More about what it means to be a gringa

To Steph, thanks for reading and responding with such a thorough and discerning probe. You’re right that I used a lot of hasty blanket terms (a few of which were tangled up in rhetorical devices, but, hey, we all have guilty pleasures). Hopefully this clarifies them all.

I’m making the bold assumption that Esther didn’t write her initial Huffpost article in 15 min while someone was straightening her hair, 3 different telenovelas were playing on the 3 tvs in a Tico carboardwalled house, and a skype convo with New Yorkers who just got power back after the storm was happening in the top left corner of her screen. So I owe her article, and your reactions to mine, the attentive, contemplative response they deserve.

Just like Esther’s article, your comment has prompted me to write a comment on a comment that is no longer a comment at all, but in fact an entirely new essay (I use that word here partly because I to love it, but mostly because it means “to try.” And I know that’s the only reason I write anything, to try to figure something out).

You say: “It seems that you and Esther are addressing many of the same points in different words. First, international volunteers have privileges; second, they ought to be aware of it; third, that understanding other people’s experience is crucial to achieving any sort of real human development. I would argue that is true no matter where we are on the globe.”

I agree that Esther and I agree on those points. But those three points are not simple ones. She and I were teasing out the nuances of them as per our own experiences. There’s overlap, but we’re not saying the same things.

“You’re right that some Peace Corps Volunteers are unaware of their privilege: they may suffer, but they can bear it and in two years be home in the comfort of “the first world”. Many others are aware of this, but it simply contributes to the guilt they feel, their urge for “moral masturbation” (as Esther herself puts it). You say: ““The worst thing anyone can do is pretend to understand what it’s like to live someone else’s life.” One of the real benefits of Peace Corps is that it creates global citizens who understand that very idea.”

I’d hope that all Peace Corps volunteers learn just how much they don’t know, and in the face of learning that still keep trying to learn more. It took me a long time to admit to myself that there were things I will never be able to understand. But as soon as I owned up to that I could start trying anyway. I love the Special Olympics motto, “let me be brave in the attempt,” and think it applies to so many situations, like this one.

“[As an aside, we could ask what you mean by “first world”, since the phrase in itself is full of hidden values, power structures, and ignorance of the problems in our own societies. We should all be aware that running water, electricity, heat, and snack food are artificial distinctions between first and third world these days, including in places volunteers serve.]”

I happen to loathe the term “first world” just as much as you seem to. I don’t know what it means and only use it because it seems to mean to others close enough to what I want it to mean. Which quickly leads me down the rabbithole of esoteric nonsense. So I’ll back up.

It’s interesting that you and several other readers got hung up on my use of it, since I’m far from the first and my use was far from unique. But it’s exciting that people are questioning and challenging generic and empty terms that trickle down from who knows where.  So I’m happy to start to try to figure it out, both what it means when I use it and when others use it.

I’m frustrated by anything that assigns numeric distinctions to things that deserve qualitative differentiation. First, second, and third seem like clear enough labels, what what to they apply to? I’ve spent my meager years hearing about the first and third world in the “media,” but where’s the second world? (Costa Rica seems like it could be, because it has elements of things that come to mind when I think of the first and the third worlds, but I’ve never heard it called that, and I don’t feel like I know it well enough to scramble out on a limb and assign it such a loaded label). I think the third world was here earlier so shouldn’t that make it the first, chronologically? Does it have something to do with geography? Race? Lifestyle? History? (I happen to think everything we experience in 2012 as “satus quo” (another infuriatingly empty term…) can be traced to imperialism). If there are three discrete sequential terms shouldn’t they correspond to three discrete (and ascending/descending) places- be they mental or geographical? If so where are the borders? Even if the borders dotted lines allowing for interpretation don’t they have to go somewhere?!

Of course heat, running water, and snack food are the superficial edges of what those of us in “developed nations” (geez, there’s another buzzphrase I’m recycling and should clarify) enjoy as inherent privilege. The values, power structures, and ignorance that prop up the first world are precisely what set “it” apart.

