Technology, Innovation, Impact. Humor on the side.
We didn’t go on international trips too often, but, whenever we did, my parents would encourage my siblings and I to dream up and execute some sort of community service project. One time, we spent an entire day getting loads of groceries and cooking large vats of food to feed the local homeless. Another time, we raised money States-side and bought all the children at a refugee camp Christmas gifts. I never really comprehended or appreciated it at the time, but these simple acts of service made our vacations more than just vacations — they were learning experience and a healthy dose of perspective.
Even when I travel sans-family now, I try to keep with this little tradition. In years past, I’d always come home from these trips feeling smug about having done some good and then quickly put it out-of-mind and settled back into my normal routine. But, as I’ve transitioned from child to adult, I’ve found my trips to be more eye-opening and my returns home to be more restless than restful.
A few weeks ago, I came back from an epic trip to Thailand. Yes, my friends and I did some of the rather touristy things — we saw temples and landmarks, rode elephants and took a cooking class, ate pad thai galore, etc. But, I’d also arranged for some volunteering at a rural school in the mountains and interactions with local craftsmen and tea-leaf farmers. The school we volunteer taught at was awful: the teachers were more concerned with playing with their phones and wandering in and out of classrooms to gossip with other teachers than actually teaching these students and controlling their classrooms. The kids were all the children of local rice farmers and it seemed as though everyone had already given up on them… All of this was rather unsettling with me.
Equally unsettling was how indifferent many travelers were to larger problems. Here we were – in a foreign country so rich in cultural splendor – and yet there were so many tourists who couldn’t seem to open their senses wholeheartedly to this. They complained about the slow internet, the lack of air conditioning everywhere, how dirty the streets were, etc. I can understand culture shock, but I just presumed that after a few days people would start seeing the greater picture. Thailand is a developing nation, and you certainly can’t expect it to have the same infrastructure and amenities everywhere as the highly developed country back home. It seemed like such a shame that so many of these travelers felt most comfortable lounging in luxurious beach-side resorts, where the single nightly room-rate (incredibly cheap to the traveler, given exchange rates) could feed a local family for a month. This is where I felt least comfortable: the barrier and distinction between traveler and local was just too great.
In the States/developed world, we hear about the rising costs of college education and there are no shortage of start-ups in the ed-tech space (e.g. – Khan Academy, Udacity, Coursera) trying to increase access to free education/classes online. And yet, the people who would benefit most from such resources don’t actually have the ability to access these resources (e.g. – don’t have access to a computer, or stable internet, or lack computer literacy). On the other hand, too many people in the developed world take their access to education fore-granted: taking the easiest courses available to them to boost their GPA instead of challenging themselves in difficult classes that align to their interests, choosing careers based on monetary reward or prestige points rather than pure passions, etc.
When I returned back home from Thailand, I felt legitimately rattled. My life was so cush, with opportunities and comforts (like access to education) that I had taken so fore-granted. I felt like I wasn’t really doing anything substantial with my life given the opportunities I was given (comparatively). I also didn’t know how to go back to my normal life without also figuring out a way to help others in any substantial way. International volunteering while vacationing is great, but the impacts don’t always last over time or trickle elsewhere.
This is the problem with the human condition: there will always be people with less than you; there will always be someone else suffering; and, no matter what you do — you can’t help everyone. How do you become comfortable with that?
When I was previously living in Manhattan, I was annoyed by the opulence and distinct line between the socialites of the Upper East side and the average New Yorker and the dozens of homeless wandering through the city. I would watch Wall Streeters in their fancy suits pass homeless beggars without so much as flinching or a second thought. I’m not trying to justify their actions, but perhaps that’s the human coping mechanism: you go on living in your bubble because as soon as you look outwards you can no longer function in good conscience. Just as travelers return home from exotic vacations in developing nations — to their comfortable (relatively speaking) life, to their amenities galore, to no food-shortage, access to fresh drinking water, and a job/school waiting for them — and put the pains of locals out of mind… perhaps the Manhattan elite consciously choose to be blind to the struggles of their fellow man a few blocks away because they don’t know how to help or break the Catch-22?
I ask again — how do you become comfortable with that? It’s a question I don’t have an answer to, though I’m all ears to any suggestions.