Thursday, January 29, 2009

I think you picked the wrong person to be angry with.

I may have made a mistake the other night when, in the middle of a discussion of sustenance patterns (how people get most of their food and what you can extrapolate about their society from that), I admitted to occasionally dumpster diving and scavenging at the side of the road. It's nothing I connect with shame or being the lowest of the low. It's just another way to get food, sometimes clothing, and a few other items that make life a lot easier than having to buy them, especially when you have very little cash in your pocket, have a morbid fear of debt, and are saving all of your pay for the rent on an apartment.

Yeah, I'm that much of a tightwad. I'm not ashamed of it. There are worse things I could be, or could be called.

There was a second class after this that most of the same students shared. While a few of us were sitting in the next room, waiting for class to start, one of my classmates from ethnology (the first class) walked in and declared that dumpster divers, freegans, and other people in the same vein were stupid for "playing poor" and trying to save the world by what they did. I didn't want to start a fight, but neither did I want that remark going unchallenged, so I just told her as calmly as I could that I never pretended to be poor or meant to save the world.

That started a conversation - more of a monologue, really - about her views on the situation.

Now, everyone has issues, but she had several volumes worth, and rightly so. She grew up in an extremely poor area in one of the major cities here in the Midwest. She excelled in her class just because the bar was set so damn low that showing up and doing all your homework meant you were an overachiever. From the sound of it and some of her remarks, either she was orphaned or kicked out, and she spent quite a bit of time as a homeless high school student. She's done well for herself, I admit - how many college students can say they own their own house, work at least twenty hours a week, and still go to class full time? Hell, I'm jealous of her for owning her house.

And she tore me open from stem to stern for daring to buy clothes from thrift stores or taking sealed cans of soup out of a trash can if I see them there. She told me I was stealing from people who needed cheap clothes or free food for prying a frozen bedsheet off the ground in the middle of winter.

To me, it sounded almost as though she was trying to one-up me for not having had as hard a life as she did. Then again, the wiring in my brain isn't completely straight, so I could have very well misinterpreted what she said. And it sounded like she really needed to rant and get some of that poison out of her system. I just happened to be a convenient rich kid to take it out on. I had no problem with that, once I heard part of her story. It wasn't me personally she was ripping apart.

But I'm really tired of people seeing me at Big State University and thinking of me as a spoiled brat who's never known what it's like to be anything but a spoiled brat. Even white noise can drive you nuts if you have to listen to it for long enough.

I don't know what it's like to be you. I'm not you. I'll listen and try to understand. That's what I'm learning to do. I'm an anthropologist. It's my job to listen to people talk about their lives. I'm still learning and don't have it down perfectly yet, but I'm trying.

Would it be too much to ask that you offer the same?

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