Recently, I packed my bags and left for India for a volunteer backpack trip. Having spent two weeks volunteering at Sangkhlaburi, Thailand last year, I wanted to experience a different degree of poverty. So I thought, why not India? Friends and family thought I went mad, “Why India, of all places?”. Having returned safe and sound, I’m sure glad I ignored the naysayers and went ahead with my plans.
As with the previous volunteer trip, I left home thinking I’d make a difference to the lives of the less fortunate. But once again, I came back home feeling like they made a bigger difference to mine. Here are some of the lessons I hope would stay with me forever:
It’s not the circumstances that put us down but the thoughts of our circumstances that put us down. The people living in the slums have nothing. Walk through a slum. The only things you’d see are flies, people, thrash, small servings of rice, and dirt. That’s pretty much it. What do I mean by nothing? Bricks and cement are a rare sight. A poorly constructed house made of cement was perhaps the best I’d seen in a slum. I tried to spot a toy but I never saw one. I lowered my expectations and looked out for a ball, nothing. I thought I had experienced poverty in the orphanage at Sangkhlaburi, but boy was I wrong. At least those kids had toys. These kids, they don’t even have a ball. But yet, everyone in the slum was happy. They showed me that it is possible to be in one of the biggest battles of life and yet still enjoy a life full of peace and joy. The kids may run around naked and vulnerable but they live happy and whole.
The difference between well-being and well-off. We’re more educated than the average person in the slum but we’ve confused the words ‘well-being’ and ‘well-off’. Singapore’s is one of Asia’s wealthiest nations. Based on the no. of Ferraris and Porsches on the road these days, I agree without a doubt. But are we generally happy? No. While we’re seen as symbols of success, we really are just slaves to the clock, toiling away on a random floor of a high rise building. We think we have the world by the tail but we’re really just blinded by an illusionary vision of success. Nothing ever satisfies us. We’ve got professional reputations with an income of 6-8 figures, the convertible we dreamed of, branded bags and suits, every material possession anyone could want, but we still haven’t found what it is we’re looking for. & it shows. Marriages fail, homes are now big empty houses and we’re not happy.
Contrast this to the slums. Homes are formed from waterproof sheets spread across bamboo poles stuck deep into dirty mud, what they call ground. But yet, there’s warmth and love in these shabby dwellings. You see kids walking around naked and vulnerable but they’re confident, sincere and warm. Their stomachs may be bloated from starvation but not once have I witnessed a fight over food. They have to squat in an orderly line just to receive a palm-sized serving of fly infested rice, but they smile and are thankful.
The day I walked through the slums and interacted with them, was the day I realized the true difference between well-being and well-off. We’re well-off but do we have well-being? I’m not sure, really.
Never let disability get you down. When I went to an orphanage, the first kid that caught my eye was this small-sized boy with a contorted body. His shin was bent at 90 degrees, his arms were awkwardly curved. I walked over with pity and empathy. But the moment he spoke, the pity and empathy I had started to evolve into sheer respect. Instead of sitting in a corner, he so proudly performed stunts with his “disabled” body. He posed for the camera so naturally, I wondered, maybe god gave him such a disability to make him shine. He never expected special treatment just because he had multiple fractures on his body and couldn’t get around on his own. Instead, he was always ever so ready to ask for help to get somewhere. His zest for life hit me, and made me realize that we should never let disability get the better of us. If I had to name a kid I truly respect, this would be the kid.he 10-year-old boy who amazed me.
Be appreciative of what you have, even the smallest things you could imagine. I went to the slum school one morning, to teach English to the slum kids. One event that really struck me hard was when the teacher slapped the kids for losing their pencils. Was that inch-long wooden pencil they lost really worthy of that slap? I didn’t think so. But seeing how the teacher asked us to break the new wooden pencils in half, I saw the value of a wooden pencil. Back home, we’ve progressed so much as a nation, the only people who use wooden pencils are probably the artists or architects. I didn’t think much of wooden pencils really. But seeing how the kids were entitled to not one, but only half of a wooden pencil, I realized we’ve taken for granted so many things in life. & what made matters worse was how low quality the pencils were. The leads kept breaking off, but the kids never complained or got frustrated with the poor state their tools.
What can we take away from this? If you haven’t already realized how lucky you are, it’s time you sat down and appreciate your life. Cause if there’s anything to be glad about, at least you aren’t getting slapped for losing a pencil, a pencil that wasn’t even whole to begin with.