For many, part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is feeling like you are living between two worlds – where you grew up in the US and where are living while you serve. Two-thirds of our role as Peace Corps Volunteers is to try to bridge that gap through fostering intercultural understanding and exchanges.
Last year I found myself living between two worlds, but two different worlds within Peru – and I was surprised to find it more challenging than expected.
While I have always lived in cities of more than 1 million my entire life, I adapted pretty seamlessly (not without challenges, but generally pretty seamlessly) to my new, rural lifestyle in Peru, thanks to great friends and a great host family. Then, after two years, I started dating someone from Lima – that fast-moving mega city of around 8 million people, and specifically, someone from a higher socio-economic status in Lima.
A few months in I started to feel the stark contrast between the culture in which I was living in my Peace Corps site, and the culture of upper class Lima. While I had known that Peru was a diverse country with a great diversity of cultures within the country, I now started to see more clearly a lot of differences between the upper class lifestyle in Lima and an average lifestyle in “provincia”. (Anywhere in Peru that is not Lima is considered “Provincia”).
Many people think of the world in terms of rich countries and poor countries… people speak of “the developing world” and “the developed world”, or “the third world” and “first world countries”. You have probably heard and even used these terms, and it’s common to think that each country fits into one of those categories.
Unfortunately, this distinction in wealth is much more common than the reality that WITHIN every country, there is an economic divide between the wealthy and the poor.
In Brazil, a country considered “developing”, there are more than a quarter million millionaires. Meanwhile, about 12% of the US population lives in poverty (US Census Bureau, 2017), and about 1.5 million experience homelessness in a year, in a country considered “developed”.
In some countries, this divide in wealth is not as pronounced; the countries considered “wealthy” that have the lowest poverty rates are:
- Finland – 6.3%
- Czech Republic – 6.4%
- Netherlands – 7.9%
- France – 8.1%
- Norway – 8.1%
- Slovak Republic – 8.4%
- Austria – 8.7%
- Slovenia – 9.2%
- Sweden – 9.2%
- Belgium – 9.9%
- UK – 10.9%
But I digress.
Over the last few years in a rural but somewhat progressive town in Peru, I have grown accustomed to my lifestyle and that of those around me. My family lives paycheck to paycheck. I work with people in the more rural farming communities, where most are farmers and others sometimes have work and sometimes don’t. The people around me always have food, but they don’t always have the healthiest variety of food. Sometimes we don’t plug in the refrigerator because of concern about being able to pay the electric bill.
My host nephew here is a dinosaur fanatic, like many kids his age. He plays dinosaurs every day at school and always talks about them. When I saw that my nephews in the states had gone to a museum and saw dinosaur bones and all kinds of things about dinosaurs, I realized that it is unlikely that my host nephew here would get the opportunity to do that before his dinosaur phase passes.
I have definitely been living more with the concept of “scarcity mentality” – making decisions in the moment based on the idea that there are limited resources, (not enough time or money for example). When we operate in this “scarcity mentality”, sometimes we sacrifice long-term benefits because we are operating to stretch what little we have in the moment (minimizing the grocery bill by buying fewer fruits and vegetables, we will have more money for other bills in the short term, even though we might be paying higher medical bills in the long term). We also do this with time – we don’t feel like we have enough time, so we don’t do that 30 minutes of exercise or self-care that we know we should do.
With fewer resources coming into my bank account over the last few years, I certainly started to adopt more and more of a penny-pinching scarcity mentality, without even realizing it.
Then, as I began spending time in social circles with people who grew up in wealthy families in Lima, I suddenly found myself in a different world for a few days at a time. On one hand, the culture of natural products, expensive health food, gym memberships, and that urban upper and upper-middle class lifestyle was a comfortable reminder of my life in DC before Peace Corps.
But at the same time, I was not receiving a salary that could support that type of lifestyle, and I found that I had a hard time bridging the gap in our current experiences and connecting with people in that circle because of the difference in our economic experiences. Maybe because I didn’t have the language (in Spanish), or maybe I just couldn’t wrap my head around the differences (and also didn’t have the language in English!)
