After I had been living in Costa Rica for a few years, I was home on a visit to the U.S., running errands with my dad. He opened a door to go into a building and we bumped into each other; he had stepped forward, but so had I, assuming he was holding the door open for me.
I laughed. “Sorry,” I said. “I’ve been in Costa Rica too long.”
There are certainly plenty of men in the U.S. who are chivalrous, but there is no question that in Costa Rica a woman is much more likely to find doors held open for her, a helping hand when she exits a car, a chair pulled back at a restaurant, a bus seat vacated by a courteous male.
Over the years, this has prompted a mild ongoing debate within my brain, thanks to the wholehearted belief in gender equality that has permeated every aspect of my life. Why should a man give me his seat and not the other way around, especially when, as is often the case here in Costa Rica, I could probably pick him up in a fireman’s carry?
When my husband and I divide our chores and most everything else straight down the middle, why should he help me out of a taxi? Why, as I’ve seen time and time again, is my husband so much less likely than I am to be offered a seat when he is toting our child in the baby carrier (and much more likely to get strange looks, but that’s an issue for another column)?
I’ve thought about these things off and on over the years, but have always come back to the same enthusiastic conclusion: Whatever. Say thank you, and enjoy it, woman! Kindness is kindness, and the world needs as much of it as it can get. Still, I couldn’t quite resolve the inconsistency.
Just a few days ago, however, I had a minor epiphany. The solution isn’t for men to stop doing these things – it’s for women to start doing them more often. Let me explain.
Many months ago, I was sitting in one of the last rows of a crowded bus (the Periférica, to be exact). For whatever reason, the bus was filled almost entirely by women, and the few men on board had given up their seats to stand in the aisles.
Onto this bus stepped a woman who was looked about eight months pregnant and was apparently blind; she tapped her way up the stairs with her cane. Yet not a single woman stood up to give her a space. She made her way past row after row without any offer of assistance.
I was rising to my feet at the back of the bus, aghast, when a woman a couple of rows in front of me, looking equally horrified, beat me to it and helped the woman into her seat.
I remembered this a few days ago when I got onto a bus, neither blind nor pregnant, but holding a squirming two-year-old and three heavy bags of groceries. Again, everyone seated on the bus was a woman, with a few men in the aisles, and no one gave me a seat, including the (seemingly able-bodied) teenagers in the seats reserved for people with disabilities, the elderly, pregnant women or women with babies.
Have I been guilty of similar thoughtlessness? I’ll bet you any amount of money that I have – not in a specific instance that I can remember, but I’m as unobservant and lazy as the next person, or more. And I’m sure I’ve left people standing, let a door slam in someone’s face, and so forth.
My epiphany came yesterday when I was struggling to get out of a taxi with three huge bags of books. The door wouldn’t stay open. A woman was waiting to get into the taxi as soon as I had vacated it. I can confidently say that most any man in Costa Rica, and probably many women as well, would have reached out to hold the door open. But she just observed my plight from a couple of feet away.
Would I have been nicer, in her shoes? I think so, but maybe I’m wrong.
That’s when I realized it. Who cares if the men are, or aren’t, opening the door for us? Why the hell aren’t WE opening the door for each other? Why aren’t WE giving up our own seats for our pregnant or baby-toting or elderly or just tired-looking fellow women (and men – or at least, as a first step, men with babies)?
And please – if we insist on sitting in the aisle seat on a crowded bus during rush hour, leaving the window seat vacant, why, WHY aren’t we scootching over to let someone else sit down, or at least standing up for a moment so that our fellow exhausted bus-riders can sit down in the aisle seat without climbing over our laps at rush hour?
OK, that last one might not have so much to do with gender equality as basic human decency, but I had to get that in here.
The overwhelming kindness of women in this country – friends, family, and strangers – has been an indescribable boon in my life, especially in the past few years as a pregnant woman and then a mother. Costa Rican women are extraordinarily thoughtful, and much of what I’ve learned about selflessness and courtesy, I have learned from women here.
But I do believe that there is room for me and for many others to show more solidarity with our fellow women, not just on International Women’s Day but also through our mundane, daily actions year-round.
I do believe that there is room for us to treat each other with greater respect. I do believe that the people who complain that “chivalry is dead” — and I’ve heard that frequently — should just decide to be the standard-bearers of chivalry themselves.
That crowded bus full of women is also a bus full of wisdom and experience, a bus full of people who understand the unique burdens we bear, literally and figuratively – people who have stood in the shoes of the overwhelmed mother with a baby pooping his pants and a toddler spilling change all over the floor.
There could be no greater knight in shining armor for her than the women who surround her. All we need to do is stand up, move over, open the door.