on being a world citizen
Earlier tonight, my roommate and I talked a bit about a debate that was happening on Twitter about traveling and privilege. It was an interesting conversation, and while I had much to say about the discussion at hand, I wasn’t exactly in the conversation and I knew my response was going to far exceed 140 characters. And, well, I’m sick and just initiated a major life change today–with another big day tomorrow. So, I decided I wouldn’t get all worked up and would watch some old television shows instead. Besides, as I thought about it, I realized my own feelings had a few million layers–and I couldn’t agree with anyone, really.
The kerfuffle apparently came about due to some discussion about booking an around the world trip. There was some sort of discussion about whether or not traveling was just for the elite. The argument was whether or not everyone could travel the world, if they set goals and worked hard. Many people disagreed a lot with that idea–stating that poverty often made that impossible.
For the most part, I’ve shared my story here. I was born–a blue-eyed, redheaded nerd–in Denver, CO in the late 70s. My dad was an alcoholic who never graduated high school–despite being brilliant. He mostly worked temporary jobs because his addiction made stability impossible. My Mama was a recovering alcoholic who got pregnant and kicked out of school at the age of 13. The baby died during childbirth, and my Papa gave her an ultimatum: work or get out. So, she got a job as a salad girl at a local hotel cafe. And then she did maidwork–for about 40 years. She inherited my Papa’s work ethic–only instead of backbreaking labor on the railroad, Mama cleaned up after other people’s filth. Never once complaining.
As a kid, my parents were big on school. I learned how to read and write before I ever stepped foot in one. My parents would drill me with ideas and formulas. Numbers, colors, words. Because I could be someone. They believed in me. And I sucked up knowledge like it was my job. School became my job, and every day, I worked hard to get to college–despite our $330/month income. I knew I could do it, but it would all be on me.
Going to college meant I had a chance. It meant that, despite everything, I could be a contributing member of society–that I might be able to be one of those happy people who had enough. Middle class.
It didn’t matter if I had ratty clothes or not enough food to eat or a family history of dysfunction/illiteracy. I had my goals and my hard work. And those things could change my life. I could change my life.
I believed that. Try as I might, even today, I still do. It’s why I do everything I do. It’s why I keep going. Because I want to believe I am more than the bullshit I inherited.
And I did it. I went to a decent school, worked three jobs while taking 21 credits each semester (plus summer session), had a mild breakdown, got over it, and thrived. I graduated and got to work. For someone else. Doing things to make ends meet. And I was miserable.
No one tells you what happens after you do the impossible. No one tells you how hard it is to be the outsider–to be the trailblazer. To lose your entire support system and to no longer be the special one.
No one tells you how infinitely unfair it is to move mountains when other people don’t even have to blink. No one tells you how that anger will live inside you your entire life. How that fear will change your choices and keep you broke–no matter how much education you receive. That a college education doesn’t make you special. That you’ll still be broke, only now it’ll feel even more unfair.
It would have been a lot easier to just get pregnant and find a nice boy.
But I’ve never been a victim. I’m resilient. I fight. I keep going. It’s a badge of honor.
Sometimes, I wonder why.
I worked my $10/hour jobs far longer than a college graduate should. I put up with every indignity known to man–still do. No one tells you that poverty changes who you believe you can be, and that–deep down–no amount of goal setting can change who you are inside. They don’t tell you that it doesn’t matter what’s in your wallet–except it absolutely does.
See…you can keep going and going and going–in some quest to not be a victim of circumstance–and end up right there simply because…in avoiding the victim dance…you don’t know what you actually want. And thus, poverty wins again–depriving you of a rich, full life that’s yours and not something you’ve inherited. They don’t tell you that, as soon as you achieve anything, you’ll become the thing you’ve hated your entire life: a member of the privileged. And that the self-loathing will also limit who you can be.
I was lucky. I had people around who believed when I didn’t–even if they had no clue how to help me. I was also a resilient person who knew how to think and questioned everything. My college education afforded me that, but so did my genetics and a wandering spirit that taught me to seek what I needed from the world. So, I did.
But sometimes, it took me an extraordinarily long time to get there. And to be okay with life when the there was mine.
Mostly because, despite my loving parents, the reality is? I had very little money ever in my life, and I looked at the world through deprivation. I was good at making the most of what I had, but it was rarely what other people thought of as enough. And I had to compensate. And it changed me into someone I wouldn’t have been had I grew up just average–for better and for worse.
I was lucky because I knew where to look. And understood what was possible. And I knew there were alternatives to my reality and that I could make choices to change that reality.
