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Monday, January 6, 2014

What's it Like in America?

What's it Like in America?
A while back, Mrs. Done by Forty had lent a little money to a woman she's been working with in Peru. She's been working off the debt bit by bit, and this woman invited my wife to lunch at her house yesterday. They went to the market together and bought ingredients, including the meat, from the open air market. They were making lomo saltado together, and the total cost was seven Soles (about $2). To save money on housing, the woman lives with her family outside the city limits, where the city just turns to a desert and there aren't really permanent structures, per se. The houses are made of reed mat walls and reed roofs: kind of what we might describe as a shanty town, since the structures aren't permanent. But I don't mean that in any derogatory way. To them, it's just their homes.

Her husband was asleep when they arrived, as he works the night shift at the bus station. The family doesn't have much, but they do have a ten week old puppy. This is like the greatest possible temptation for my wife: I am sure she'd have left me waiting at the altar if there was a puppy in the back row. The family was surprised that Mrs. DB40 was so interested in playing with the puppy, which, in their culture, isn't supposed to be the center of attention. "You sure like that animal, don't you?" they asked. Pets are treated very differently in Peru than in America.

At the house, there was no city water. The water they cook and wash and flush their toilet with is just in big buckets. A simple act like washing hands was kind of an ordeal.

The woman is a cook at a restaurant, so family just kind of shows up when she's cooking. Different members of the extended family arrived during the meal prep. The restaurant is actually just in her house: there is a little bar and some chairs which customers come up to. And the house is kind of more "outside" than in, with a courtyard and two different buildings: one for the kitchen and one for the bedroom, with the whole property surrounded by a reed fence.

Mrs. Done by Forty brought some American candy for the son, who was crazy excited about the prospect of sweets from the states. He was so kind, too, sharing the candy with the family and even trying to get Mrs. Done by Forty to eat some. Their favorite: Whoppers. It turns out when you're Peruvian and poor, you don't have a lot of experience with "malt", and malt is kind of a hard concept to explain with limited Spanish skills.

The conversation then turned to how much this candy costs in the States. (They were flabbergasted by the price when converted to Soles.) As you might imagine, they then wanted to know cost of everything else. How much can you make as a doctor? As a lawyer? As a teacher? How much does college cost? How much is rent?

Mrs. Done by Forty explained that while everything costs more in America, people do make more, and this kind of evens things out for most people. A lot of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Still, the family rightly noticed from the figures that you could do pretty well in America if you had the right job and managed costs. They then discussed the possibility of sending one of the family members to America.

How do I get to America? And what does it cost to do that? What paperwork do I need to get there? Can I go to college? What happens after college?

My wife told them that, sometimes, college kids go to Europe after graduation, and just travel around for a few months. Some kids even take a year off, backpacking. The idea of traveling around Europe after earning a degree, instead of working, was inconceivable to them. Not only for the actual costs, which are astounding enough, but also for being away from work for months at a time. Opportunity costs were very real to them. I think the notion of paid vacation might also be a totally new concept. The family spent the rest of the meal eating lomo saltado and learning everything they could about America...trying to figure out if it was possible to send one of their own, someway.

I know this is kind of a rambling story, but I tell it only because it struck me how this family viewed our country. America is this unimaginably desirable, almost dreamlike place that is still totally inaccessible to them. In America, people earn enough to pay really high rent and buy expensive groceries, and maybe send their children to college to be doctors and then, somehow, to Europe. And they still have enough left over to buy Whoppers candy to give to the little ones.

It broke my heart a little, hearing about this conversation because my mom would always tell me the same sort of thing. That she was really lucky to be able to come to America, and I that was really lucky that I was growing up in Pennsylvania, and not in the Philippines, like she did, in a single room house on a dirt floor. That my cousins, her brothers' and sisters' kids, had so much less than I did that I wouldn't believe it if she described it to me. Most of the time I just rolled my eyes because I was just some stupid kid. I knew nothing.

My words aren't really capturing much here, but I figure it's as a good a time as any to really try to feel gratitude for where we live. To realize how lucky we are. We have all won the lottery just by being born in this country, with flushing toilets that you don't need to haul water for, and walls that don't fall over if you lean on them, and disposable income to buy things or go places, just for fun. I am lucky, in an incomprehensible way, just to be here. God bless our little lives. God bless America.


*Photo is from Seattleye at Flickr Creative Commons.

66 comments:

  1. Yeah. In the States we like to talk about the 1%. But we often forget that even those in poverty here would still be considered in the top 10% worldwide. Not to say their needs are diminished, but it certainly is incomprehensible. Lottery numbers. Something to be thankful for every day. So thank you, Mr. DbF, for the needed perspective.

