That’s Rich, or is it?


“How could you tell we’re American?” I asked the shop keeper leaning back against the wall of his store, casually smoking a cigarette.

“You look like rich people,” he said. 
No one had ever called me rich before. At least, not to my face. Then again, it’s not often that I get out of my own country. Now, here we were, my mother, husband and I, half way around the world, finally getting a decent cup of coffee in the Arabic quarter of Old Jerusalem, stretched out around one of Faris’ umbrellaed market tables.
Just then, a group of 30 fair skinned, tall and similarly dressed people, many with their own cigarettes, crowded by. They were followed by another pilgrimage, equally white and tall, but with slightly more European brands and definitely more soccer (excuse me: football) jerseys. 
“Russian, German.” Faris nodded as each passed by. He smiled. “But not American.”
Faris and I had a good conversation that night and the following Thursday when I swung by his shop again. I could fill blogs and blogs with his insight and experience—and maybe I will some day.  But my thoughts—and my ego—have yet to escape that one annoying stereotype: he thinks I’m rich!
I kept talking to him because I wanted to justify myself, but I never got a word in edgewise. He had a lot on his mind that first night and had stumbled upon a willing Western audience. Maybe that happens to him a lot, but it doesn’t to me. So, for once I let someone else do the talking. I listened and learned.
Faris taught me about being Palestinian, about what it really means to live and work in Old Jerusalem, the beauty of Islam, and even some of his own family history—he was newlywed with an infant son (we shared iPhone photos). We talked a lot about Israeli-Palestinian relations and the persecution his family and others like him had endured. His family had owned this city block in Old Jerusalem for generations (four or five by his count), but recently had to sell to the State. As a Palestinian in Old Jerusalem, he cannot move, he cannot travel. He has his shop and his home and his family. 
But they sold a city block. They had owned a city block. I let that sink in.
Poor I understand. Years ago, I visited colonies of people living in the gigantic land fill of Tijuana with rotting boxes for homes. For me, that inspired a lifetime of service-on-the-side. I’ve seen absolute poverty.
But what does it mean to be rich? I’ve never owned a city block. But, I own my own home, with help from the bank. I also own a lot of useless crap (much of which I try to lose by donating to someone else). And, obviously, I was on an international trip. That I did not (and actually could not) pay for it myself doesn’t negate the fact that I had come to Faris, not he to me.
So what does it mean? Hundreds of years ago, if your friend had a horse, well, she was rich. Sometime later, you judged her wealth based on how she lit her home: was it electric? Then came cars, then televisions, then personal computers. Today, right now, some large portion of the world’s population has international internet access via a smart phone. Not a cell phone, mind you, a smart phone. I read somewhere more people own these than have ever owned televisions. 
That was evident in Jordan where we saw Bedouin shepherds out in the dust and the heat with goats and tents —and smart phones. Were they rich? Not by many definitions–although there is definitely something to be said about the richness of their history, community and family values. We visited Jordan before Israel, so, the notions of “rich” and “wealth” were already knocking around in my head days before I met Faris and heard his pronouncement.
Look, I know there are studies out there from the World Health Organization, the UN and many others examining this exact question. There is even an international definition and established standard. But most people wandering about in the world do not refer to these  when they begin a conversation. When strangers from different cultures meet each other, sum each other up, and decide to try to talk to one another, they immediately form and categorize standards of their own—effectively judging the other person. 
Forget what’s been researched. When it comes right down to it, the matter of wealth is used to determine worthiness. It’s absolutely personal. 
Faris had accused me of being rich. In my world, my subculture of Americana, being rich isn’t cool. It’s spoiled, wasteful, lazy, sheltered and lacking “real world” experience—think Jamie Lee Curtis as the working girl examining Dan Aykroyd the neophyte’s hand in Trading Places:  “Soft hands,” she says. “You’e never done a hard day’s work in your life!” Tsk! Tsk!
Where I come from, that’s the stereotype. So, without knowing it, Faris had insulted me. Of course I kept talking to him. I was hoping to prove to him that he was wrong. I’m not the things the word ‘rich’ implies; I’m a hard working, equally suffering, fair and kind worthwhile person.
So, I wound up not explaining myself. I sat down, shut up, and listened. Would a rich and snobby person sit down for over an hour  allowing himself to be so educated—then come back for more? My own stereotypes and judgements screamed: no! I kept my word and returned to Faris three days later, seeing him one last time before I left his country—probably forever (I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford to go back).
The fact remains: Faris was right. On an international macro-economic scale, I am rich. Even the lower middle class American is still in the top 1-5% of wealth on a world-wide scale. Unfortunately, the American stereotype around the world is probably closer to my own personal stereotype of a rich person. (Ironically, I know this because Israel was not my first international trip–oh, the hypocrisy!) 
Yeah, most of the world thinks Americans are rich, i.e. dumb and lazy. That doesn’t mean we have to be assholes about it.
I desperately wanted Faris to see me differently. I wanted us to be equals: two-middle class people commiserating about the state of the world, hearing one another and becoming allies.  
I hope by listening, I proved it.

5 thoughts on “That’s Rich, or is it?

  1. It’s an interesting moment — and a strong argument in favor of doing a lot of rough(er) global travel — to see how we compare our lives to those of others. Owning a lot of stuff (TVs, phones, etc) means very little if (which is often the case in the U.S.) you have no job security (other countries have strong unions) or paid maternity leave (standard in many places) or affordable, truly affordable health care available to all…or stronger social/family ties that supplants or replaces a social safety net.

    Americans are rich in “stuff” but live in a sort of daily economic anxiety that is alien to many others.

    • We Americans really do “live by our stuff.” And I like your point on our daily economic anxiety. I wonder: is that the price we pay for our blatant refusal to adopt anything seen as even remotely “socialist” or “communal?”

      If I could, I’d sell some of *my* stuff for the cash to take on rougher global travels (that would be fantastic!), but I know no one will buy it. They already have it.

      • Yes, yes, yes and yes.

        Americans are deeply attached to the notion of dog-eat-dog, the rugged individual, blablabla…when we are nothing more than cogs in the highly efficient machinery of unregulated capitalism. We’re labor. That’s it.

        It seems very few people ever question this (at all) or are willing to sever ties with it to forge some other (less lucrative, often) path. I grew up in Canada, whose social and economic policies are very different and those have very much affected my POV.

        True. 🙂

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