One Foot on Each Side: Experiencing Money on Both Ends
By Saimon Islam ‘19
As long as I can remember, I have always known that my family is financially struggling. I was taught to be frugal and to be able to live on little from an early age. To be honest, it didn’t really seem to put me at a disadvantage. My parents gave me the most they could. As the youngest child and only son in Bangladesh, I had a much better experience than my sisters did. Since I grew up in a poor neighborhood, I thought that things like going on family vacations, eating out, going to concerts, and going to movie theaters were luxuries that weren’t for people like me or my family. The first trip I ever went on by myself was in high school. I went on it after saving up from my two jobs. I had friends who are economically more advantaged, and they enjoyed a lot more of the finer things in life. My family has always softly acknowledged our lack of assets and cash-flow without ever talking about it. But I had no earthly idea what it’s like to live a life that I considered to be only reserved for the rich, the top 5%. The allure of that promise was a big factor behind my parents supporting my decision of coming to USA for college.
Fast forward two years, and I am a third-year student now. Previously I have held jobs that are available through the student work-study program from financial aid services. But that wasn’t cutting it anymore. So I decided to get a job at the school dining service, and now I am wearing the uniform of a school employee. I serve my peers food, clean up after them, and befriending coworkers who are local residents. At first, I didn’t give my experience much thought. Then I noticed something, and kept noticing it over time. Many of the people I see on a regular basis around me, those who acknowledge me with a smile or greetings, their behavior changed a little as I was passing by them, taking the trash out, preparing meals behind the station. They either weren’t acknowledging me as much, or they were just forgetting that I worked there. It is a very common thing to miss someone in a room, after all. We are all running around with an assortment of thoughts occupying our attention, and it was a subtle change. Perhaps, it’s all in my mind. In the meanwhile, I had befriended several school staff from various departments through my colleagues. I casually mentioned my confusion and one immediately replied, “Oh, you’re feeling the ghost behind the counter syndrome. Yeah, you’ll get used to it”. Admittedly, I was curious about the terminology. So they went on to explain that when they are working in their uniform, the students often just see them as “staff”. So, often the person will just look unrecognizable to them. One shared their experience of how they see the students around them in Walmart, Cookout, or other places and experience the same “ghosting” despite having regular communications throughout the year. Another said, “they probably just have a hard time recognizing us outside the uniform.” We then moved on to other topics, but the conversation stayed with me. How often does that happen? How does it make them feel? I was only experiencing it rarely, but enough that it registered in my mind.
Later, I asked a friend who worked in the catering service how he felt about it. He talked about how he felt like he couldn’t communicate properly with the students. When the students would mention their rough days, he couldn’t say he was on his 12th hour of a 14-hour shift, after which he has to drive back for an hour to a house where the heat sometimes doesn’t work, only to come back here bright and early the next day. He felt humiliation and a sense of guilt he couldn’t express. He talked about how much it sucked that he worked around people his age all day but couldn’t think of living the same standard of life. He felt like he couldn’t socialize with them, and the occasional ghosting here and there (unintentional as they may be), only compounded on that general sensation of bitterness. So, he stopped trying to socialize with students and “continue making their food and drinks”. I wanted to say so much to him after he shared. All I did say was, “there are students who could really relate to your life. More than you might think”.
It’s my second year working there now. And I can see where he is coming from. When I am working, it feels like a different world on the other side of the counter. There might be students with all kinds of background in there, but when they are in line in front of the register, the Canada Goose, American Eagle, Vineyard Vines, Walmart, Goodwill- those ranges mix together. It’s difficult to tell those differences apart, especially when the dynamic remains like this. Is there a way to resolve this? I don’t know. I can only identify what I observed.
The interesting thing is, I didn’t think I would get to experience the other side of this experience. Last spring, I got to go to Ghana and work there for a month on a school project. We were hosted by the elite society of the city. When we traveled around, we stayed in hotels and beach resorts. We were eating $6 meals with total cost adding up to $25/day including drinks in a country with a minimum wage of $2.1/day. One night, I walked out of one of the poshest clubs of Accra and randomly walked into a street party, and I saw the cars driving in and out of the club. At that moment, I realized that, to the natives, I must be incredibly rich. I am regularly dining and drinking and staying at places they can only walk by and look at. They had no way of knowing that some of us were on the trip only because of the grant we received, that no one in my family had ever stayed at a beach resort let alone enjoy the other luxuries I was enjoying in Ghana. To them, I was an amalgamation of the students with me. And this separation of experiences is what created the division I felt and still continue to feel.
I know that just because the way things are right now does not mean they have to stay this way. Has this division always been there? I wouldn’t know. Such is the nature of this system. We are only here for four years, and often for my friends and coworkers working for the school, it lasts a lot longer than that. All I can say is, as I look back on what I have learned in college that I will carry with me, our privilege isn’t determined by how much money or what assets we have. It’s partly determined by how we are perceived by those who live in a better or worse condition than us, but mostly it’s the sense of security. I have given up explaining to people why I am not pursuing a career in film or why I am working 20 hours a week on top of classes, studies, and job search. Hopefully sharing my experience will contribute to having a more nuanced conversation than The Diverge article “Money Blindness” recently attempted to start.