Eine Ausländerin zu sein – To be a foreigner

Sometimes, I forget about gender. It’s not as if I see gender as a strict binary with two absolutes or believe gender to be anything less than a complex and self-defined term unique to each person. It’s more that I often exist in a sort of genderless bubble in my own head. I do typically identify with femininity in many ways, but when I think of who I am, it isn’t in gendered terms. Obviously, as a cis person, this is a tremendous privilege. An indifference to my gender reflects a huge luxury: not to have my gender presentation dissected, questioned, or negated just for living as I am. If I want to even begin to consider my experiences through the lens of my gender identity, that is the first stop. The second is at the disclaimer that I’m not an expert on the topic. I’m still working to understand my relationship with my own femininity, and I don’t think I can speak to how gender influences our lives beyond the incredibly narrow scope of how I experience it.

Only girl in the room

            With that said, there are select environments that never fail to bring gender to mind. Since high school, from physics class to robotics club, I’ve dealt with situations where I was one of very few or even the only girl in the room. It is quite an isolating situation for a teenager, and it’s exacerbated by all the looks, jokes, and scrutiny that accompany it. Now that I’m an adult, I’ve discovered many other scenarios in which being a woman has shaped my experience. The workplace is a prime example. Throughout past internships I’ve had in software engineering, it was common for me to be the only employee who wasn’t a man in a meeting—or even on the entire team. This creates an uncomfortable balance in which you can, in one moment, feel overlooked while trying to express an idea but in the next moment become the center of attention when someone throws a weird comment or joke toward you. Academia is another case. I’ve been fairly lucky as far as my undergraduate research experiences go, but I’ve heard horror stories about gender discrimination happening in labs, from verbal abuse to the exploitation of one’s work without credit. I recall speaking with a female PhD student at a conference about the sexism she faced in her previous lab, which grew so overwhelming that she was forced to abandon a months-long project in order to switch labs for the sake of her mental health. Although I’ve had some sour interactions in technological spaces, I’ve also had many uplifting conversations with other women in STEM that inspired me to persevere. I also consider these as moments that have made me notice how being a woman impacts my life. Now, as I type this article in Germany, I find that travel has also been one of those complex experiences influenced by my gender.

Challenges I’ve faced

One challenge I’ve come to associate with travel is the language barrier. I know enough German to get by daily, such as when casually greeting a stranger, ordering food, asking which aisle the milk is in, etc. However, I sometimes struggle in more fast-paced scenarios and often rely on context clues to fill in the blanks. This results in the occasional confusion about what has just been said. Sometimes this isn’t a problem at all, and I can walk away with a lighthearted smile feeling like I understood the gist of what was just communicated. Other times, not so much.

An unfortunate example is being catcalled. Catcalling is a form of harassment in which a stranger directs an unwelcome comment or gesture toward a passerby; oftentimes, that person is a woman walking by herself or in a group of other women. It can be an unnerving ordeal, and the few times I’ve experienced catcalling in America there was no question as to what was happening, and I knew enough to disengage and walk away. This is not always the case abroad.

One experience comes to mind in particular: I was by myself taking the train home after a long morning of travel. I was quite tired and laid my head down to rest. Soon after, a group of several men got on the train, playing dance music from a speaker. They were drinking beers and wearing matching hats, so I wondered if they were celebrating a birthday or possibly someone’s bachelor party. I didn’t pay much mind to them as I laid my head back down, set an alarm on my phone, and prepared to take a short nap. After a few minutes, one of the men approached me. I couldn’t hear over the music, but I assumed he was asking whether the music was bothering me. I replied, “Alles ist okay, danke” and pointed to my ears, smiling. He stood there for a bit, and I felt the same ambiguity I often had before. After a few awkward moments he walked away, and I went about my nap. A while later, I stood up and walked to the doors in anticipation of my next stop. Incidentally, this was where the rest of the group was standing and sitting, and some others shouting along to the music. To my surprise, another man started speaking to me. I still couldn’t understand what was being said and attempted my best “Entschuldigung, ich spreche nicht viel Deutsch” (“sorry I don’t speak much German”) For a while, I just stood there, and felt myself grow more uneasy as the man didn’t leave. Maybe I was just tired, I told myself. After a while, the train jerked to a halt, and the same man stumbled dramatically forward, grabbing onto my chest to stabilize himself. I was embarrassed and disoriented, but as I heard the rest of his friends laughing and felt their eyes on me I realized what had happened. I quickly ran out the train and decided it was best not to google what was being said.

As scary as it can be to travel alone as a woman, I have had overwhelmingly positive experiences abroad.

Crista Falk

Finding solace

Incidents like this are why I am wary of traveling by myself and I found solace in reciting a safety checklist before leaving the house: “Mask? Check. Passport? Check. Pepper spray? Check…” Instead of letting these types of situations frighten me out of ever traveling outside again, let alone to another country, I’ve found solidarity in talking to other women and more confidence as I become more aware of potentially dangerous settings.

As scary as it can be to travel alone as a woman, I have had overwhelmingly positive experiences abroad. People are generally quite kind, and I’ve especially felt valued by my supervisors in the office where I work. I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with some of the female scientists who study physics at KIT, and their confidence and expertise motivate me to pursue research myself in the field of neuroscience. I had the pleasure to meet one scientist in particular whose passion and capability inspired me as I spoke with her about learning particle physics and machine learning from scratch for her graduate work despite her background in mechanical engineering. Another woman welcomed me to the office and shared the crucial Deutsch tradition of opening a beer with no bottle opener. As I wrap up my time in Germany, I am proud to leave, having faced challenges and discovered strengths I never knew I had as a woman. Even as I write this post, I find it hard to define my female identity externally from societally imposed expectations or encounters with misogyny. Often, I wonder if the genderlessness I impose on myself is more of a coping mechanism than a comfort. However, I’ve started to embrace the joy and power behind my identity by finding solidarity with female peers and mentors, even those who live an ocean away from me.

Crista Falk is a rising senior at MIT majoring in 6-9: computation and cognition. Right now, she’s living in Germany through the MISTI program and doing research in the ETP department at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.