Money On My Mind

McDonald’s was something of a treat for us when I was growing up. We rarely ever went out to eat because it simply wasn’t economical. Every Friday afternoon, my dad would pick us up from school and our whole family would drive half an hour to the nearest mall. My sister and I would spend the afternoon dreaming our way through racks and racks of clothes we could never afford, and we’d all go to McDonald’s for dinner. It’s funny, but since I’ve gotten chances to try so many different restaurants in college, it’s my mom’s Vietnamese home-cooking that I constantly crave.

My parents worried about being able to send me to college. They could help me memorize my times tables and made sure I had enough to eat and buy me notebooks, but college was a monster that they couldn’t help me fight. It taunted them endlessly and initiated many arguments between the two of them, probably even more than I’m aware of. I’m not sure who was more relieved, them or me, when I found out I was accepted as a QuestBridge Scholar to Penn. Most of the people I interact with don’t really know what my financial background is like. Due to my generous scholarship, I’ve been able to fit in well enough among my peers.

Momos are Tibetan dumplings that bring to mind Japanese gyoza; they’re pretty popular here in India. There’s a guy that sells them pretty close to my hotel, and we often grab some after work or dance practice. Five chicken momos cost a mere 30 rupees. 50 cents. 10 momos for a dollar.

We interns spend about the same as we would in the states whenever we go out to eat. Back there, paying $10 for a meal wouldn’t be unusual. That’s like a Chipotle burrito bowl with a side of guac and some change. That’s like almost 10 dumplings. That’s like 600 rupees (Rs).

The average salary for a tailor at Shahi is about 6000 Rs, or $100, per month. Talking to many of the girls during our time here revealed that they only allow themselves about 1000-1500 Rs per month for food, opting to send the rest back home to their families. The money is very important in helping fund their siblings’ education and ensuring the general family welfare, which is why many of these girls were encouraged by parents to find employment in the first place. It is therefore essential that they are able to save and to send back as much money as they can.

Let’s take a moment to think about these 1500 Rs though. That’s less than a dollar per day. It’s one thing to be told that 20% of the world’s population live on less than a dollar per day, and it’s an entirely different thing to see that reality in front of your eyes and hear it over and over again every single day for a couple months. There were many different factors that Amy and I encountered while trying to piece together the overarching issue of malnutrition, and money was definitely a huge problem. Perhaps a potato and rice diet was due to habit, but there’s no denying that it’s also the most economical option. Even back in the States, eating healthy is particularly expensive and impractical for those who belong to the urban poor, as Gwyneth Paltrow failed to fully understand earlier this year. There is very little room for these female migrant workers to escape this negative feedback loop of malnutrition and long work hours. They cannot hope to continue working at their best if they do not take better care of themselves, but this would mean sending less money home to their families every day, a duty of which they would not deprive themselves.

So whenever we go out for dinner on the weekend and drop as much money in two nights as they do in a whole month on food, I can’t help but feel guilty. Again. I know, there was a lot of guilt in my last post and there is more in this one, and one could make the argument that I can’t feel guilty about living within my own current means, but that doesn’t mean that these things don’t cross my mind every single time I make a purchase here. This monetary facet of the malnutrition issue is one that we couldn’t come close to addressing despite Shahi funding the intervention — deworming tablets, iron tablets, and fruit — for its entirety of 30 days. We designed a supplemental training module in which we encourage the girls to think about their own health and allow themselves to spend more money on nutritious food, but the sense of familial loyalty and responsibility seems to run deep here. Amy sometimes points out that I’m a bit pessimistic, which is completely true, and that we are helping them move forward with the information we give them and the points we can address. It’s a matter of balancing out my critiques about what we haven’t been able to do versus focusing my energy on what we can do at the moment, and as far as money goes, I hope that our final data analysis and report will be able to convince Shahi to scale up the intervention for the benefit of all its workers.

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