sacred Garden State in our blood know better. Named for its often overlooked natural beauty, New Jersey is home to another treasure much of the population holds dear: the art of argument. I was raised in an often intrusive Sicilian Catholic family, a realm where one might become a master of this particular art. Even excluding major religious and national holidays, the birthdays, christenings, confirmations, and graduations of my 30 cousins kept family reunions of my mother’s boisterous eight siblings at a regular pace for the entirety of my childhood and adolescence. Making yourself heard in such a world is daunting, especially if over 75 percent of that population is female. This may seem like a feminist’s dream, but imagine yourself as not only the second daughter to a mother who was the fifth daughter herself (and twin to the first son), but then also falling somewhere toward the middle of dozens of female cousins.
It was my father, the outsider of this clan, who taught me to raise my voice. Whether it was at our political or scientific Q&A every evening around the dinner table or through temper-topping screaming matches, the man knew the importance of an argument. My entire family thrived on serious debate, and all the cousins knew to keep their heads down when the Democrats and Republicans delved deep and meaningfully while cutting the turkey at Thanksgiving. So much passion in one unit could cause destruction, but it never seemed to break us. The ties of argument formed an inexplicable mesh. Perhaps you can only feel at ease with those who will hear your honest opinions and still love you?
But family wouldn’t satiate forever and at 23, I left my open-hearted, liberally opinionated crib of New Jersey for Istanbul. It was a last-minute discovery, an opportunity to teach kindergarten for an ESL agency in the spring semester of 2011. I told my father just two weeks before my departure, hoping to dodge his scathing disapproval. I remember his initial reaction, “You’re going to hate it.” He was, of course, partially right in the end, but I’ll never admit it.
Turkey is an amazing country. Traditions ancient and modern, architecture a kaleidoscopic free-for-all of every era known to mankind. But it’s very clear about the mankind. Living on my own for the first time was jarring enough—add the whiplash of patriarchal culture shock and a new career to the bowl and it becomes a recipe for disillusionment. Clinging to my true character became a daily struggle while living among the ultra-conservative, Erdogan-loyal masses marching around the city.
Istanbul is full of contrast, from the terrain to its citizens, and nothing is static. I did find a wonderful group of friends, but a social security net is no remedy for dissatisfaction with the entirety of the culture you live in. I was stopped constantly with the same street shark catchphrase, “Where are you from?” I was bombarded with curious men down every street. My hair was uncovered, my arms bare and (how could she?!) my legs out for the world to see. Of course, I wasn’t the only woman living such a life, but it was a decision with repercussions each of us faced. I remember one summer night while leaving home, my Turkish flatmate and I had to pass by the local congregation of young men outside the mosque. In reference to my scandalous mid-thigh skirt hem, Bengi translated, “They said you should be ashamed of yourself …” I did what my spirit demanded, spinning around to face their raucous calls and take a bow. To their credit, they applauded, though there was more leering than cheering involved.
But after six months of constant hammering, even the brightest spirits become dull. My Jersey wit could only spar with men so many times to avoid the inevitable, “So, hotel room?” Once, at a sacred, cliff-top cemetery in southeastern Turkey, a man stepped from the shadows and followed me for 20 minutes. Unable to stand the suspense, I confronted my admirer, to which he answered with a lewd gesture of fingering a hole, then pointed to me, then to himself. I shouted obscenities at him until he fled.
The final, smothering blow was dealt after parting ways with friends on the Bosphorus Strait. I was used to taking the bus home alone and always felt more or less safe—especially since I was dressed rather conservatively. No matter, though, because a man quickly sat next to me and began his attempt. He didn’t speak English, but I wanted to practice Turkish, so I thought there wasn’t any harm in having a civil conversation. How wrong I was when he decided to follow me off the bus and invited himself to see me home. I promptly stopped on a side street and made it clear he would not be escorting me any further. His expression turned feral in an instant and he lashed out a hand to grab my breast. I was appalled at this viper-like intrusion of my person and screamed, “Siktir git!” or “Fuck off!” in Turkish, ran to a nearby man exiting his car and stood there until my assailant jogged away, cursing me as he went. And this wasn’t even the moment when I completely gave up on Istanbul. Not five minutes later, another man approached me as I walked home in tears of outrage. “What’s wrong?” he asked, and I tried to explain in broken Turkish how I’d been wronged by a man just now. Initially, he seemed sympathetic and helpful, but when we reached my building, he suggested he follow me up. Fury seized me and I screamed in his face, “Leave me!” The horror was how surprised he seemed to be, hands up in the air, confused as to what he’d done wrong. “Ok, calm down, I’m going.” Yes, calm down, you crazy woman. Smile. Be good. Be nice.