I as a citizen of the United States enjoy the incredible luxury of being able to write this and publish it online for inquisitive minds like yours to read. But such “freedom of the press” is meaningless without enough education to allow me to publish something that draws on history, current events, international governmental social programs, and is written in a mutually intelligible language (albeit sprinkled with irksome rhetorical tendencies). I also had to live in a place with enough healthcare and antibiotics to make it through all those fevers and ear infections I had before I turned two.

The first world seems to be infuriatingly like pornography; I can’t define it but I know it when I see it. I think the people who use these terms (myself included) use them because we recognize that life is incomprehensibly different in different places, and the terminology is an attempt to codify those differences.  Instead of saying, “when volunteers get back to a specific place in their home nation where current legislation permits them to participate in various levels of government, make use of stable infrastructure provided largely in part by that government they may have played some part in, use elements of that infrastructure to access education, health care, a stable supply of nutritionally varied food, fresh water, and diverse cultural expression, and benefit from various systems that attempt to provide safety, security and fair legal processes in the face of disputes,” I said “when they get back to the first world.” Heat, hot water, and Coca Cola are often indicators of the presence underlying elements of first world privilege.  But you’re right that these days those indicators can exist as red herrings in places where the underlying structures don’t.

I only used those superficial indicators to refer to the first world because Esther’s article was not one discussing the nature of terminology, but rather one, in part, discussing the particulars of tangible luxuries PCVs do or don’t encounter in their communities.

“While in the first part of Esther’s article we observe the slimy guts of Poverty Guilt laid out and stinking, I think she speaks to a reality that many volunteers face. You say: “Volunteering because you want to get something out of it is as selfish as treating your good fortune as a burden.””

I don’t know Esther, but she says, “I tell people I joined the PC to understand what it means to be poor. But that’s just part of the story. I joined the PC to figure out how to escape the guilt of having so much while others have to little.” I think it’s amazing that she has the courage to inhale the stink of the slimy guts of poverty and act on her desire to figure out how to manage her guilt, but her reasoning still makes my stomach turn. I stick to my personal belief that people who join the Peace Corps or volunteer for anything should do it because they are disgusted at the way their “having so much” has contributedto others “having so little.” (Again, I believe that our lives in 2012 are overwhelmingly shaped by a heritage of imperialism. But that’s a different discussion. Though not that different…)

“Do you really think it’s possible to do something for others without any selfish motivation?” 

Yes. Only because I’ve seen it. I don’t know if I’m entirely capable of it, but there are plenty of people who are. I have seen people walk up to a man who was smacking a woman on the subway platform and pin him to a wall and tell him to stop. I have seen couples liquidate their retirement funds and take in 2, 3, 4 foster children because they were appalled at the way the system treated kids. I’ve seen a lot of good done out of pure rage and indigence at the presence of mistreatment, good done immediately and unquestioningly, before the do gooders had time to consider what any personal gains might be.

“On a biological level, empathy and altruism themselves evolved because it conveyed some benefit to the reproduction of the organism. Many volunteers suffer precisely because they come to realize they have so little to offer. This is human nature. Call it selfish or not, it is what it is. It serves a purpose, if it causes a volunteer to reach out to others from her own culture about a foreign culture.”

Altruism is entirely separate from empathy. I agree that empathy is a part of human nature, but altruism (and the subsequent glorification of selflessness) is a by-product of the ways in which the Juedo-Chrisitian tradition was propagated and morphed for consumption by wealthy societies over the last two millennia.

Empathy may serve a biological species-preserving purpose, but what about sympathy? Does that do anything for anyone? When I said that the worst thing anyone can do is pretend to understand what someone else is going through, I was referring to sympathy. And the transition between the two is dicey. How long do I have to put myself in someone else’s shoes before my sympathy becomes empathy? That’s my bone with the Peace Corps; from the outside it looks like the program tries to accelerate the process of transforming sympathy to empathy.

“The issue with Maria is not WHY you jump in to save someone but recognizing that you can’t save her, because she’s just not in reach. If you fed Maria, would you do so purely out her suffering? I don’t think so. You would probably feel joy in watching her eat. You might feel guilt in not feeding her, like Esther.”

I don’t know what I would do in Esther’s situation with Maria.  I have been in my own share of moral dilemmas regarding having something someone else doesn’t, but I won’t go into the dangerous hypothetical zone of speculating what I would have done in this one.

