(In)Visibility and (silenced) voices are a big part of my PhD research, but three real life events recently gave me new ideas about visibility, and reminded me of old lessons I had forgotten. These events made me more aware of my ‘bubble’, and how the film of its membrane clouds my vision (kind of like putting in a contact lens just after touching sunscreen/lotion/foundation…)

All these experiences reminded me that traveling pops the cloudy membrane of my bubble… or maybe I stay in my bubble but turn my gaze to get a different view… or maybe I’m looking where the membrane is thinner, like a hole in the ozone layer…

If you make it to the end of this series of posts, you can fix this metaphor for me.

Part 1/3

Last month we visited Thailand, explored more or less successfully depending on the number of gallons of water sweated, the scariness of the dogs chasing us, and the availability of cold Schweppes tonic/lime soda.

What became more visible for me in Thailand was the multitude of ways that people live in the places we visited. This ‘visibility’ popped up in two ways:

  1. Poor people and rich people seem to live in closer proximity to one another than in most of the places I’ve lived.

Katie recently told me that’s something she likes about living in Chicago—that it feels like a place where people have deliberately chosen not to float through the world in a cloudy-membraned bubble, but to live all mixed up with all kinds of other people and all kinds of lives. Certainly that’s not a choice everyone has the liberty of making, but it does make me wonder how we live differently when our neighbors belong to a wide spectrum of socioeconomic classes, as seemed to be the case in some areas of Bangkok and Phuket in particular.

Given that class mobility is pretty low in the US lately, I wonder how this would change Americans’ dialogues to have increased visibility across socioeconomic classes. For example, while looking for apartments in Paris I couchsurfed in a beautifully designed mixed-income apartment complex. I never would have guessed that side of town had much to offer, but I ended up liking the area so much I moved there!

Since we can’t always be traveling or switching apartments, this reminds me of the value of getting outside my own neighborhood. I might think that bakery between my apartment and the library makes the best apple fritters and gluten-free chocolate cake, but maybe it’s just the best thing between me and the library. It wouldn’t do any harm (except to my sugar addiction) to see what baked goods feed the hearts and minds on the other side of the river.

Okay, getting back to Thailand:

  1. Cheap bananas, cheap clothing, cheap pad thai bought from the greatest street vendor may be “cheap” for me, but they come at a price those who make them available to me. This issue is usually metaphorically ‘visible’ to me, but it only becomes physically visible when I travel. This is pathetic I know, but I need to refresh my eyeballs every now and then to remember that my consumption has very real consequences for very real people.

People who live far away from us do not matter primarily because of their relationship to us in global markets. But, if these markets are the most common way that we interact with people across the world, then our (non)participation in them becomes the primary way that we demonstrate or deny our common humanity.  I don’t want to give blanket advice regarding your consumption (here I insert my 20-year-old self putting up flyers around my college campus that shout “Buy Fair Trade!” “Buy organic!” “Support women-run cooperatives!”) as if choosing the certain labels will mean everyone has enough to eat, education for their kids, and a safe, dry bed, because it won’t. I will just say that this trip reenergized me to think about what it means for the banana farmer and the banana-picker and the banana deliverer and the banana vendor when bananas are unbelievably cheap.

So, what is dangerous about living in a bubble where the answer to that question, “what does it mean for other people?” is not visible, in my face, on a regular basis? When I am in my cloudy-membraned bubble the myriad answers to this question fade away to a theoretical, abstract thinking. I lose my grasp on the sense of humanity and inviolable dignity of the people outside my bubble. Face-to-face interaction is more powerful than I like to admit.

Travel may not sound efficient, but I do think it is a highly effective solution. To struggle to say hello correctly, and joke about small things with the pad thai vendor, to hike up the hills, to see people coming home on their motor bikes and wonder if they sold enough bananas to buy food for dinner and gas. When we cross paths every day, when my bubble shares a membrane with other peoples’ bubbles I remember how much they matter.