The waitress places the plate of mofongo churrasco, a dish of mashed platanos fritos and steak, in front of me as I sip my mojito and watch the methodical slapping of the waves in the sunset.
"You could just smile," a white, assumedly American (this is Puerto Rico after all and most white tourists are from America) middle-aged man says archly.
"Oh, sorry, I'm just tired," I say reflexively and not a little flabbergasted this stranger is speaking to me. The other man sitting next to him goes on to ask me if I've just arrived and I explain it is my first day there and my flight left Los Angeles at midnight Pacific Standard Time.
The conversation, along with the stodgy tourist friendly mofongo and weak mojito, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. There's been plenty said already on the "telling women to smile" subject; even Hilary Clinton received this advice from political pundits, but her male counterparts did not. When a man of a certain age, and it's never men in my own generation, tells me to smile, I feel they are telling me how to feel, to suppress how I am currently feeling, invalidate those feelings, and that I am supposed to be cheerful and grateful they have deigned to speak to me. I do not feel like fucking smiling after I've gotten one hour of sleep and have been traveling for the last twelve hours. I want to sip my watery mojito, eat my shitty tourist food, and read my fucking book.
So, then why did I not tell these men to shove it, or politely pretend I didn't hear them? Why did I apologize for not smiling? Because sometimes, especially when I travel, I'm a "bad feminist."
What do I mean when I say "bad feminist"? I define this as I do not act in the best interest for myself as a woman, or for other women. I allow behavior that I think is unacceptable, rude, condescending, sexist, or patronizing to happen. I brush off sexist cultural norms and do not speak up for myself. I feel uncomfortable taking up space as a woman.
I did not need to apologize to this man for not smiling, and it opened a door that he continued pushing. As I was paying my check, he asks me if this was my first time in Puerto Rico and I answer yes, it is. He admonishes me to be safe because as a woman it's dangerous for me to be alone at night.
I don't respond and continue paying my check. His friend has the decency to look embarrassed and says that he doesn't think the area is unsafe, I should be perfectly fine if I keep my wits about me. The first man tries to justify his behavior, "All I'm saying is be aware."
I have no problem with people telling me to be safe. I do have a problem with a man telling a woman alone to be safe after dark because she has a vagina. This is the only reason he gave for it to be unsafe. If he said something along the lines, be careful after dark in this area because women are known to have been raped or sexually assaulted, then I would not take such umbrage. But this was a patronizing, blanket statement regarding my ability to care for my own safety.
I did not respond. I had no idea how to respond. I was not interested in having this unsolicited conversation with a strange man about my supposed safety risk as a grown-ass woman. I paid my bill and walked out.
This is not the first time I've been a "bad feminist" when traveling. In Vietnam, I allowed my boyfriend to steer every conversation when men would not even make eye contact with me or respond to my questions.
Why am I a "bad feminist" when I travel? Because I'm out of my comfort zone. One of the reasons why I travel is because I want to question what I hold to be typical behavior, I want to see how other human beings behave, and I want to be uncomfortable. However, by nature, I am introverted and have a tendency toward misanthropy. When something happens that challenges my position as a woman and a feminist, like a man telling me to "just smile", and I'm in an unfamiliar place, my knee-jerk reaction is to go with the flow and do as I'm told, just so they will stop talking to me and leave me alone.
I want to work on being a better feminist when I travel. This does not mean challenging a person every time they say or do something that bothers me, but I want to be more thoughtful about my reactions. Every time I act complicity in their sexism, I am allowing this behavior to continue. When a complete stranger tells me while I am eating to dinner to "just smile", I will be more mindful of my response and not proffer an apology for something I am not actually sorry for.