Monday, February 12, 2007

Poor people? Throw 'em to the lions, I say.

Please allow me to go on a brief tirade. Don’t get me wrong, as much crap as give America, I recognize that every place has its faults, and I try not to romanticize that other countries are necessarily the pinnacle of enlightenment. But since I got back from Hong Kong a couple years ago, I begun to realize how incredibly insular, myopic, and sheltered so many Americans are.

Two examples of this in the past week come to mind. Last night, I was at IHOP with my friend Chad at about 3 in the morning. Chad, an avid tattoo enthusiast, was asking a little about tattoos in China. After talking for a bit about it, I mentioned that I really would never recommend getting a tattoo in China. Something about the horribly unsanitary conditions of a developing country and a huge AIDS epidemic there.

At that sentence, the girl in the booth behind me swiveled around and jumped into the conversation. She was in her late 20s and had a tattoo on her neck that looked like a smudge of green ink wiped onto her skin by the tattoo artist’s butt cheek. “Really?” She said. “Getting tattooed in China is a hell of a lot better than here.” She went on to tell me about how they in fact did not have a problem with sanitation or AIDS in the country. It’s actually a lot more sanitary there.

She then continued to tell me a story about Eastern Asia with severely skewed geographic information. Her stories were peppered with all kinds of hilariously inaccurate facts about China, but they included something to the effect of Vietnam being far west of Laos, and that her boyfriend was going to start building roads there because all their roads are made of dirt.

I was taken back a bit by her comments, but I didn’t feel like getting much into it. I asked if she’d ever been to China. “No…but I had a Chinese boyfriend once.” I was probably more rude than I should have been as I just laughed a little as I turned around and said, “This world you speak of sounds interesting. I’d love to visit it someday.”

While that conversation was merely annoying, this next one is simply unbelievable. I was visiting my brothers’ place last week, when they had another visitor stop by. Evidently neither of my brothers knew him very well, but he had done some pretty hard drugs and needed a place to come down for a little while. So he ended up as an incredibly awkward third wheel in the conversation the whole night.

His comments throughout the night were annoying, but the night reached it’s climax when we were talking about the issue of income inequality in China. In the middle of a serious conversation on the vast majority of the country who live in poverty, he jumps in with an amazing question. “Yeah…but…aren’t these people just poor because they want to be. I mean, like they don’t want to be a part of society with technology and that stuff.” Jaws dropped all around the room. As much as I wondered if answering the question would even do any good for this guy, I decided to do it anyway. I tried to explain, “These people are not the Amish. They’re not rebelling against things like food, warm shelter, medicine, and clean water because they have some ideological differences with society. Really, they’d just like to stay alive.”

I hoped this conversation was over, but he countered with perhaps the most shamefully ignorant statement I’ve ever heard. “Yeah, but I mean, these people really brought it on themselves. It’s their fault they’re so poor, you know?” We were stunned. None of us knew how to reply. After grasping for every ounce of patience within me, I politely said to him, “You know, you’re really going to have a lot more understanding before you make comments like that.” I went on to try to explain to him the reality of the situation, but more than likely, the effort was futile.

This whole situation just made me think about perspectives. How could someone be so confused to believe that the reason why 2/3 of the world lives in poverty is because either they want to live that way, or because it’s their own fault? Sometimes when I come down hard on the people in this country I wonder if there’s any other country in the world that is so comfortable, powerful, and isolated from the idea of poverty that someone could honestly believe this.

I just imagined what their reaction would be if one of my students, who was born in the village to farmer parents and had to work so hard for the little that they have, were sitting in that room when the comments were made. How would that make them feel? I can’t even imagine it.

Now, I say all this not to show how I 'set these people straight' or to display a 'better than thou' mentality, so I hope that isn't what is coming across here. What I am saying is that the second greatest commandment we were given is to love our neighbor. But to really love your neighbor, you must understand them. To do this, you must educate yourself and experience the world through someone else's eyes. At this point, I don't feel like we can simply preach about love, unless this love includes understanding.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

Hi - your brother Josh pointed me here. I've read this particular post a few times over now; it's true that Americans, in our insularity, don't even distinguish the difference between necessity and luxury anymore. Anyway, I've enjoyed reading your blog - and been bothered by things like the $8 divorce and the sense of helplessness in the Jan 5 post about roofing - and wanted to say so.