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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Survivors, not Losers: The Art of Understanding Poverty

Vegetable garden

In Indonesia we have a reality TV show called "Jika Aku Menjadi" or translated to "If I were a....". The show would have a young pretty city girl who would be thrown to live a life for a few days with a presumably poor man/woman with arduous job. The cameras will shoot the girls cracking rocks or collecting cajuput bark or selling home-made cheap snacks and all the hardship their host endure daily, including the almost-non-existent-and-usually-inedible food. At some point during the girls would always cried and said things of how pitiful their hosts' life is and they are very sorry for them and they wish them all happiness and an easier life in the future. And they would leave some money or gift afterwards at the end of the show. The funny thing is, as these city girls woe for their host's life their hosts usually will consoled them instead and looked just perfectly fine with their life. Don't you think it is fucked up? Don't you think it is so amazingly weird?

The truth of the matter is not everyone is unhappy with their life, no matter how hard it is. I wouldn't doubt the hosts' life were hard, but they probably didn't even feel that hard until some A-holes come around and say: 'Oh what a pitiful life you have you poor old old crone!'. Imagine taking buses all of your life, and you feel grateful that you earn enough to take the bus to work instead of walking all the way to it; then a person came to you and say: "You take the bus?! Oh honey the bus takes hour to get from your place to here and so unreliable and dangerous, you should use a car instead!" Imagine how you feel the next morning as you walk to bus stop: bitter resentment because you don't have a car and have to get up and go at 7 am for a 9 am shift when you can easily go at 8.30 instead with a car, and every time the bus stops to take passengers you mouthing silently "C'mon muthafucka I'm gonna be fucking late!", and when you come home at night you got all jumpy and see every other passengers as potential robber/rapist/criminal. To think that the other day you were so happy to be able to take buses, that you don't have to walk everywhere, that you have the driver's protection if necessary instead of going solo and so open at the road at night. To think that the other day you were content. Yes, compassion kills. 

Do you know what poverty is? It is more than just a skeleton-like child dying from hunger, it is more than just inability to eat decent food and get clean water, it is more than just statistic of living with $1 or less per day. Poverty is when you have 2 instant noodles worth 10 cent each for your family of 4 and called it a treat, and later all died because for some reason the noodles were contaminated. Poverty is when a 70 year old man died from shock when knowing his government assistance money of $30 was already claimed by someone, he was going to use the money to commemorate his decease wife's. Poverty is when a college student seriously think to be a prostitute just to be able to pay her tuition fee, as her education was the only chance she has for a better life. Poverty is when going to school is a luxury, and graduating from it was a miracle. Poverty is looking at your children and knowing for sure they would end up just like you, no education or other means of salvation to cut your children off of your horrible circle of life. Poverty is knowing no future lies ahead of you, no dreams to dream, no sweet hope to hold on to. That's what poverty is. 

What $1 lunch in Denpasar, Bali look like: 
Rice, veggies, a slice of meat, fried eggplant, and nut crackers
Yes, this is a luxury to some in Bali and many in Indonesia

Cut the crap, the tears, the 'politically-correct' language. Stop telling the poor that they are poor and you are sorry for them. Instead, think of them highly and appreciate their struggle. Don't weep and moan about their lack of food and decent life, stop looking at them that way. Stop looking at them with your sorry look just because you think they are deprived of the nice comfortable things you have. They are survivors, and the fact that they could keep on living without all the things you have should be a harsh reminder how strong they really are. Think of them as MacGyvers of the world, who manage to stay alive and do cool things just with a screwdriver and some other inconspicuous items. Think of them as the Mission Impossible teams of the world, who manage to do impossible things despite the odds (in which case, surviving in such harsh and difficult environment). Give them the standing ovation that these people deserves for simply surviving, instead of a pitiful glare that robbed them of their self esteem. Don't say (or think): "Dude, you are poor. Let me help you because I got more." Instead say (or think): "Dude, you are awesome. Here's something that hopefully can help you a bit."

This is not to say their pain is unreal, or their life is not hard. The pain is real, the despair is overwhelming, and life indeed is very very hard for them. But you know what's more painful? To know that there are people in developed countries who not only squandered and neglected the perks and luxuries they have, but also complains about them. As Suzanne Collins wrote in Catching Fire:
          "All I can think of is the emaciated bodies of the children on our kitchen table as my mother prescribes what the parents can't give. More food. Now that we're rich, she'll send some home with them. But often in the old days, there was nothing to give and the child was past saving, anyway. And here in the Capitol they're vomiting for the pleasure of filling their bellies again and again. Not from some illness of body or mind, not from spoiled food. It's what everyone does at a party. Expected. Part of fun."
This is how I feel when hearing people complains what lousy education system they have. This is how I feel when hearing people complains how imperfect their healthcare system is. This is how I feel when hearing people complains of food prices when sporting high end cars and phones. This is how I feel when hearing people complains of how bad their life is, with all their social security system and all the rules and regulations to keep everyone's life a happy and dandy one. 

You could say: "This is MY life, and I'll do whatever I want with it!" Sure, do whatever you want. Just don't squandered it. Make it worth it, make it a significant one. Imagine what you would do if you are stripped bare from all the perks and luxuries you have now: internet, health access, education, food, clean water, accessibility, everything. Do whatever you want, but please, don't take all those things for granted. I can't think of any proof that this would directly help eliminate the poverty around the world. But I believe that compassion, empathy, and understanding would eventually put human in a better position, and this can be achieved by simply grateful to what you have and utilizing it to the max. We in the third world countries, we in the under-developed countries, we in the poverty-stricken countries may not be able to tap the resources you have, so do it for us. Please. Read what we can't read, know things what we will never have access to know, live your life the way we would with hope and dreams. And one day, we will share those knowledge with you. One day.

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