Monday, March 14, 2011

First World, Third World

I’ve been sitting on more than one idea for a blog post, and more than one rough draft. Especially in light of my last post, which is chalk full of ‘first world problems,’ with maybe three exceptions that are universal, this ramble keeps resurfacing as one that needs to be published sooner than later. I’m certainly not the first to make these observations, and it feels unfinished, but I never claimed to be a polished writer. I only strive to be observant. Rough will work fine.

It’s hard to have a simple discussion about geography without these terms surfacing. First World. Third World. But like any other term or stereotype, these terms oversimplify reality into something more easily broadcast. And what, pray tell, is the Second World?

Living in Bangkok, Thailand, the extremes of first world versus third world are magnified far beyond what I expected, and far beyond the extremes you will see in the United States (at least, within such close proximity). Yes, there are places in the United States that can be considered ‘third world,’ just as there are places in Thailand that can be considered ‘first world.’

Siam Paragon – First World
This grandiose mall, one of the main four in Siam Square, ‘Battle of the Malls,’ or to locals just plain Siam, is one of the mega malls that epitomizes opulence in Bangkok. While a couple other malls nearby could take the cake for the most luxurious and expensive, the fact that there are several in this tier is enough. Paragon has a mix of things that are affordable (on a western income) and things that are far, far out of reach for the vast majority – even on a regular western income. There are things in this mall that I try not to even cast a shadow on lest I cause damage and have to pay for something I could never afford. And you don’t have to travel far from the mall to find poverty if you stop to look.

Yommarat – Third World
This is an intersection in downtown Bangkok, a 30-minute walk from the ultra modern sky train, including regular train tracks. It is one of the two locations where Sanuk My Saturday English lessons occur.
If you walk down the gravel along the tracks, you will come upon a small shantytown on either side. People have built shacks mere feet from the tracks – a place no one cares to kick them out of. Nothing profitable could be built here. There is no warning when the train is coming, which is frequently. One of the girls that comes to learn English on Saturdays lost her leg to the train.
The people are so excited and welcoming when the foreigners show up for English lessons. There are often more foreigners than there are tasks to help with. And it doesn’t matter if you merely held up flashcards for fifteen minutes, or that the families are in dire straights. Last Saturday they still fed us lunch. I accepted graciously but it still weighed heavily on my heart.
These people are so, so much less fortunate than I am, and they cooked and shared lunch with me just for showing up. I have done so little and they have so little. I worry about being broke or close to it. These families really have next to nothing.

After we leave, I step back into ‘the First World,’ and worry about my first world problems again. The internet won’t load. The apartment clothes washing machines are in use, or jammed. The alley cats pissed on my air conditioner again (involves air conditioner – still first world).

Even my Visa and Work Permit woes – There are families throughout Bangkok who are stateless, no citizenship, no paperwork. There are more families like them throughout the more remote regions of Thailand. They aren’t just illegal in Thailand – they aren’t legal anywhere, no one will take them. For more info on that:
Visa woes – First World Problem.

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