On Being Thankful and Recognizing Your Privilege

India-Jaipur-Street

When night fell on India, it engulfed everything. Street lanterns barely lit up the uneven sidewalks, auto rickshaws only occasionally turned on their headlights, and storefronts were so dimly lit that it wasn’t clear whether they were open or not. To walk here at night was to walk in a labyrinth of darkness with blinding bursts of light, a maze of mayhem that could not always be seen, but could most certainly be heard.

Horns beeped, cows mooed, train tracks rumbled, children shouted, and I, a tourist here in this vibrant and chaotic country, learned quickly to orient myself on stationary things at night. Things like the embers of a pile of trash burning in an alleyway or the flames licking the frying pan at a street food stall.

In India at night, it was either too dark or too bright. But one thing was always constant – the streets were filled with life. Almost too much life, in fact. Almost too much energy and too much frenzy to process.

Which is why, on my second night in New Delhi, I was all the more taken aback by what I saw under an overpass. Amidst all the chaos and commotion, amidst all the confusing sounds and overpowering smells, a leg dangled lifelessly over the side of a fruit cart.

At first, I thought the leg was a strange profusion that belonged to the cart, a handle or even a bag that was hanging over the edge. But as I looked closer, as I squinted my eyes in this darkest hour of night, I saw that it was a boy. A boy asleep on a fruit cart.

It’s been over a year since I saw that boy sleeping on the streets of New Delhi. Over a year since I saw the mud caked on his hollow checks and the grimace that contorted his exhausted face. And yet, the image is still as vivid as ever.

***

How could someone live like this?

It’s a question that’s followed me, a question that’s haunted and guilted me, since I returned from India fourteen months ago.

Sometimes, less often now than when I first returned, my thoughts drift back to that night. It usually happens while I’m riding on the subway to work in the morning or waiting in line at the grocery store. Sometimes, I also think about the shantytowns and the homes made out of nothing more than blue tarps propped up on sticks.

But there’s something about that second night in India that I can’t get over. Something that I’ll remember for some time to come. Because whenever I think of Delhi, I immediately think of that boy asleep on the fruit cart. And in my mind, his face is always dirty, always black.

Indian Blue Train

I write all of this because, as you’ve surely guessed by this post’s title, tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I feel like it’s time I touched on the topic of gratitude and privilege.

Hardly any other trip I’ve taken recently has put things into perspective so much. In fact, as I wrote shortly after coming back from India:

Riding the train through the slums of Delhi was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve had. After seeing people who lived on the tracks and were denied things as basic as a toilet, I realized that many of my problems were – put into perspective – not really that big of a deal at all.

And I still stand by those words today. Because really, I have it good.

For starters, I have a roof over my head, warm water to shower with, enough food to eat, and a toilet that flushes. It can be so easy to go through the motions and simply spout. I mean, it’s almost programmed into us here in the West to say how thankful we are for food, water, and shelter – you know, the big three.

But how often do we stop and remind ourselves what that really means? How often do we think about the fact that we don’t have to drink tainted water or go digging through the trash for our next meal?

For me, seeing the human face of poverty, seeing children collect plastic from train tracks in India or sleep on pieces of cardboard in Egypt, has driven it home. Because they’re not just numbers or statistics. They’re not just faces on the brochure of an NGO. They are real people. And as difficult as it is to take in, it’s something that I really should remind myself every single day – not just on Thanksgiving.

Fatehpur-Sikri-Orange-Scarf

But there’s something else that people tend to forget when they think of basic needs. Something else that India taught me to be grateful for. And that’s what I’m doing write now – reading and writing.

Being literate is something that seems so basic to me, so innate and instinctive, that I hardly even think about it. And, to be honest, it wasn’t until I met that taxi driver in Jaipur who was unable to read our hotel’s street address that I realized how much I take this skill for granted.

Imagine for a second what life would be like if you couldn’t read street signs or billboards, if you couldn’t check a menu for potential allergies, if you couldn’t write a quick text message to friends. If you’re reading this right now, chances are you have something that 17% of the world, or nearly one out of every five people, has still been denied – a basic education.

And it doesn’t stop there. I am privileged in so many other ways that I fear this post would never end if I went into detail.

I have the privilege of being white. I have the privilege of being a male. I have the privilege of being able-bodied. I have the privilege of being employed. I have the privilege of having (and being able to make use of) a first-world passport – something that allows me to travel freely and easily to most of the world.

kyoto-danny-golden-temple

I’d like to focus on that last point for a moment, because it’s something I haven’t talked about much on this blog before. I’ve made it no secret that I get upset when I hear that the majority of Americans don’t have a passport, despite the fact that – at the time of writing this – citizens of the United States enjoy visa-free travel to 155 countries.

And while I really do think that it would benefit my fellow countrymen to get out a bit more, there are also those for whom this is not an option. There are people with loans to pay off and family members to take care of and health issues that make travel impossible.

But you know what gets me worked up? I still hear the occasional travel blogger or expat say that they deserve to travel and live abroad, that everyone else could do the same if they just worked hard enough. But the fact is, that’s not really true at all, and to act otherwise is pretty arrogant, if you ask me.

Now, have I worked hard? You betcha. But am I entitled to this lifestyle? No, absolutely not!

I just happened to win the lottery – and I happened to win big. I was born in an industrialized nation and grew up in a system that benefited me because of things I had no control over.

So today, I don’t just want to be thankful for the things I have, but I also want to recognize the privileges I’ve been given. Which is why as often as I can, I will continue to remind myself of the boy asleep on the fruit cart and put things into perspective.

Because there’s no other way to say it – I really have it good.

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