Living abroad teaches you how little you know, and forces you to re-examine long-held assumptions.
One of these assumptions is about poverty. My general assumption about poverty used to go like this:
Most people in the West are rich. Most people in the developing world are the suffering poor.
Broadly speaking, I perceived people as dirt poor, middle class or rich.
A few experiences have made me question these assumptions:
- Reading Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety, which postulates that our thinking about rich and poor changed with the rise of democracy and the Industrial Revolution.
- Listening to some BBC radio documentaries about people surviving (or not surviving) on a dollar a day.
- Living in Malta and Morocco, and seeing how the average person lives in these countries.
In rural Morocco or Malta, people don’t have much. They own their own small house. They might have some sheep or cows. In Morocco, they probably have a bike, and in Malta they have an old car. They almost definitely have a cell phone. They probably have a television, or know somebody who does. If they’re farmers, they have fields to tend. If they live in town, they might own a tiny shop.
Their basic needs are usually met, but they’re not driving a 2008 Mini Cooper and their kids aren’t playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl on their Wii.
I’ve been back in Vancouver for a few days now, and had fresh eyes for Vancouver’s homeless problem. I’ve seen the occasional person sleeping rough in a doorway, and addicts, dressed in filthy old clothes, wandering around like zombies. How much do these people have? The contents of their shopping cart?
We were walking around the old, nearly abandoned kasbah in Agdz. A few people still live there in crumbling adobe buildings, and they’re seriously poor. I gave this girl two dirhams–25 Canadian cents. That would buy two loaves of bread, or about a dozen oranges.
A young guy asked for me change on Granville Street the other day. I didn’t give him anything. I never do, because we give to the Union Gospel Mission every year instead (that’s an unexpected search result).
On Gozo, there were no beggars or homeless people. In Morocco, the only beggars were the very old (here’s one) and a couple of young kids. In Vancouver, they’re young men and women.
Who’s More Impoverished?
Who’s more impoverished? Before my year away, I’d have definitely picked the rural Moroccan. Now I’m not so sure.
The Moroccan lives among his peers who, more or less with the same level of wealth. The homeless Canadian lives among veritable towers of gold and conspicuous consumption, but can’t have any of it.
Who would I rather be? Again, I’m not sure.
I think the question I’m orbiting here is: who is happier? I’ve got not grounds to speculate, but I’m guessing it’s not the homeless Vancouverite. That leads to a bigger question: is it better to live simply and be happy?
At the moment, that’s all I’ve got. I’d like this to be a cohesive little essay featuring a parable and carefully-craft conclusion, but I haven’t worked it out yet. I clearly don’t know enough, or understand enough about the hands that these Moroccans, Maltese and Vancouverites have been dealt. As such, it’s just food for thought (that anybody can afford).