A New Perspective on an Old (But Increasingly Resilient) Issue

One big, well-marketed reason for studying abroad (besides cheap drinks) is perspective. By removing yourself from the familiar and forcing you to face in everyday life a different reality, studying abroad should give you, unless you spend all your time downing lager at the local pub, a new one. It is hoped that this newfound perspective will, as stated on the Education Abroad Program (EAP) website, prepare you for “life and a career in a rapidly globalizing world.”
This EAP perspective is usually an investment — albeit an expensive one — in the future. The returns on this down payment are not expected to kick in until sometime in the nebulous, ill-defined, post-program period. However, these are strange times. In the current economic crisis, I have already found my EAP perspective useful. The returns, if we are to stick to financial metaphors, kicked in early. If only the same could be said about the stock market.
The way we interpret things depends significantly on the context we have to place them in. When no such context exists, the result is confusion. I suspect you and I both had no context for this crisis. Nothing of this scale has happened in our lifetimes. We might have resigned ourselves to slower growth and declining dominance, but we weren’t prepared for this.
All of a sudden, as the American economy went from wobbly to downright frightening, I began to fear the future. I had always assumed that I would be okay. After watching my parents successfully weather the tech bubble, I felt certain that I could muddle through any recession. However, after seeing giants like American International Group (AIG) and Washington Mutual falter, I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was different and infinitely more frightening.
At first, the added circumstance of being abroad did not help. I felt helpless and separated. My main link to the situation came from the news Web sites I prowled compulsively. Day after day, I read one headline after another, alarming, but remote from the realities of my daily life. Even as the federal government scrambled to restore some semblance of order into the market, the beleaguered dollar actually gained against the rand.
When I arrived in South Africa on July 12th, one dollar was worth 7.69 rand. Now, at the beginning of October, one dollar is worth 8.44 rand. So in the midst of the worldwide economic crisis, I actually have more money now than I did when I got here. Somehow that made everything, especially the idea of coming back home to the U.S. in December, even scarier. Nothing made sense anymore.
When I sat down to write this column, I intended to write about my disorientation and hysteria. It was going to be a 900-word panic attack, a written and less interesting version of Munch’s “Scream” painting. Fortunately, as often happens, the act of writing forced me to stop and think, something I should consider doing more often. Thus with reflection, came perspective and with that some much needed composure.
Sometimes, in order to really see something, it is necessary to step back and look to something else altogether. In my case, I stopped checking my inbox and started thinking about South Africa.
South Africa has the most advanced economy in Africa. Every morning, men and women in pinstripes commute from Cape Town’s many suburbs to the city center where they spend the day working in a cubicle in some high rise just like their American counterparts do. However, despite these trappings of a first tier economy, it still retains the flavor of an older, less developed economic system. It is an economy that has seen its gross domestic product grow by more than 6 percent a year, but still faces a 23 percent unemployment rate; one that sees multi-million dollar seaside estates next to a makeshift settlement of corrugated metal shacks. Like everything else here, the economy is a complex mass of contradictions.
To see the South African economy is to see the tremendous costs of economic weakness. Every week, when teaching my students in the township of Khayelitsha, I am exposed to terrible poverty. Packs of unemployed men make walking its streets unadvisable. Entire families crowd into rusted shipping containers. A stand of porta-potties serves the needs of hundreds.
Yet, it is also remarkable to see the resilience of people living in economically deprived conditions. The people here are surviving, making do with what little they have. A brave little pink shack bears a hand-painted takeaway sign. People craft empty Coke cans into flowers and ingenious little toys to hawk in town. Others take advantage of touristic voyeurism by charging a fee for popular township tours. Here, people are making a life out of nothing.
I doubt that the American economy will ever get this bad (knock on wood). If it did, the consequences would be horrifying. However, the people of Khayelitsha and the countless others living similarly around the world are comforting proof of human resourcefulness and strength. It’s a reminder that even if banks fail and markets fall, life goes on. That is the greatest lesson in perspective of all.
I am sure EAP would be proud.