Recently a friend poked fun at my service in Lima, or rather the whole concept of a white North American coming down to volunteer for a year in Peru.
“…Kyle,” he wrote, “I wanna go to Lima and do what I can to help out, but how’s the LTE connection for my iPhone? Also, I don’t eat anything with carbon in it anymore.”
The jest was a light-hearted follow-up to a post in criticism to those who let fear for personal safety hold them back from helping in poorer areas. He is very critical of those who allow their comforts and classist fears hold them back from working in the trenches for real change.
His joke held shed some light on some recent thoughts I have been struggling with regarding my YAV year. I started to feel a little disingenuous ranting about my problems and sadness in an unfamiliar world through my blog. Sure that ranting has helped me process and, I believe, come to some important realizations for myself, but how can that justify a whole year of just being here.
Added to that are my post-YAV plans, to starting working at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in September. That fits scarily well into the stereotype of the disingenuous white savior complex: Spend a year abroad, help minimally, and self-actualize. I distinctly remember not wanting to live that experience out when I sign on to my YAV year.
I don’t know if self-actualization is not a justifiable reason to call myself anything other than a glorified tourist. I know, I know the YAV program pushes “being present” over “doing,” because the missionary position is highly problematic (wink). Regardless, I have been wrestling with the YAV theme, “A year of service, for a lifetime change” and whether it emphasizes the self in an equally unproductive and problematic way.
Plus, I know this experience is not unique to me. Every YAV chooses to face similar struggles during the year. Every YAV rants about those experience (some more constructively than others) to some degree or other in a blog, or other outlet. Every YAV reaches some major self-realizations and epiphanies, which I cannot demean.
Then consider how many programs out there also emphasize being present and introspection through accompanying “the least of these.” (Hint: There’s a bunch.) My concerns are not just restricted to myself, but have bearing on larger, increasingly popular choice for my generation.
So what are these challenges I keep ranting about? What am I struggling with?
Mostly, I face emotional and social struggles. I do not want to demean those for a second. They are real and they have been some of the most challenging in my life. Of course, it’s the problems that I do not face that are evident of my privilege. Plus, I have chosen to experience this year and all its struggles. That’s equally privileged.
Take for example those who do not have a choice to live in another culture, the refugee or the economically disenfranchised migrant. I am experiencing a miniscule portion of the struggles they face.
Even those who might choose to migrate to the US or other western country with documentation would face far more pressure than I have to assimilate. As Jed observed once, there is immense privilege to coming to Peru as a North American. No gringo moves to Peru and gets told to just find a job, settle in, and join the melting pot.
No, I’ve lived comfortably with the support of the YAV program behind me. With room and board covered by the program I am never wanting for food nor shelter.
Even taking into account some objectively unsafe moments from November, I have felt notably safe this year. I was also supported by the YAV program throughout that whole process, keeping my fear for my life to a minimum. In the months after the program is still checking in with me.
You know that the majority of refugees and migrants, documented and undocumented, don’t get? Support from a national church.
Therefore, I cannot try and claim that I am overcoming unheard of adversity. I cannot claim any part of the story of the unprivileged migrant or refugee.
You know what I have learned though? It is really hard to keep going even with my relative privilege. I’m here to volunteer and be present with those I meet in Peru and yet on more than one occasion I’ve considered calling it. I’m glad I did not and it would be strange if the thought never passed my mind.
With that in mind, how many of you have ever gotten a little frustrated with those who migrate to the U.S. from less wealthy countries? Those who arrive with far less privilege? Perhaps thought that they needed to earn a place in the U.S. or got confused when they did not persevere through losing their job? Maybe you are aghast at the numbers of migrants that struggle with addiction or alcoholism? Maybe you’ve given up trying because they are just so antisocial?
Guess what? They’re going through a lot worse crap than me during a year when I’ve grown far more antisocial, far more argumentative, far more frustrated, and all-around less happy than ever in my life in spite of all my relative privilege.
So try and be more compassionate. I know I will be from this year on out.
And therein lies how I am able to defend this year: compassion. I have always tried to be a compassionate person and yet, I be more so.
While at Macalester, I had a plethora of uncompassionate moments with those from other parts of the world. As a supervisor of an international staff, I on more than one occasion assumed English ability, which helped literally no one. It may have even led one of those student workers to lose credibility as a worker. I feel terrible about that and there are many other instances when I could have done better and better was deserved.
This year, I am further developing my sense of compassion. Hopefully, my experiences will also help you be more compassionate in your daily life. Honestly, it’s one of the few ways I feel comfortably coming so close to the post-college white savior.