The Gender Wage Gap Myth

22 04 2017

Twice in the past week I found myself engaged in an ad nauseum facebook debate with different people about the gender wage gap. Specifically, people (all white cis hetero males) who believe that there is no wage gap between men and women, or that it is at least greatly exaggerated in the news. As an intellectual, I immediately was surprised by their position, and thought to myself, “Is he right?” And if so, where is the discrepancy in our positions?

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One anti-gapper claims that women actually make MORE than men in major metropolitan areas… (… if they are young… and single… and childless. And who knows what other factors.) And he was seriously using this to declare that the wage gap doesn’t exist. Which made me think, where the heck are these guys getting this information?? They aren’t making this stuff up. They really, truly have been convinced by someone, somewhere, that the gender wage gap is some sort of giant hoax perpetrated against men by (presumably) a very well-organized group of people with nothing better to do than spend their lives fighting a made-up inequality. When I read the drivel that this one person shared as their “proof,” I was appalled. I’d encourage you NOT to waste your energy reading this clickbait written by Ben Shapiro, but, as a critical thinker, I do like to cite my sources and let people read the original content… unlike this dude, who quotes some statistics with no way to actually fact check him, and relies heavily on an article from the Washington Examiner for most of his other support. (If you do choose to read this- brace yourself for contradictions within the article.)

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I generally do not engage with people who refuse to read data that contradicts their personal opinion, so after one or two exchanges, I will simply ignore them and move on to something more productive. Thankfully, I have some amazing male friends who stepped in to counter the arguments by the instigators of the “wage gap myth” argument. One even paused to apologize to me if he was mansplaining, and I thanked him for his endurance at arguing on the behalf of myself and all feminists. (See the end of the article for the entire Facebook discussion)

 

One privileged male, who is quite intelligent (we’re also related, so… ya know…), simply asked me, “Don’t you think that if companies could hire women for 20% less, they would, and men wouldn’t get the jobs?” That’s a great point, I thought to myself, since I had stopped responding to him on Facebook already. I wanted to get the answer. After all, maybe my data IS outdated. I assume the wage gap is shrinking, after all the hard work decades of women (and men) have put into understanding the reasons for the wage gap and trying to actively counter those.

 

So, I spent some time searching for current data to see if we have truly managed to eliminate the age gap. Is our struggle for equality finally over?!?

 

The answer is simply- NO. But, there was such a great depth of information, sliced and diced so many ways, that I thought it might be helpful to use this fact-based data to counter the points of those who simply choose to believe that there is no gender wage gap. My sources? The U.S. Senate’s Joint Economic Committee issued an update on this very topic, a detailed report titled, “Gender Pay Inequality,” published in April 2016. For those of you who don’t have the time to critically read all 58 pages of this report, perhaps the TOC will give you insight into the depth of research conducted to support each and every one of my following points.

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Myth #1: Men don’t make more than women… or if they do, it’s only 3-5% more.

First, even if it’s only 3-5% more- now, you may need to double check my math on this, I am a grrrl, after all, but- 3-5% more is still… MORE. Secondly, let’s look at the data. Typically we’ve been hearing the recited information that women make (pick your favorite number) 75 cents on the male dollar. Or 85% of what male equals get paid. Or somewhere in there, right? The fact is, there IS a lot of variation. It depends on things like race, age, parental status, location, etc.

gender wage gap by race

Myth #2: Today, female graduates make just as much as male graduates coming out of college.

It is absolutely true that the gender wage gap varies with age, so the gap IS much smaller at the start of your career. But, while there ARE cases where women graduates are earning equal pay to their male peers, it is not an absolute truth, and ignores the ramifications of even a slight inequality down the road.

gender wage gap age

So, let’s go back to that math thingy. It’s okay, I’ll walk you through it. Einstein once said, when asked how it felt to be the man whose inventions changed the world as we know it, responded, “I didn’t invent compounding interest.” So let’s say my recent college grad, Jill, is making just 1% less than her male counterpart, Jack. It’s just 1%, right? Don’t get your boxers in a bunch? They are smart kids, and make bank with their engineering degrees, and she’s still making $99,000 a year. So, when it comes time for a raise (assuming they both get that opportunity in the same amount of time), that first 10% raise translates into a BIGGER INCREASE in salary for Jack than Jill. So Jack now makes 110,000, but Jill only makes $108,900. The gap between them increased in just the 1st year of their careers. That means that, over the entire course of their careers, not only did Jill start out making slightly less, but every single raise she gets- even if identical in percentage, equates to less and less money than her male equal. Then consider the facts that she’s less likely to negotiate her raise, less likely to be given a raise as frequently as Jack, and her raise is likely going to be a smaller percentage (more on this later). Suddenly, at the end of her career, she’s retiring with significantly less earned income, less savings, and has less to retire on. In 2014, the median annual income of women ages 65 and older was $17,400, only 56 percent of men’s the same age.

