Not my Problem (?)

by Anis Salvesen

Recently my husband and I attended a friend’s wedding in India – in Chennai (formerly Madras).   The foreign guests, like us, had met the groom in graduate school.   Our little group consisted of the following:  a Finnish girl who spent most of her life in Germany but was now living in Switzerland with her German boyfriend (also in attendance), a Japanese girl, a fellow whose parents were German but had been born in South Africa and had been living in Italy since the early ‘90s, a Hispanic-American (me) and my Norwegian husband.

As you may know, Indian weddings last multiple days, and our little international group attended two of those days.  Maybe because we already had a common denominator (our school), we focused on what was different about us.  We joked about the German (and Norwegian) need for precision, for detail.  We commented on the American propensity to smile a good deal of the time.  We teased the South-African born German guest when he arrived late, sporting designer sunglasses and a suit with no tie, about being more “Italian” than German.

After the wedding, my husband and I continued our travels in India by flying up north to tour the “Golden Triangle.”  I found myself continuing the trend of spotting the differences in my existence, in my daily life, from that of other people around me.  One morning, when the hotel lobby door opened, I could have sworn someone had just set a fire in the parking lot, the air was so polluted.  But I did not see it as my problem.  It was their air which was polluted.  It was their streets which were lined with refuse.  It was their people who were living in poverty.

And to some extent that’s true.  There are people here in San Francisco (near Union Square where we live) that stand on the street and ask for money, but they are not trying to climb into our rickshaw, grabbing at my husband’s clothes.  Or trying to snatch a guidebook  right out of our hands.  But that does not mean that my existence here is completely immune to the serious issues that plague developing nations.

Poverty, even somewhere far away from San Francisco like Peru, increases the number of people willing to risk jail time to transport drugs, which helps  increase the influx of drugs into the US.   The local drug addicts this influx helps create then join the ranks of people asking me for money every day on my way home.  Or worse, they become like the muggers who assaulted two of my friends  (separately) in the past year.  And the air I’m breathing?  “Some researchers believe at least one-third of California’s fine particulate pollution—known as aerosol—originates from Asia.” (China Environment Forum).

Thinking about things this way could potentially be a bit depressing.  But here is the good news.  It works both ways.  Sure the problems can cross borders readily, but so can the solutions.  You can take part in a development project in Peru.   You can help conserve wilderness in Central Asia.  You might not be able to single-handedly solve all of the world’s problems; but if you’re anything like me, you will be glad to stop feeling helpless and start feeling empowered.


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