Subjective Independence

By Rachel Arandilla

 

ONE night, I found myself in a hostel along the banana pancake trail in Southeast Asia. I couldn’t remember exactly where, but I did remember drinking a beer alone in the bar. My travel companions tend to be more introverted and prefer to stay in the dorm room, while I preferred to lurk in the common areas to get to know the travelers along the way.

Tonight I was in the company of a Norwegian girl, Janet, who immediately caught my eye.

Janet had the looks that could get her any guy she wanted: strawberry blonde, blue-eyed and statuesque. From our conversations, she seemed bubbly, but she was also indignant that she would “never date an Asian guy.”

I asked her why.

“You guys simply aren’t just as independent as us Westerners. I don’t date mama’s boys,” she remarked while slurping on her long island iced tea.

I shrugged my shoulders and somehow agreed, but her response obviously irked her Indian companion. Dhruv, whom she had also met while backpacking in Laos a few days back, was totally quiet while we went on girly chatter for the past hour. Janet’s remark obviously irked him, because he started talking.

“Well, wait a minute,” Dhruv said, with a strain in his voice that indicated annoyance. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

I knew it was going to start a heated debate, so I ordered another drink. “What were you doing a few hours before we had this drink?” Dhruv said, while Janet’s face was totally blank. “You were on your laptop, requesting your government to give you some money because you are unemployed. And you use your benefits to fund this Asian trip.”

This was getting interesting, and I wished I had some popcorn.

“Janet, we were not granted the welfare system that your country has. Maybe in your developed country, your government has replaced family in providing you with support, education, healthcare, everything, so much so that you don’t need family.” Dhruv wasn’t done. “God forbid if you get cancer, you’re fine with your elite healthcare system and benefits, and you’ll be fine. If I get cancer, I’m screwed and my whole family is screwed with finances.”

Indian guy made a point. I never saw it that way. I had always wished Asians were more independent like Westerners. I had wondered why we still lived with our parents at 25 while Westerners leave their family homes at 16. I had questioned why a lot of Asian businesses are family businesses and still heavily based on social and familial networks; whereas Western companies are more professional and rely on more efficient means and KPIs. But it wasn’t fair to say West is better than East, or vice versa. Come to think of it, our institutional voids, or unreliable banking, economic and government systems, had us going back to systems that were considered “primitive.” We only have our family to rely on.

“So Janet,” the Indian guy said with a big sigh, “don’t tell me you’re more independent than us. You were just privileged you were born into your country, that’s all.”

If our economy progresses and institutions become more developed and reliable, I wonder if systems would ever replace family ties, like it had already for some developed nations?

Maybe people do tend to credit themselves and blame others too much for things that weren’t really because of their doing, but more so because of privilege, or circumstance, or the stars have perfectly aligned for you.

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