Jill is 1.6 times as likely as Jack to live in poverty once they reach age 65, and nearly twice as likely to live in poverty once they reach age 75.

gender wage gap retirement

Myth #3: Women make choices that lead to them making less money

 

Holy smokes, this one is pervasive! Where to begin?? Phew! Okay, first, let’s break this down.

  1. Women choose to start families.

So…. You do know where babies come from, right? It generally involves a penis. Or at least semen. Do you know where semen comes from? Yes, good job! It comes from men. Historically, the burden of childbearing and childrearing were viewed as intertwined, and therefore it was “the woman’s job” to stay at home and raise the kids. In post-WWII decades, as women grew in the workforce and households became dependent on two incomes, somehow this concept persisted. Only in recent generations have we seen a normalization of men choosing to stay at home to raise the kids. And they still get made fun of for it by their peers. This is key.

gender wage gap mommy penalty

As long as we accept the norm that women should be the ones to sacrifice their careers and stay at home- even if only for one year- we are continuing to hold women back. “But some women want to stay at home!” you may hear. Well, duh, of course some of us are the gushingly parental types who couldn’t wait to make babies and stay home to rear them- which is WONDERFUL! But for the rest of the population, we are stuck with a reality that punishes men for staying home (ahem… paid MA-ternity leave), and encourages women to leave the workforce (“your job won’t be waiting for you”). In fact, not only do women get financially punished for having kids, but men actually make MORE once they start a family. Why?? Because regardless of having both  parents working full-time, it is perceived that women will be the ones who will take on more responsibility, and more time off, to haul kids to doctor’s appointments and soccer games, whereas men “have a family to provide for,” and therefore need more money. These subtle gender role norms lead to frequent subconscious discrimination when it comes to hiring, raises, and promotions.

gender wage gap family sacrifices

  2. If women want to make more, they should ask for more money.

Peer pressure, or societal norms, are a HUGE part of the wage gap problem, because they cause expectations and stress on women who choose to deviate from the norm. A lot of people don’t take the time to listen and learn about the differences in gender norms, but we all recognize them inherently. If a little boy gets in a scuffle in the playground, he might get reprimanded, but he’s just as likely to be taught how to punch back. Little boys are taught to “Speak Up!” and to “Be Assertive!” while little girls are taught “If you don’t have anything NICE to say, don’t say anything at all” and not to be “too pushy.” It’s hard to become the boss without being a little bit “bossy,” yet this word is used as a pejorative when applied to women and girls. Women are also taught to be appreciative and pleasant and “smile”…  not to be confident or demanding.

So what is the result? Only 15% of women feel that they are effective at negotiating,and as a result, just 16-30% of women actually negotiate their salary, according to Salary.com and Monster.com. Whereas men are taught to believe they are worthy of more, and to be aggressive, women aren’t getting that same foundation of confidence and self-worth. However, despite the outdated idea that women are less likely to ask for a raise, recent studies are proving otherwise. In fact, a 2016 study, revealed that women were 25% less likely than men to get a hike in pay when they asked for it. 

 

Myth #4: Women make less because they choose low-paying careers

Do you remember what I said about social norms and peer pressure? My mother was told she could either be a teacher, or a nurse. She’s very smart and wanted to be an engineer, but she ended up becoming a teacher instead. That was it. Nurse or teacher. Because those were careers deemed suitable for women. While we’ve made great strides in combating this reality, girls are still less likely to think they are good at math and science, and the STEM fields suffer from a lack of female workers.

 

It’s true that most careers that are primarily employing women make significantly lower salaries than male-dominated fields. but even in if we focus just on those jobs, there’s still inequality. Even within those female-dominated career paths, men still make more.

gender wage gap low paying jobs

Myth #5: Men actually make LESS than women in big cities

This one really piqued my curiosity. Location DOES matter. The fact is that women DO make more, percentage wise, in some big cities. HOORAY!! Instances of gender equality are wonderful and should be studied to expand to the larger platform!

