On the south end of rue de Rennes, one of Paris’s busiest shopping boulevards, the same middle-aged man sits everyday on the same span of sidewalk holding the same cardboard sign: J’ai faim. Aidez-moi s’il vous plaît. I am hungry. Please help me.
His face is round and tan, his eyes are dark and gentle. Scruff lines his jaw. Dirt covers his hands. He wears a black beanie on his head. He has been sitting near the Rennes-St. Placide bus stop every day for about a month now, and I pass him each morning as I walk to class. Up until a few days ago, our only interaction had been a small smile and a polite nod of the head—and a wink on his part—to kindly greet one another.
This routine suddenly changed at the beginning of this week, when the weather switched abruptly from winter to just-about-summer. It was the kind of day that demands a cute dress and sandals, and that’s exactly what I wore.
Practically skipping down rue de Rennes, I caught the man’s eye. But this time, instead of exchanging our usual greeting, he spoke to me. Ca va? he asked with a sly smile. Oui! Ca va, toi? I replied with the same hint of flirtatiousness. Our “how-you-doin” dialogue was ultimately harmless, but it broke the barrier between us and changed our relationship from formal to familiar.
Perhaps too familiar. Now that we were on speaking terms, I felt it would be nice to show this man the same politesse I show others, like my neighbors and the caretaker of my apartment building. Hence, when I passed him Friday morning, I smiled and asked, Vous allez bien? You’re doing well?
He raised his eyebrows and shook his head—non.
Seconds later I heard the following words ringing in my head like a fire alarm: Check your privilege.
The ability to respond to simple questions like “How are you?” or “Having a nice day?” with a positive answer is a privilege I have always taken for granted. So much so that I figured everybody is “alright,” “not bad,” or “great, thanks! How are you?” I didn’t stop to think about the fact that the man before me, pleading for something to satisfy his hunger, would answer with a resounding “no.” Now, for the first time in my life, I wish I could take that question back.
Poverty is omnipresent worldwide and omni-visible here in Paris. I wrote about the harsh reality of this city’s streets in this post at the beginning of the year. As I said then, Paris is no fairytale. But it is one heck of a classroom.
Here in Paris I’ve learned about not only the severity of poverty, but about the importance of relativity, too. It is only through recognizing the relativity of situations, issues and events that we can recognize our privilege and change how we interact with the world around us. This week I was reminded that although I may be a “poor” student, I am quite wealthy relative to the man who begs on my street, and extremely wealthy relative to the majority of the world’s population.
In fact, based solely on the income I receive from my academic scholarship each year, I am among the top 13 percent richest people in the world, according to this calculator. Perhaps if I calculated my status based upon my material wealth as opposed to my income, I would end up at a lower percentage (considering my “wealth” includes my laptop, my iPod, a vintage cracker-jack tin, The Great Gatsby and an “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” DVD set). Still, according to the site, it would take the average worker in Zimbabwe 11 years to earn what I receive in one. My monthly income could pay the monthly salaries of 52 doctors in Azerbaijan. That puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?
Next time you feel like griping, take a moment to consider not what you lack, but what you have, whether it be a roof over your head, a loving family, or an education. Take note of how your situation looks relative to that of others, and consider what you can do to share your wealth—material or abstract—with those who have less. What seems like poverty to you may be luxury for someone else. What appears in your eyes to be a tragedy may very well be another’s everyday experience.
Check your privilege. Use it meaningfully.