Sunday, March 02, 2008

Embarrassed by riches

I think every North American should have the opportunity to host someone from a developing country in their home at least once in their lifetime. It's delightful to watch the wonder in their eyes, and humbling to see the shock.

Pugeni is visiting from Zimbabwe. Today was his first full day in a country outside of Southern Africa. There were many firsts for him today - the first sight of snow ("wow - I had no idea it would cover EVERYTHING! And you can walk on it!"), the first visit to a Canadian church, the first trip to a North American grocery store with shelves overflowing with abundance, the first Slurpee (my kids were determined he needed that experience), the first time bundled up in layers of jackets, gloves and a hat (while the rest of us celebrated the relatively lovely weather by walking around in unzipped jackets) - the list goes on and on. By the end of the day, he looked completely overwhelmed with the newness of it all.

Pugeni's life is so much different than ours. He is thrilled to be visiting Canada, but he can hardly comprehend all that he is seeing. "You can get milk every day from the store? In Zimbabwe, we rarely have milk available anymore." "These vegetables you're serving for lunch - this is what the rich people eat in Zimbabwe." "I think people in Canada like to drive big cars. And so many of them drive alone." "It seems like people here really like to eat." "Everything is so CHEAP here! You mean you can buy batteries for FOUR dollars?!" "You have it so GOOD here!"

The most humbling of his comments was his response to our house - a house that by North American standards in very modest (and about half of the square footage of an average-sized house). More than once, he mentioned how big our house is. That was even before he'd seen it all. There was a look of shock on his face when I took him downstairs to the family room where I'd prepared a bed for him. "You have ANOTHER room down here?" he asked, incredulously. "My, your house is SO BIG!" And then he spotted our second computer. "You have computers everywhere!"

I started to feel embarrassed about the abundance I was now noticing as I looked around the house and glimpsed it through his eyes. Two rooms full of comfortable couches to sit on. Two tables for people to eat at. Two bathrooms. Shelves and shelves of books. Electric lights to brighten every room. More clothes than we can fit in our closets. A pantry and freezer full of food. Abundance beyond his wildest imagination.

He told us a story of a time when he'd been visiting Botswana. He'd traveled to the local market and had been so surprised to see the availability of meat that he'd bought 7 pounds of it, quite certain that he'd lucked out and visited the market on a rare day when meat was readily available. When he'd arrived back at the house of his host, proud of his wealth of meat, his host had laughed at him and said "but there's ALWAYS meat at the market - we could just buy more tomorrow!" Living in Zimbabwe, where the economy is deteriorating on almost a daily basis, he'd grown accustomed to the scarcity of precious food like meat and oil.

After lunch today, I was glad that Pugeni was out of the kitchen when I loaded the dishwasher. Suddenly I felt embarrassed by the ease of my lifestyle, where water flows freely into a machine that does my dishes for me.

Pugeni is sleeping now, in my "luxurious" basement. Ironically, he almost didn't stay with us, because I usually don't think we have enough room for overnight guests (after all - they have to sleep in the family room because we don't have a spare bedroom). How could I ever think that, with all of this space? Why do I still always want more? Why have I never noticed just how much food is sitting on our pantry shelves? Why do I worry about my ratty furniture and stained carpets?

I hope I remember the look on Pugeni's face the next time I wish my house were just a little bit bigger.


Michele said...

I sure was happy to meet him today. What a cool person. What an amazing experience to host someone coming to Canada for the first time.

Anvilcloud said...

It's a good thing you're doing, and don't beat yourself up over being a product of your culture. So there! lol

joyce said...

"product of your culture"- that's brilliant! And how I feel so much of the time. Yet, we're daily, continuously vulnerable to it.
I'm glad you shared this.

Karmyn R said...

I think there should be a requirement that sends all over-indulged 18 year olds to a 3rd world country for 4-6 months to live. That way, they'd appreciate what they have at home so much more. And yes - maybe we need to have someone come stay with us to feel the same in return.

Linda said...

As I continue to cull stuff from my house, I am amazed at everything my family has collected over the years.

Thanks for this reminder. Pugeni seems like a very neat person. I liked what he had to say.

andrea said...

Great reality check Heather. I have felt blessed just coming back from spending long periods of time in countires like Mexico and Greece, so I can't even imagine what it must be like from Pugeni's perspective. And I KNEW our house was too big! :)

Dale said...

Still though, I feel selfish. Thanks, Heather, for a thought-provoking post.

Judy said...

I have a friend who hosted a woman from Bangledesh one fall. She could not find any way at all to explain all of the 'squash' piled up on porches in October.

When did it get so hard to live simply?

Pamela said...

I'm convicted... I was just complaining about my bedroom furniture yesterday.

Janet said...

Every time I come by to visit your blog I take something important away with me. Today, this post was the "something important".

Thank you.


Alyson & Ford said...

What a great story - isn't it true the giver is more blessed than the receiver?

Alyson LID 01/27/06

disa said...