On hardships and birth lotteries

Inspired by my friend Winnie’s weekly posts, I’m trying to share more thoughts and publish some of my less polished writing. Ironically, after starting at Medium 3 years ago, my public writing frequency has declined. I hope this will change that.

I read Anchee Min’s memoir The Cooked Seed yesterday. It was a bit difficult to read because it made me think about my own life and how few hardships I’ve had compared to hers. I should be grateful, and I am, but how important are those hardships in shaping a person? As a parent capable of giving your child more, do you give your kids every privilege and opportunity, or do you have them experience hardships? If you have that option, is it truly a hardship? If someone spends a summer in a developing country in poor living conditions, it may be difficult, but they’re still just popping in for a summer. It almost highlights their privilege even more that they’re able to just experience those living conditions for a short while. They always have the option to leave.

When I spent my second summer in China, I was dating someone from Princeton who was interning at a bank as an analyst. The group I was with stayed overnight in a Chinese village, where we made dumplings with the old ladies, and slept 5 to a bed (it was a wide bed spanning a side of a room). The dumplings gave me diarrhea, so I spent much of the night squatted over a hole in the ground, but it wasn’t the first time that trip, so I was used to it. When I checked my email, my then-boyfriend described the lobster lunch he had had with a coworker that they billed to the company. If he worked late, he said, the company let him use one of the many private drivers to drive him all the way back to Connecticut (from NYC). The worlds were too different for me to wrap my head around, and when I returned, I felt like we had drifted apart and had nothing to talk about, so I broke up with him. Ironically, he had grown up with very little in China, and I had grown up in what he called the “lap of luxury” in Princeton, NJ.

When I left China, I thought I would be back the following summer. Maybe even for a year as a teaching fellow. The on-the-grounds direct experience of helping students was so tangible and rewarding to me. Students that in some ways were just like me, but so different too. Seeing their lives and their dreams and aspirations was inspiring but seemed incredibly unfair. Here were motivated, hard-working, intelligent students. Their dream was to study in the United States. That was my reality, and what had I done to deserve this more than they did?

I cringe when I see students who travel to developing areas for a few weeks, and treat it as a novelty. Their Facebook feeds are a hodgepodge of poor living conditions and 5 star hotels and gourmet meals. And as I say this, my own Facebook profile has pictures from the $400 meal my husband and I enjoyed at a Michelin-starred restaurant, so who am I to judge anyone else? When I had just returned from China and was experiencing some culture and sticker shock, I would have immediately thought, $400 could buy 3,200 baozi.

Instead of going back to China the following summer, I interned at Google in their New York office. I remember looking at the lunch menu one morning and seeing “Lobster stuffed with crab.” Seriously. They had run out by the time I headed upstairs for lunch because many people took more than one lobster (stuffed with crab). When my grandmother came to visit me at Google, my parents said they had never seen her eat so much. We stopped by the sushi cart for some hand rolls before going to main cafe, where she had a t-bone steak, seared tuna, and shrimp cocktail. “What’s the occasion?” she asked. I said it was like this everyday.

During the recession, tech companies cut back too. After all, engineers don’t really need lobster stuffed with crab to be productive at their jobs, and it was embarrassing and irresponsible to have such decadence during the economic downturn. Now, I go to work everyday at a startup with delicious catered lunch and an espresso machine worth more than my car. Neither of these are necessary, but they make people happy, and are considered par for the course for startup perks. But how much is too much?

How does one grapple with these injustices, this arbitrary lottery at birth? Do you leverage the advantages you are born into, and give back to improve the world later? Hope that your progress and hard work will trickle down and make more opportunities for more people? Or participate in more direct improvements, like going to teach somewhere for a year or two?

(Somewhat related: as a woman in the tech industry, I deal with similar conflicting feelings when I’m asked to mentor a group of high school girls or participate in more hands-on teaching. I feel guilty every time, but usually I say no. My vague personal justification is that I can do better for these girls by focusing on my own career, but I’m still not sure if that’s the best approach.)