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Privileged Beyond Belief

Written on: Wednesday November 12th, 2008

A journal entry from: Internship to Lithuania 2008!!!

Being privileged in Canada and being privileged in Lithuania are two completely different things.  Initially, my reaction was 'well, of course I'm not privileged!  I work hard for everything I get, and don't expect things handed to me on a silver platter'.  However, when I think about everything that I have or can achieve here in Canada, especially in comparison with the children in the orphanage in Lithuania, my answer immediately shifts to 'well, how can I not be privileged???  Look at where I live!  I have a family that loves and cares about me!  I can work, go to school... be and do anything that I want!'  These kids feel privileged when they're chosen to go shopping at the grocery store!  While I always knew I had it pretty good in Canada, it was not until this summer that I truly saw how fortunate I am to call myself a Canadian.

I'd like to clarify that I realize there are many other countries and peoples who face the same hardships as those in Lithuania; however, due to my lack of knowledge/experience in those countries I can only comment on what I have seen.  I have not had the opportunity to work in an orphanage setting in Canada (we actually don't have any in Ontario - there are only foster homes) - I am sure that many Canadians themselves face the same life-situations as my Lithuanian kids... so in that regard  I can consider myself privileged even in comparison to fellow Canadians. 

Reading through the very long list of 'white privilege' daily effects, I am ashamed to say that many could apply to me, both in Canada and Lithuania.  Throughout the summer, I was often mistaken for a native Lithuanian, with the assumption being that I was Alana's (my fellow intern) interpreter.  A moment's glance at the two of us, and the entire town knew that at least one of us was 'foreign'.  It was an interesting situation, for although I could fit in looks-wise in Alytus, socially, mentally and verbally I was struggling to find my place in Lithuanian society just as much as Alana.  However, I seemed to be more 'accepted' as 'normal' - despite my own 'foreignness', it was Alana that many considered to be 'exotic'.  We often joked that she must be 'the only brown girl in Lithuania', for all the extra attention paid to her race!  I can recall a few instances when friends needed to know what Alana 'really' was - Native?  Indian?  Surely not 'Canadian'!!  I also found that in many social situations, I often became the one that Lithuanians would approach to translate with, even after they learned that I too was Canadian, and could not speak the language.  Now, this may be due to a variety of different reasons, and not even be race-based at all - perhaps people viewed me as 'more outgoing' or perhaps thought that I had a better grasp of Lithuanian - I have no idea.  Or, perhaps it is because I am 'white like them' - subconsciously Lithuanians felt that they could identify and communicate with me more based on the colour of my skin.  Regardless, it became very evident to me over the course of the summer that my whiteness allowed me to be accepted easily into Lithuanian society.

Monetarily, it was obvious from the very beginning that Alana and I were extremely privileged, even to us.  We literally lived a 'luxurious' life in Lithuania - we were able to travel many weekends, went to the spa, lived in one of the most expensive apartments in town, could buy any food we wanted, and could go out to restaurants and movie theatres multiple times a week if we felt the urge.  In our case, it was because the exchange rate was phenomenal - we could do all these activities at half the price we would normally pay in Canada.  Where else could you get a nice apartment for $250/month?  With our friends, we literally went out to a restaurant twice the entire summer - and once was just for drinks.  When we would invite them to join us, money was the most often reason as to why they could not come.  With the children, we were able to take them out for ice cream, coffee, to grocery shop, and provide little treats such as gum, candy and colouring books.  I sometimes felt embarrassed that I could afford to do all these things - why should I be able to do all these fun and social activities, when these children have next to nothing to call their own, and my friends can barely afford to put gas in their cars?  What makes me so special?  I realize that this is just part of the whole international experience.  I am fortunate to come from a country where I am able to spend money on more than just the 'necessities' of life, and have a family that supports and helps me when needed. 

While our 'richness' initially appeared as a positive to Alana and me, it ultimately backfired on us, becoming our biggest burden.  During our last weekend in Alytus, our keys and cell phone were stolen from our apartment.  The next night, three men attempted to break into our apartment while we were home, unable to call for help.  It literally was the most terrifying experience of my life, and one that I never wish to surpass.  Thinking about the reasons why these men would want to do this, two come to mind: 1) We had nice new laptops, MP3 players, cameras, money... all the luxuries that most Lithuanians can only dream of... and 2) We were two females living alone that should be 'put in our place'... we should learn our proper gender roles (please see past blogs for more info).  Either way, our comforting Canadian privileges of money and the standard of gender equality that we are accustomed to were shattered.  Alana and I were lucky that night, 'privileged' have you will: they did not succeed in entering our apartment, despite their numerous attempts.  We were fortunate enough to have friends and a boss that did everything in their power to help us, and we returned to Canada - shaken, but in one piece.  I realize however that this is not an experience that could only happen in Lithuania; this could happen to me here in Aurora, in South Africa, in France, in Australia.  Privilege is not only evident when traveling to another country - it is seen be all at all times.  I was foolish to think that my privileges were only noticed by me.  Though I never intended to flaunt my fortunate lifestyle in front of others, I think that some became bitter by all the opportunities that are available to me.  It disgusts me, because I know that I don't deserve to have more than anyone else.  The question is, how can I go about rectifying this?  Is it even possible?  If I give my money away to those in need, does that make it all better?  Or is that just a cop-out?  I will still be a white middle-class Canadian after all, with 'the world at my fingertips'.  Truthfully, I have absolutely no idea how to go about making the world a more equitable place.  I hope that by listening, thinking, feeling and growing hopefully one day I will have a better outlook on privilege.

I thank you all for reading my ramblings - I hope that my thoughts were easy to follow, and that perhaps you too were able to identify with me on some level.  My experience in Lithuania is one that will forever be looked on with fondness, appreciation, laughter, tears and most importantly, love.  These children opened my eyes to the reality of the world, and the perserverence and kindness that is possible in all.  I hope that I have been able to make an imprint on their hearts just as they have on mine.  To Globos Namai, A? myliu jus, forever and always!