Friday, August 13, 2010

Underdevelopment and overdevelopment

Two days ago, my wife and I were driving through the Tenza valley and talking about some of my friends from back home in Chicago. It wasn't my intent, but this situation juxtaposed two sorts of extremes of economic and social development.

The horrendous roads of the Tenza valley make me think of desperately poor countries, like Haiti or Sierra Leone. When we drive over these roads, it's a hassle, and we're aghast that national and local governments could allow major roads to fall into such disrepair. But we don't live in the Tenza valley with its horrid roads, so they are basically a momentary annoyance in an otherwise comfortable life. Even for people who live in the valley and have to deal with the roads every day, life is not so bad in general. A resident of the Tenza valley may have to put up with bad roads, but he or she has access to good healthcare, healthy, abundant food, reliable electricity, decent schools, and many of the other things we expect a government to assure for us.

However, life can really verge on the intolerable for someone in a dirt-poor country. For a typical Haitian, the awful condition of roads is just one in a series of daily insults. Food is scarce, as are jobs, so hunger is a constant threat. Water and electricity are not reliable, so you can't be sure if you'll be able to wash yourself or your dishes, see at night, listen to the radio to know what's going on in the world. If you or your children get sick, you just have to bear it, and risk dying. And on top of it all, the roads are often flooded, pock-marked with holes, or non-existent. Life is undignified.

On the other hand, the subject of our conversation that day made me think of another unpleasant extreme of development. In the US we have somehow allowed market domination and consumerism to advance to such a point that we've lost certain simple things. Few people in the US have the pleasure of driving a manual transmission car, because companies have decided that everyone wants the "ease" of an automatic transmission. It's rare to be able to buy a loaf of fresh bread in a local store, because most food goes through supermarket chains. But the direct connection you feel with a manual transmission, or the convenience and delight of having a real neighborhood baker, are worth something. Maybe to people who've never had these pleasures, or to those who've always had them, it's difficult to understand their value. Indeed, when I talk to my wife about how special things like a manual transmission are, she doesn't quite understand what I'm getting at, because she's had them all her life.

Anyway, what we were talking about specifically during our drive was how I've known my Chicago friends most of my life, and how many of them still hang out with the same people as always, or date the same people we went to high school with. For my wife, this seems odd and incestuous. Admittedly, there's some truth to this. But I really value that my Chicago group still maintains a sense of community. Many people my age living in Chicago didn't grow up there. For them, it's a bright new city to move to, to enjoy, to develop as an individual. This fits into a common narrative we have in the US that disdains community, disdains the influence that one's place of upbringing has on one's character. How many movies and popular stories glorify the girl or boy who leaves behind a boring, small-town, Midwestern life, for the lights of a place like Chicago or Manhattan, where they can recreate themselves, unfettered by their past or their local culture? Anyway, the people I grew up with in the Chicago Public Schools have sort of fostered a dynamic of a tight-knit neighborhood, though we didn't grow up in the same neighborhood. I know certain people in a way few others do, because I've known them since we were 6 years old!

To my wife, who grew up in a Colombia that still has strong family and neighborhood ties, my Chicago group seems unremarkable, even unhealthily bound to the past. But I feel that in a US where people rarely finish high school in the same house or even the same town they were born in, it's important and beautiful that many of my childhood friends still form a tight-knit group. Again, it's something you don't value if you had it and took it for granted, or if you never had it, but I feel like I'm able to value it, having had it in the midst of a larger society that didn't.

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