On Monday, I arrived in Medellin, Colombia, ready to meet new people and experience new things. After being stuck in Canada for over a year, I am ready once again to be surrounded by the unfamiliar and step bravely into uncertainty.
So here was my first act of courage: on Tuesday, I went for a walk around the city. Why was this an act of courage? Not, as you might think, because of the dangers of being a young woman walking by herself in a foreign country. It’s because I wore flip-flops.
Let me explain.
In preparation for this trip, I joined a bunch of Medellin expat and digital nomad groups on Facebook. Historically, Jamie and I haven’t made too many friends on our travels, and this time, I was determined to change that.
But I found more than friendship in those groups. I also found funny stories, useful information, and surprisingly, a whole truckload of expectations.
In many of those groups, it’s become a long-running narrative that tourists in the city look ridiculous because they’re wearing flip flops and cargo shorts. At first, I thought this was a big joke, and to most people, it is. But to others, it isn’t.
I saw more than a few Colombian natives saying, “Feet are gross. We don’t show our feet like you people do. Flip-flops are for the beach, not the city. No one wants to see your ugly, dirty feet.”
And in those same threads, I saw tourists asking, “Are sandals okay? Can I wear these (insert picture of shoes)?”
Comments that claimed people should just do whatever they want got responses like this one: “Why travel to a place and then ignore the culture? That just makes you look as ignorant as the rest of the world already thinks you are.” Other said, “Sure, do what you want. But don’t be surprised when you become a target or an object of ridicule.”
There were also plenty of people saying, “Only a small subset of the city’s population feels this way. Most people don’t care. And some Colombians wear flip-flops out of the house too. Just do what you want to do.”
Others said, “It’s not Colombians who will judge you for this, but gringos [other tourists]. It’s really not a big deal.” This went on and on. Different perspectives, different viewpoints, different expectations.
This discussion stirred up some confusion and controversy in me. On the one hand, I am a free human being who should be able to do what I want. On the other hand, I’m also visiting a place and don’t want to be insensitive to the people who call this place home.
As I was thinking about this situation, a recent occurrence sprung to my mind.
I was having a conversation with a family member and she said (a bit uncontextually, to be honest), “This isn’t the life I wished for you. I wish you’d gotten a real career, become educated.”
Strangely enough, I didn’t feel much when she said this. I could see, in that moment, how her words were a reflection of her values and opinions. I could also see her patterns of regretting her past and judging her present, so it only made sense that she would do the same to my past and present. Her words reflected her experiences and reality, not mine.
Once upon a time, those words would have crushed me and sent me into a self-doubting spiral for weeks. But this time, they didn’t. Not because I did some special mind trick in the moment, but because I’ve spent years working on learning more about myself as well as processing the pain of my family’s reactions to me.
The more I have found what makes me truly happy, the more I’ve gotten used to the endless criticism of the outside world. Everyone thinks I should be doing something different.
Thinking back on that interaction, I realized that the conversations in the Facebook groups weren’t just about flip-flops. They were about conformity. The real question isn’t “Should I wear flip-flops or not?” It’s “Should I assimilate myself into the herd or not?”
As a child, I always assimilated. As a teenager, I always rebelled. Neither got me closer to the truth. Both rebellion and submissiveness are automatic reactions. Real life requires both. We need balance.
With this awareness, I went back and reread some of the comments about flip-flops, and I saw so much more than I’d seen before. The decision between doing what we want and doing what’s expected of us is something we all struggle with. And many of us make those decisions on autopilot.
Some people believe conformity is the respectful thing to do in a foreign culture. What is respect if not fulfilling others’ expectations? But conformity also led to the rise of the Nazis as well as racism, misogyny, and every other kind of hate.
Some people believe freedom is the most important thing, even in a foreign culture. What is freedom if not doing what we want regardless of others’ expectations? But freedom-seeking and ignoring others’ expectations has also fueled power-hungry politicians and violent murderers.
There is no one right way to live life. And there is no right answer.
In my eyes, what it all comes down to is this: what is the price of conformity and what is the price of freedom?
Sometimes, I get angry and want to say something rude to the person who triggered me. What is the price of that freedom? Hurt feelings. Unchangeable memories. Weakened trust in the relationship. It’s not a price I’m willing to pay. I can express myself clearly, and that might still hurt, but it wouldn’t hurt as much as my unfiltered anger.
Sometimes, I feel desires that are hard to advocate for because they clash so much with my partner’s desires or schedule. But what is the price of conformity? A loss of self-respect. Growing resentment for him. Anxiety. That isn’t a price I’m willing to pay. I can work on meeting my needs without trampling on his. This might still cause me discomfort, but not as much as trying to ignore my values.
So what about the flip-flops?
I like wearing flip-flops, so the price of conformity is discomfort (I abhor having sweaty feet in closed-toed shoes on a hot day). The price is also feeling less excited, more restrained, and maybe even resentful for having to change my behaviours simply to avoid making a few people uncomfortable.
And because there are a few people in this city who would ridicule me for wearing flip-flops, the price of freedom is their judgment. Some would say the price is higher (i.e. I’ll out myself as a tourist, which would make me a target), but let’s face it: no one would ever mistake me for a Colombian girl—flip-flops or not.
Really, it’s about judgment. But those few people with flip-flop-phobia judging me is not really my issue, is it? If I like wearing flip-flops but cannot tolerate people being disgusted by my feet, how can I ever hope to be an authentic human being?
There are so many parts of myself that I have cut off, repressed, and hidden just because they weren’t accepted by my family, my school, my ex, my culture. It was never worth it.
I think of the people who worry about not wearing anything remotely resembling a flip-flop in Medellin, and I wonder how often they conform to others’ expectations. Do they ever choose to do what they want? If they cannot tolerate judgment about their footwear, what else can’t they tolerate judgment about? How much authenticity have they traded for approval? Are they happy? Maybe they are, but I know I couldn’t be.
And then, I think of the people who are judging others for wearing flip-flops, for not fitting into the status quo. I wonder how much their judgment is projected frustration over being trapped by others’ rules. Do they always try to fit in, and therefore expect others to do so? How much authenticity have they traded for approval? Are they happy? Maybe, but I wouldn’t be.
Approval never paid my bills, and it never made me happy. If the absence of approval is the only price of freedom, then it’s a price I’m willing to pay.
I’m willing to sacrifice my family’s approval to do work I’m passionate about. I’m willing to sacrifice my culture’s approval to leave my face makeup-free. And I’m willing to sacrifice the approval of a few judgmental people to wear flip-flops.
At the end of the day, there are people who judge others. There are also people who worry about being judged by others. And then, there are people who realize that life is too short for that. May that third group grow ever bigger, and may I remember, even in the midst of seemingly trivial matters, that I always have a choice.