“There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
“I feel this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.”
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
Or wise man can decide
What’s right for you–just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.”
— Shel Silverstein
From a very young age, my brothers and I attended a private Christian school. We didn’t come from a particularly wealthy family, but my parents always felt they wanted to do this for us. They grew up going to Christian schools and so they figured it would benefit us. It took me a while to realize this growing up, but most kids my age didn’t go to private schools. There were public schools and private schools, and private schools were expensive. And the kids who went to my school were, on the whole, exceptionally wealthy.
In Canada, I found there exists a specific story about the middle-class and its universality. It’s supposedly a class that we all, as Canadians, belong to. I seldom talk about wages and salaries as it seems impolite to do so and well, I feel like we are all middle class so what is there to talk about? I find people are often embarrassed by wealth and many rich people would deny or downplay their wealth.
Habitually after Christmas vacation, as is common among school-age children, I would take a strict inventory of my presents. I remember distinctly when I was twelve, one of my friends got a Play Station 3. The PS3 had just been released and retailed at more than one thousand dollars. And his parents had just bought it for him – nonchalantly – among other things! When compared with my new socks, chocolate, nail clippers and CDs – which my parents struggled to afford – a PS3 seemed like total insanity! How could they afford that?!I never really wanted a PS3 – itwasn’t my style – but I remember being very aware of how expensive it was and how its value compared to what I received.
“As soon as you stop wanting something, you get it.”
— Andy Warhol
As I got older, this disparity resurfaced time and time again. Friends would take trips to Hawaii, Mexico and Disneyland. And I would travel to Surrey or to Cowichan Lake. Classmates would return to school in September with brand-name clothes, new shoes and fancy school supplies. And I would return with a mix of handy-downs, consigned clothes, and Wal-Mart purchases. Kids played organized sports after their piano lessons. And I watched TV after walking the dogs and playing with my street friends. Some lived in upscale Oak Bay, others in gated Gordon Head or near the school in Saanich. And I lived in a one-bathroom duplex in Langford – far from both the school and the city-centre.
“Are these things really better than the things I already have? Or am I just trained to be dissatisfied with what I have now?”
— Chuck Palahniuk
I mean this to be no indictment of my parents or the choices they made. In fact, I think my childhood was generally quite good. My parents did their best and there were countless times where I was spoiled absolutely rotten, but at the end of the day, it never quite measured up materially to the others at my school. If I was spoiled rotten, then they had already turned back into soil.
This endless comparison-making and insatiable thirst for things, things and more things is deeply rooted in our capitalist society. I admit I suffered from it for many years, especially during my youth. And I must continuously audit myself and try to weed out this pointless greed.
“To be content with little is difficult; to be content with much, impossible.”
— Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
By the time I graduated from high school, I remember being really upset with this inequality. In the last years of high school and the early years of college, as one’s mind begins to mature, I became more and more aware of the problems plaguing our society and our world. So much of it came down to inequality. University presented complex economic scenarios and case-studies in different countries, but it really is pretty simple… Why should one person live a life of serenity and luxury while another toils and suffers to simply stay alive?
Before even arriving in Bangladesh, we had numerous conversations about our privilege and position. Sometimes, these differences are easy to see… sometimes they are more difficult. At times I don’t pay attention to them or perhaps I deny that they exist. As a student of a rather liberal university, these topics became quite central. And I am glad that they did because I began to realize how much of my life I had gone without ever questioning these things… After all, I live in Canada. It’s a free country, and everyone is equal, right?
Today, I find myself confronted by me. I am who I am and I’ve become what I’ve become… That is not to deny my capacity for change or agency, but here I am – part nature, part nurture. Arriving to Bangladesh might mean physically transporting me to another country, but mentally, I find am still just a result of the culture I’ve matured in. I am used to certain things being a certain way. French bread, fancy cheese, good beers and so on… I like being outside in the fresh air. Swimming, I love swimming, especially in nice cold clean lakes with the mountains around…These privileges have surrounded me my entire life. Coming to Bangladesh, I knew I would have to adjust. And on the whole, we have…but we don’t live like Bangladeshis… We live like Canadians in Bangladesh. We find places to eat that remind us of home. We live in a safe apartment with good water, electricity, and internet. We plan regular trips to go out of the city – just for fun… because we can…
And what a privilege it is…
I tell myself: it is beyond my control; the problems here are too great and too deep. I am but one person.
I make myself small and I make excuses.
“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. ”
— Paulo Freire
Narratives and assumptions are formed around all kinds of people in lower socio-economic positions. They exist in both Canada and Bangladesh. In Canada, I’ve heard people say that people are too lazy… if only they would go and get a job. In Bangladesh, I’ve heard it said that many of the street people do drugs or sniff glue and so I shouldn’t give any money. Maybe some are lazy, maybe some do sniff glue… but does that legitimize turning a blind eye? I’ve heard blame used to discharge pain and discomfort.
I come out of Pizza Hut to the street and having spend an exorbitant amount of money on pizza, I meet a young child on the street begging for money…
I finish eating two burgers (because the first one was so good) at Mr. Burger and again, I see a young child leaned against a lamppost staring into the distance, dirty and malnourished…
I go to the grocery store. We buy four Snickers bars and a Toblerone for our bus ride to Cox’s Bazar a.k.a. vacation town for those who can take vacations. I feel deeply ashamed as I walk down the street holding not one, but five chocolate bars. Elderly women lay along the dusty street…
Every time I spend money, I make a choice – an active and informed choice. And without fail, each time I choose for myself. I treat myself. I reward myself.
It’s funny because my whole “adult” life, I’ve always actively opposed things like slave-labour, or child-labour. I’ve always believed the wealthy should pay “their fair share.” I’ve always wished that transnational corporations would pay employees a fair wage. But do I pay my fair share?
“If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.”
— John Lennon
There are no easy answers. Everyday, I need to negotiate between making myself happy and doing what is right. I need to be hard on myself because I deserve to feel that. It should be uncomfortable. “You think you’re uncomfortable?!”
Zachary and I often talk about how we don’t like to be physically touched by people on the street. Again, it makes us uncomfortable. But do these people really wanna be where they are? Do they really want to grab me to beg for food or money? And wouldn’t I do the exact same thing in their situation?
I want to live in a world with much less inequality. That can seem like a daunting task, but don’t we all bear a responsibility to make it happen?
“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”
― Mahatma Gandhi