There are a number of potential factors that lead to a smaller wage gap in big cities. Like…

  • Big cities are home to larger corporations, and international pressures focus more on gender equality than we do in the U.S.
  • There is more competition, and more risk of employees leaving to work for a competitor in a big city, so pay tends to be better for both men and women
  • Denizens of big cities tend to be more exposed to diversity, have different values, and are less prone to the ‘Good Ole Boy’ culture that still remains in many small towns
  • But, on average, men STILL make more than women, even in big cities

 

When you look at the wage gap broken down by congressional districts, you can also see a stark difference that correlates with the number of major cities in each district. But the areas with larger wage gap are not necessarily only rural. Just compare Austin, TX with Salt Lake City, UT, and you can see that being in a large city is not enough in itself to expect to earn closer to male counterparts. So, clearly, if I as a woman am willing to make a major move, I know which parts of the U.S. to avoid.

gender wage gap

Honestly, if I’m able to be mobile, I’m going to cast my net a little wider. There are plenty of other countries that are actively working to install policies to close the wage gap, that include things like new laws on transparency, paternity leave, and other methods to create a culture that values women equally.

gender wage gap world

 

Now, I’m not saying we should throw in the towel on gender wage equality here in the U.S. Our mothers and sisters before us have worked tirelessly to get us to where we are today, and I am incredibly grateful for their hard work! Now we also have phenomenal allies in our male feminists, who love and appreciate the women in their lives, and are equally passionate about breaking down the misogynistic history to help us get closer to true gender equality. We are making incredible progress, and the more we talk about this, the more we can consciously focus our efforts to eliminate the subconscious acts of discrimination. This can be as simple as paying attention to your choice of adjectives when  describing a boy and a girl doing the same activity or achievement. Is he bossy while she is confident? Is she nagging while he is persistent?

gender wage gap over time

Also, to go along with all the data, there are COUNTLESS stories that women are happy to share with you if you bothered to ask us what life is actually  like for us. I have a great example of wage gap reality in my personal life. After our company closed its doors in 2010, I found myself applying for the same job as my male colleague. Identical degrees. Similar work experience (mine was actually greater). Similar age. When my colleague decided to turn down the job offer for a better one, I asked him what they offered him. They offered me $5k less per year. That’s real wage gap. I happen to be educated on things like this, so I am an unusually tough negotiator compared to my female peers, but the best I could get was a pay equal to his original offer. So- YES- the wage gap is real, and I have personally been impacted by it.

 

And here’s that referenced Facebook debate where my friend Eric earns a GOLD STAR for being a fabulous male feminist!

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Trump v. Clinton: The Fear of Bad Temperament in Foreign Relations

4 11 2016

Our Facebook feed has been filled with memes about controversial policies that have everyone up in arms leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The candidates themselves are being busted during debates for saying non-truths (aka ‘lies’). And while these political statements may amount to mostly bravado, with no political will to actually pass any of these ridiculous measures, there are some truly scary ramifications that will come from our next President of the United States.

Believe it or not, the U.S., while being fairly isolated geographically, no longer lives in an insular world. What we do, who we threaten, which international efforts we support, all has dramatic impacts on our national security and our local economy. This is the 21st century, folks. We live in a rapidly changing, completely global economy, and there’s no turning back. We cannot simply say, “eh, we don’t like you guys, and we are going to stop talking to you and just pretend you don’t exist.”

 

Besides alienating ourselves from our international allies, there is a far greater threat to having a leader with no foreign policy experience or knowledge. It’s only a matter of time, I suspect, before “the best temperament” gets us in deep waters with political enemies who possess very real weapons of mass destruction. There’s a reason why we value the term “diplomat.” The leaders of this free nation must be calm, cool, and collected, and capable of seeing the long term ramifications of off the cuff comments about foreign dictators. POTUS simply cannot speak their mind without any filter. This is NOT a tit for tat world we live in, when it comes to foreign policy. Our leaders need to have skin as thick as bark, to choose what is right for our country, not to impulsively react in defense of their personally bruised ego. This has been a long standing element of civil international discourse, and it is not something that can be easily compromised.

 

Imagine, a world in which the President of the United States gets his feelings hurt & lashes out vindictively every time someone disagrees with his approach…

 

england

 

russia

north-korea

ww3





Spanish Hugs

24 03 2014

Recently we hosted a young, international family in our home in Indianapolis. What ensued was a brief, but beautiful series of interactions, with rich cultural exchange.

