American Privilege: A Thanksgiving Tale

DC is a city of sirens. I cannot make a phone call outside without having to pause for ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars to go by. They are the ambient noise to which I fall asleep, sometimes even puncturing my rest as tragedy and crime ravage the night. They are a nuisance, an interruption, but a part of the soundscape of city living.

When I visited Cambodia in 2014, my friend and I visited a floating village. Squished into a boat, my friend and I listened as our guide explained the way of life there. We passed by “corner stores”, homes, schools, and even a chapel. The architecture was fascinating to my foreign eyes as I’d never seen anything like it before. But these people weren’t living on the water because it was prime real estate. These people were poor. The water they lived on was what they used for everything. They cleaned dishes with water that had their own fecal matter in it. They drank that water. The one thing I didn’t see in this particular village was a clinic or hospital. “Where do they go when they get sick?” I asked my guide. He replied, “They go to the hospital in town.”

It had taken us a good hour to get from town between the taxi ride on land and then the river taxi back to the village. “Many people who are sick enough to need a hospital die before reaching it,” the guide added.

I am thankful for sirens.

The day I sat down to calculate what my school loans from undergrad and grad school would come to it nearly knocked the wind out of me. “How will I ever pay these off?” I’d wanted to go back to school because it would open more opportunities for me. I’d done my undergrad in music education, but after living in China decided I wanted to do something related to Asia instead. My teacher certification would not help. An MA, proof of proficiency in two foreign languages, research and project management skills, however, should increase my earnings over time and allow me to change fields.

When I was in Laos, a coworker and I got into a conversation about education and specifically post-secondary opportunities one day. Laos has one major university in the capitol and several smaller universities, colleges and technical schools throughout the rest of the country. My coworker told me that it was hard for women from the countryside or different provinces to attend college (different from our university). He explained that often, for a woman to be able to afford school “out-of-state,” she would find a sponsor—an older, more financially able man. He would take care of tuition, rent at nearby student housing, school supplies and spending money in exchange for sex. I had taken out a loan. This was not an option there. I figured it out once and all of those expenses came to less than $2000. I was so shocked I decided I wouldn’t go back to school unless it would in some way allow me to help improve the situation of the desperately poor in the world and that if I had the luxury of either the funds to spend on education or the financial stability to not work and pursue a degree while earning no money that I would rather support women who wanted an education from that part of the world whose options to finance their education were far more limited than mine.

I am grateful for the ability to take out loans for school and for the many options I had for furthering my education.

Since election season began, there have been no shortage of news segments on television and articles to come out discussing the strengths and weaknesses of candidates. We come on Facebook and share our opinions freely about who we support and why and are either met with a chorus of approval at best, or vehement disapproval from family and friends who think differently, at worst. Read, post, comment, like, repeat. We exhaust ourselves on social media critiquing every little aspect of the race. We protest on the streets afterward to express our rage at the coming normalization of hate and legislating of injustice. We make signs, we march, and we lift our voices in opposition.

My third year in China I taught English. Once, my class was talking about heroes and I asked students to chose theirs. In all of my classes overwhelmingly the answer was Mao.  I had one student email me after class saying that he disagreed but dare not voice it in class for fear of retaliation and being a dissenting opinion. He couldn’t believe so many of his classmates praised Mao and said that he was both saddened and angry at their, from his perspective, having been duped by the government and education system to not know better. On another occasion, I had my class cancelled so my students could go vote. The school got busses and made every single student go vote for their first time. In their instructions about how to vote they were told which button to press and, knowing nothing about either candidate, went in and did as they were instructed.

I am grateful for freedom of press, free speech, and a culture where the merits of leaders can be discussed and debated openly. And democracy. I’m so grateful for democracy.

The other day, I needed to get home from the grocery store with a bunch of bags. As I stood on the corner of the street, I debated my options. I could take the bus, the streetcar or call an uber. Walking was out of the question because of how many bags I had. The streetcar is free, few people ride it so I’d have space for my bags, and it dropped me off two blocks from my house.

When I lived in Laos a friend invited me to a new year celebration in his village. I had to take a taxi to the river, catch a longtail boat across the Mekong, walk up a slight hill and catch a truck to his village. There was no schedule for the truck, it parked on the side of the street and left when it was full which, depending on the time you arrived, could mean a five minute wait or an hour and a half wait. Mine was the latter. After an hour and some change I finally ditched the truck and set out on foot.

As bad as the metro is, I am grateful for a diversity of transportation options.

Yesterday, I took a test that included a section on English proficiency and there were detailed questions about grammar. I sat reading over the sentences deciding where the semicolons and commas should go, thinking about the difference between subject and object pronouns, and subject verb agreement.

Once in Laos, a colleague of mine and I traveled by motorbike up the side of this mountain in town. We were delivering money to a woman who was getting financial help from the museum as part of her daughter’s internship. We asked her to sign for the money next to the ‘x’ and she, without turning the paper so that the correct side was rightside up, merely wrote an ‘x’ next to the ‘x’ already on the sheet and handed it back to us. I realized that she couldn’t read, not even well enough to know if letters were upside down or not and had never had to sign for anything in her life before probably.

I am thankful for literacy. What a crazy world it would be without it.

The last time I ordered a drink at a bar, they asked me to show ID. They checked my date of birth and the expiration date of the card and a few minutes later came out with my drink. They could see how much I weighed, how tall I was, what color my hair and eyes were and that was it.

When I went to Indonesia for Thanksgiving three years ago I stayed with a friend of a friend. She told me that in Indonesia, everyone’s government issued ID card identifies their religion. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. She explained that technically, even though it is not enforced, a Muslim could be arrested for drinking at a bar based on the religion on their card. Athiesm is not one of the six acceptable religions that you can identify, either. Aceh, one of the regions in Indonesia, is one of the places that actually enforces sharia law for crimes such as drinking. Earlier this year, a Christian woman was caned for selling alcohol.

I am grateful for religious freedom and that my faith can be as public or private as I want.

As I sit this morning and think about Thanksgivings past, worlds I’ve known, the discovery of luxuries I enjoy that only came when suspended during travel, I’m reminded of the utter excessiveness of all we have as Americans and take for granted, even the things that the worst off of us has access to—even if we don’t make use of it. It’s there, enriching lives, creating possibilities where there otherwise wouldn’t be, lifting people from the clutches of danger, saving lives, easing the wheels of everyday life. I don’t suffer (yet) from mental illness, but I’m glad I live in a country that recognizes this is an issue, trains people with how to deal with it, and has places people can go to for help. I’m grateful for the things I don’t think twice about because I live in a nation so great and abundant.

Of course, I’m also grateful for friends, family, and money for food and rent, but I think it’s really the things I’m tempted to rail against, the things I consider a nuisance at times, the comforts that I don’t know that I have, and that even more possibility lays open before me that really humbles me today. I didn’t chose to be American. It happened to me. Had I been born in a different time or different country who knows what I’d be thinking about today or what comforts would smooth my way, if any. This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for my American privilege and am committed more than ever before to use that going forward in ways that provide covering, relief and comfort to those without it.

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