The paradox is that I had left a very comfortable economic situation – on purpose. I was trying to experience and embrace what it was like to live with a lower economic status, or less economic power, to appreciate that reality and understand it better. And now, I was simultaneously trying to relate to people who had grown up in wealth their whole lives, were used to a culture of comparing wealth and trying to always have the best and latest things. They had never experienced poverty, and would never risk being poor, wanted to ensure that no one ever saw them as poor, or even as less wealthy.
Peace Corps teaches us to adapt to different cultures and situations, and I tried to navigate these different worlds as best as possible. Focusing on things we had in common, I was able to fit in fairly well, especially because of my previous lifestyle. It was exciting to be able to walk between the two worlds, and I realized it was quite a privilege to be able to do that. But there was always an underlying disconnect that I couldn’t put my finger on.
It was really nice to eat big, healthy salads in nice restaurants (but I worried about spending that much). It was nice to see new beaches in the south, but I cringed knowing that only people with money could afford to have property there and enter and enjoy them. I found it interesting to get from place to place in Lima in a personal car instead of bus, public van, or taxi (though I worried about the carbon footprint). I saw the world of people with nannies and gym memberships and who spent the summer in their beach houses outside the city, and it contrasted sharply with the lifestyle I was living in my site.
At the time I didn’t realize it, but my host family had trouble understanding the world of my partner and often felt intimidated or looked-down-upon. My partner couldn’t fully understand the economic pressures that led to the scarcity mentality that my family had for certain things, or why I was so stingy with my money for certain things, (and honestly, I didn’t even realize that my relationship with money had changed!) I could not find the words and the appropriate communication to bridge that gap, partly because I was still trying to wrap my head around what I was experiencing.
It is hard for anyone to understand how to navigate the disparity in wealth we experience, especially as we are each just trying to make sure that we maximize our own wealth to live comfortable lives. While my experience navigating two economic worlds has been a challenging one, I am really thankful that it has made me more aware of the world in which we live. A few highlights:
-Our economic situation actually impacts our paradigms, habits, hobbies, experiences, and even our friends a lot more than we often realize. It can be really eye-opening to reflect on how our economic situation impacts all those areas of our life…take a minute to think about it.
And then I would recommend that we consciously try to branch out of our bubble of comfort to connect with people in a variety of different economic situations. It is so important to stop thinking of “poor” people – people with less opportunities and in a tougher economic situation – as inherently different from us, lazy, unintelligent, or less valuable people. You are not less valuable or lazier or less intelligent than everyone who has more wealth than you.
-A team is only as strong as its weakest player. And a community is only as wealthy as its poorest. If we don’t “mind the gap” – the wealth gap, that is – if we just let it get wider and wider, it can eventually lead to a breaking point in our society.
-It’s so important to recognize our own “scarcity mentalities” and make sure they are accurate. Do we really not have enough time to take care of our own health? Do we really not have enough money or time to choose the healthy food option over the crappy one? (On a side note, we really are depleting the world’s natural resources and they are becoming scarcer every year, so I would also ask, do we really not have enough time or money to choose the environmentally friendly option?)
-And finally, reconsider “Ambition”
Most people just generally want to make more money, no matter how much they are currently making. Sometimes we carry around a fear that if we aren’t maximizing our wealth, we will end up poor in the streets one day. Interestingly, in my circles in Peru, describing a person as “ambitious” doesn’t always have a positive connotation like it does in English. Here, people are also described negatively as “ambitious” when they try to make more money just for the sake of making more money, and then neglect relationships or other human priorities.
While we should always want to improve, if we can change the “ambitious” mindset from only focusing on having more wealth for ourselves and our family, and ambitiously aim for a balanced life where we also look out for the most vulnerable people in our communities, within our own country, and within the human community, we will all live more peacefully and happily.
Footnotes: References and further reading:
Poverty data from www.lovemoney.com