Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Family Dinner Scene

I'm going to Korea and Malaysia for vacation later this month to see some family and friends.  As I was mentally preparing myself for some smart dinner conversations, I got stuck on this particular scene:

A fancy restaurant, courtesy of rich uncle

rich uncle: so jungyul (one of my many names), how's it like in Africa?  (oooh impromptu inspiration, on my holidays I'm going to do a count on how many times people refer to where I live as "Africa" instead of "Tanzania" on initial encounters.  I might add a third category, "Tanzania, where's that?")

jungyul: (slightly self-concious by the fact that he has spent thousands of dollars of his father's money on an expensive education in America and reaping the returns by volunteering, and also by his less than spectacular korean language skills) Well, when I first arrived in Tanzania, if a student came to me and told me "teacher, I'm having trouble doing my homework because I cannot afford a notebook," I would have responded by feeling sorry for his poverty, and wondering how tough his life must be if he cannot even afford a notebook.  Now, if the a student asks me the same thing, I would think about how terribly lazy, what an unmotivated student he is, and respond "what'd you want me to do?" in an overtly sarcastic way.  I would do so because I know that a notebook costs only 300Tsh, and even a poor student would manage to get one out of the slightest desire to study.

As I replay the above scene over and over, I wonder, why?  And, I also ask, does this have another layer?  Is this just the surface of a larger psychology?

To that I say yes.  When I first came, I was concerned about proverty, writing about it on this very blog.  It seemed to be common, yet not as easily observable either.  I tried to grasp it, wanted to understand it more.  I think I succeeded in that, but I also wanted to be a solution.  I was concerned about issues of family economics, and wondered what I could do to involve myself in its alleviation.  Coming from a political science background, and volunteering under the name of a development agency, albeit its heavily political nature, this was my default mode.  In fact, it was one of the reasons why I applied for this.

But now, I'm less concerned with the notion of poverty.  Poverty exists, but in a more personally detached manner.  Perhaps I have negotiated myself into living with it without being bothered by it; or I believe poverty to be less of a disenfranchising force; or I have come to accept to certain degrees the theses of social darwinism, no free lunch capitalism, and Werner Herzog.  At the moment, I'm more concerned with simple school matters: what subject to teach, how to teach, to lead which extra curricular activity, etc.

I hope the above scene does not continue with the question of why, because I really don't know.  Maybe there is no why.


Kabir said...

I think this and one of your earlier posts on death are very related. When there is a low life expectancy, there is a much lower incentive to study (unlike Macalester types, most of the world's population does not go to school for the sake of learning but rather to reap some tangible economic reward). So by staying in school longer, you are reducing the economic returns to your family that you could do by working as casual labour, or on your farm, or anything else. I don't know about Mtwara, but in the Indian villages I've seen it doesn't matter if you understand how to do basic algebra - you will be working on farms.

In general, I think "long term thinking" is not something we automatically do. It is something we have to learn. There are some really interesting projects these days on encouraging people to think about their futures, like how staying in school could have a large positive impact on your child's future. Though of course if there are no opportunities to use the education, it becomes a bit pointless.

So basically, both the supply (building opportunity structures) and demand (long-term thinking) need to be taken into account when trying to understand why people don't buy books for their kids, but do buy a TV for the house.

TK said...

Kabs, thanks for your insight. This along with your new post gives some new thoughts that I haven't thought of before. It gives me new perspectives. Like I said, it's hard to be here alone in terms of intellectual inspiration or vigor.

What I am often troubled in understanding Mtwara is that it feels like it's in the middle of several dichotomies. It's urban (regional hub, bureaucratic offices, some asphalt roads), but secluded enough to call certain features rural (a lost cow in front of the classrooms). As you know, I have spent 9 years surrounded by one of the most fantastic urban developments while in Shanghai. Thus, to me, development entails large scale construction, financal investment, factories, etc. At the same time, a lot of the scholarly and journalistic literature on development heavily concern either the urban or the rural side.

So in terms of dreams, I can some what see how many of my students, especially the poorer ones, would not have such thoughts. Parental neglect and their lack of value on education are evident. At the same time, I see parents with modest professions too: drivers, soldiers, etc.

I'm now real curious on these projects that encourage people to think in long term.