I didn’t want to leave my nomadic homestay. I knew it wasn’t because I had simply grown that attached to the nomadic way of life. At first, I just wanted to maximize on the unprecedented opportunity a nomadic homestay gave me to displace my mind from the cultural and circumstantial factors that brought it up. I wanted to learn why I believe what I do by recognizing which unthinkingly inherited aspects of Western culture were suddenly in a fight to survive. Then, I thought that in the act of voluntarily withholding material comfort, I could, in some way, prove I was better than the upper income household I was born into. Now, in Chengdu, I think I couldn’t bring myself to go because I couldn’t deal with the fact I had a choice. It felt wrong and uncomfortable to exercise that privilege of choice in weighing the logistical pros and cons of staying in that nomadic village for three days versus four. The only solution I saw was not having to decide and not having to leave.
During my homestay, I remember feeling not unbelievably happy, but unbelievably moved. I sat and watched my family with an obsessively consumptive energy, trying to ink every expression, gesture, and interaction permanently into my mind. I remember the way snot always ran down the faces of the children and how they never bothered to remove it because of the unceasing wind. I remember the tireless hands of the mother and how her eyes never showed bitterness over the fact she always ate last and the least. I remember the silence that always punctuated my interactions with the two young boys – their hesitation when I convinced them to play instead of completing their chores and their quiet, abashed shuffle when they approached me with English language books. I remember being enthralled by the constant motion and meaningful way of their world. I remember feeling moved by the codependency and efficiency of the well-oiled machine the family ran day after day.
I remember feeling guilt over my privilege of choice. I had the choice to play with the children when I wished and seek solitude when I tired. I chose to churn the yak butter, knowing I could stare at my watch and count down the seconds until I would never have to turn that crank again. I could choose to wash the dishes when I felt helpful and lay in my warm sleeping bag when I felt cold and hungry. I had the choice to sleep into 8:30 in the morning – at least two hours after the rest of the family rose to complete their morning duties – even though I suspected their overly polite treatment of guests kept them from consuming breakfast before I did. I felt guilty about being served first, knowing it was only because their guest policy took precedence over their gender one. But if I ate less so that the family could eat more, I could make that choice knowing that I would have a delicious, hot meal I didn’t even have to think about affording by the week’s end. Even if I stayed there long enough, to the point when I would lose track of the countdown of days until I return to comfort and convenience, I’d still be exercising my privilege of choice.
How is it fair that I can choose to endure temporary hardship when that is the only life those children will know? It’s such a gift to be able to experience a life different from one’s own. It’s such a privilege to experience temporary discomfort, knowing reprieve is not far away. It’s so wrong to view these people’s lives as a vacation, as a way to get a taste of the authentic, but only enough to brag about it to friends and appreciate indoor plumbing and memory foam mattresses for about a week after arriving home. It’s so selfish to peep into these families’ lives and use them to augment my sense of self, to convince myself that I’m one of the good ones. I, at least, am brave enough, curious enough, and caring enough to voluntarily succumb to a more difficult lifestyle. By succumb, I mean to take on the role of a guest whose responsibilities are none or as much as I decide to put on myself. And even when I decide to help, I slow down the well-oiled machine with my soft, clumsy hands and inability to squat for long periods of time. I can’t help but think that if they had the means, money, and education that I did, they would capitalize on every resource instead of wasting it on a superficial understanding of a different life to feed their fragile ego.
I feel guilt. And then I feel guilt about feeling guilt. And then I don’t know how to feel. Luck, privilege, guilt all seem to be appropriate words, but they too reflect the patronizing judgment that is so difficult to resist. To recognize one’s privilege is to buy into Western assumptions of hierarchies and standards of living that are not universal, yet are unconditionally accepted. However, to blindly idealize a culture – to praise the sacrifices of the mother, to extol the work ethic and positivity of the young boys – is equally limiting in its mere rebellion to Western norms.
So then, how can I feel towards this culture? How can I give it the well-roundedness it deserves if my mind still strains to qualify that life against my own? How can I strike the balance between judgment and a black-and-white idealization? I wish there was a way of seeing in between. I wish I had the imagination to allow me to see other worlds without using templates that were never meant to be applied to them. I wish I didn’t instinctively try to fit a new experience into a carefully constructed image of myself and the world and instead, let cultures exist as they are.
I wanted to help them. I could have given them money to buy more textbooks or modes of transport without financial strain. When the mother’s shovel snapped in half from overuse, I could have paid for a new one without my parents ever questioning the missing money. But I didn’t. I hesitated. I couldn’t make a difference without imputing my own values on a society that was never meant to carry them.
All I could do were small things that carried little to no meaning, but at least did no harm. All I could do was hesitate. Offer to wash the dishes without confidence – not knowing how to scrub bowls clean with a limited amount of waste water. Waver back and forth between showing the boys pictures on my camera – unsure if it would satisfy a curiosity or produce the beginnings of an intense dissatisfaction. Pause before teaching the children some English – uncertain if my assumption that they wanted to learn was misguided.
I think hesitant is the only way to be when one is outside of something. We shouldn’t try to understand completely or integrate ourselves fully and we definitely shouldn’t interpret a culture with our own systems of expectations. In hesitation, we demonstrate answers we’ll never have, a belonging we’ll never feel, and respect for a life we’ll never know. All we can do, all we have the right to do is consume and reflect endlessly, wanting to be close, but knowing some things will always be closed.