Unsurprisingly, I left soon after. My contract at work had finished for the school year and I feared renewal in September would cost me my sanity. I returned to New Jersey for some months and, on the advice of a close Swedish colleague from Istanbul, I began preparing for a backpacking expedition that changed me forever. Australia, Maria said, meant freedom and I wanted a taste of it.
My younger brother and I landed on New Year’s Eve 2011 in Perth. The Wild West coast of Australia twinkled around us, beaded with the perspiration of hundreds of travelers writhing and occupying the bedecked streets. In the Southern Hemisphere, celebrating the new year is a summer event. The humidity, the nudity, the open air all whirled around us as we toasted to a new beginning.
Despite how open and laid back Western Australia seemed, it did have its limitations. Americans are rare in a bubbling cauldron of European, British, Irish, and Canadian tourists and expats alike. Though it was an alluring situation, I found that it often took quite a bit of progress, for men especially, to understand my humor and methods of communication. They’d use sarcasm and immediately apologize afterward, anxious that I wouldn’t understand, or scold me routinely for not asking politely for things I wanted. I’d question them on this attitude mercilessly, unable to fathom how such pretenses of dinner party customs had made it to the alleyway behind the hostel where we sat on the hot cement and rolled cigarettes and joints. I, enjoying any debate I could wrap my tongue around, always pressed further only to be met with a resounding “Calm down, Jessie!” Explaining my natural tranquility in the midst of any argument never made a difference.
After nearly two years roaming the island continent, I decided to start meeting others half way. If I expected them to change for me, shouldn’t I also try? Of course, I still and always will hold superficial niceties between pinched fingers at arm’s length, but genuine manners and charm should never be discounted. People I met still knew me as uncompromising when it mattered, but I began to make a stronger effort to soften myself and others along with me. If I didn’t know something, I’d admit it and ask for further explanation. If I didn’t understand someone, I’d show genuine interest in learning their motives. Shifting the focus away from yourself has the wonderful benefit of making your companions see you and themselves as more human.
When the time came to leave Australia, I found I was no longer pure New Jerseyan. The backpacker lifestyle of sexuality, experimentalism, and acceptance had tempered steadfast anxieties the American dream had stamped in me. Fight was still quaking in my bones, but now as a more principled, refined argument.
This change prepared me nicely for my post in Poland, where women once again fell in line behind their husbands. I was astonished one day when a Polish colleague of mine called me an old maid on my 26th birthday: “You are older than me! But where is your husband? You are alone?” I told her I never wanted a husband, he would just slow me down, and she accepted it as part of my “crazy foreign ways.” Though Poland, still a European country, is relaxed in many ways, it values traditions above everything. An understandable development, since their culture was taken from them more than once.
As easily as I could understand why Polish nationals lived as they do, I couldn’t join them. And this made dating quite difficult. One such encounter had me arguing passionately over a bottle of wine with a Polish lawyer about vegetarianism and the right to life for animals and humans alike. “So you think animals should be saved but not children?” Completely missing the point of my chosen lifestyle, the lawyer thought his statement was inarguable and for me that meant we could never be lovers. Most potential romances concluded like this for me. Of course, I can befriend people with a sprawling range of beliefs, but take them to bed? I think not. So, because I didn’t have a coquettish laugh or fantasies about childbearing, most men found me off-putting, and in turn, I was disgusted by their chauvinism.
But, I do love Poland; the only place I’ve lived longer than Warsaw is New Jersey. The redemption of its beauty, humor, and strength all outshine the small-mindedness of its single male population. But I’d be damned if I would compromise myself just to get some.
The moral became, for me, that no matter where I traveled, men would prey on me as a woman and it was up to me if they were going to get away with it or not. Rather than seeing this as an opportunity to become militant, I viewed it as if I was in my classroom with my young students. Turn the interrogation on them, argue, raise your voice. When I hear, “Hey, where are you from?” I respond, “New Jersey! And you? Where are you from?” When a date tells me he’s against abortion, I question his motives, propose he invest money in birth control outreach programs, and follow scientific advancements in the sexual reproduction world: “As soon as men are capable of bearing children, you are more than welcome to carry to term.”
If New Jersey has taught me anything, it’s how to make myself heard on the international stage. Without that defining skill, I might have fled back home years ago. As for the ubiquitous, gaslighting phrase “calm down” which still hangs over me, it informs the passionate fight inside: serenity and ardour are not mutually exclusive. Arguing can be calming. Don’t be a zealot. Use logic and consistency to properly explain yourself in no uncertain terms. Then the accuser becomes the fool as it’s mightily apparent just how calm I am.
This feature originally appeared in the Fight print issue. The online version of this article was published on December 23, 2020. Find more inspiring stories from the Fight issue here or read The Important Lesson My Roommate Taught Me. See more work by the artist: Modern-Day Sexism: Handle With Care by Rora Blue.