Would you take responsibility?

I wonder in what ways our lives are similar and our lives are different.  Is it possible to try to step into someone else’s shoes?  How do I attempt to wrap my head around the lives and daily struggles of the women we met at Gramshree, or those of the mothers in Dharavi?

As I try to understand the lives of others, I know that I am a kid trying to feel my way around in a dark cave.  But I can bring it back to myself in order to make more sense of what I’m trying to do.  As an international student and dual citizen, I recognize many similarities between the Korean and American ways of life, but also differences that are not compatible at all – only understandable when you understand those ideas and concepts as they are, without comparison and without the lens of another culture.

I think of my two-year stint as an admissions tour guide at Andover.  I think about how little the student or family actually knows about Andover after a tour.  I, and other tour guides, all embellish details according to our own biases and completely gloss over the harder edges of Andover, on one hand to disguise the uglier realities of Andover, but also doing so because it’s not easy to explain those things to someone who isn’t part of the Andover community.  I wonder what angles I completely missed during my tour of Dharavi.  I wonder what ways of life in Dharavi  I just cannot comprehend right now.  It’s a scary but reassuring thought that I just can’t understand another person’s life with ease. 

But I also think there are some things that I am seeing that just don’t seem right.  Forget the open-minded and humble soaking in that I consciously make an effort to do.  Some things strike you deep down inside in that place where your innate morals lie.

 Many migrant laborers in Dharavi work hours and hours on end without safety measures (and thus, for example, inhale toxic fumes from melting aluminum everyday) in order to support their families back home.  Many of these men are not paid for their long hours of strenuous work and cannot pay for their own housing.  It could be that these men find great community amongst each other under the factory roof and feel a great depth of love and joy when they reunite with their families and friends – two powerful things that I may not have experienced before.  But the fact that these men work for so long under unhealthy and dangerous conditions to barely make money is not right.

I’m not saying that these men are living a “wrong” life – it is our collectively dehumanized society that oppresses these men into working under dehumanizing conditions.  It is our thirst for material wealth and consumerism that stuffs these men into the “mudsill” class of our society, doing the most dangerous, physically strenuous, and essential jobs.  I am guilty of it, too.  By not actually knowing the realities of these laborers, I am guilty.  By buying items that were once forged by these workers’ hands, I am guilty.

There are smiles, but commenting only on these smiles would speak to a dangerously miniscule fragment of the story.  “Oh, these people are happy,” might be a true statement in some cases, but it’s a dangerous way to gloss over the actual, comprehensive stories and struggles of the many people we saw in Dharavi and other communities.  Because I am human and I have a heart, I need to learn more and take responsibility.