On Gratitude and Privilege

With Ben in the dragon boat on the Perfume
River. Souvenirs for purchase
in the foreground. 
Our family returned safely from Vietnam Monday evening, and although my head feels foggy from jet lag, I am grateful to be back in Dundee and thankful for friends and a mom who put food in the refrigerator for our homecoming. I also appreciate the encouragement and prayers for traveling mercies, as our journey ran exceedingly smooth; and for well-being, as we remained sickness free, despite the many opportunities to contract foodborne illnesses. (Or, I should say, almost sick free. Those who know me well will be delighted to hear I survived my eldest son’s barfing in the Vancouver airport on our return journey. Yes, all-night plane flights can be like that sometimes.)
During our two weeks in Vietnam, I spent a lot of time reflecting, on poverty, on war, on alternative realities, on cultural differences. Much of the time, too, I thought about western privilege, and about the luxuries my life has afforded me. Earlier, I wroteabout how western privilege has even allowed me the joy of raising my sons, and how my own joy comes at great cost to women who could not keep their children, because their life circumstances made it impossible for them to do so. Being in Vietnam reminded me, again and again, that it was a privilege to adopt Benjamin, in every sense of that word. The trip also reminded me I don’t deserve my privilege, that I’ve done nothing to earn it: it was given me solely by virtue of where I was born, by the color of my skin, and by the opportunities these things have afforded me.
A half-day boat trip down the Perfume River in Hue made my own privilege exceedingly clear to me. We visited Hue, about half-way between Saigon and Hanoi, toward the end of our trip, mostly to give Benjamin a taste of the dynastic history of Vietnam. We booked that day’s tour through a riverside vendor who promised us a private dragon boat trip to see several important historical sites, all for around $30, an inexpensive price for sure. The boat ride was interesting, as were the sites we visited, including a pagoda and a luscious, quiet park-like setting which housed the tombs of several Vietnam emperors. I enjoyed the serenity of the river, the chance to see more countryside, to rest after the chaos of Vietnam’s city streets.
At the tombs of several Vietnamese emperors. The
boys are playing with newly purchased fans, fresh off
the dragon boat.
But there was also this niggling sense that my own western privilege was coming on the backs of those Vietnamese who are trying to subsist on tourists like me. Not just a niggling sense, though, not when the woman who was guiding our tour began bringing out wares for us to purchase as we floated downstream. First, she revealed several tables of souvenirs, drawing the boys out of their heat-and-humidity stupor. As we navigated the Perfume River, she showed the boys all kinds of wondrous things they (we) could buy and, since we were on the boat, we were hostage to her nonverbal sales pitch. After the souvenirs, she showed us silk clothes, then—after we’d made a stop or two—cold drinks we could purchase, then hand-held fans. Just when I thought she’d showed us everything she had, the woman would pull something else out for our consideration. We ended up spending another $50 or so on the boat, and certainly didn’t buy even a fraction of what she was selling.
I was mildly irritated that our boat ride had become its own kind of sales pitch; I just wanted to enjoy the river, not be hassled by salespeople, who are ubiquitous in Vietnam. But only mildly irritated. It was clear the woman, and perhaps the man skippering the dragon boat, used the vessel as their home. And this is the way they made their living, hawking souvenirs and a glimpse of Vietnam’s history to western passengers like me, who could afford to pay for the experience. I could little begrudge her hard way of making a living. My own life of teaching, writing, residing in a comfortably large home, and enjoying ample leisure time seemed luxurious by comparison.
When I’m in my home environment, I don’t think much about the privileges my western upbringing has afforded me. Instead, I complain that my house isn’t as nicely decorated as I wish it could be; and that my job is hard because of the grading that I must do; and that my ten-year-old car doesn’t have enough space for my boys and their friends. I take my privileges for granted, am blind to the good things I have, because I am not challenged at all to see how obscenely rich I really am—and that, again, I’ve done nothing much to be granted the easy life I’ve been given, other than being born in Bloomington, Illinois, to educated white folks. My own privileges have made me blind to the ways other people live, oblivious to their struggle to exist, let alone exist with joy and peace.
And, of course, there are many kinds of privileges that make us blind to others’ realities. Kendra and I have been writing this past year about patriarchal privilege in evangelicalism, a privilege perpetuated by church tradition and a particularly narrow reading of scripture. Men in the church are somehow deemed to be created more closely in God’s image than are women—because God is a white male, after all—and are thus able to speak God’s truth in ways women cannot (unless, of course, she’s speaking to women, children, or folks on the mission field). We tend to believe men deserve what they’ve been given in the church, the roles they play, the voices they are allowed, by virtue of their gender; we tend to believe women deserve the sublimated roles they’ve been given in church, too, because of their gender and nothing else. Patriarchal privilege also leaves many of us blind to the ways even our language—praying to Father God, for example—may alienate others who do not share our privileged viewpoint, may alienate others from living a full, rich life.
My eyes are clearly open to the ways patriarchal privilege has influenced my experience in the church. I don’t as easily see the ways my western privilege has influenced my experience in the world. I am grateful for our trip to Vietnam for many reasons, including the ways this journey opened my eyes—at least for a moment.  May I use that moment of clarity to embrace the rich life I’ve been given; to recognize the many kinds of privileges that exist, in the church and elsewhere; and to work toward justice in my world, even if I’m not entirely clear—yet—what that “working toward” might mean.