Finding Privilege from a Non-Privileged Background

When I travel to foreign countries, I always like to make an effort to fit into a given society and culture. Since my trip to Cusco, Peru in the beginning of June was my first experience in the continent of South America (and my first time in any Spanish-speaking country for that matter) so I was expecting the unexpected. One of the reasons why I decided to embark on such an adventure, which came as a surprise to my friends and family, was because I felt that I needed to step out of my comfort zone in the Anglophone and Sinophone world. After spending three weeks in Cusco, I learned a significant amount about not only the Cusqueno culture and the Spanish language, but also about my deeply embedded habits and privileges as an American living in the United States for such a long period of time.

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As a minority from a low-income background, I always thought of myself as someone who lacks privilege compared to my peers. When comparing my personal circumstances to others, I usually cannot fathom how fortunate most of my friends and classmates are to have their tuition and university costs covered by their parents. Unlike most of my peers, I am responsible for covering my own tuition, housing situation, food, transportation, and other expenses, including my study abroad trip to Peru, without financial assistance from my parents. Coming from a rough background, I had to learn to be independent from a young age in order to survive. As such, prior to departure date, I did not expect that life could be much worse than mine.

However, my experience in Cusco led me to believe differently about my situation back at home in the United States. When I saw the number of adults and children on the streets of Cusco trying to sell candy, snacks, drinks, knitted and woven goods, and other merchandises on a daily basis, I felt completely different from being in a classroom setting at my university. What caught my attention even more was the number of children I met working at Abre Puertas and Corazon de Dahlia who lived in the outskirts of town and in the elevated areas of the mountains that lacked educational opportunities and privileges that I have as an underprivileged member of American society. For example, I realized that I am still able to enjoy the privileges of having hot water to shower, clean and safe pavement to walk on, more than enough clothes to wear, Wi-Fi to use on a daily basis, and many other perks that low-income Cusquenos are unable to enjoy. Instead of witnessing these norms that are common in my society, I saw the gratitude that these children possessed from not having much at all at Abre Puertas and Corazon de Dahlia. On the other hand, I also witnessed the miserable individuals on the streets begging for money and freezing at night as they try to sleep. The combination of these experiences led me to grasp that my underprivileged status is incomparable to these individuals who have even less than what I possessed.

After arriving back in New York City, I learned that, despite my underprivileged background, I should still be grateful for what I have. More importantly, my experience in Peru fueled my eagerness to land a career that will help the disadvantaged because there are too many problems, some more urgent than others, that need to be solved in the world. Thanks to the financial support I received from the CCPA Latin American Scholarship Fund Award, I was able to gain an understanding of poverty that I did not expect to experience. With this experience, I hope to one day be able to provide service in a broader and more extensive scope, especially to parts of the impoverished world that are less known and, as such, often unreached.

Manshui Lam ’15, MPA candidate

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