 

catalan spain mapThe woman, Maria, booked one night to stay with us, explaining that her husband had been gifted a single ticket to go see a basketball game in the Circle City (Indy), and they would be driving over from Cincinnati, Ohio for the event. She also mentioned that they are a Spanish couple, with their 17 month old daughter, visiting the U.S. on a one year teacher exchange. Because it was only a one night booking, I did not spend too much time going back and forth via email to get to know them first. I simply clicked “pre-approve” for their selected date.

 

I had another guest checking out that Friday, and so I asked Maria if we could arrange a later arrival time. She agreed to meet me at 5pm, so that I could get home in time to change the sheets and vacuum before they got there. We’ve only been hosting in our new house for about a month, so I’ve been extra careful to have everything just perfect for our guests’ arrivals. The pillows were plumped, the guidebook was open to a list of local restaurants, and a bottle of filtered water waited for them on the window ledge, along with two blue glasses, and a little blue plastic cup for their toddler. The dogs were outside playing, and I was ready to greet them.

 

I saw them pull up, driving sloooowly the wrong way past our house. Then they saw my little 2-seater hybrid parked in front and decided this was surely the right place. They parked their car, unpacked their things, and slowly approached the front porch. They were a little unsure, because they are new to AirBnB. It’s a weird concept to pay to go stay with strangers in a strange city, at first. But they never regretted it.

 

Maria and her husband, Elliot, warmed up quickly as I welcomed them inside. They started to remove their shoes on the porch, and I ushered them in to remove them in the entry instead. I took their bag and showed them to their room.  She carried her daughter on her hip, and her smile was framed by a clearly European haircut- squarely shaping her face with a flat cut of short bangs, with wisps heading straight down in front of her ears. Her husband had a thin frame, with a casual but tidy appearance, sparkling eyes, and soft, curly hair. After a quick tour of the house, they made themselves right at home, plopping down on the large, pea green and lemon-colored area rug in the foyer. It was clearly the softest spot to let Tatiana stumble around, since the floors were bamboo and ceramic tile. I stood a few feet away, leaning into the white-painted opening to the kitchen, and we continued our conversation.

 

They’ve been in extreme culture shock where they landed in Cincinnati, she explained. He teaches science (in Spanish) in an underprivileged school in the poorest part of the city. Ironically, they are renting a house in the rich, white suburbs. The disparity was starker than they expected, and the behavior of the suburbanites blew their minds.

ohio schools“I would not have believed this if I had not seen it myself,” Maria exclaimed, “they all have to get in their cars just to buy bread!” We talked at great length about suburbia, and the link to the poor inner city schools, about mass transit, and the upsurgence of urban dwellers like us. I tried to do justice in explaining that not every city’s bus system was broken, about how I used to love riding the bus in Ypsilanti or Austin. But here, it is broken.

 

Elliott had an option to stay here for up to three years. They would have considered it if not for the dire situation at the school. He is not allowed to greet his elementary students with hugs and kisses, like he does back home in Spain; that is forbidden in the U.S. public schools, for fear of molestation and abuse. Meanwhile, the children struggle to learn, with grumbling bellies, and anger management issues, but he is not allowed to stop teaching science in order to explain simple life skills, like conflict resolution. His principal is so focused on test scores, he cannot fathom letting his teachers take on the extra problems of hunger, poor role models, and abuse.childhood_obesity_2

 

For Maria, the worst part has been the feeling of isolation. As we were talking about the sense of community that we cherish in Fountain Square (and in Ypsilanti before that), a knock came at the door. It was my friend and nearby neighbor, Jerry, who was dropping off his keys for me to watch his dog and borrow his truck. He was on his way out of town for a weekend trip to Chicago with his wife, but stood briefly to exchange a little Spanish with our Spaniard guests. After just a couple of minutes, he turned to leave, and then reached forward to give me a hug. I wished him a safe trip, closed the door, and turned back to my new guests to revive our great conversation.

 

Maria stared at me, mouth agape, with a corner smile and look of surprise. I cocked my head to one side, questioning her expression. “What is it?” I asked.

“This… this is the first time we have seen this since we have been in the U.S.!” she exclaimed.

“Seen what?” I asked, even more confused.

FREE_HUGS,_in_Hibiyakoen,_Tokyo_Prefecture“To touch another person! We do not see anybody do this here. And for us, this is so normal, to hug and kiss and be close!” she explained.

