Wealth Equals Happiness?

While waiting at the foot of the Bakong temple when my cousin Kristi went up to the top of the towers, I had an interesting discussion with our tour guide Vanna. He asked me at one point about my background, and I told him about growing up in Indonesia but then continuing my education and now living in the United States. He said I must be very fortunate and it must be ‘living the dream.’ He also said that it must be nice living in a wealthy country like the United States as you don’t have to deal with the poverty like in Cambodia. That when I told him that while I certainly agree that I feel blessed and thankful to have the opportunity to get to where I am today, life in the United States may not be as ‘nice’ as it might seem to be to those looking from the outside. It has its own set of problems.

I told Vanna about some contemporary issues that we’re dealing with in the United States. I live in the area of the country that was ranked highest in the list of counties in the United States based on the median household income (in comparison, that number is almost 40 times the average annual income of people in Cambodia). On the surface, it’s a very nice area with many single-family homes, well manicured lawns, nice cars on the street, and people seemed ‘happy.’ But the reality is that a lot of the people here are living beyond their means, and their under heavy debt to finance such nice living. About 1 in every 1,000 homes in the area received foreclosure notice in the last year (and Virginia is actually not doing as bad as many other states in the US like California or Nevada). When I asked Vanna if he’s ever heard of the term foreclosure, I drew a blank stare. Even after I explained the concept of people borrowing money from the bank to purchase a home, and then if they couldn’t pay up, the bank would reposess the home, that idea was such a foreign concept to him that he was very surprised to hear that such ‘wealthy people’ would be in financial trouble like that. I also told him about one of the executives of a large company that manages the home mortgages committing suicide after being under heavy stress on the job. Also, the fact that there are so many broken homes in the United States — divorced parents, the concept of ‘blended family’ with the step parents/children/sibling — a lot of things that was foreign concept in Cambodia. Basically, my point was that even in ‘wealthy country’ like the United States, there are problems, and simply making more money does not really make it problem free — just different kinds of problems.

So what was the point of all of these? I think it shows that sometimes we think ‘the grass is greener on the other side’ and seeing life is better elsewhere. After seeing the difficult life that they live in Cambodia as they are rebuilding from the years of civil war, I can’t fault them for wanting to have what others elsewhere in the world have. However, it’s important also to think that having the material riches does not make life trouble free, and there are also other things in life that contributes to the sense of happiness like the relationships one have, the belief that one has about the meaning of life, etc. In fact I thought it’s interesting to hear frequent comments from visitors to Cambodia about coming to the ‘land of smiles’ where they seem to be greeted with friendly faces everywhere in the country, even when meeting people who may not have much materially. You don’t hear that kind of comment from people visiting to a ‘powerhouse’ city like New York City, for example (in fact my initial impression of New Yorkers from the first business trips I made there was that they are very cold, individualistic, and it didn’t seem to be a friendly place to be around).

As a visitor who is fortunate to have the means to be able to travel and visit places like Cambodia, my lesson learned is to appreciate the gift of life that I have and be grateful of the circumstance I’m in (even though at times life is also challenging/difficult even when you have things materially). I think it’s also important to not be a snob, feeling entitled, and looking down at the locals who may not have as much materially. These folks may have other things that we don’t have (for example, a closer-knit family, or wisdom and contentment that come from perseverance through hard times), and in general I think we should respect the people we’re visiting as we’re merely guests at their home. Also when considering such difference between the income level there and where we come from, I think we should be generous especially when we’ve been provided with great service. And sometimes the gratuity does not have to come in the form of money — it can be in the form of souvenirs/keepsakes from our home country, or even just simply doing something nice for those who serve you, like inviting them for a meal during your trip. You’ll make wonderful friendship (and memories) that way.

The photo below was taken by Kristi from the top of the Bakong temple tower. You could see some locals — looked like they’re female monks — coming to the temple as a group to worship. It’s probably a good example of something rich that they have (culturally, spiritually) that you may not see in other places where the emphasis is more on material things.

Worshipper at Bakong

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