Observations of a Privileged American

by Sharon -- January 22, 2010

Most parents never dream that these words will ever come out of their children’s mouths: “we have been homeless vagabonds for 3 months”.  There are things that I have learned within these past 94 days that I may not have discovered had I never gotten on that plane (granted it was just to Vancouver, but that’s not important).  Things happened that I wasn’t expecting, and there are also things I learned about myself that I never knew before.  My knowledge of poor countries, exotic foods, and international laws were always kept confined inside a television or computer screen.  These things were just displaced ideas to me.

I now know, for example, that I am more high maintenance than I thought. Back at home, Jason coined the term “ME-OW maintenance” for me, meaning that I am in between low-medium maintenance as a girl (I assure you these are VERY scientific and real terms).  However, I have learned after careful observation that your placement on the spectrum for girlfriend/wife maintenance is significantly different depending on where you are in the world.  Here in Asia, for example, my maintenance indicator makes a wide leap into medium-high maintenance.  The reasons?  For one thing I realized that my Mother has rubbed off on me way more than previously thought when it comes to germophobia and cleanliness.  Let’s just say that Jason did not have substantial warning of my closeted fear of germs until now.  One of the very few things that I require while traveling is a clean room and a decent bathroom (you would be surprised at the odors that come from toilets here in Asia).  This has required us to spend a little more on accommodations than most budget backpackers, but to us (me) it’s worth the sound sleep you get while knowing you are not being eaten by cockroaches and mosquitoes.

The cleanliness issue sometimes goes hand in hand with the economy of the country that we are in.  Cambodia is a much poorer country than China, for example, so sometimes it’s a bit harder to find a good room without shelling out more money.  This has not changed my opinions of the country as a whole, however, especially since many Cambodian and Vietnamese people who manage guest houses seem to have been born with a broom attached to their hands.  (Most of our hotels in these two countries were kept impeccably clean).

The downside to being in such a poor country is how numb you become to seeing families and men with only two limbs begging on the streets.  You get used to ignoring it because there are just so many of them.  However, I don’t think I have gotten used to seeing the children begging, and I’m not sure if I ever will.  I am never going to forget the sight of a dirty child coming up to me and speaking the only English they know: “some money?”  These children are kept away from school just to bring in a few cents for their families from tourists who feel sympathy for a poor child.  It’s difficult to think that I will go back home and return to my normal life after seeing these things on a daily basis.

Another observation that shaped the way I now view Asia is limited to countries that don’t see as much concentrated tourism as Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia.  So far, the only country that falls into this category that we have travelled is China.  In China, the people would literally stare at Jason as if he was from another planet.  As mentioned in a previous post, the amount of blatant, non-filtered staring was something that took a lot of getting used to for me.  I also realized that it made me kind of sad.  Most of the Chinese people that gawked at Jason will probably never get to travel internationally, therefore they will never get to experience living amongst different cultures and people.  Many of them will never get to go to the family home of their Indian friend, or meet their friend’s Russian parents. The fact that almost the entire country was born with black hair and brown eyes kind of boggled my mind when I saw it first hand; no woman in China (unless they are a foreigner) will never wonder if their pregnant bellies contain a blue or green eyed baby with golden or light hair.  As an American who has grown up around many different types of people, this concept became somewhat depressing knowing that most of them will most likely continue to view all people who don’t look like them as aliens.

Many people we encountered in China, however, were gracious and eager to help us foreigners despite their seemingly negative staring.  Others proved to me that this mentality was, in fact, negative in nature as they would spit as we walked by.  (We were told by a Canadian, who was currently residing in China, that we would encounter a lot of spitting in our direction due to the fact that the locals thought of us as ‘another foreign man dating a Chinese girl’).  As much as I still want to slap the ignorance out of these people, this ideology continues to sadden me.

I could write an entire book on my personal observations abroad, but I doubt anyone would want to read it except maybe my parents.  Maybe.  The point is, this trip has started to mold my views on myself as well as the way I see the world.  For one thing, when I return to the States I will NEVER AGAIN take our western bathrooms for granted.  I will never again take our septic system for granted when I can freely throw toilet paper into the toilet without fear of the water coming back at me like a geyser.  Just an example.

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6 Responses to “Observations of a Privileged American”

  1. Jason calling Sharon high maintenance is like me calling Kini tall.

  2. Sharon, I’m a friend of Jason’s mom’s. I really love the posts you write (and Jason’s too). I think a book might be a good idea, because what you write is very interesting, and you write well. People in the US are quite sheltered, and it makes a difference to see these places firsthand. And if you can bring them closer to people who don’t have the opportunity to go there, then that’s great. I wish you continuously safe travels :)

  3. Sharon, this is AWESOME. I love what you’re doing. I wish I could do this! Stupid grad school debt. (This is Julie from cheer in high school, by the way.)

  4. Growing up in Korea in the midst of Post-Korean War era was not easy for your Mom and I. Poverty was everywhere….. overflowing public commodes, washing family clothes in a creek full of sewage, surviving on beansprout soup with rice everyday, a whole family sharing a single banana if you can find one, are some of the everyday life we faced, learned to accept, and lived through.
    I’m glad that you are able to witness the hardships these people face everyday in those poor countries.
    Parents who faced poverty in their mother countries want what is best for their children in America; but they really spoil their offspring in the process sometimes.
    Continue to observe, experience, learn, and enjoy…


  5. your dad said beansprout soup and my mouth started to water……

    I like your observations!!! It’s funny you mentioned the spitting, Jose and I got spit at a lot when we were in korea, and I had no idea what it was about! hahaha. With you germaphobia, how do you handle eating?? I have that problem, but with cleanliness of fooods…..

  6. Hi Sharon, I agree with the comments here - your observations are very interesting and would make a great book (especially with your father’s input). I’d buy it! :) Keep blogging and sharing! - Clare

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