By: Amy Tse
“Mom…I think these are the hardest living conditions I’ve ever had to live with for 3 weeks…” I mused.
“Well Amy, that’s pretty sad, do you see how privileged you are?” my Mom shot back; she never wasted any time putting me in my place.
I’ve always said, there’s a certain kind of freedom associated with living in a developing country. In the daily confusion that is usually depicted by a traffic deadlock between the jeepneys, pedestrians, and tricycles, all set against the symphony of car horns and frantic shouting, I feel so much at ease. At ease not because the car fumes I’m breathing or the imminent chance of me dying particularly excites me, but at ease because I feel alive and free – knowing that I could do just about anything and not have anyone judge me because everyone around me is just as crazy and unrestrained. And that has depicted my personal experience of living in a developing country, as I grew up in China. In fact, the liberty that comes with the absence of rigid social conventions and societal expectations has long been my favourite aspect of living in a developing country – comforted in knowing that anything can happen.
But I’ve realized that I’m wrong, so wrong. Who said those living in a developing country is free from social restraints? Who said they don’t feel the excruciating pain of not having money? They live under the same pressures, just under a different context, a different standard – different from our worldview.
Last night, in fact, my roommate and I had a conversation with our host Mario and her daughter Angel about money, life, and everything in between. Half drunk, yet still painfully tormented by his struggles, Mario opened up his ever-cheerful façade to reveal the despair of getting by in a developing country. As a tricycle driver, with his dear wife gone, Mario admits his greatest savior is the hope of a better tomorrow and the promise of his growing daughter.
His daughter, Angel, fascinates me because she’s currently 13 years old, and so is my little sister, Queenie. As I compare Angel to Queenie, I can’t help but feel a little uneasy. At thirteen years old, Angel is taking care of household chores, attaining an education by day, and working at the family eatery by night. She even has the time to scold her ‘papa’ to stop drinking and to take his vitamins. Meanwhile, a picture of my sister pops in my head – sitting at her desk engaged in a TV show flashing on her MacBook screen, all the while eating food that was most likely put in front her. This glaring juxtaposition initially put me to shame, but now, I realize that it’s not so simple. Because although my sister and I don’t work at a restaurant after we finish school, we will most likely earn more money in the future than Angel – as unfair and absurd as it is. And why? Simply because we were born in a different place and into a different family. I can safely say that almost everything my sister and I have as of right now we owe our parents, who determined our socioeconomic platform from which we leap into the messy, capitalist dogfight. Looking at the difference between Angel and Queenie, I am forced to comprehend the difference between those that come from a privileged, first world background and those that come from a developing, third world setting. However, the two are incomparable because so much is determined by the context – our struggles, definition of happiness, and the very metric to which we measures things, are all very, very different.
“Money…money is a…is just paper, doesn’t mean anything!” claimed Mario. I nodded my head in agreement. But that doesn’t stop Mario from building a new store to sell the local delicacy, batchoi, to earn more money. It also doesn’t stop me from starting my internship as soon as I get back to HK all in the hopes of strengthening my CV so that I can get a good job when I graduate. Although I can afford to own an iPhone and Mario can’t, we’re essentially bound by the same struggles, and these struggles will continue to haunt both of us as long as human civilization continues. That’s why I was wrong in thinking that there’s always a certain kind of freedom associated with living in a developing country. The freedom I observed and felt was more to do with things such as throwing the garbage wherever you want or standing on either side of the escalator without having to endure the stink-eye. As long as you live or work in a place long enough, you will always be bound by the same social restrictions that bind us all. The only reason I could afford to treat this trip as a hiatus from society is the fact that I will only be here for three weeks.
Living in developed and developing countries are two very different experiences. The material comforts of the first world come with absurdities such as insanely high societal expectations for success. On the other hand, the liberty of doing whatever you want in a developing country comes with the material struggle of putting food on the table. Yet, we’re all bound by the same restrictions, the same worldly obligations, and the same mission – survival. So the question is, which one would you prefer?