It isn’t until I try to explain to them that it hit me.
I am back in the US for the first time in a couple years. For the most part, the weird part is that it isn’t very weird. But little things keep cropping up. Being in the same time zone as most of my friends and family. Giant, empty-seeming grocery stores. Personal space; I keep standing too close the people in line at the store.
As I handed a bag of tea to my good friends, I was filled with memories. The market in Jodphur, India’s blue city. Being asked to sit down, to have some tea before any mention of shopping was made. Talking to the salesman about his family (married, with two kids), his religion (Islam) and his pricing tactics (charging tourists who came in groups 3-4 times the price). Of course, he wanted to sell me something, and of course he did, but it wasn’t the cold transaction of the ringing cash register.
And that’s what I couldn’t explain. They didn’t understand what I was trying to tell them. They didn’t—and couldn’t—listen. For those who’ve lived in developed countries their entire lives, commodities are an interaction-less experience. The tea I gave them was nice, but it was simply another flavour of what they could buy in the grocery store.
But for me that wasn’t it at all. My gift, simple as it was, was meant to be a small distillation of my experiences. The tea was an emblem of the gift, not the gift itself.
And that’s the biggest difference between life as a traveler and life in the developed world. There’s a richness of interaction and experience that every traveler quite easily can find. The same worlds do exist, probably, in the west, but they are much smaller in scope and selective in membership. (Here I’m thinking of the various subcultures where people can find like-minded hobbyists and activity partners, be it running, LARPing, needlework, or what have you.)
There is a trade-off. Life in the US seems so easy. The streets don’t have potholes, there are trash collectors, the grocery stores are bountiful and laden with bigger jars of pickles and packages of tortillas than any 4 people could need. The restaurants serve portions that could feed a small ox. It feels unsustainable, but it’s quite refreshing. It is, in fact, like playing a video game with a cheat code.
I’m not saying people in the US and other parts of the developed world have easy lives. Everyone I know has to work hard for a living, and no one has it easy. But they have advantages that people in other countries would be pretty happy to play with. In essence, they are playing with a cheat code permanently enabled, or on difficulty setting of “very easy.”
The problem with playing with a cheat code for too long is that you start to take it for granted. This leads to decadence—foodies, elitists, snobs of all sizes. It’s hard to take a food snob seriously when you’ve seen people starving, old men and small children close to death because they don’t have enough food. This layer of artificial is another difficult part of my return.
I am only in the US for a few months. My cheat code has an expiration date, and I’m not too worried about it corrupting me. But it does seem a major problem. How can we bridge the disconnect? In a world where the Veronica Mars kickstarter got millions (millions that people less entertainment oriented-might have sent to better, life-saving causes) how do bring the worlds of the haves and have-nots closer?
Maybe that’s the cheat code that we really need to work on developing.