During this break, I had an opportunity to explore San Francisco, a truly beautiful city full of youthful energy and bustling streets, peppered with unique sights.
It is also a very expensive city.
The homeless populate sidewalks, coin cans rattling and cardboard signs pleading for spare change. On a particularly drizzly night, walking up Irving Street, my brother and I found a man struggling with his upturned shopping cart, his belongings scattered like debris across the wet blacktop. We stopped to help. The stare from his one greyed-out eye stung me as he thanked us and left us on our way.
It is a euphemism for the unfairness of the world we live in. The cliched talk of the gap between the rich and the poor remains at just that–talk. The greater majority that settle in the middle class merely shrug and look up at the richest to reach down and help the poorest. The mindset most of us take is selfish but sadly realistic: it is what it is, and there is little I can do to change anything.
Growing up among the rich, I had everything I needed. Words of being grateful for having a roof over my head at night with a full stomach seemed only superficial. They never really hit home or held me in tears. My immigrant father was careful to make sure that his three kids were never stressed over money, spoiling us with whatever we wanted and making sure we wouldn’t feel poor next to our friends at ridiculously expensive private schools. Simply put, I grew up a brat.
In high school, I began working in nearby cafes that I frequented for studying and became surrounded by an entirely different demographic from what I was used to. Many of those I befriended had to be satisfied with dollar lunches or cheap flea market clothes. Some had loans that burdened their backs since a very young age. A few dropped out of high school to start working and sustaining themselves. My closest friend once broke down crying in front of me, a mere teenager seven years younger than he, absolutely exhausted from work-related stress.
Money was something that strained their lives to misery, grasping them by the neck and refusing to let go unless they won the lottery.
One particular day at work, I experienced how abusive wealth could be. A customer demanded that her money be refunded because her young son had received the wrong drink. My coworker, the cashier at the time, had initially tried to explain that because the drink had already been consumed by more than half, a refund would be difficult. The customer proceeded to bark out grotesque statements, remarking on how disgusted she felt to be served by a “young little bastard.” She then turned to threaten the manager, claiming she had enough power in her (husband’s) hands to shut down the store. The manager gave her a refund, apologizing in every moment possible to get her to leave. After smashing the cup with what remained of the drink on the ground, she stormed out the door, dragging the young son behind her.
The coworker wept quietly in the back, returning fifteen minutes later with a shaky but cheerful voice and a forced smile. She was just a year older than I was, a first year pharmaceutics major at a revered university in Korea. She worked harder than anyone I knew–studying during break times, working two part time jobs, commuting for two hours on train every single day. My heart sank when I asked her if she were okay and she replied, “Yeah, it was my fault anyway.”
Similar incidents occurred to me as well, and each time I became more and more disgusted by what it meant to live a privileged life. Customers with flashy brand-name purses and obvious ostentatious stances screamed at me and my poor coworkers: “I’m rich, and I have power over you.”
The poor are helpless in the face of money. It is rather sardonic to see the faces of powerful figures on bills and coins. They pity you and your fate.
I am a privileged being. I go to bed each night with a satisfied tummy in the warmth of a cozy room. I have the liberty to be educated, to have what I want, and, sadly, to walk briskly past those in need, feeling only momentary guilt.
Who is responsible to decrease the gap between is not of concern here because we can all feel grateful for what we have and understand that all individuals have a story behind their eyes that give them the right to deserve respect as human beings.
The world is unfair. Privilege is decided randomly upon birth, a choice we cannot make. But the choices we make in the rest of our lives are in our hands. The most we can do, then, is to be fair upon the rest of the world.