I included in suggestion of feeding Maria the vein of KansasGuy’s comment: “When I got a package (thanks, mom!) I shared it. When my neighbors or host family got something special, they shared it, too. If I can get eyeglasses for old people, why wouldn’t I? Friends share with each other. My neighbor might have a big load of peaches. Should she not share them because I wouldn’t learn to get my own?”

“You would feed her because it would make you feel good, even if subconsciously, even if it might create issues for her later. I feel Esther made a brave choice: she chose to face the guilt and do what she felt was better for Maria over the long term.”

But if I had in fact given her food, I would probably feel terrible. I would probably be thinking about all those factors Esther addresses about friends, family and neighbors without food and about Maria’s long term well being. Esther’s choice is brave. But even though Maria’s long term “savior” might be beyond Esther’s reach, her immediate savior from one particularly bad day of hunger is reachable. KansasGuy’s point seemed to be that if that small problem is solvable while a larger one isn’t, does that mean you should let the smaller problem go unsolved? It gets tricky when the solving of the smaller problem might impede the solving of the larger one.

“Maybe Esther’s wrong, and she could save Maria, but we don’t know Maria and her family, so we can’t really say. You say, “The worst thing anyone can do is pretend to understand what it’s like to live someone else’s life.” What puts us, here, behind our computer screens, in a position to understand Maria’s situation better than Esther does?”

Nothing. I have no idea what it’s like for either of them.

“Is her experience negated because Esther is ostensibly wealthy and from our culture? I don’t see the value in that distinction. Putting “the poor” on a pedestal does little for anyone.”

What “experience” to you mean- her experience of poverty? Of being a volunteer?

I completely agree that “the poor” don’t belong on a pedestal. I also don’t know who “the poor” are. And my current preoccupation is with collecting individual narratives precisely because I feel like anytime I try to say anything about any group- one I’m a part of or not- I fall short. I can share stories of individuals I’ve met who would overqualify for the title of “poor” by all kinds of external definitions, but I still wouldn’t use that label for anyone, let alone a group. (Which is why I never used it in my article).

“I would argue that a great deal of good comes out of the world because people have the need to serve others, because they have the desire to do something to better themselves and make something of their lives – through serving others. Again, can we possibly do much of anything in the world without some benefit? In truth, we are all co-dependent on one another. It is neither wrong nor right. It is.”

I don’t know that people have the need to serve others. Mixed in with all the unquestioning good I’ve seen, I’ve also met more than enough people who seem to have no consideration whatsoever for the wellbeing of others- near or far. It’s precisely because we’re codependent and we know it that people have opportunities to break each other down and take advantage of one another. I also think that the burning desire to better oneself and make something of one’s life does not apply to everyone.

“Activist Lilla Watson expresses it perfectly: “If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.””

That’s a great quote, but I don’t know if it supports what you just said. I don’t know if people who want to do good and simultaneously make something of themselves actually realize how much the situation of one group (be it defined by a list of available resources, geography, or other parameters) is bound up the in the situation of another. I actually don’t know. I think that’s a superbly important question people should ask themselves as they go to volunteer- PC or otherwise.

If we wait on people “doing good” of their own altruistic impetus because they want to help, things will never change, and our codependent, intertwined process of liberation will remain stagnant. It is only when people get outraged and do “good” because it is absolutely morally unsupportable to not act, and they feel like they have to do something, that things get done.

“Additionally, you say: “Anytime people volunteer because even though they don’t want to and don’t feel like, but know it’s humanely unjust for members of our human race to be gravely suffering parallel to our comfortable bliss, that’s when they should keep volunteering.”

This statement presents a strange dichotomy: “grave suffering” and “comfortable bliss”. It might be an effective rhetorical tool but it only serves to perpetuate the structures of oppression that have existed for centuries between the “developing” and “undeveloped” countries. It’s not as if you cross some political boundary and life turns to suffering.”

