“How was your trip?” A necessary and welcomed question, usually followed by a description of some event that happened or a couple of pictures. A quickly forgotten conversation by the asker but not by the teller. Coming back from Mongolia, answering this question countless times left me with another: How could I ever tell people that seeing real poverty made me want to change the world without being that kid who never stopped talking about his trip to Mongolia?
Seeing poverty in its purest form moved me in a way I never could have predicted. One of the service aspects of my trip to Mongolia entailed delivering food to the people of Sogoog; one bag of flour, one bag of pasta, and a couple of other smaller goods for a single family. This delivery would need to last these families for several weeks. In my world, these supplies would last my family one night.
When I dropped off the food, I was surprised by how I was welcomed into the houses of strangers. With beaming smiles, they allowed me to enter into their homes not fearing judgement in the slightest. When I looked at their cracked walls and dirty attire, one part of me felt guilty, but as soon as I saw their faces, I realized that they were the ones who had it all figured out. These families were elated to have us privileged foreigners cramming into their crumbling dwellings, yet we stay in our suburban lives wondering if our bay windows poke out too much.
Genshu, Aishu, and Kinshu were a trio of sisters who ran over to my camp as soon as I arrived in the West. Within ten minutes, I was giving more piggyback rides than I thought my legs could handle. When I mistook the youngest girl, Genshu, for a boy because of her short hair, I discovered the girls belonged to the poorest family in Sogoog. Genshu wasn’t a boy; her mother was just forced to shave her hair because she couldn’t afford shampoo.
When I entered the girls’ home, their grandmother brought out a few pieces of candy as well as bread and butter. It was everything they had. This is when I realized I was living my life completely wrong. I felt a sense of guilt that I had not made the most of the opportunities given to me from my privileged background. I knew I couldn’t be distracted by this guilt, though. I needed to finally practice what Gandhi has told me millions of times: “Be the change you want to see in the world”.
I returned from Mongolia late at night. It must have been around 10 pm when my sister and I pulled into the North Avenue McDonald’s. I stepped up to the electronic cashier to order my food, not really feeling like reality was reality. Just two days ago, I was shampooing Genshu’s scalp. Now, I was selecting an instant hot meal through a touchscreen wall. I’d like to say that this disparity made me sick, but it didn’t. I destroyed that quarter pounder.
I was changed when I came back from this trip. It wasn’t for the better or worse (maybe the better), but I felt almost uncomfortable in my own skin. I just spent three weeks in the part of the world farthest from the ocean and even farther from my town, and it felt like I never left. So what is this feeling I still can’t shake? I felt more responsible about what I could control. If someone were to have thrown a bottle out the window while I was in the car before the trip, I would disprove of their actions but I probably wouldn’t have said anything. Now, I had to speak up. Two years later, I still feel the same way. If I don’t, who will?