Wow. My forehead wrinkled in a look of pity. These poor people have not had a simple HUG in all the months that they have been living here! That is so sad!! This is something I take so fundamentally for granted. I surround myself with people who love to hug. I had to learn how to hug when I was 14, because I grew up in a family that never expressed love, and I could never imagine going back to a world without hugs! No wonder they were in culture shock.

 

I wished that I could have plucked them from Cincinnati and transplanted them to my neighborhood. I wished I had more than one day, to show them all the wonderful people I know, and to prove that the stereotypes were just that. I wanted them to see that, while it’s true that we drive our cars way too much, and lock ourselves inside boxes with busy schedules, there ARE people who reject this American lifestyle. I wanted to walk to the market with them and introduce them to my favorite tea guy; to sit in the park and make friends from strangers; to have wine and conversation late into the night with neighbors; but all I had was a few hours with these beautiful souls.


I_Need_HugWe had a wonderful time getting to know each other during their one night stay. They left the next morning around 9:30 am, but not before we had some more rich discussion about our opposing cultural norms. I wished them well, and asked them to please reach out to us with any questions about Indy, or Michigan, before their last road trip in June. I made some wonderful new friends that day, whom I may never see again. As they stood there, waiting to open the front door and be on their way, I smiled and gave them each a big, long, loving hug. Elliot was surprised by the closeness of our embrace, as it seemed so ‘un-American’ to him. Maria let out an audible sigh, and held me for a full thirty seconds.

 

It felt great to be the unofficial hug ambassador on behalf of my country. Send all the Spaniards you’ve got. I’ll hug each and every one of them.





Helllllo, Thailand!

22 06 2013

Now that our Thai exchange student has safely returned to his homeland, it seems like a perfect time to share my first account of Asia. I’ve been thinking about what it was like to first land in Thailand, with all the built up ideas and expectations. We couldn’t have started with a better time of year to experience cultural shock: good ole’ American Christmas!

While most people were still thinking about last minute holiday gifts, I was on a very big plane to fly 23 hours around the world. We were headed far from the twinkling lights, the squeaky white snow, and the carols amplified inside my mom’s vaulted living room ceiling. After the two legs of our journey, the time change, and our first taxi ride in Asia, we stepped out into the warm night air, bleary eyed and exhausted.

537407_408090062606957_1716688836_nIt was 1am on Christmas Day, and we were in Bangkok. We had missed Christmas Eve completely, though it was still 1pm the day before back home. I felt a pang of sadness to know that we were here, in the land of Buddha, on the most special day of the year, and there would be no family to celebrate with. Bethany and I paid our cab driver for the 40 minute ride, stepped into the modern lobby of the western hotel that the airline had directed us to, and approached the counter. Despite my lack of brain functionality, we managed to check in, and a man in uniform showed us the way to our room. We insisted on keeping our packs on our backs as he led the way, too sleepy to think about another option. It’s a good thing they didn’t just hand us a key and send us off, or I’m sure we would have ended up lost in the hotel, passing out in a hallway somewhere after giving up hope.

When we finally arrived at our room, I looked down at the handle, and there, hanging from the clean lines of the modern silver handle, was a 10 inch long red stocking, stuffed with treats, on Christmas Day. I nearly cried. Or maybe my eyes were just stinging from being so bloodshot. Either way, Bethany and I were shocked to see this gesture from the hotel, and happily accepted the stocking as our welcome gift to Bangkok. We stumbled inside, threw down our packs, blissfully brushed our teeth as we looked through the contents of our stocking, and passed out.

When our flight got changed, we had to rebook our hotel, and had brilliantly booked a room right across the street from the airport. We agreed to pay a little more for something with western amenities, since we knew we would be weary travelers by that point. In our brilliance, however, we booked it at the airport from which we were to depart the next afternoon- Don Muaeng- not the airport where we arrived that night. You can imagine our confusion when we were trying to figure out whether or not we could walk to our hotel upon arrival in Bangkok, only to have people tell us it would be a $14 cab ride. We originally had thought we might be able to simply walk to our hotel, but were willing to pay a couple bucks for a ride, just to make sure we didn’t get lost. I’m glad we decided to just pay it instead of searching further, given that the actual distance was worth the 430 Baht fare. The hotel we ended up in was an Amari hotel, very high class, western style, with 5 floors of private rooms and insulated walls that allowed us to sleep like babies.

