Having grown up in a very affluential part of Canada, where I was largely sheltered from the daily realities of poverty, I had unknowingly formed an image of what poverty was supposed to look like. In my head, poverty was shanty towns and poorly dressed, undernourished individuals, with wild hair, which in many cases may be true. I had also imagined that anyone who didn’t have an electric stove or was forced to cook outside must also be poor. But, my experience in Thailand has taught me otherwise. There are many forms of poverty and sometimes it expresses itself physically making it easy to spot, especially in more affluential societies where those with little stand out in stark contrast with those who have much. However, I think that there is a need to be wary of what we label as “poor”.
Due to the wide availability of the media and the general public access to photos taken all over the world, its easier than ever to misjudge something when it is received out of context. Just Google poverty and I am sure that you will see many sad images of outrageous injustice, all which communicate a very real truth: there is devastating poverty in the world and people are dying. However, as a Westerner that is more or less removed from the worst of the living conditions present in our world, it is easy to sort images into categories. This is poverty and that is not.
While in Thailand, I had the immense honor of being a guest in two homes where both families cooked outside, without an oven, in conditions that I had previously sorted into the “poverty box”. But such was not the case. I was first a guest in the residence of my homestay parents. My Khun Mae (the Thai equivalent of mom) cooked all of our meals outside under the protection of the second floor of our house. She stood on a dirt floor and used a propane stove to make some of the most delicious food I have ever eaten. Logically, it makes a lot of sense that she would cook outside in a hot country where it is already a difficult and expensive task to keep the house cool. My second experience as a guest was in the Karen village, a few hours north of Chiang Mai city. Here, of all places, a Westerner such as myself would expect to see physical signs of poverty. Again, all of our meals were made in a common kitchen building that had been setup to accommodate large group gatherings. The kitchen itself was totally open to the elements and there was no access to electricity. To tell you the truth, I am not totally sure how they cooked our meals. I just know that they were delicious and made in conditions that I would previously have classified as a textbook example of poverty.
What I am trying to get at is that things are not always black and white and what we think we know, isn’t always true. Certainly, in some areas, I saw rugged shacks that served many people as their only form of shelter and I saw a lot of suffering. But that’s not all I saw and often, what I thought was poverty, was simply just another way of doing life. The children in the Karen village had access to higher education if they so desired and they were some of the happiest people I had ever seen. Their possessions were not numerous as the stars but they had what they needed to be reasonably happy in this life. Sometimes, what you think you see, is not always what it appears to be.