Thursday, April 19, 2012

Playing at Poverty 2

Boxcarkids is a blog I follow for the economic analysis it regularly provides, and for the insight it gives into how our current economic disaster has affected one family. The writing is very good, and I read the personal posts feeling not a little like a voyeur. I am lucky enough to not know anyone personally whose life has been torn apart by the current recession. I am also fortunate enough to have forced myself to play at poverty for 2.5 years after college, living in the developing country my parents grew up in. Sometimes the bog makes me think about those years. Take for instance her recent post on living 5 people to a trailer.
I have seen how living in such cramped conditions, with no personal space or privacy, has contributed to the deterioration of our cohesiveness as a family.  We do not, for the most part, enjoy each other’s company.  We tolerate it.  We all breathe a sigh of relief and expand a bit when one of the kids has a play date, or even better, a sleepover at another house.  We move a bit easier, with one less person to maneuver around. 
I remember living in very tight conditions during my years abroad. I remember returning to the states, culture shocked and angry about the inequality before me, feeling physically uncomfortable with the largeness of the first bedroom in grad school. The years have unruffled my feathers and I haven't really thought about space constraints and living conditions for years.

I want to be clear that I am not trying to compare poverty in the US with poverty in my parent's homeland. I think it can't be done, certainly not outside a peer reviewed paper with rigorous metrics. So much of poverty is context. (Is a person financially poor, or lacking social capital? How much violence is in a person's daily life? What services are available, either for purchase or state provided. What are the societal expectations of "wealthy" which determines whether or not someone feels poor.) For instance, when my father claims that a family we know are wealthy because they had a good computer and fast internet, I point out that they are 7 adults living in a an apartment the size of a spacious 1 bedroom apartment, or a small 2 bedroom apartment in most cities in the US.

By my own arguments, I am being disingenuous. Extended families in that country are still the norm. It is rare for a child to have their own room, or even a room separate from a parents' room. While there is definitely some resentment of the amount of parental involvement in a teenager's or adult's life, the fierce independence that Americans value appears bizarre, if not outright wrong.

During my years living in my parent's homeland, I lived in these conditions. But I was young, used to living in dorms and in shared housing, sharing space did not bother me. In subsequent visits, I've put up with friends for several weeks, living three adults in a space the size of my current office. Because of different cultural norms, and because of my friends' uncanny ability to respect emotional privacy without having any physical space, the conditions where not unpleasant. But I was visiting. I knew it would be over eventually. That made all the difference in the world.

Eight years after my return to the US, as a less angry angry person, I try to imagine living five to a trailer. I try to imagine shifting to that life, after growing up in a household where not wanting to share your parent's bedroom as a child is not acceptable or weird. I try to imagine it with no end in sight. I don't like what I see.

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