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Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Gift of Western Gender

The children in my class are putting together festive shoeboxes which we can send off to Somalia. It wasn’t their idea to do this, and only about 3 of them have cared about it enough to even mention it, never mind bring things in. Credit where it is due, one of the girls brought a beautifully lurid pink miniature dolls house and a tiara set, and the army camouflage speed boat was clearly very hard for one of my genuinely caring boys to part with, as he kept withdrawing it from the box throughout the day.

Out of a sense of guilt, which was brought on by low-level competitiveness with other staff members and the small sad Somali face I imagine every time I think of a child opening the immaculately wrapped box to find a bouncy ball, a well-used and worn out toy car and a tiny tub of Colgate, I decided I needed to supplement these boxes myself.
I trudged out of work early at quarter past five, after spending two hours listening to Outkast’s seminal Stankonia and eating apples. I walked to the bus stop, got on to top deck, sat near the front because the ‘patois’ that I fetishise only intimidates me when I have to sit beside those who emit it. I took the risky move to take a book out of my bag and have a read – it feels very different reading on the tube compared to reading on a bus to Stratford. Luckily, I was reading ‘An Average American Male’, which is so brilliantly coarse and filthy that if someone bullied me for being a bespectacled bookworm, I could highlight that it is so misogynistic (in a satirical way of course…) it was basically porn.

The bus arrived in Stratford and I made my symbolically rich passage past Westfield, with its Forever21 and its red carpet Twilight premieres and its Kurt Geiger and instead, I crossed the road into the Stratford Centre, which is far more my demographic given my current fiscal woe. Despite being spoilt for choice, or possibly because it, I passed by the Greggs and the Burger King that I craved, and moseyed on. I noticed that there was both a £1 shop and a 99p shop. I thought it would make perfect financial sense to go to the 99p store only, despite it being only 1p difference per item – looking at how busy each of the stores was, I think everybody made the same choice.
Now in the 99p store, I started to meander around the aisles, looking for suitable gifts for the Somali shoeboxes. Suitable gifts needed to match these criteria.

a) Nothing brazenly gendered would be entering the boxes, despite the
boxes being categorised as for ‘Boy/Girl aged 3-6/7-10’
b) The more gender neutral, the better.
c) Nothing too ‘Western’
d) No gifts which needed batteries or electricity.

As you would expect, this limited my options.

I got to the book section – the guidance said no novels, I suspect because of presumed illiteracy, so I look only for image rich books. They have Disney books and I know I am already on thin ice for criteria a) and b). Buzz Lightyear is too brawny and Cinderella…bitch please. I look through the rest of the small collection of £1 Disney books and my shortlist of ‘possibles’ is reduced to a car from Cars, Nemo of ‘Finding Nemo’ fame and Peter Pan. I decide Cars is too industrialised and I don’t want my festive box to sow the seeds of commodity fetishism. I notice that Nemo is a fish and I know that certain cultures have qualms with personifying animals, so I decide this little talking fellow isn’t appropriate. Two Peter Pans it is then.

Oh fuck. Toy cars. What to do, what to do? Do I get cars for the boys? And the girls? Am I forcing my gender agenda onto their Christmas? I have a weird collection of connotations attached to cars – cars is the spinning rims of wealth, it is the boy racers, it is Jeremy Bastard Clarkson. No. Neither the boys nor the girls of Somalia will be playing with cars. I bought each of them a xylophone.

Wandering about now. Feeling a bit listless. Balls! Children are forever playing with spheres, I’ve noticed – my kids loved Victorian marbles, they like basketball and every Children in Need video shows kids kicking a ball around. But a football wouldn’t fit in the shoebox so I opt for a cricket ball for the Boy box (yes, again, this was a game of Empire, but I was limited by the range offered in the 99p store) and I got a set of three Tom and Jerry bouncy balls for the girl box.

The box isn’t looking or feeling educational, so I grab a 30 pack of pencils for each box.

By this point I am tired and my a) and b) criteria got too relaxed. I decided my final contribution to my children’s generous gift would be mini stationary sets – the football themed set (an excessive 9 rubbers and a football-emblazoned notebook) is for the boys and my amigurumi kawaii rubbers and notebook are for the girls.

I gave in and caved, but the point still stands. It really is very difficult to attain gender and cultural neutrality when filling a shoebox with little gifts for Somalian children at Christmas time. I failed, and my self-loathing was catalysed by the entire share-size Dairy Milk I ate immediately after.

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