When I awoke in the morning it was 10am, which meant I had slept more than 8 hours, but not slept the day away. I pulled back the dark curtains to see our view, and was shocked to see that our neighboring buildings were not other high rises, or office buildings, but single story shanties lining a small river to our backside. The corrugated tin roofs were pitched in every direction, with hardly a 90 degree angle in sight. My eyes were immediately drawn to a large, 6 foot long Coca-Cola sign that had been incorporated into the siding of one of the homes. You could see light passing through the gaps in the walls. There were no windows, only openings. They all stood on wooden piers overhanging the river, which also served as a sewer system. The water was littered with plastic bottles and debris, clearly not revered as a natural feature or source of life. The stark contrast with our western decadence, just on the other side of the river, was eye-opening. In the light of day, I could see just how much more indulgent our first night was.1501_408084625940834_1304085743_n

We had just a few hours before we had to walk across the street to catch our next plane to Chiang Mai, so we decided to eat breakfast at our hotel. They had a large spread, with western style eggs, German style muesli, and Asian style fried rice and veggies. There was a fruit smoothie station, where I asked the attendant to make me something that she enjoyed, and attempted to ask questions about what fruits she was putting in. Her English was limited, and she seemed embarrassed to speak, quickly calling on the help of other workers to try to explain. I had a little booklet that showed pictures of Thai fruits, and I pointed to one, asking if it was the same. She thought I wanted to know the English word for it, but what I was really trying to ask was the Thai name. Eventually, we all smiled and laughed when we realized that we were talking about the same fruit, and she beamed brightly when I said the name correctly.394882_408090419273588_1665982724_n

Outside of our hotel, it was hotter than we expected. The night air had been comfortably cool, but in the sun it was already time to remove my long sleeve layer. Bethany and I ventured off of the Amari grounds to explore the surroundings for an hour or so. We had a basic map and an idea of which direction was north, so I felt comfortable just wandering. ‘Flaneuring,’ if you will. We didn’t know where we were heading, but decided to follow our hearts instead of our maps. As we turned down the street, however, it wasn’t quite as friendly as I thought.

There was a narrow strip of sidewalk, but the concrete panels were often broken, or jutting up in a manner that would scream ‘lawsuit’ in America, or missing completely. They covered up what I think may have been a sewer channel, and the missing panels exposed a deep and dangerous pit to be avoided at all costs. Traffic zoomed by us on the busy one way street, with little on either side to force the drivers to stop. We were walking along a service drive for the businesses that lined the expressway, and there were few other people walking around. There were no intersecting roads, and no way to get onto a friendlier street, so we began to question our path, when we saw barbed wired atop the fence to our right. “Are we in the Bangkok ghetto?” I wondered. We were determined to see some of the city before getting on another plane, so we agreed to keep going, at least to the next major intersection.

As we approached the junction, I was relieved to see that there was a street heading off to the right, lined with the colorful bounty of an ordinary street market. Never mind the fact that I had no interest in the t-shirts, soaps, and sundries for sale at each of the 6×6 pop up tents. The point was that they were lining a path to something other than the gray, noisy street that we had been stumbling along for 15 minutes. We turned, and shortly saw a large Buddha awaiting us at the end of the lane. With many locals hanging around, we did not dawdle at the shrine, but quickly bowed to pay our respects, before slipping to the right. Just past the shrine, was a narrow bridge, bowing up from the shadows of the dingy buildings.We did not stop to ask where this bridge went, we simply ventured forth with confidence, so as not to be questioned.

Atop the pedestrian footbridge, we paused to glance up and down the small, dirty river. On one side was commerce. On the other, were innumerous tiny residences, stacked along the river bank like tin cans waiting to be collected from the curb. One of the many, 10×10 structures was actually sided partially with an old Coca-Cola billboard. I wondered how the multinational corporations would feel about this form of advertisement. It appeared that the residents lived in poverty, and densely packed for the convenience of the waterway. This sad little river served as both supply and waste streams for its denizens.885_408084859274144_1786350399_n

