When I returned to DC after six months abroad, people didn’t seem able to understand the difficulties of living in a different culture. As a Jew in Israel, the culture shock doesn’t seem so big. Yet, I had been living with Bedouins, speaking Arabic. I kept track of time by the five mosques’ call to prayer echoing through town.
It took time and energy to explain myself to others when I came home. Having worked on women’s economic development, they feared I was forced to hide behind a burka in order to work. Sure, I left my shorts at home but I wore jeans and t-shirts, my hair usually in a bun or ponytail. I didn’t live in a tent, but in homes with internet, although sometimes we lost water. I wasn’t out to “save” anyone: I was helping the NGO by working with European and American tourists.
My role emphasized the context of why woven products mattered. Traditionally, Bedouins felt uncomfortable letting their women and girls travel long distances. With few schools near Bedouin towns, a generation of Bedouin women hadn’t gone to school. The NGO, Sidreh, created a visitor’s center that gave tours about traditional weaving and sold woven goods. It not only raised awareness about Bedouin culture but also gave many women work that required no long training nor commuting.
It was easier to explain my NGO than the real struggles I faced. How do you explain navigating a world of rules you didn’t even understand? Misunderstandings could be problematic: Before I arrived, I’d asked for my own room, not realizing it forced my host family’s kids to bunk together. It left me feeling guilty for asking at all. Worse, my ignorance also put me at risk. Once I went to the movies with two of my host brothers. More vivid than the movie was my struggle to pretend one wasn’t putting his hand on my thigh.
So, when I picked up Blair Braverman’s book, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, I wasn’t expecting to resonate with her story. Coming of age in the Arctic, she trained to become a dog musher in northern Norway and on an Alaskan glacier. Boston at Thanksgiving is cold enough for me.
That assumption fell apart two pages in. Braverman opens with a disturbing conversation: A Norwegian man shares that he’s sick and can’t have sex. “Once in my life”, he says to her, “I sure could have fucked you.” He then unbuttons his pants, showing her his colostomy bag. She doesn’t know how to react. Should she laugh? Yell?
Her reaction was déjà vu: I too tried to read everyone but myself. In Israel, it became a second level of thinking in my daily interactions. Was the accountant at work being blunt or did she hate me? Was he offering to get coffee with me because we were friends or because he hoped for something more? Sometimes I was just paranoid and I learned to joke and have fun with all the women in my office. Still never knowing exactly where I fit, my mind struggled to parse apart interactions and make some sense of this new place.
Perhaps our connection was that we both went to small towns. I was working in Lakiya, a Bedouin town of 10,000. Much of the memoir takes place in Mortenhals, a small northern Norwegian town in a region where 5,000 are spread out over a few towns. In Mortenhals, she works with Arild at his grocery store, Johannes Kristoffersen’s Descendants. More than a food shop, it’s a, “social spider web that centered around his coffee table.” Braverman tries to claim a place for herself at that table she often jokes with the men about marrying one of them to stay in Norway. In Israel, we’d gather around drinking hot tea with too much sugar. Every time my coworkers laughed at one of my jokes felt like a victory. I’d claimed a space in their social web, notoriously based around family ties.
In the daily life of Mortenhals, she reveals the daily and tiring issues so many living abroad know. For instance, some social cues trip her up. Early in the summer she has dinner with Arild. The meal, she writes, “felt oddly significant—a first date, loaded with expectation. But maybe, I told myself, the expectation was mine. A projection, or paranoia. So far everything seemed okay.” As time goes on, Braverman begins to regularly eat and enjoy meals with Arild.
These dinners reminded me of my host family’s daughter, Riham, and the hours I spent with her as she prepped for dinner. In the beginning, I was self-conscious, almost useless at tasks like peeling potatoes. Eventually, these moments became my favorite part of the day. She shared her dreams of becoming a doctor while I shared my favorite books and my life at American universities. Our relationship wasn’t quite as lcose as Arild and Braverman’s. Still, my time with Riham allowed me to be myself, young and uncertain, when most around me expected me to be able to answer for a whole nation.
Braverman’s struggle to navigate social rules wasn’t unique to Norway or Southern Israel. Working in a male dominated industry and living in areas with more men than woman, she shares examples of sexism that could have happened in Silicon Valley or Wall Street. Instead, she is stuck in Dog World, a dog sled camp kept on an Alaskan glacier. From leering looks to blowjob jokes these small actions, “framed [her] as different, suggesting, with a smirk, that [she] didn’t belong and was therefore unfit for glacier life”. If you don’t believe that microagressions cause real damage, these passages should change your mind.
I didn’t become truly horrified until I read how her boyfriend, Dan, emotionally coerces her into having sex. He may not have physically forced her but he ignored her verbal rejections. It became so bad, she stopped refusing him, just tried to get it over as quickly as possible.
Like many survivors, she questioned whether to define Dan’s tactics as rape. “I hadn’t been raped,” she wrote, “that word, hovering in my consciousness, brought with it an avalanche of self-doubt.” Her doubt and self-incrimination were all too familiar to me. I can’t forget my boss’s husband asking me to go away with him for the weekend. Though I was able to decline the invitation and faced no physical retaliation, I still felt guilty. Was there something I had done to make him think that question was ok? I can’t help but wonder if our doubt became even stronger by living abroad. We were so used to misreading cultural cues, did we blame ourselves more easily? I don’t know if I’ll ever have an answer.
As powerfully as she tells her experiences, remembering the timeline of events often tripped me up. Like memories, she jumps back and forth between working in Mortenhals and telling her story chronologically until the two sections meet. With multiple trips back to the same town, I wished I had a timeline at the beginning of the book to refer to. Still, her story frame allowed her to make connections between different events that otherwise were years apart.
On the surface, Braverman’s memoir seems like a unique experience for an American. In many ways, the opportunity to live abroad and work in a male dominated field is a privilege. Yet underneath the dogs and the snow, she captures what it means to be a foreigner both as an American in Norway and as a woman in a male dominated industry. Side by side, they’re more similar than I’d like to think.