Privilege. A word that seems to follow me through the streets as I pass beggars lifting their palms asking for a rupee or two, in the market place while bartering for an unreasonably low price, in a taxi cab on our way to and from an air-conditioned restaurant. With every decision I’ve made regarding where to eat or how to move from point A to point B, I can’t help but feel I’m only allowed to make that choice because of my privilege.
In the beginning, I felt like a visitor. Like a tourist passing through a zoo — peeking my head into different exhibits. ‘Ooing’ and ‘awing’. Walking past homeless women and children seated on the ground. I would turn a blind eye, keep my head down and do everything in my power not to engage. In the beginning, I put up a wall. I put myself on edge to get through the day — always tense and never comfortable with my surroundings. Limiting myself by not letting people in.
But the past 4 weeks have slowly eroded the wall I built, with every encounter a piece of the barrier chipped away. Now, I engage with the local women I pass along the streets — exchanging a smile as I blurt out one of the few Bengali words I kind of remember. Sumdur. Beautiful. The smile received is always what I hope for. The wall I put up was only there to make myself more comfortable — when in reality I was only limiting myself.
It’s natural to feel guilty or privileged while living in a developing country foreign to you — comparing what one has at home with the harsh reality of how 80% of the world lives.
The guilt and privilege I feel is because we are truly all the same. I was just lucky to have been born into my family — one that is able to support me through middle-school, high-school, and eventually university. I am lucky to have been dealt the cards I have been given, but that’s all it is. Luck. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling like I owe something to someone because of my privilege. I can’t help but feel like I must continue my education in order to have a better chance at serving others. I can’t help but feel that I have to make-up for the fact that I was given this life, and by doing so bettering the life of someone else — giving them an equal opportunity to succeed. Bettering the life of someone can range from donating money to enable a child to go to school, paying for their school supplies and books, to making the woman you pass on your way to work smile everyday. Personally, I do it for the smile. The smiles from the children we pass on the way to metro (here in India) when we stop and wave, to the smiles of homeless individuals in San Francisco who give me a toothless grin when I toss him/her a Cliff Bar.
Instead of feeling guilty, upon returning to the States I want to channel that energy into something else — something greater than myself. Using my feeling of possible guilt and privilege as a means of motivation, not a burden.
“Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” ~Mother Teresa