Before departing for Southeast Asia this December, I had two Hollywood-inspired images in my mind. The first is of starving children begging on the street for food, flies buzzing around their eyes and ears. The second is of people packed into sweatshops like farm animals, toiling endlessly for long hours each day. These images both proved to be completely wrong.
Instead, everywhere I went, the kids that I saw seemed genuinely happy. As I walked by, they would look up from the games they were playing to shout “Hello, mister!” in a chorus of giggles and smiles. I met a Thai Rasta named Tae in the seaside town of Krabi, who made it clear that I could stay at his bar indefinitely, free of charge. His catch-phrase? “Welcome home, brother!” On a hot day I remember passing by a shop where the owner was dozing off in a chair under a big fan, with sounds from a TV playing lightly in the background. I remember thinking “She doesn’t have it half bad.”
I visited many different places, some ultra-touristy, others where people would stop me on the street and ask for a picture because they had never met a white person before. I expected to find people unhappy and hungry, but what I found was the opposite. People did not stress over retirement savings – their kids would take care of them when they got old. People spent more time with their families, neighbors, cousins, friends. All my life I had held the belief that people outside of America are by definition worse off, but slowly a scary proposition started to occur to me: “Have we been duped?”
It’s certainly convenient for the American psyche to have us believe that we have it better off than the rest of the world because we make more money than them. How else do we justify the trade-offs that we make? My childhood experience was one of barely seeing my parents – they both worked full-time demanding jobs. What did all their hours of working afford them? The enormous house of their dreams, which they ended up selling for a net loss after their divorce.
The funny thing about this article, is that I don’t expect it to make sense to you – it certainly wouldn’t have made sense to me. The point of this isn’t to convince you that I’m right, but to show you that spending time in a different setting can cause profound and tremendous shifts in your perspective. My experience is entirely my own – even if you retraced my steps and saw all the same things, you’d likely come away with an equally valid but completely different take-away. What’s important is that you can, and should, step outside of your comfort zone. Take some time away. Try something new. You will learn things you couldn’t imagine and grow in ways you didn’t know were possible.
Questions or comments about my experiences or anything I’ve written here? I’d love to talk with you about it when I’m back on campus!