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    1. Thanks, MSquared. I know we've talked about that 1% issue before -- tricky issue because it depends on how wide we make the circle, so to speak. It's possible that just about everyone reading this blog is in the global 1%.

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  2. Awesome little story, I don't think you were really rambling! It's always interesting to hear stories like this and the differences between the cultures. Like you said, just being born in America you've basically won the lottery so putting things in perspective is always important. Many of the little things that we take for granted you have to realize other people struggle through the same tasks.

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    1. Thank you for commenting, Debt Hater. I like the name, and we're similarly anti-debt here! I'll stop by your blog and check it out.

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  3. DB40,

    Good story. It's easy to take things for granted. But an average middle class American today lives better than almost everyone who has ever lived and died over the last 2+ centuries throughout humanity. Thought Julius Caesar lived well? I live infinitely better than he did with my personal car, 900 sq. foot living quarters with a refrigerator, oven, HVAC and running hot water, modern medicine, the internet, access to food from all over the world at my fingertips, a cell phone, clothing, etc. People get too caught up in looking at their neighbors and comparing themselves instead of looking at the billions of people in the world that are currently living in poverty, pollution and starvation.

    Best wishes!

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    1. Well said, Dividend Mantra. I get why people make comparisons with the family across the street, as that's the basis for comparison that they see everyday. But it's good to look farther away, too.

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  4. I don't have anything to add but I just wanted to say thanks for this story!

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  5. I feel like your words captured a lot, DB40. It's amazing how rich and full our lives are - and how we cannot take it for granted. Thank you so much for sharing.

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    1. You're welcome, Kali. Life here is pretty darned good.

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  6. It is so true that we are very lucky and privileged to live here/be born here. It's quite humbling when you realize what others would give to be in our position. We may complain about increasing prices, but it's amazing what we *can* afford compared to others. Thanks for sharing this!

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    1. You bet, EM. It's humbling to see how many comments are along those lines of gratitude. I'm a lucky blog writer.

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  7. Thanks for the dose of gratitude - it's great motivation not to take our opportunities for granted and squander them on too many whoppers.

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    1. Yes, but a few Whoppers are probably in the budget somewhere. :) Thanks for the comment, Emily!

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  8. Great article! Many people here in Romania have the same opinion about the US and I am sure that most of them would love to at least visit it (I sure want to). Although it seems that here is not as bad as it is in Peru, for most families it's still an impossible dream and something like a promised land to live in America.

    And regarding your closing statement that you've been lucky to have been born in the US, we use to say here that we were born in the wrong place. So yeah, that might be true. :)

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    1. I thought of you when I was writing this, C, as you're one of the few regular commenters from abroad. I wondered if folks in Romania have a similar perspective to the family in the story.

      For what it's worth, we are very interested in living in Eastern Europe sometime later in life. We're planning on visiting that area later this year: Budapest, Prague, Berlin, and Krakow (though everything's still up in the air).

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  9. Americans have no idea what poverty is like until they go to a third world country. Thanks for sharing DBF, Americans are truly one of the luckiest in the world.

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    1. You have that right, Charles. The next time I feel like complaining, I need to step back and remember.

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  10. Oh perspective.... You know, sometimes I get down caring for my sick kitty - trying to find something that he will eat, making sure that his meds are all adjusted properly, ensuring that he's getting enough fluids, is his drinking fountain filter clean, am I doing enough for him...

    Then I have to stop and remind myself that he's living better than the vast majority of humans on this planet, to say nothing for the many, many luxuries that I enjoy. We've got nothin' to complain about... nothin!

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    1. You know it! And God bless you for taking care of that animal, EcoCatLady. There was more to the story that I didn't include, but it involved a tiny, tiny 5 week old kitten that Mrs. Done by Forty passed on the street. It followed her and she had to keep picking it up when she had to cross a street, so it wouldn't get trampled, and everyone was giving her looks like, "Why are you carrying that thing?" She had to eventually ditch it but we were VERY close to owning another animal.

      Anyway, I won't keep going on about it but wanted to say thank you for taking care of so many animals.

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    2. You're so sweet, but I'm no saint when it comes to animal rescue - I've only got 4, and have told the Cat Fairy in no uncertain terms that the inn is full so she'd better not leave any more homeless babies on my porch! Seriously, I don't know how people who rescue dozens of animals do it, I just don't have the emotional fortitude.

      I hope that little kitten made it - it just breaks my heart to see an animal in need. Sigh.

      Thanks again for the gratitude reminder.
      -Cat


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    3. Only four! You slacker. :) That's like infinity more cats than we have rescued. I don't care what you say...you're a saint.