And I was lucky because–at 26–every single thing I thought I knew was turned upside down. I had to redefine myself. I had to reject the bullshit that wasn’t working anymore.
I grew up valuing travel. Mostly the journey of getting far away from my crap. It was like school, but I was in control and no one was going to give me a bad grade if I failed to study.
I didn’t leave Colorado all that often as a kid. If I did, it was to Arizona. Sometimes, North Dakota. Rarely anywhere else. I never studied abroad in undergrad. My three jobs required I stay put. I was 24 years old when I finally left. And it was only because I was fed up with staying put and with being the good girl. I traveled around the world the easiest way I knew–through a program that gave me a cheap whirlwind tour. And, while it was fun, mostly I learned that there’s a big difference between being a traveler and a tourist. And a week here or there is mostly the latter. And despite it being so impressive (to others) that I visited all these cool countries, my traveling mostly amounted to tourism.
It wasn’t until my mother died that I became a world traveler, and I realized something that changed how I live every single day.
In the course of going to and from hospitals–in reconciling the tragedy of the situations I was in–I became a stranger. And everywhere I went, there was someone to learn from. Someone to surprise me. And often, I was a stranger to myself. Understanding who I was now in all these familiar landscapes? Understanding how completely alone and not at all alone I was? Those things reminded me of the magic of travel.
I always knew different cultures. It didn’t matter where I was, I was a world traveler…someone who was desperate to learn and understand. I didn’t ever have to leave Westwood to do that. The world told me I did. Just like it told me college would give me opportunities. And, well, those are half truths.
Traveling can be really expensive, or it can be entirely free. It’s up to you. It’s about how you approach the world. For me, traveling–in some odd way–meant growing up in the world I lived in as a child. It meant going to a Jesuit school full of white privilege. It meant leaving my comfort zone and redefining who I was every single day. I learned that from being poor.
But there are plenty of people I know who never got that lesson, and I’m not so sure why I’m any different from them.
I went to those places I’d always dreamed about, eventually, because I knew I needed to. And I finally saved the money and got the timing right. I did good work and lived with people who had lives I could never even fathom. And it changed my life.
You can’t put a price tag on that. And I would save all my money for years all over again to do that every year of my life if I could.
But I didn’t have to do that to go places or learn about humanity.
The thing is–I am still that girl who believes that anything is possible. Three year old me–that girl who ate nothing but rice for dinner every single day for weeks–would never have thought she’d have almost two Master’s degrees–that she’d somehow find a way to finance that. She couldn’t point out Madagascar on a map, and yet, this woman I am now lived there for two weeks. That girl couldn’t even begin to imagine the riches of this life. I’ve lived this life, and sometimes, I still do a double take. As hard as many days are, I’m the first to say I’m lucky for the burden of whatever bullshit I’ve endured.
But to be fair, I have to acknowledge that my story isn’t typical. We each have our own stories and our own possibilities. How we choose to live our lives–the choices we make and the ones made for us–those are our business. No one should judge that. And we must realize that the things we value for ourselves are just options for many others. And sometimes, the people involved can’t find those options for themselves. And maybe they shouldn’t.
For all of my poverty, I was privileged at the same time. I was privileged to be born white. I was privileged to be born in the US–in Denver. I was privileged that–however flawed they were–my parents loved me. I never went a day not knowing that. I was privileged to live in a community that opened up my eyes to things that were bigger than me. I was privileged to go to schools where I was supported emotionally. I was privileged to be questioned and challenged. Every single day.
It’s easy to say work hard and dream. But you have to know what a dream is first. You have to have a vocabulary for it. You have to be able to see it. You have to have a few dozen ladders too. Possibly a parachute.
When I taught in Houston, there were little girls in my classroom who didn’t know about mountains. They didn’t know anything except the humidity and lush green of that city. They knew about violence and torture and less than. And in our ethnocentrism and privilege, we looked at them as deprived. But the things they gave me every day were a lot more valuable than the stupid things I administered in that classroom. They had no idea about my world and my stupid ideas. They had the life they needed, for now, and they were willing to share it–even when it was just bologna sandwiches at lunch.
I don’t know where they went after I left. After I gave up on that broken system built on goals, working hard, and privilege not meaning anything. I never gave up on them or that dream I had. I just changed it to fit the life I had then–and then I changed it again for now.
But I do know that life is about more than that. That sometimes, the way you get where you want to be is simply by loving where you are and learning all you can from the things/people right in front of you. By sharing your sandwich when it’s just another ordinary day.
I could say more, and I’m not sure if I said what I want to here, but it’s what I have right now.