Tuesday, October 11, 2011

First World Guilt

I was in Grade 4 when I first experienced "First World Guilt" during a visit to rural China with my maternal grandparents. A homecoming trip of sort for my maternal grandparents who left China decades ago to pursue a better life overseas. It was a holiday of a different kind and a big deviation from the usual cool and easy "all taken care of" type of luxury packaged sightseeing tours I was used to.

There was electricity, but it was a single light bulb in the dim house. There was a bathroom with running water, but no water heater in the cold harsh winter. There were beds, but in the form of humble thin mattresses. There was surely food, but simple and strictly home-cooked. There were schools but the kids didn't have proper stationery and were still using razor blades to sharpen pencils. You get the picture.

Being a kid of the same age, the image of a pint-size rosy-cheeked school girl sharpening her pencil (singular please) with a dangerous blade left a deep impression on me .When I got back to Hong Kong, I reached for my piggy bank, dug out the little money in there, purchased a bunch of cool stationery supplies, and had them mailed over to the many little friends I made in China. And I stopped complaining, albeit temporarily, that I didn't have that latest Hello Kitty mechanical pencil for that season. That possibly was the first time ever that I counted my blessings in life.

Of course I was fully aware of the less fortunate around the world before that trip. During the Ethiopian famine of 84', schools were dishing out tiny coin banks shaped as of a bread loaf for students to gather donations for famine relief. Images of starving brown babies in the media formed perfect back drop for moms warning their kids to finish up all their food, lest they would get reincarnated as starved brown babies in their next lives. So yes, I was aware of the fact that there were needy people around. It was, however, a different thing, when you see the less fortunate in person during your holidays. Since Grade 4 and despite having trotted around the world with wanderlust quite a bit, the whole First World Guilt hasn't stopped bugging me every time I travel to a lesser developed country. 

The latest First World Guilt was felt in Bali about a month ago. While I was happily tanning and sipping virgin mojitos at hipster joints like The Potato Head and Ku De Ta in Seminyak, the numerous Balinese people selling ubiquitous tourist souvenirs, sunglasses and hats by the beach made me feel bad. Nothing like the throngs of professional child beggars I've seen in the streets of India for sure, but not the easiest job nonetheless, standing in the hot sun by the beach the whole day all year round .

Looking at their sun wrinkled faces made me wonder if they would secretly or openly wish to be the ones tanning and sipping virgin mojitos by the deck instead. If they do, do they feel that way everyday? Have they sold enough for the day? If not, oh no, what's gonna happen? How many family members are they supporting? Going into the guilt trip over drive seems to be my brain's super power since age ten.

After some mulling over Dalai Lama's books, I had a mental nudge, reminding me not to judge others with my own standards. That sympathy arising from First World Guilts might well be redundant because these people are just as happy, if not happier than I am. That it doesn't take what makes me happy, material or otherwise, to make others happy. That sympathy has its place and time, and is only a positive thing when it is truly required.

I guess for the China trip, the spoilt first world 10-year-old mind of mine might have conveniently forgotten to register quite a lot of other observations too; that the dim light from a single light bulb made good atmosphere for family chats and banters, that every hot sponge bath was something awesome to look forward to, that the thin mattresses were where the kids huddled every night for cool bed-time stories told by real human and not machines, that the eggs cracked into my simple noodle were so fresh it was just taken from the hen, and most importantly, that young school kids (and adults for that matter) sharpening their pencils with primitive blades actually wore a huge genuine smile that radiates from within. 


Tiffany said...

when i read this, i think of you bmuses


B said...

Haha...cool stuff. I love Nietzche and I once saw this really funny post card from some Christian church and it's hilarious cos one said it says

"God is dead --Nietzche"

Then flip to the other side it said

"Nietzche is dead -----God"


Tiffany said...

lol omg, the church sign is extremely funny!! :P

Audrey said...

have been reading your blog. seems like u are lover of philosophical thoughts and experience..who is your favorite philosopher of all time?

B said...

Hi Audrey,

You're the first to ask me that. Hmmm...Nietzche used to be my favorite when I was still an angsty college kid and I actually read Thus Spake Zarathustra a couple of times haha...

But then as I grew, I'm starting to get less angsty though still very cynical, and I like Ann Rand a lot. She's not a philosopher so to speak cos she's more of a writer but her book The Fountainhead is one of my all time favorite book cos she weaved in a lot of philosophical views of hers in the story.

Now, I think my favorite is Buddha or rather, Buddhism text and scriptures are great :)


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