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  11. A little travel close to the ground (and the open sewer) is good for eye-opening. American pets do eat better than many humans.

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    1. Well said, 101 Centavos. There's a lot to be gained from getting out of the American paradise for a while.

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  12. I knew as soon as I read the title of this post that I'd be bawling at some point during it (although the part about Mrs. DB40 leaving you at the altar for a puppy gave me some serious giggles. :-) ). Thank you, SO MUCH, for reminding me how very, very lucky we are to live here - even with massive amounts of debt.

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    1. You're welcome, Laurie! Your comment really made my day. Not that I wanted to make you cry, but it's pretty rare to get to know that the little words you wrote had an impact. So, thank you, friend!

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  13. Thanks so much for sharing this. A friend of mine spent a summer in Brazil "with the people" and commented on many of the same things you and your wife have mentioned.

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    1. I heard about the coolest volunteer charity in Brazil, where people from towns go to the post office and answer the letters to Santa from poor residents, and give out gifts to the kids there. It breaks your heart to hear some of the things they ask Santa for: like food, or a job for their father.

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  14. Great story, thanks for sharing! My wife is Chinese, but born and raised in Central America. Her parents ran a restaurant and worked pretty much everyday...saved all their money so that the kids can go to school here in the US. I definitely understand how fortunate I am to be born here. Many don't realize the privilege.

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    1. That's a great story, Andrew. On some level, I think the children probably can't really comprehend some of the sacrifices that immigrant families make for their kin, to make a better life for them.

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  15. I grew up on the border with Mexico, and I think that made me a bit more sympathetic to folks living in Mexico - and poverty in Mexico. I don't think most Americans realize how good we have it until they've visited a 3rd world country (or even "2nd world"). And unfortunately, the ability to travel to see that is beyond the means of many of the folks who would benefit the most from it.

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    1. Good point. There's some weird irony in that.

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  16. Your story reminds me of when I was 10 and I went with my father and a group of people to help build a one room house for a family in Tijuana. I couldn't believe that people were living in cardboard shacks so close to the US border. Now I sometimes travel to Nogales, MX for work and I still see cardboard and sheet metal shacks just 5 minutes from the border. Makes me appreciate how fortunate I am every time.

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    1. I've spent some time in the border cities in Mexico, too, Daizy. It really is a trip to see how different things get just a few miles south. What sort of work takes you there?

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    2. One of our manufacturing plants is there. It is really interesting to be able to work and get to know the people who work there. For instance, I noticed large tanks on top of the houses. At first I thought, water harvesting? But that would be the wrong place for a tank. They told me that the city supplied water is only on for certain times during the day so everyone has a water tank on the roof so that they have gravity fed water available when the water is shut off. How strange to me and normal for them.

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    3. Kind of a cool way to have a backup water system, too. In the event of a prolonged problem with water from the city, those people are probably a lot better situated to deal with that than most Americans would be.

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  17. I think it's hard for most Americans to imagine being born in another country, and because of that it's hard for us to grasp just how much opportunity there is here. Even with travel and passports - can you really imagine not being able to travel freely around the world like a US passport allows you to? Such a hard concept for people to grasp. Really appreciated the story you shared.

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    1. Thank you, DC. I hadn't really considered that, but even the passport that allows us to see other cultures is a totally awesome benefit. Just one more thing I take for granted.

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  18. Love this story, Mr. Db40 - it really is crazy how we can easily take things for granted, when really (for the most part), we're in huge abundance with even the "little" things like candy in comparison. Such a great reminder to feel grateful about all the opportunities that we can have access to in the U.S.!

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Anna! While being sensitive to the needs in our own country, in general, we have abundance all around us here. At least I do...I need to be constantly thankful for all that.

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  19. Ironic that you express so much love for your country on this site but not elsewhere.

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    1. Where else should I express it?

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    2. You encourage gocurrycraker to act against US national interest and US law. You profess a love for your country but only when it is convenient.

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    3. Ha! Because I think it's fine for a blogger to visit Cuba, that means I don't truly love my country? Those are some pretty broad strokes to paint with based off of a random blog comment. So all it takes is breaking a law to prove you don't love America? I sure hope you've never driven over the speed limit!

      But you're certainly entitled to your opinion. That's another great thing about this country though: anyone can speak his mind.

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    4. If you can't see the difference between violating the speed limit and violating the embargo against Cuba, I can't help you.

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    5. Well then it seems Australia is even a luckier country, cause we CAN go to Cuba (and I have). Actually - that was my comment to DB40 - I often find it interesting that the US is so upbeat, mainly in light of the healthcare that isn't truly universal and the very high cost of tertiary education compared to parts of Europe/UK and Australia.