Bethany and I looked at each other simultaneously. Do we continue? we asked silently. Yes. Why not. As we turned towards the unknown, a man slowly sauntered past us on this little bridge. His eyes were glazed over with a lost look of opium, and he stared at us as if we were angels incarnate. We shook off his weight, and walked confidently into the alleyway before us. On either side stood the one story shacks, with some two stories on our right, away from the river. We walked past open doorways and screen-less windows, able to peer into the single room dwellings on either side. It made me feel like a voyeur. Like we were spying into their living rooms, walking through their backyards, but the path we were taking was nothing more than the main road to their homes, despite being a mere 4 feet wide. Families sat outside eating lunch together, as we walked past and politely nodded. We were too nervous to attempt to engage them in our limited Thai speech. What if they asked us a question and we couldn’t understand? Or grew angry that two Falongs were walking past where only locals belonged? We didn’t take the chance, though we weren’t fooling anybody about being falongs. Maybe we were fine because we were two women, innocent enough. Or maybe this was a common occurrence? Either way, we explored without incident, and turned back after 20 minutes, so as not to get TOO lost.

On our way back to the hotel, we wandered through a few interior corridors of a market. We laughed as we saw an employee drawing a snowman onto the glass entry doors. Her snowman only had two circles making up its body and head, but we immediately recognized that it needed a third circle. Bethany, unable to censor herself, spoke out in English, trying to explain the missing part, but instead we drew attention to ourselves, as the local crowd stared at us to try to decipher what we were saying. I attempted to shush her under my breath, and we scurried past the confused crowd of shoppers and workers. We weren’t in Kansas anymore.





Preparing to Learn

21 03 2013

Our Thai son is an excellent student, i.e., seriously hard core about his grades. He has to study twice as hard in order to translate his classes to Thai, and he spends most of his waking hours working on this task. He has to plan ahead to take time off on the weekends when we want to take him out to explore Detroit, or to an American football game, etc. These outings sometimes mean that he then stays up late into the night to catch up. Image

The first time that I went to his school it was for an open house event, which I thought meant parent teacher conferences. it was really just an open house for parents to get to see what their student’s schedule was like on a daily basis. As I walked from classroom to classroom, I greeted each teacher in an empty or almost empty setting. I got their undivided attention, since so few parents had appeared, and all of them had nothing but praise for our ‘son.’ “He’s such a joy,” I often heard, “so happy and interested!” I knew then that we had little to worry about.

Recently, we’ve been talking more about school. Despite Bank’s eagerness to succeed, he is facing a classroom where this is not the norm. In algebra, he explained, the teacher does not teach, because the students do not want to learn.

“They talk, they fight, they ignore teach-rr. Student no listen to teach-rr.” Only Bank, and 2-3 other students sit in front and wish for the teacher to actually talk about their assignment so that they could learn enough to go home and attempt the homework.

This is perplexing for our exchange high-school-er. Where he comes from, education is greatly valued and performance is strictly enforced.Image

“Not every student is lucky enough to come to school prepared to learn,” I try to explain. “It’s hard to focus on school when your belly is grumbling, or your mother just told you last night that your family is getting evicted next month.” Image

“Ahh!” he says as he twists his forehead to contemplate. The physical factors play an important role in being prepared to learn, I go on, and this makes it challenging for some students. Plus, some students have been disadvantaged for a long time, and it’s much easier to say, “I’m bored,” than it is to say, “I don’t understand this and I need help.”

Bank seemed to understand this concept, but asked me, “Why are Ypsilanti students poor?” At this, I sighed from across the room, as I prepared to serve myself a second helping of a kale-stuffed, non-rGBH cheese, whole wheat tortilla quesadilla onto my plate. “It’s complicated?” he quickly read into my lack of response. “Yes,” I replied. It’s complicated.

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I went on to explain the concept of how one community could be so affluent, which actually drives lower income residents out to neighboring communities. This was partly a result of a major university that attracted well-to-do students and professors who could afford to pay more for things, like rent and dinner, but this wasn’t the whole picture.

With perfect timing, our housemate, Greg, walked into the dining room, and seamlessly slipped into the conversation. “Well it doesn’t help that there was a booming factory in Willow Run that is now dilapidated,” he observed. Exactly. People who were once middle class, but not college-educated, suddenly found themselves jobless and hopeless. And thus, we found our little town with a sharp schism between affluent and despairingly poor. Another life lesson for our Thai teenager.

What’s amazing to me is that we often think of Americans as having some amazing lifestyle, so superior to other countries… yet, it’s all about where a country places its priorities. The fact that we can live in such a great community, yet still have students coming to school unable to physically receive knowledge, is a horrible tragedy. I may not have kids of my own, but I know where my future is coming from, and it terrifies me at times.