I never intended the (unapologetically rhetorical) phrase “it’s humanely unjust for members of our human race to be gravely suffering parallel to our comfortable bliss, that’s when they should keep volunteering” to allude to any indication of political boundary. Acknowledging that some people are suffering and others aren’t and questioning why does not perpetuate historical structures of oppression. In fact, I think it might be a good starting point for discussion and action around undoing those structures.

That phrase was going back to Esther’s lake analogy. “Grave suffering” being the flailing-pre-drowning; “comfortable bliss” being standing on the shore neither flailing nor about to drown. The particulars of those positions can be applied to any an all situations where one person is having a tough time and someone really close by is doing fine. (New York politicians like to use the example of East 93rd St in Manhattan, where from the windows of the borough’s most expensive townhouses you can look into the windows of the southernmost NYC Housing Authority projects, where many residents live below the domestic definition of the poverty line and often don’t enjoy “first world” indicators like heat and hot water, let alone the benefits of underlying “first world” power structures).

If I want to help people (for any reason), I don’t have to go ANYWHERE. Comfort and discomfort are never far apart. But if we get too practical then everyone who wants to help people should just become a teacher/policeman/nurse in the community they grew up in. And then it becomes a discussion of why people in the “first world” (people in “a place where…”) feel like they have to “go somewhere” to have “done something.” I think this might relate back to an imperial heritage, to a cultural need to come back home with tales of glory. And you can’t come back home if you haven’t gone anywhere.

“I learned a powerful lesson over two years in Guatemala: it is possible to be happy with little, or unhappy with a lot. The people I met in Guatemala honestly were not much less happy than most of my friends and family in the US, including my Guatemalan husband living in the US — despite the political instability and high rates of violent crime. People – brown, white, yellow, poor, rich, and middle-class – largely adapt to the challenges in front of them as they can, and make smaller challenges bigger than they need to be. I’d like to know where all the “comfortable bliss” is, if that applies to all of us in the United States.”

When you say, “it is possible to be happy with little, or unhappy with a lot,” you introduce the idea of happiness, which was a term I intentionally avoided. Comfort does not equate to happiness. I can be warm and dry and well-fed and still miserable. Similarly, I can be dirty and underfed and quite content. Comfort is of course relative, but happiness is even more so.

Obviously not everyone living in the US enjoys “comfortable bliss;” again, that term was in reference to the analogical lakeshore. “Comfortable bliss” being the fact that I’m not drowning, whether “drowning” be living a life surrounded by violent crime (domestic or otherwise), or any other category of struggle for survival. I can be comfortably safe from drowning but still unhappy.

By no means is everyone in the United States on the lakeshore. Not by a long shot. Which is again why no one needs to go anywhere to help someone who’s at the point of drowning.

“I won’t argue that there aren’t some people deeply suffering in the world, many of whom are outside the “industrialized” nations, but a 20-something from the US with a college degree is hardly in a place to directly help those most in need — in fact, who is? 30 years of failed development has taught us a few things about our assumptions.”


“My point is, we primarily think of the “poor” in the world as suffering because that is our own instinct. Everyone has a different idea of the “good life”. It is human nature, for some more than others, to “help” people by imposing your own value system on them. We judge their situation, often times using our deepest sympathy, based on our own needs, habits, and feelings. What makes toilet paper better than corncobs? A composting latrine better than a flush toilet? Diarrhea worse than diabetes? In judging people in “poverty” as suffering, we are imposing our own cultural framework and often times doing harm to others, at worst, and at best, acting ineffectively by misidentifying their needs and wants.”

I agree that it is human nature for one group to impose its values on another (here comes imperialism again!), but I don’t agree that such an imposition of a value system is tied to “helping” anyone (Things Fall Apart as the most eloquent articulation of intended helping turned intentional hurting).

I never made any indication that I think that “the poor” are “suffering.” No imposition of any value system is needed to know that if someone is starving she is suffering. If I want to feed Maria it’s not because I’m imposing any cultural framework or putting her on some impoverished pedestal; it’s because she’s hungry. And being hungry sucks.

I’m not sure where I mentioned that a particular waste management system was superior or more desirable or that one illness is inherently graver than another. My article was purely in response to Esther’s, and from the description of Maria’s need for food I made the assumption that she- and members of her community- were suffering. With or without any label of poverty.


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