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    6. I hadn't thought about it like that, Sarah. We don't have universal healthcare or affordable tuition. Still, I do feel pretty lucky.

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    7. Rightfully so, things *are* pretty good in the US, and your consumer goods are repeatedly cheaper than here in Aust, but we do have a higher 'basic' wage and an economy built less on tips too.

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  20. Really awesome story! Stuff like this really makes you put things in perspective huh? It can be so "tough" when we can't go on that big vacation this year, right? Look, there are people who really and truly struggle in this country. It is not all rainbows and sunshine. But the reality is that most of us really have it very good, and even more of us would have it good if we took the time to make slightly better decisions.

    On another note, I enjoyed your little exchange with "Anonymous" just above me. People man. People.

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    1. Thanks so much for the comment, Matt. I should have touched on the fact that there really are people who suffer in this country...kind of glossed over that wrinkle. On the whole though, we have it good, like you say.

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  21. This is a great story. I've often heard that "poor people" in American aren't really even poor and that's true when you consider how people live around the world. People in 3rd world countries may not have access to any water or any food, where poor people in America do have access to some social services and welfare programs that will feed them at the very least.

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    1. Yeah, not to discount the way the poor live in this country, there are a lot of programs here to help at least mitigate the suffering.

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  22. It's so easy to take for granted what we have here because most of us don't have anything to compare it to. I can compare the small apartment I live in now to the house I grew up in which was bigger and more comfortable, and think "oh poor me." but that's nothing really. It's good to keep that in perspective and I think stories like this do that.

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    1. Thanks, Tonya! Plus you can always compare the awesome beach you have in SoCal to the lack of beach we have here. Poor me!

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  23. I've never been outside the USofA, so it's a bit difficult to comprehend. But I've read enough fine stories like this to appreciate the opportunities that I've been provided. Stuff like this always brings back a healthy perspective on life, work, and everything in between. Great stuff

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    1. That's a really kind comment, Jacob. Thank you for that. It's fantastic to hear such nice things about something I wrote.

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  24. In comparison, I think people often say the same about America vs NZ - people come here for the lifestyle, it's a lot more relaxed and the environment is beautiful and there are lots of outdoors things to do but it's a lot more expensive. I felt guilty often travelling through SE Asia and telling locals about where we were from and what life was like, knowing most of them will never leave their own country and how hard their daily struggle is.

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    1. Interesting! Do people in New Zealand feel bad for Americans?

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  25. Very interesting story. People pretty much do whatever it takes to get by everyplace in the world. I find it interesting that you can feed a whole family and then some with $2, but that is a good example of the cost of living (CoL) in rural Peru. And then of course, wages kind of go hand-in-hand with the CoL. Unfortunately, that leads them to view anyplace with higher wages as being dreamily desirable.

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    1. I think they see an opportunity for geographic arbitrage in reverse. If a family member in the States sends home even a small percentage of his pay, it's a huge boon for the family: potentially enough to send another, and repeat the process.

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  26. This post definitely strikes some chords with me. First off, my mom came over to America from the Philippines, too, and she wouldn't stop talking about how "lucky" I am and how grateful I should be. I didn't really believe her until I actually visited the house she was raised in. Many people around the globe live on much less than we do. It's easy to forget that when you're living it everyday. But when you step outside your reality, you can't help but be grateful.

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    1. Hi, Lisa. I'm a little ashamed to say that I've never been to the Philippines. It's on the list, but wish I had a better connection to that side of the family. It's great that you were able to see the home your mother grew up in.

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  27. Thanks for sharing your story. I remember spending a few days on my Alternative Spring Break trip in college in a "shanty town" in Juarez, Mexico and volunteering at a local women's community center. We were staying in the home of someone who was considered "well off" because their home was made of cinderblock with a roof, hard floors, and electricity (but no running water and no full walls). The house was actually illegal as they were technically squatters too. To see people work so hard and be happy with what they had was kind of astounding.

    It's good to be remembered of these situations so it can give us clarity when we start complaining unnecessarily about the small stuff.

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    1. That's a pretty cool way to spend a spring break, Tara. I'd love to do something like that.

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  28. I've been thinking about this a lot lately...how lucky we are. Like we won just by being BORN in this part of the world. How insane is that? And then I think of all the mothers with babies born in poverty or even worse, war torn countries, and I cry. I just want to help them all. It really makes me stop and think when I have a "problem." My problems are nothing. I really hope they are able to send a family member here.

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    1. It really does break your heart to hear how so many people live abroad. I'm hoping that family can send one of their own here...but it's a long shot.

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