“Wealth” guilt

I wonder if this is similar to how white people feel when they feel partially guilty about slavery.  I remember an episode of Saved By The Bell where Jessie Spano tried to do favors for Lisa Turtle on behalf of the former’s oppressive, slave-owning ancestors.  I think all I remember from the episode was Lisa saying that there isn’t really anything Jessie can do about it, and that it wasn’t her fault.  (Are you still in disbelief that that sweet Jessie Spano morphed into the Showgirls’ dancer?  Quite a shift from using stay-awake pills to study for a test to using ice cubes to… Wait, where was I?  I digress.) 

So yeah, I think I’ve been feeling my own “wealth guilt” vis-à-vis “white guilt.”  Like when I tell my Thai co-workers that I went to Phuket for vacation, and they say they’ve never been because it’s way too expensive.  One time I asked the office janitor if she was OK because she looked out of it.  This sweetheart of an older woman responded facetiously in Thai, “I’m fine, but I don’t have money.”

So what do I say to that?  I guess, admittedly, I am rich and wealthy by Thai standards, even though I’m a grad student who has been getting by on student loans and temporary loans from the Bank of Mom.  How do I deal with the guilt?  Do I smile awkwardly and try to change the subject?  Do I say I’m sorry to hear that they haven’t been able to travel much – or does that imply a sense of pity?

It’s weird because in this profession – social work – we’re oriented to work with disadvantaged populations, such as very poor people and their families.  It feels weird having this sense of class privilege over here in Thailand, while in the U.S. I never felt this way.  I was a poor-ass living paycheck to paycheck for a time being while I was working in social services.

But you know, the families I have worked with over here – even though they have hardly anything at all, they appear to be so happy.  I don’t know if this is informed by Buddhist principles – working with the cards you’ve been dealt and accepting the karma you’re born with – but it’s refreshing to see this.  Reminds me of the movie American Beauty: you may look like the happy nuclear family on the outside with the trappings of a nice home and steady income, but it could all be a veneer for messiness and dysfunction.

I think I may need to own this feeling, this fact.  I do have the privilege of going to Phuket and chilling on the beach with the millions of (mostly white, European) tourists.  Wait, does this mean that I’m like those spoiled kids on Laguna Beach?  I used to take such pride in making fun of their hedonistic, extravagant ways and not being anything like “them.”  Hmmm… guess I’m still unpacking feelings about my privilege and figuring out how to navigate them with my profession.  I wonder what would Jessie Spano say?


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~ by wannabejochen on 16/01/2009.

2 Responses to ““Wealth” guilt”

  1. maybe smith could do to have a little classism discussion, as well as the anti-racism….just a thought.

  2. My friend, I don’t exactly have the “white guilt”-gotta be white have that, right?..oh, wait a minute, I am white..nevermind.. Hehe..

    Anyway, I know what you are talking about. It’s especially rough on people who are empathetic and care how their presence affects other people (I’m saying that’s you).

    My advice to you is to keep your head high, but always be humble! There’s nothing you can do to control the situation-but I fully believe that your presence (aura) precedes you. My guess is that your character carries you a long way-people probably have less of this “envy” or feeling of lacking around you, because you kick off your shoes and blend right in-because you care to.

    Time to hop off BART and head home! Ttys!

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