“India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great grandmother of tradition”— Mark Twain
I have been fortunate enough to visit India two times for a total of about six months: once on a study abroad trip, and once through a grant program where I piloted a self-defense program for women and a gender-cooperative dance program for kids of all ages. Although I do not regret either of those trips, I am much more aware of the white-savior complex than I was at the time of my travels. Despite this, both trips were inevitably life changing, and both changed the way I think about money.
As a disclaimer, I’d like to remind readers that my statements are based on my experiences and are not meant to generalize about an entire country or culture. If anything, the longer I stayed in India, the more I learned on the one hand, and the less sure I was of my understanding of things on the other hand. Here’s how my travels through India so far have changed how I think about money.
1. Being able to take on debt is a privilege
The first time I went to India on a study abroad trip, I got to speak to some other college students from the University of Delhi. Despite the loosening of the caste system in India, it’s no surprise that wealth eventually came up in the conversation. Because I was in college and because I was able to travel, they assumed I was very wealthy and came from a rich family that was able to foot the bill for these expenses, just like they and their families did.
I quickly tried to correct the assumption and explained that I was actually in a lot of debt. I had taken out many student loans to go to college and to be there in India on the study abroad trip. In fact, my total student loan debt after graduating from college was about one and a half times the national student loan debt average. When I tried to explain the fact that I was in “debt” and had taken out “loans,” I got some quizzical looks in return. “Like baksheesh?” one student asked me. I gave a quizzical look back because I didn’t know what “baksheesh” meant.
I later learned that “baksheesh” often means “bribe,” and sometimes “tipping” or “charity.” To this day, I am not sure if that student was asking the equivalent of, “Did you bribe someone to pay for you to go to college?” or “Did someone outside your family pay for you to go to college as an act of charity?” Either way, the answer is no—no bribing was necessary to get student loans, and there was no rich stranger or family member paying for my college expenses.
This experience made me realize what was necessary to take out student loans: a cosigner with a decent credit history and resources to help me navigate the various types of student loans available, which ones were best, and which ones I needed.
So even while student debt is no fun, and sometimes makes me jealous of my debt-free peers, it puts things in perspective to remember that I am lucky to even have the privilege to take on debt in the first place, and experience the amazing things I have so far thanks to it.
2. Money is only worth what it can buy
There’s nothing like paying the equivalent of 10 cents for a delicious and filling puri breakfast one day in India and being hit with the sticker shock of paying 50 times that for the same amount of food when you return to the U.S.
The act of haggling for purposely unpriced goods also brings to light the disparity between the dollar value of different countries, and moral questions along with it. On the one hand, I was happy to pay more for things than the locals would: I was still getting a great deal, and the vendor could do much more with my money in India than I would be able to do with it in the U.S. On the other hand, local Indian friends I made were upset if I overpaid because they felt like I had been ripped off, and that was unjust, even if I was coming from a wealthier country.
Other than making me wonder how much money was morally appropriate to pay, the large difference in what a dollar in the U.S. and a dollar in India could buy reminded me that money itself was worthless. If suddenly money was deemed useless in the world, then that gap between how much an item cost in the U.S. and how much the item cost in India would disappear.
3. There are many things that money cannot buy
One of the things money can’t buy is monkeys. Interactions with rooftop-climbing monkeys are almost inevitable in certain areas of India. Despite how human they can seem, they don’t deal in money, and are not to be messed around with.
A pack of monkey stole my professor’s wife’s purse off of her on a narrow street in Banaras; most of them disappearing with their individual loot before most people could do anything to stop them. However, a quick-thinking snack shop vendor nearby grabbed a small bag of chips, and threw it up to the monkey who was holding my professor’s wife’s glasses. The monkey caught the chips in its other hand, and after a few seconds of deliberation, decided to drop the glasses, and keep the chips. Everyone cheered and clapped, not only for the glasses regained, but for the fact that a trade was made between human and monkey, even when the monkey could have easily taken it all.
Although this may seem a moot point to some, interacting with monkeys in many places in India is a reality you must learn, and one where you can never be prepared enough since their agility inevitably gives them the upper hand. Witnessing that voluntary trade confirmed that like humans, monkeys are more complicated than they may first appear, and hinted that they have empathy, just like us.
In the U.S., where monkey interactions are few and far between, there’s a huge variety of things you can buy, and it’s easy. Common grocery stores carry worldwide cuisine, you can buy money itself through taking out loans, and anything you can’t get locally—or are too lazy to go and get—you can buy online through vendors like Amazon in a few days, or even a few hours. While infrastructure in India is being developed to increase accessibility to goods, its regular markets are a long way away from the U.S.’s regular markets.
With less accessibility to buying goods comes with the realization that money doesn’t buy everything. Giving some money to a panhandler doesn’t solve income inequality or poverty, and it likely won’t even change the panhandler’s situation. Money can’t help the tens of millions of stray dogs that struggle to survive in India, or stop people from pouring acid on them. Money can’t prevent bride burning, sexism, rape, violence, and caste-system discrimination that happens every day. Just like in India, money can’t erase these dark spots in the U.S., either.
“Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons”—Woody Allen
While money seems to run much of the world we live in, it’s important to remember the privilege that comes with it, the power it has in some circumstances, and the uselessness it has in others. At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to get by, and savor the more enjoyable moments along the way.
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