During the summer holidays, I visited Vietnam for vacation. Because I had never been to Vietnam before, I had been looking forward to this trip for a while. When I arrived and took the taxi to our hotel, I realized how the setting appeared similar to India, where I had lived previously.
Though not exactly the same, the traffic was busy, the streets unpaved, and locals selling fruits and vegetables in cardboard boxes and craters – things I would most likely never see in Japan back home.
However, the scenery changed completely when I arrived at the resort, where the walls were white and the ground polished, bright lights and marbles floors welcoming the guests as we stepped in with a free drink in hand. The stark division that existed between hotels and the streets outside were prevalent in other developing countries as well, however, I always found it shocking.
To be truthful, the comfort and sense of security that the pristine hotel gave me compared to the outside made me feel ashamed, because I was equating wealth as being better. That night, my mother asked me to venture out to the city. I was a little reluctant, but agreed. When I went to a small, local mall outside of my hotel, my mother and I were ushered into a shop that sold patterned pants. There, the people wore flips flops or no shoes at all, and one person was carrying a baby. Though we did not speak Vietnamese, they spoke to us in broken Japanese as my mother replied in broken English, bargaining and throwing the place inside out in search for that one pair with the cute pattern that we lost hold of. The place smelled stale, and there was little room for us to move, however, I was laughing with tears in my eyes as the girls in the shop complimented my mother in Japanese and tried to get her to buy a pair of pants. They were bright and kind as we took time to buy them, and I left the shop with a big smile on my face.
Later back in the hotel room, I thought back about this experience as I held a pair of patterned pants, and felt guilty for almost choosing to neglect the warm community that existed outside the protected hotel walls just because I had selfishly labeled their less privileged environment to be something undesirable. I had determined the worth of people by judging their financial status, instead of their character. I was disappointed with myself, for I should have known better, having lived in other developing countries. Comparing the atmosphere of Vietnam to Japan, I realized that I had wrongly thought this way of Vietnam because back at home, I am surrounded by people with privilege that owes it to Japan’s larger economy.
Although I had known it previously, the understanding that power and privilege coming from wealth hit me, and made me aware of in fact how great of an influence power and privilege stemming from money can have on people, as it can mold personal and societal perceptions of places or people.
The experience cleared me of my shameful tendency to immediately assume more wealth as something more desirable, as it reminded me that people who are less privileged are as, or perhaps even more, kind and secure and polite as those who are more privileged.
At the beginning of the trip, I was unwilling to leave the hotel as much, but since that experience, I resorted to eating out in local restaurants and spending a lot of my time actually exploring the city and nature that is Vietnam. I was unafraid to immerse myself in the local culture, and forgot about the differences in privilege that existed.
Throughout the trip I gained a better understanding of what creates power and privilege, and what some of the consequences of it was. The experience also reinforced the crucial understanding that privilege does not equate to someone being a better person than those who are underprivileged. Next time when I visit another country, I hope to be more accepting of the differences in privilege and power from the very beginning.