I recently returned to the United States, after having spent a great deal of time abroad, much of it in countries such as Thailand and Indonesia.
As always, what struck me most about the people of the developing world is how committed they are to transcending their poverty (or furthering their prosperity, as is increasingly the case). Conversely, my fellow Americans seem to have completely lost sight of the link between hard work and wealth.
I vividly remember walking along Bangkok’s Silom Road one morning in late August, and stopping for a delicious Thai iced tea at a stand manned by two cheerful young women. As the girl on the left handed my ice-filled cup to the one on the right, who then filled it with addictive, orange liquid, I noticed the hours of operation on top of their cart. 3 a.m – 3 p.m.
“Do you work here alone?” I pointed to both of the girls as I handed the one on the right a ฿20 note.
She nodded and handed me back two one-baht coins. “This is our business.” They both smiled, and thanked me with a gracious wai.
Fast forward to last Wednesday, when I found myself walking behind two middle-aged women you might call overweight at the St. Louis Galleria. They’re sipping blended Starbucks drinks topped with mountains of whipped cream and, since they’re taking up the whole escalator, I can’t help but eavesdrop on their conversation.
“How much longer do we have left on our breaks?” The one on the left asks.
The one on the right glances down at her phone. “Three minutes.”
“I’m waitin’ four,” the other cackles, and takes a loud slurp of her beverage.
Now, I know not all Thais (or people anywhere in the developing world, for that matter) are hard-working; and not all Americans (or people anywhere in the developed world, for that matters) are lazy.
But the fact remains: People who live in close proximity to death, disease and destruction live knowing that their survival is never guaranteed; those who have never missed a meal usually feel entitled to their next one.
The sad irony here is that the people of the world who are least at risk of losing their livelihoods are the most fixated on the remote possibility that it might happen.
This is largely because Americans associate work with money, money with purchasing power and purchasing power with prosperity. “Being employed” has become inextricably linked with being able to survive, even if a universe of lucrative entrepreneurial opportunities are always within reach.
And, for we Americans, such opportunities are more within reach than they are to perhaps any other people in the world.
From our unrestricted access to the Internet, the world’s largest marketplace, to the ease and low cost of incorporating a business, to laws that protect borrowers against discrimination based on race, gender or social class, the only thing that stands in the way of our progress is our comfort with the status quo, and our simultaneous faith in and cynicism with the system that keeps it in the same place.
(And don’t get me started on the nerve we have complaining about the first-class food and service we receive in restaurants, the incredibly low prices of gasoline and consumer goods and just about every other aspect of our incredibly easy existences.)
Do I think we should abolish the minimum wage and slash the social safety net? Absolutely not.
But what if American workers shifted our focus from the poverty that is so far away from us, and toward the abundance that is so comfortably in our sights, if we willfully traded our first-world “lack” mentality for the vision of abundance that the poor of the world have little other choice than to hold, if we worked not for our next paycheck, but so that we might one never think of it?
Can you imagine how rich we’d all be then?